Tommy Pico’s first three, book-length narrative poems deal with the dichotomy of being Native and American. The complications of technology, language, pop culture, and gayness are also woven throughout each of the books. His debut, IRT, introduces the reader to the Muse, who is a love interest prototype to Teebs (Pico’s alter ego who narrates the books).
Following is Nature Poem, which unpacks the same issues, but also addresses Teebs’ Native roots—he can’t possibly write a nature poem because it’s just too cliché, and yet, he’s connected to his ancestral land. Still, he’s a millennial in New York City. The third book, Junk, talks more about love and men. It’s structured in unstructured couplets, and junk is the topic in every sense of the word: his junk food addiction, the junk in pop culture, a man’s junk, that which is no longer of use. The same themes of technology, pop culture, Native identity, gayhood, food, and New York City remain constant examinations.
Feed, the final installment of the tetralogy, follows suit by exploring the concept of feeding—feeding off culture, the land, other people. And while this poem maintains the tone and concludes ongoing themes, it’s the most mature of the poems. Like Teebs, Pico as a writer seems to have grown up. It comes through in the prose. The language has confidence and the loose structure is at once risky and brilliant. It’s nothing new for poets to go rogue when it comes to stanzas and meter—that’s the norm, if anything. But Pico is so intentional and precise; the lines break and enjamb in a way that feels urgent. You just can’t stop reading. For example:
“From the Middle English / from the Latin // meaning to make good again. Repair. Which alludes to a previous rupture. Breakage. We assumed that somehow just being together, itself, was the act of repair. At one point there was a point, a // unity // a whole, something unbroken, something uniform, something together, something that held on June 1491 Our fingers braided Skipping to the deli in the summer song Something that leaped along the seats to greet…”
These long run-on sentences that defy punctuation move quickly, like the mind in deep thought, in “Doppler blips.” They enable the reader to become intimately involved with Teebs.
The book takes place on New York’s High Line, a defunct railroad line-turned-urban garden that runs through the meatpacking district. Teebs walks with his ex, Leo, who has just gotten married. As they walk, Teebs’s mind shifts in and out of memories and concepts. Memories are fleshed out in this final installment. They’re vivid with fast conversations in scene instead of interesting lines of dialogue, making the characters feel more profound.
Topics include love, as usual, and the idea of moving on, transit, space, and food, of course. Music plays an important role, too. Well-known bands have “tracks” throughout, and sections of songs resonate with Teebs:
“Track 3: “Alone” by Heart. The part where she expresses doubt about being able to confess her feelings to the lover, and wonders at what point she’ll be able to get the lover away from all others. “Alone” in order to unload.”
What is the difference between being alone and loneliness? Teebs contemplates this on his book tour across the country. Alone allows the subconscious to surface, but reading aloud is something else: “Around more people than I’ve ever been/in my whole life but I’ve never been/so//CTA. MTA. the Metro. the Metro-North. Link light rail.//lonely.//Joe says it’s a quintessential/American narrative-success that doesn’t lance/to happiness.//Dear reader, don’t stone me for this:”
American. It’s the prime internal fight Teebs has throughout the installments. In Feed he infers the prepping of a Thanksgiving turkey, a holiday that pretends to offer goodwill to Native populations—it’s an excuse for wrongdoing. That Teebs is acting like a successful American is a huge conflict. Dr. John, his therapist, shows up in the poems, and here, his role is to help Teebs find the gray area in the dichotomy of his life: a Native who cannot make peace with the colonization that destroyed his heritage and lifeblood—but Teebs lives in the colonial American world. Who is he, exactly? “…Dr. John asks me, why do you ass-//u-//me// Teebs is the false self?“
It should be stated that for all the heavy content and ideas found in this book, Pico is hilarious. Plays on words, like the excerpt above, make the work not only digestible, but relatable. “Tried to get into the new MGMT but the first song is called ‘She Works Out Too Much’ and I was like, nah I’m good.” These slangy, cultural references ground us while offering a counter to the beauty prose that accompanies Teebs’s more emotional moments. Teebs’s own two minds create a difficult but lovely juxtaposition. On his breakup with Leo: “You’re a shade//You mince the length of the sidewalk with me,// sit where I sit, on the sectional// or on the jet plane//and someday you peel from me like a rind.”
In this poem, Teebs grows up, connecting his coming of age circle. He no longer takes singing lessons, as in prior books, but goes on book tour, confiding in readers. In his loneliness, Teebs is able to locate his inner-most, true self—he’s found his voice. The gray area. He’s not alone up there on the High Line with Leo, but he’s lonely. The Muse in IRL has become the Reader in Feed, and it’s lifted Teebs. “Poetry is feed//to the horses within me.”
By Tommy Pico
Tin House Books
Published November 5, 2019
Sara Webster is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. She earned her MFA from NYU, and in her spare time teaches Creative Writing at Colorado Free University. You can find her at www.sarawebster.net, or on Twitter @sarawebbee. She's at work on her first novel.