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Blood Percussion

  Copyright © 2014 by Nate Marshall

  Published by Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Press, Minneapolis, MN 55408


  All Rights Reserved

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  Cover Art: Anjo Bolarda || [email protected]

  Cover Design: Doug Paul Case || [email protected]

  ISBN 978-0-9896415-5-5


  Thank you to the editors and staffs of the following journals and anthologies in which the following poems in various versions have appeared:

  Anti-: “prelude”

  AREA Magazine: “mama says”

  Chicago Literati: “in the event of my demise”

  Beloit Poetry Journal: “Chicago high school love letters”

  Heavy Feather Review: “landing,” “indian summer,” “in the land where whitefolks jog,”

  pluck! Journal: “Ragtown prayer”

  POETRY Magazine: “praise song”

  Side B Magazine: “postlude: the day _____ died”

  Southern Indiana Review: “when it comes back”

  Uncommon Core: Contemporary Poems for Learning and Living: “when the officer caught me”

  The poem “mama says” won the 2013 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award and was published on the website of The Guild Complex.

  Many of these poems were included in a winning manuscript for a 2013 Hopwood Graduate Poetry Award from the University of Michigan.

  These poems are a product of a loving community of colleagues, family, and friends. The creative and emotional support of so many folks made this work possible. That list of people is long and never-ending and includes Mama, Daddy, Grandma (RIP), Granny (RIP), Jamesa, Jonquinae, Natasha, Justin, Juanita, José Olivarez, Blue Bellinger, H. Melt, Raymond McDaniel, francine j. harris, Ben Alfaro, Angel Nafis, Isaac Miller, Brittany Bennett, A. Van Jordan, Linda Gregerson, Laura Kasischke, Khaled Mattawa, Keith Taylor, Lamar J. Smith (JusLove), Shaun Peace, Dominic Giafagleone, Demi Amparan, Adam Levin, Diamond Sharp, Eve Ewing, John F. Buckley, Marcelo C. Hernandez, Bruce Lack, Airea Dee Matthews, Joshua Bennett, Alysia Harris, Aziza Barnes, Camonghne Felix, Marcus Wicker, Stevie Edwards, Kevin Coval, Idris Goodwin, Robbie Q. Telfer, Avery R. Young, Krista Franklin, Kristiana Colón, Ekua Davis, Keisha Hooks, Chinaka Hodge, Brittany Floyd, Carlina Duan, Alex Pan, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Lyndsey Bradley, Richard McCarty, Jeremy Williams, Bryson Whitney, Chris Marve, Christian Nuñez, Tarfia Faizullah, Adrian Matejka, Don Share and Phillip B. Williams.

  Thanks to the organizations and crews that have held me down and stay holding me down: Young Chicago Authors, InsideOut Literary Arts Project (DSA CityWide Poets), Neutral Zone Literary Arts, The Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, The Poetry Foundation, The Guild Complex, Louder Than A Bomb Tulsa, The University of Michigan Poetry Slam Team, Vandy Spoken Word, the editors and staff of Muzzle Magazine, and the editors and staff of Kinfolks Quarterly.

  The crew Dark Noise. Aaron Samuels, Danez Smith, Jamila Woods, Fatimah Asghar, and Franny Choi. We stay rolling in the work together.

  My editor Michael Mlekoday and the Button Poetry team for believing in the work.

  The whole hood. West Pullman, Wild Hundreds, Maple Park, Ragtown, Carpenter to Halsted, P Street, Sang Gang, Little Horseshoe to Big Horseshoe, 115th to 119th. We exist and we exist and we exist.

  These poems are dedicated to the young people living in communities where violence is not a sad poem; the young people for whom violence is the walk home, or what they do with their friends, or how they love their girlfriends and boyfriends. These poems are for The Hundreds, the beautiful neighborhoods and people that hold me down always. These poems are for the names and the bodies that have been collected in Chicago and for the hope that there will be no more.

