Part backlash, part meditation, Nature Poem by Tommy Pico is an urban hipster’s struggle to write on a subject he feels is “stereotypical, reductive, and boring.” The poem’s power arises from this tension. On the opening pages his words radiate with invective fury:
“Ray Rice punches his girlfriend unconsciousness on camera and drags her
out of the elevator, and I’m supposed to give a fuck about pesticides?
“That’s not a kind of nature I would write a poem about.”
Pico asks a valid question. Yet he cannot dismiss not thinking and talking about nature.
“it seems foolish to me to discuss nature w/o talking about endemic poverty
which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about corporations given
human agency which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about
colonialism which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about misogyny”
Throughout Nature Poem, Pico argues with himself, with others, and with his heritage. He does so with myriad poetic techniques. Nature talks back to him, sometimes in vague platitudes and at other times in acidic sarcasm. (“My family’s experience isn’t fodder / for artwork, says Nature in btwn make outs.”) His poetic voice can be bitchy, confessional, erudite, self-aware, and funny.
Amid his torturous negotiations with writing a poem about nature, references to pop culture abound. He swoons about Bowie and Beyoncé, Tracy Chapman and Aretha Franklin. A major passage involves a transcribed Twitter conversation:
“AngelNafis: ‘Do Right Woman’ is literally a church pew. #Aretha
“heyteebs: I can’t even hear the first three notes of that intro w/o getting misty
“AngelNafis: it’s basically mathematics. Aretha plus a person having any
sliver of a soul whatsoever equalz holy-feelz.
“heyteebs: gaia is alive in those pipes.”
Even the most disposable of communications—the tweet—can become the building blocks of poetry. Ezra Pound had Chinese ideograms and historical quotations, e. e. cummings had idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, and Tommy Pico has personal confessions and social media conversations. Nature Poem is representative of its time and the conflicted emotions and expectations of a nature-conscious urban hipster.
In the end, Nature Poem works as a witty rejoinder to those fond of posting that Chief Joseph quote on their social media feeds. The quote has become a symbol of progressive self-righteousness and turning Native American cultures into a lazy metaphor about the environment. It is positive stereotyping at its worst.
“People r so concerned abt ‘the Earth’
in the sense of kale salad and bruised
The concision and brutality contained in this sarcastic nugget shouldn’t be underestimated. Even with the ruthless destruction and pollution occurring every day, to many environmental causes become nothing more than cosmetic accessories. Talking point at the water cooler and chin-stroking to symbolize earnest concern. Pico then focuses that relentless attack upon himself. