Nate Marshall’s Finna, named one of the best books of 2020 by National Public Radio, centers language—its utility, power, possibility—and seeks to realize the vitality that words possess for the people who use them. In particular, Marshall pays homage to and crowns the slang and grammar of his South Side Chicago:
my hope is like my language is like my people: it’s Black
& it’s brown & it’s alive
& it’s laughing & it’s growing & it’s alive
[…] & it’s finna
take on this wide world
with a whole slang for possibility.
In centering language, Marshall details how the mind can be a linguistic minefield. Even though finna, which “comes from the southern phrase fixing to,” is described as Marshall’s favorite word and “most honest longing,” there’s a voice in his head that says “…shouldn’t you be worried / about using a word that ain’t a word.” This same voice discourages others from putting an accomplishment on folk, or claiming a task has been accomplished fiddy’leven times. This voice is egged on by the same activities that help Marshall sharpen his craft during study time: “days, i read books on grammar & proper style, correct / my own usages.” No, Finna is not a treatise for the deconstruction of modern english. It is a close observation of how efforts to diminish the value of certain styles of speech intersect with the devaluation of the humanity of its speakers— of the lives of those in the poet’s community.
Marshall declares, about the vernacular of his community, “this not proper, / this people.” Slang isn’t only regal, but it is also a metonym for the people who speak it. Something is off if proper means erasure of that which is essential. Marshall contends for the inherent poetic nature and beauty of his community:
…our people deserve
poetry without meter. we deserve our
own jagged rhythm & our own uneven
walk towards sun. you make happening happen.
we happen to love. this our greatest
Marshall is not a sugar-coating pied piper though. These poems are full of honest critique as well. The same mouths Marshall lists as worthy of praise and protection, he also challenges. Poems like “the valley of its making,” “everything i’ve called women,” and “the homies ask if i’m tryna smash” pick apart the way language can be used to decenter the female experience and to devalue women. Finna is wonderful, but it is not a one-dimensional wonderland unsensitized to the unfruitful manifestations of the language it glorifies.
Whether celebrating or chiding, Marshall is always driven by love, calling to mind James Baldwin’s words “I love [my country] more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize….” This same love is behind Marshall’s stern rebuke of imposing, disinterested authorities attempting to claim the same right of challenge:
how can you say anything about our blocks
& schools & children that you refuse to see.
don’t tell us what is wrong
with all of our cousins you’ve never known
you do not govern what you do not love.
One of the most resounding marvels of Finna is its breadth, which Marshall courts through diving into the quintessential poetic theme of possibility. His diction is bedazzled with words like “or,” and phrases like “let’s say,” and his verse frequently employs repetition and slippery lines like, “i been a lie but don’t be lie / i be fly sometimes but don’t be a fly.” To read Finna is to dwell in possibility.
Poems titled “another Nate Marshall origin story,” inspired by Marshall learning about individuals with his name online, span the length of the collection. We’re led to ponder the existence of other Nate Marshalls: Nate the white supremacist from Colorado, Nate the hockey player, Nate the comedian, and Nate who is “sweet, beautiful” and deceased. This discovery beckons our Nate Marshall of South Side Chicago to imagine all of these lives intersecting and to entertain the idea of being interconnected each one:
…don’t get me wrong
i’m not saying i’m like him
i’m just saying i’m not not
even the Nate Marshalls who ain’t me
are me & i because of them. & even the Nate Marshalls
who seem most fixed in their place
if they’re alive.
The variety created in these “origin stories” is both for exploration and also confrontation.
Marshall’s concern with personal and collective origin precedes these poems. In the first poem of the collection, “landless acknowledgement,” Marshall sings, “sometimes me & mine imagine ancestral homes. all i got so far is […] maybe a boat. maybe a plot of land somewhere.” Finna is the work of a writer engaged in a search, a writer in suspension between then and now.
Marshall also draws inspiration from the multiverse concept from comics like DC’s The Flash. In a conversation with Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borelli, ¹ Marshall discussed “the idea of a place where alternate realities and identities diverge and coexist,” and offered, “What if I went to that school, not this? […] What happens to my life.” Nate Marshall running into (albeit online) versions of himself again and again inspires an incredible metaphor for a personal and collective loss of origin:
every Nate Marshall I know
has an unruly name
a word he can’t trace back.
one Nate Marshall deletes
every Nate Marshall I know
Nate Marshall’s journey doesn’t lead to an original tribe or place of origin, but to a precious, odd intimacy: Marshall’s name becomes a kind of tribe within which all of the Nate Marshalls live together. It also becomes another setting threatened by the destructive power of racism, as Nate Marshall the white supremacist from Colorado fies for control:
is a country
Amidst the creation and existence of his multiverse, Marshall finds a divine understanding: “perhaps our rage / at the other is just the way / we fill what we don’t know / about ourselves,” proving that there is worth in attempting to grasp at the impossible.
Even with its breadth, Finna doesn’t get away from us. Even when alternate Nate Marshalls amass like reflections in a hall of mirrors, we are still able to feel and recognize our Nate. Even as the cast of characters expands, as we meet grandma and grandpa—meet sisters and mother—meet Marshall’s nephew Justin, our constant i keeps us within reach. In fact, the growing cast brings us even closer to Marshall. When the speaker recounts a conversation with Justin, readers receive a quiet revelation of the heart and allegiance flourishing throughout Finna:
…you ask me if i love all books
since i have so many & i say
only the ones that tell us who tell us who we are.
because i ask you
what i should write about
& you say
write about us.
Finna helps us realize the close ties between language and identity—between language and a sense of origin. We learn to hold on to the language that reassembles our pride and love of ourselves and communities—a pride that is itself proper for any human to experience and defend. Finna is a testament to the significance of not letting go of history, of family, of you:
when i say Chicago i mean my mama’s
house that was my grandmama’s house.
i mean the neighborhood
that was our neighborhood
because we said
we’ll make a home here
& we’ll stay.
¹ Christopher Borelli, “What’s in a Name? For Chicago Poet Nate Marshall, There’s a Strange Story to That…,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 2020, http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-nate-marshall-finna-20200811-4bsgp4ynsbgbfi3ohgg3za5lkq-story.html.