May 11, 2017
Brooklyn is a Broken Land: on Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem
The title of Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem is an impossibility. It is impossible to be an ndn because ndns don’t really exist. The millennial transformation of the misnomer Indian to the digitally-suited “ndn” that Pico uses gestures to how terms used to describe Indigeneity are always incomplete. Ndn describes no real group of people, but rather indexes a host of fantasies and possibilities that can be both imposed (mystic wildmen) or transgressed (weirdo ndn faggot). Ndns are in Brooklyn and everyone still expects us to write nature poems. Throughout this book-length poem, Pico tells readers the different reasons that keep him from the overly-determined genre:
I can’t write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit,
makes me complicit in my tribe’s erasure—why shld I give a fuck abt
“poetry”? It’s a container
While I, like Pico, might not give a fuck about “poetry” or Poetry or the Western canon of poetry (though I’m sure we also both can’t help but care a little, that’s the Stockholm of it), his writing has this bubbling quality, a replicating life force. As in: I’ve had dirty sex after and also, kind of, while someone and I read Tommy Pico’s first book-length poem epic IRL together. (I state this now because there are few better ways to champion a writer’s work.) Along with this erotic inspo, Pico has also pulled me out of a poetry slump. His poems make me want to live with more poetry, to read, write and revel in poetry as a form that does not have to be a container. Not for words like “whilst and hither and tamp” and not for the overly sentimental poetry voice of oozing pauses that Pico in his writing and performance refuses.
If IRL is Pico’s summer epic, Nature Poem reads like the elegiac comedown of winter. And since “Winter is a death threat from nature” the tones of this collection are a little more icey, a little less coy. Here Pico’s sultry voice is still simmering but it’s also more jagged, a quality reflected in the line and page breaks that cut across the page much more unevenly than the streaming column of IRL. Considering this wintry inflection, I wondered if the Kumeyaays—Pico is of the Kumeyaay nation—have songs like my people, the Navajos, that they play strictly according to season. On YouTube angry Navajos leave comments on winter song videos people have posted because it allows them to be played in the wrong season. This is the kind of nature I would write about in a poem to Tommy Pico.
Because we are both ndns and I’ve learned a lot about my people on YouTube. I pitched this book review with the subject “Ndns Writing About Ndns,” but the extended version would be: “Ndns Writing about Ndns Writing about Writing as Ndn.” It felt like a declaration of indigenous multiplicity, indicative of how despite ongoing genocidal effects of colonialism, I am around a lot of queer ndn brilliance both on the internet and irl. Of course it is significant and of course I don’t want it to be so significant that I can’t be seen as anything other than an ndn writing about another ndn. How can we be held but not contained? This is only one of the tricky binds of identity Pico jostles within throughout the book. Even if you “don’t want to be an identity or a belief or a feedbag,” there is also no way not to talk about or talk through a body that came from other bodies that somehow—despite drought, disease, U.S. presidents, U.S. laws all mobilized to rob you, leave you dead, despite all this—survived. You have to be a testimony to it somehow.
In a similar way, nature is still profound to Pico even if he is thousands of miles away from where he can get “swol” on plant knowledge and where his mother “motherfucking waves at oak trees” and even if the nature people expect to ndns to write about is desecrated and contaminated from colonial resource extraction, as Pico alludes to in a biting “pastoral lyric.” Even if this is all true, nature, a term as simultaneously as empty and bursting as ndn, still demands we attend to it. And declare our covert attachments, our secret ndn desires for a world taken from us.
Pico’s poetry is charming at times while acknowledging the angst and obscured bitterness of the poem’s charming narrator. Stark one-line pages read like a protest banner or a sign: “I’m going to be so sad when Aretha Franklin dies.” On other occasions, he addresses the city he lives in and the gays he lives around in often cutting but all-too-empathetic judgements about spooky blowjobs and short attention spans. These barbs, along with Pico’s reconstructions of common phrases and internet conversations, carry the tone of tweets and texts and the feel of how these forms of language slip and mutate and reproduce in everyday talk. In IRL, Pico’s use of abbreviations—still predominantly (perhaps in error) associated with “internet speak”—made sense because the poem was presented as a text message. In Nature Poem, cheeky shorthand remains his primary poetic mode. It’s one more way in which the poet refuses the genre and form of the pastoral and the “Poetic”: he insists on the constant mediation of technology and on his own discomfort in the container of language. These poems take readers between wildly different scales, from the stars always dying far away to a pizza parlor bar where some dad is making bad jokes. A world where through expansive access to information we can see the connections between the genocide of our families and the manufactured crises and horrors of American imperialism abroad to the point that once-dizzying death reports of the close and faraway kind become routine and yet you still also want to know if 30 is too old to get a nose stud.
Nature poem as a phrase and Nature as a frenemy are refrains throughout Nature Poem. Ndns are not just expected to write nature poems, they are expected to be nature. The wild. I had been living in New York for several years when I came up with a joke organization called Ndns Against the Outdoors, a group where ndns who lived in cities could commiserate about being bad ndns, more prone as Pico describes to slap a tree across the face or spend the weekend looking for someone to slap or for someone to slap us than be out in a dramatic landscape trying to live up to a performance of Being Indian. Along with nature, body is evoked often throughout the book as both a common and proper noun. As interlocutors, body and Pico trade demands with one another, two beings in a reluctant codependent relationship. Because of the persistent colonial trope that collapses the bodies of ndns with the lands they are associated with, in order to talk about nature, we also have to talk about the body. Then we have to talk about occupation and colonialism and misogyny, but we can also talk about hot men and “tornado fucking.”
These are all the places Pico takes readers to, through the tensions of being a person forged in colonial violence but still ebullient in the post-apocalypse of America. The nature of his nature poem against nature is both the expansive image of an out there, the stuff settlers call wilderness, and nature as identity, the essentialized notions of who people are inside. Instead of being restrained by the expectations associated with either kind of nature, Pico makes a break for it. A line break that turns into another then into another. All those pages later the reader is left in a land still broken and cutting, but like the cracks of a broken iPhone screen it is not without a certain glimmer.
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