Among hip-hop heads, if an MC has a penchant for delivering clever, complex rhymes, people will often say “[insert name]’s got bars.” Well, after reading through Nate Marshall’s latest chapbook, Blood Percussion, it’s obvious that this poet most certainly has bars. My use of that phrase to describe the work is relevant for a few reasons: (1) Nate Marshall is a talented rapper as well as a traditional poet; (2) Marshall draws upon tenets of hip-hop in order to shape his poems. Throughout this text, it is clear rhythm was a focus-point for Marshall. As an example, consider the opening poem, “prelude.” Marshall writes:
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.
I find the above excerpt representative for its pacing. It has very natural resting points for the voice (after “here” “stuff” “optimistic” and “hood,” respectively), and each sentence also features use of internal rhyme, a common literary device employed by the most lauded rappers. But beyond the cut of language employed here, this poem and Marshall’s Blood Percussion more broadly commune with hip-hop in a more important way: authentic subject-matter.
Blood Percussion, above all else, is the honest testimonial of a young black man coming of age on the South Side of Chicago, persisting through the spells of violence that implies and consumes many of the people depicted in this poetry. In Marshall’s Introduction, he recalls his excitement over the song “Walk With Me” by a Chicago-based rapper named DA Smart, “a dark, dystopic picture of the city’s South and West Sides.” Marshall writes, “This was the first time I ever heard my hood articulated on any piece of art… There was a kind of power in DA telling the world on record I existed, however flawed, and that I could not be erased or ignored.” That, in effect, sums up exactly what kind of effort Blood Percussion is: an attempt to document the lives of Marshall and his neighbors in a way that is lost in political or academic discourse.
To that effect, Marshall’s book is a triumph. Every poem bleeds an authenticity and clarity that is both refreshing and hard to swallow; in this book, violence is a frequent guest. The reader is forced to grapple with death, with fear, with pain and anger. In true hip-hop fashion, Marshall uses language authentic to his subjects – what they speak of, how they say it – and therefore creates a work that can represent where he comes from and prove accessible to the people he is trying to give voice to. Never is this more apparent than in a poem such as “dare,” which is written entirely as a dialogue between Marshall and a second, unidentified person from his neighborhood:
What you got change
so you saying if I run
yo pockets right now
there won’t be nothing?
You ain’t finna
run nothing right
here. i’m not the one
you wanna try. i ain’t got
Dialect is an important marker of place, and Marshall makes sure to build from that. Everything is presented at street-level, every experience is fair game to be talked about, and every poem serves a specific purpose that sings in choir with every other piece included. The end result is something that is beyond confessional – it’s a type of salvation. There is much to praise here beyond the phenomenal “Praise Song,” and for that reason, I recommend that admirers of contemporary poetry and hip-hop alike pick up this book to hear an important voice cut through the static. Much like the poet on its final page, Blood Percussion, through its tangible ambition and transparency, begs of us “hold me before I disappear.”
Button Poetry, $10.00
Cortney Lamar Charleston is a macaroni & cheese connoisseur living in Jersey City, NJ. If he’s not eating mac & cheese, he’s probably lurking on the Real GM basketball forums, watching Real Housewives with his girlfriend, or writing poems. You can find some of his poetry in Control Literary Magazine Issue #2 and various other places.