In the year or so since Wild Hundreds first appeared in print, Nate Marshall’s award winning debut poetry collection feels even more necessary in the wake of the historic wave of gun violence that has rocked Chicago in 2016. Marshall’s raucous, vivid, and relentless love letter to the hundreds neighborhood on Chicago’s south side provides an apt rejoinder to the 522 homicides that have occurred in the city as of mid-September. Wild Hundreds jukes between elegy and epithalamion as it celebrates a place where “each street day is unanswered prayer for peace,” and where, for some politicians, bureaucrats, and public school administrators “every kid that’s killed is one less free lunch,/ a fiscal coup.” With exquisite care, Marshall renders the denizens of his beloved hometown in all of their vibrant complexity, from the eighth grade graduate with his Sox hat askew, skipping stones in a pond at a public park, to his own Granddaddy, “all leisure suits & peppermint,” “all birthday money & slurry speech.” In this place, where the brilliant colors in a bouquet resemble a gang war, the colors of a Grandma’s rosebush reiterate the shade of a Vice Lord’s do-rag, and the dandelions wear Latin King gold, Marshall summons his own rage so that he can remix it into a percussive imperative to thrive amidst the beautiful struggle, and, more simply, to love.
Although Marshall’s collection rightly errs on the side of the laudatory, the poet incisively critiques Chicago’s failures. Throughout Wild Hundreds, Marshall scatters “Chicago high school love letters,” poems that are poignant and heartbreaking, realistically depicting teenage desire against the backdrop of urban violence and neglect. The winter break poems read:
i would fight for you
like my shoes or my
boys or any excuse
Later in the book, Marshall notes that the numbers in these poems represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year. Marshall learned early on in life, while living in the predominantly white Mount Greenwood neighborhood, the amnesia and intimacy attendant on violence. In the poem, “Alzheimer’s,” Marshall notes:
this is where i came from. whitefolk
violence isn’t hypothetical to me. it’s not historical
or systemic. its elementary school
like Pokémon or sleepovers.
The Chicago that Nate Marshall evokes in Wild Hundreds is more than the sum of its shames and griefs and anxieties and break beats and scraped knuckles and smoking gun barrels and wild forgettings. It’s the windows rolled down on a Saturday evening in August. It’s that sweet old Curtis Mayfield Impressions song you hear out the window of a passing car, telling you to keep on pushing and it’s all right.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.