  Table of Contents



  Chicago high school love letters

  when the officer caught me

  Mama says


  Chicago high school love letters


  indian summer

  Chicago high school love letters

  Ragtown prayer

  in the land where whitefolk jog

  Chicago high school love letters

  praise song

  when it comes back

  Chicago high school love letters

  in the event of my demise

  postlude: the day _____ died

  Chicago high school love letter


  As a kid I had little concept of my neighborhood or what it meant. I knew I lived in Chicago and I knew I lived on the South Side. My neighborhood felt indistinct, non-specific, maybe just generically black and South Side and Chicago. Beverly, a neighborhood a few miles northwest of my house seemed to have such an incredible identity. It was where white people lived and where the South Side Irish Parade happened every year. It was beautiful with tree lined streets and a rolling main thoroughfare called Longwood Drive bisecting its two east and west halves. The houses in Beverly were larger, grander, and more beautiful than the smaller mid 20th century construction that populated my blocks of birth. I was bussed to a magnet school just west of Beverly and every day from 6 to 14 I rode through and stared out of the window at the place. Many of my friends from school lived in Beverly and once I got old enough to ride my bike out of the neighborhood I spent most of the free time I could muster in Beverly. I loved Beverly with my whole self. I wanted it to be mine. I wanted everything that it meant with its coffee shops and walkable streets and big houses and white people and rolling tree-lined thoroughfares. I would find out years later that Gwendolyn Brooks observed the same streets with a similar envy in her poem “Beverly Hills, Chicago.”

  When I started to learn about my neighborhood I found what it meant mostly through other people’s fear. Sometimes it was my friend’s parents suggesting that I visit their houses instead of vice versa or insisting on their kids having strict door-to-door service for a visit rather than taking public transit or riding their bike. These things were never malicious but they did teach me that a benign fear of where I came from was natural and even wise. This is something many young people growing up have to wrestle with if they don’t live in the “right” city or town or neighborhood.

  I’ve spent the last 6 years as a “Chicagoan-in-exile.” I’ve been away at college and graduate school. I’ve traveled the country and the world. I’ve escaped back home for some Harold’s Chicken and to vote in a local election whenever possible. I’ve seen the city change and shift and become the center of a national conversation about urban violence and safety. When I see that conversation play out I can’t help but remember the way I learned to fear myself (and people who look like me). Of course the issues of life and death in Chicago are more complicated than one little boy feeling bad because he lives too east or too south for his friend’s parents to feel safe but I still believe that there is an important lesson to learn from that little boy. 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 submit this chapbook not as some kind of policy directive or political agenda. I don’t assume to have any answers to these difficult issues faced by my city and many other places. 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.

  When I was 11 or 12 I
first heard the song “Walk With Me” by Chicago rapper DA Smart. The song is a dark, dystopic picture of the city’s South and West Sides. It made me happier than any other song I’d ever heard. In that song he offers the line “…get in the car, let’s take a trip to that Wild Wild Hundreds.” This was the first time I had ever heard my hood articulated on any piece of art. Even though DA’s portrait of Chicago was a dangerous one it filled me with hope. There was a kind of power in DA telling the world on record that I existed, however flawed, and that I could not be erased or ignored. I offer these poems in that spirit and with the hope that some young person somewhere will see these poems and feel like their world is being announced and seen.

  Nate Marshall

  West Pullman, Chicago, Il

  June 2014


  he must’ve moved out

  the neighborhood when i was little.

  i bet he could ball,

  probably could dunk.

  maybe he rap now.

  maybe he is the boy on every wall.

  we ain’t got graffiti over here

  like for real art stuff but maybe

  in the 80s he was optimistic. this was his all

  city attempt all over the hood.

  maybe he ain’t a he.

  in the time before the Folks

  Nation ran everything over here

  maybe the presiding clique was RIP.

  i see it everywhere:

  RIP Pierre

  RIP Bird


  RIP Man Man

  maybe RIP is a girl.

  i see her name next to all

  the bad boys. all the big boys

  my mama told me not to fool with.

  maybe she’s all they girlfriends

  at once. but they all

  gone. no wonder

  she keep finding new boys

  to kiss.

  Chicago high school love letters

  first day of school


  i’ll take the bus

  to you, walk through

  your neighborhood

  & navigate the colors.


  take my student ID.

  it’s clipped

  in the corner for

  free lunch.

  when the officer caught me

  what is the age when a black boy learns he’s scary?

