Blood Percussion by Nate Marshall

I got a chance to witness Nate Marshall read/perform some of his poetry in Detroit at the InsideOut Literary Arts Project event, “Scratch the Page,” and dug the warm grace of his presence on stage. His use of language started someplace just above our heads and then he dropped it down to eye level, and then solar plexus level. He wasn’t manipulating us with histrionics, either.

Less than one week later, the May/June 2015 issue of poets & writers arrived in my mailbox, and there he was, again: on page 62 in an article about writing contests called “Winners on Winning [and Losing].” I learned that Chicago native Nate Marshall’s debut collection, Wild Hundreds, won the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and is forthcoming later this year from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

About a week later I swear I saw the guy—or his likeness—riding a bicycle in my neighborhood! I had purchased a copy of Blood Percussion while in Detroit. After this “sighting” I determined it must be time for me to sit down and read it.

Blood Percussion by Nate Marshall
Blood Percussion by Nate Marshall

“….Often in these conversations about violence, communities, guns, and gangs we give into a pundit mentality of talking. We speak about neighborhoods like they are inanimate objects ready for the “right” answer and not ecosystems where real people live and real little kids learn.”

“….I hope that these poems can simply be a part of the conversation. I see too many political leaders and well-intentioned activists argue about the fate of neighborhoods in a way that erases the feelings and realities of the people who live there.”
– Nate Marshall from the Introduction

After the introduction to this chapbook (26 pages released on Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press in 2014) comes 12 poems interspersed with numbered “chicago high school love letters.” These love letters cycle from the 1st day of school (1, 3), homecoming weekend (46, 58), winter break (131, 156), spring break (214, 226), prom weekend (320, 331), and end with graduation (333). In a note at the book’s end we learn that the numbers “represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year.” That made my blood run cold. Most of these pieces do give voice to living in a climate where violence and homicide are too common, but the lens is on what it feels like to be a young person growing up in such an ecosystem.

“you can wear my letterman jacket
home. if it’s the wrong shade
of blue just imagine it around
you while it sits in your locker.”

A lot of times adults look at our young people, forgetting (or willfully dismissing?) that we were young, too. We thought we understood more than we did and were scornful of what we saw as adults’ hypocritical behavior. We were braggadocious, precocious and awkward. We were shy. We struggled academically. We were lovesick, we were naive, we were creative. We were smart and energetic and looking for things to get into and be a part of. We wanted to test the waters and stretch the limits. We were sneaky and performative. Time after time we tried the patience of our elders. We were learning, but our critical thinking skills weren’t always the best. We played our music too loud. We may have been all, some, or none of these but I think that we all wanted to be safe, and we all wanted to be loved. Consider that and then read from Marshall’s poem “when the officer caught me”:

“darnell in his 3 year older wisdom,
a witness to my new manhood.
my answers to interrogation
a reading of torah.

a cop a rabbi at this bar mitzvah
this is how black boys are baptized
into black manhood while they are still
boys & scared & going

to get their backpack from grandma’s
crib for school tomorrow & scared
& learning how to steel a sobbing face
into a scary one.”

The poem “in the land where white folk jog,” Marshall caught me off guard with this juxtaposition of jogging in [an alleged] ecosystem of suburban safety

“….the pat pat of New Balances
bounce down & around the
corner. & she glows in her
peach thigh & sunflower

and running in [an alleged] ecosystem of urban peril

“he straps up high top only
athletic shoes he owns & is off.
he around the corner & over the glitter
of exploded Wild Irish Roses. he thump
thump & crosses the paths of pits
& shepherds & rottweilers.”

While “praise song” is wonderful, it is another poem—“landing”—which stole a little piece of my heart because of how it owns and expresses that essential contact with conflict and danger that is a part of growing up no matter how clean, how hygienic we get trying to “protect” our children from bugs and germs, messes, blood, hair-pulling and curse words. I come from a time and place where—gratefully—gangs didn’t rule and dominate, but, sometimes, we just had to fight. Not with guns and knives, not to maim and kill. But to defend our bodies, interests, and honor; to flex our muscles and draw the boundary line for once and for all.

from Nate Marshall’s “landing”:

“…this time, you’ll only miss one day
of school for the emergency room visit,
the negative x-rays, the scratched retina,
the doctor’s orders, the protective eyewear.
this time five years from now you will miss
all of this. the beauty of soaring,
or being sore.”

Such are the war stories upon which personal myths are constructed.

If you like poetry that is written with physicality and sensitivity, that lends itself to being read aloud, yet holds its own on the printed page, then you might like this modest volume.

I missed Nate Marshall’s appearance at The Poetry Foundation with Kevin Coval and Quraysh Ali Lansana—with whom he co-edited the anthology, The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop. Hopefully there will be another opportunity to hear them discuss how they conceived and evolved this anthology with a poetry aesthetic joining hip hop with the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Khalil Gibran, John Keats, and Frank O’Hara.

Further readings: about InsideOut Literary Arts Project; learn more about the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize by clicking here; and access the Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press website here.

Read an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s “Power,” here.


  1. This post pulls me back to the confusion of a white girl moving from a white town to the North Side of Milwaukee in the 90s, where White Flight was still in process. I kept telling myself I was different, because my family’s coming IN. We’re here to help heal. We’re here to show God cares, that this church cares about this community NOW, and is no longer some white sanctuary (it’s an old Protestant church). But as a teen, there was so, so much I didn’t understand about what everyone who lived on the North Side experienced every day. These poems echo those sounds of the running, the gunfire, the fights. And yet I’d see the careful work on flower beds no bigger than a kitchen chair, hear the laughter from the porches, smell the meat on grills.
    I’m rambling, I know. But your words on the ecosystem and how it impacts kids and what they perceive as normal…I know I understood too little. Everyone in that church did. My dad grew up on the North Side, and knew his parents’ fear of the Milwaukee Riots. I can’t help but wonder if he thought he could turn that tide of the White Flight single-handedly. I know this drive almost killed him, pushing against the stubborn nature so embedded in the congregation’s elderly remnants. Now, almost thirty years later, the church has become a place of COMMUNITY again, a place that provides safety in its school, its prayer groups, its worship. Thirty years just to change one church. It makes me shudder to think how long it could take to change an entire city.

    1. Hi Jean lee – thank you for exploring around the blog and landing on this post. Like you, I am grateful to Nate Marshall for his words about the ecosystems of our communities – I don’t think I had read/heard it articulated that way before. I know that you have a family and a number of writing projects already in the works but maybe one day you might write about your family’s move to Milwaukee and your father’s aspiration for the work of his church there; and how you as a young white girl perceived that experience then and how you appreciate it now, 30 years later. It’s so important to recognize that efforts to find and build solidarity in our communities takes time and love, commitment, trial and error – one encounter, one relationship, one institution at a time.❤️

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