Rumpus Original Poetry: Four Poems by Nate Marshall





ode to vacation

O, word i know
the meaning of
but don’t know.

when i was young you were a drive
to see family & attend a convention
with my parents. there was the lone trip
to a water park in Wisconsin & that is the end
of us. but you must remember the week we had
in South Carolina? with my best friend’s family
we went on plantation
tours to see all the flowers,
the beautiful gardens & all i could see
was the blood. i still wonder who keeps
ground on those plots now, though i think
i can guess.
i don’t get you
or rather i don’t give you
the time & i don’t take
the time. i’m from 2 jobs at minimum
& retiring only to turn the house into
a home business. the story goes
that more than one of my relations
used to visit dope houses in their work uniforms
& maybe the high is also
an occupation.
i have tax forms and under the table work
falling out of my head like hair.
i haven’t seen a week of mine end since
i was at least 18.
vacation you a lie & i don’t lie down for much
of anything these days.
in Guatemala, we met again
& i asked you not to take me
but we are here with an ex-love because
the flights were paid & the trip planned.
on the plane home, she got an upgrade
to first class & made me sit next to her
because the seat was empty
though i was still coach
& 45 minutes into the flight
they checked my ticket &
i got moved back
where i belonged.


sweet breath

all the slang we’ve swapped
between our regions won’t do
much for us now. how could it
lover? there’s no word for us
except our names & what is
a secret if i say it
in front of company?

what can i call you except a late night
when everybody else is asleep or pretending
& we are woke & not watching
nothing but each other? my nigga:
this pet name we exchange will make the voyeur
think animal or abomination
& i have no reason to correct
when what we on this eve could be either
or both.

remember the good schools we went to?
all the big words we bandy about for fun
next to our curses are missing in action.
i can’t say                      anything
but heavy breath                      our new language
for yes
with your writing hand wrapped around my windpipe.


darla: i don’t know when-April 7, 2016
after francine j. harris

its not that i didn’t like you
its more that you were never
much of anything to me except always
around. here you are riding my granddaddy’s
back outside of our house when y’all showed
up drunk again & us kids were the only ones there.
you again at thanksgiving saying something
stupid that we all ignore & then saying it

its not that i didn’t like you
its more that you were never
very smart. the type of woman
to have to think about the question
when asked her own name. the kind
of woman to take up with a married
man & never seem to feel
anything on the subject.

its not that i didn’t like you
its more my mama didn’t.
couldn’t fucking stand you.
its not her fault but she couldn’t
hate her daddy for his sins & so sin
you gotta hold this one down on his behalf.

its not that i didn’t like you
its more i barely knew your name
growing up. you were just
hussy or tramp or slut or
grandma looking teary eyed
at the deflated speed bag in the basement.

its not that i didn’t like you
its more i never expected you to die
which is stupid when i saw you never
really lived your own life.
you just granddaddy’s shadow,
same stumble & bad brain,
same sweet pride over this selfish
boy named Armstead.

its not that i didn’t like you
its more i just never like
thought about you for real.

its not that i didn’t like you
its more i didn’t know you had kids
or siblings or a mother. i didn’t know
you were like a real person & shit.


nigger joke

so this nigger walks into a bar in this gentrifying neighborhood & orders fried chicken & the nigger gets a craft beer cause the nigger went to graduate school & the nigger is waiting for his fried chicken & this white man walks up & sits down in front of a half drank tallboy & calls the nigger’s phone a big ass phone & the nigger laughs because the phone is big & bought for with his graduate school money & the nigger keeps his eyes up at the football game & the white man extends his hand & the nigger takes it with kool-aid strained cheeks because the nigger thinks about this week & all the wrong that white people have done & maybe this is a start of a different story & maybe the white man tells him something honest over the liquor & buys him drinks & something so anyway the white man asks the nigger if he lives in the neighborhood & the nigger is new around here & the white man says welcome & assures the nigger this is a good bar the white man talks about how he’s here most nights has never seen a fight & he talks about how whites & niggers & latinos drink here in peace & talks about the last 10 years & the buildings he bought here a decade ago that are multiplying his pockets & the white man talks about his catholic school past & the white man talks about making a corridor from downtown to the suburbs & he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop always & cop more buildings & get more rents & he asks the nigger where he’s from & the nigger says south side & the white man tells the nigger what south side is & the white man talks about cop blocks & assures the nigger all of south side isn’t a wasteland because there’s cop blocks over there too even & the nigger tries to shift the conversation to the south side white neighborhoods because the nigger went to elementary school in one & the white man talks about those cousins he has there & how they are on an island & how the south side is so bad but not where the white folks live & the nigger tries the college town he lived in & the white man’s dad went to school there & the white man got in but white man’s dad wouldn’t pay for that school on his judge salary so the white man went military academy & the white man got cop brothers & other family & the white man talks about his second house in the state of the college town & how up there he’s a Catholic & the not Catholic white men look at him different when they find out & then the white man says i never been oppressed except one time & he says in Virginia everybody’s a nigger & the nigger says nothing the nigger eats his chicken which got there a while ago the nigger eats the chicken & listens to the nigger joke & the nigger joke says nothing & looks at the football game & the white man says pardon me if saying the nigger word offends you but the nigger joke just nods & the nigger joke waits for the white man to finish his story & the nigger joke eats the chicken with a singular focus & hopes the bone plunges into his throat & the nigger joke isn’t hungry & can’t stop eating as fast as possible & the nigger joke hopes the white man stops talking about the protestors who are probably college students who should probably protest college tuition & not other cities but the nigger joke isn’t listening the nigger joke is repeating the prayer his mama taught him this prayer starts with the good elementary school & then the good high school & then the excellent college & then the incredible graduate school & how it was all merit scholarship & also the high test scores including the awards & honors of course the publications & acclaim & the nigger joke finishes his prayer & the nigger joke sees somebody’s prayer answered when the nigger joke pays the waitress & tells the white man have a good night & cries the walk home.

Nate Marshall is from the South Side of Chicago. He is the author of Wild Hundreds and an editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Wild Hundreds has been honored with the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s award for Poetry Book of the Year and The Great Lakes College Association’s New Writer Award. His last rap album, Grown, came out in 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product. Nate is a member of The Dark Noise Collective and co-directs Crescendo Literary with Eve Ewing. He completed his B.A. at Vanderbilt University and an M.F.A. at The University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers' Program. Nate has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Poetry Foundation, and The University of Michigan. He is the Director of National Programs for Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and has taught at The University of Michigan, Wabash College, and Northwestern University. More from this author →