  —Jonathan Lethem, “Fortress of Solitude”

  me & darnell crossed

  at the stop sign

  in front of a car ready

  for getaway, like every car

  in our neighborhood.

  the voice shot out, a stray bullet

  of accusation. stop, police.

  our jog became sprint.

  how could you blame us?

  we were terrified

  at the potential

  of older versions

  of us hopping out of the car

  ready for the come up.

  when the officer caught me

  my legs crumpled

  like the stubborn plastic wrapper

  of a rap CD, finally ripped open & free

  when the officer caught me

  my grape pop tumbled to the crabgrass,

  spilled like piss. my fear

  or the fear i now evoked

  when the officer caught me

  i cried. i gulped

  answers to his questions

  i endured the slip of hand

  into pocket. the groping

  of birthday money

  & the accusation of drugs

  this was the first time i used

  my magnet school namedrop

  to subdue my scary

  it was not the last time.

  when the officer caught me

  i fell hard into the reality

  of being 13 & black

  & wild hundreds.

  darnell in his 3 year older wisdom,

  a witness to my new manhood.

  my answers to interrogation

  a reading of torah.

  the 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.

  Mama says


  you gotta go to the head dr.

  says all this brooding is gonna kill

  you or her or somebody. all this kill

  in you & your temper short & you

  ready to firecracker at the slightest.

  this ain’t healthy she say. you fight

  her wish. you fine you say. fine

  as everybody else. you just 16 & man

  in progress & in the process of

  hardening into survivor. but she pull

  rank on you. talk to the doc or quit

  the basketball team. & man ain’t

  man in Chi with no ball so you bend.

  at the shrink there’s a head test.

  it ask you about fire & fantasizing

  about burning or murder or hearing

  voices or rape & other synonyms.

  & you know the right answers have

  to be the ones that ain’t crazy.

  & that is crazy because a sick

  person wouldn’t be able to decipher

  sickness on the scantron. & you

  talk to the shrink & he’s a nice

  old white guy & you’re not

  really talking about much but he’s

  okay so you don’t feel as bad

  going back the second time.


  when Michelle Obama was

  asked about her fear of racists

  killing her husband now that he

  was running for president

  she said he’s a black man

  on the South Side. he can die

  any day. at the gas station

  or grocery store.

  the shrink suspects you are

  learning the same lesson.


  you quit basketball that year

  because tryouts is the same day

  Granny dies from cancer.

  at the funeral you don’t cry.

  you’re clear. you’re fine.

  there’s nothingwrong.


  he diagnoses you with fear

  ‘cause your boy down the block

  just got smacked baseball bat

  to temple & the homie

  you used to play ball with at

  the park got shot the year before

  etc. etc…

  & that’s something you gotta

  adjust to. get used to: this body

  dropping rhythm, blood percussion,

  heart beats hitting b-boy freeze.

  the shrink is nice about it & says

  you’re clear & don’t have to come



  ay folk you got change

  fo’ the five?


  you don’t got change

  fo’ the five?


  what you got change

  fo’ then?


  so you saying if i run

  yo pockets right now

  there won’t be nothing?

  you ain’t finna

  run nothing right

  here. there’s no change

  on me. i’m not the one

  you wanna try. i ain’t got

  no change.

  Chicago high school love letters

  homecoming weekend


  come to the dance.

  my hands wand

  around your frame

  searching for danger.


  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.


  surprise escapes your lips as you soar

  into the sinking of having your shins

  kicked from under you. if you’re lucky

  the full nelson that folds arms origami

  will keep your knees from crashing

  into the concrete. your flight will be

  brief. pray you have enough time

  to kick back into the kneecap

  of the third assailant. if the fourth member

  of the crew sees your retaliation,

  it’s a toss up. he might be merciful,

  dock his Nikes into your stomach,

  ribs, knees & not face, head, spine. he might

  not be merciful. hopefully the other three guys

  will only tap dance on your hands, break

  something that might heal. if a car stops

  you’ll make it. the driver isn’t on their side

  this time. 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.

  Indian summer

  heat is a cruel mother,

  pushes us out into the neighborhood

  to play & burn. the sun sit up top

  like an OG on a tall stoop

  fresh out from Stateville,

  nervous around four walls.

  the clouds circle vulture

  or blunt session or after school fight

  above. we out here

  playing with one ear

  gaping, both eyes low. summertime

  & dying is easier. june is jazz

  or a funeral dirge. july, thick thump

  of a rap record or dull thud

  of hood cliché. the weatherman says

  forecast is clear, beautiful &

  sunny. that’s a cloud in our sky.

  your play cousin got good hair,

  Indian in her family. maybe

  she can pray for rain.

  Chicago high school love letters

  winter break


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