Sitting at a table inside his favorite Harold’s Chicken Shack (No. 27, on the corner of 103rd and Halsted), poet Nate Marshall, 25, pauses thoughtfully before saying, “The biggest misconception about this place is that there’s nothing beautiful here.”
He’s talking about West Pullman, where he grew up, but also the surrounding areas, such as Roseland and Morgan Park. Together they make up the Wild Hundreds, a nickname for a cluster of neighborhoods on the Far South Side as well as the title of Marshall’s striking debut poetry collection (University of Pittsburgh Press, $15.95).
Wild Hundreds offers a compelling portrait of city life, from the metal bars that guard liquor stores (“a pastoral, part of our natural habitat”) to the glories of eating a Harold’s chicken wing (“drenched in mild / sauce, sweet spirit, baptized”) to the eerie beauty of a fight (“hopefully the other 3 guys / will only tap-dance on your hands, break / something that might heal”). It’s an encapsulation of the Chicago of Common and Kanye—rappers whom Marshall cites as inspiration, in addition to the poets Gwendolyn Brooks and A. Van Jordan.
Marshall, the son of a nonprofit director and a truck driver, wrote half of the poems while he was at Vanderbilt University, taking formalist poetry classes. “I felt like I was in unknown terrain, so every poem I wrote was about my neighborhood and about hip-hop,” he explains.
After graduating, Marshall was accepted into the University of Michigan’s MFA program, where he piqued the interest of the University of Pittsburgh Press at a reading event. “I knew I always wanted to write a book of poems one day. The funny thing about graduate school is that it makes ‘one day’ today.”
As his career begins to take him to places beyond the city (he commutes between West Pullman and Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he is a visiting English professor at Wabash College), Marshall is adamant about staying grounded here. “When people think about Chicago, they don’t think about these neighborhoods,” he says. “But I have roots here. This is home.”
By Nate Marshall
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 4 walls.
the clouds circle vulture
or blunt session or after-school fight
above. we out here
playing with 1 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.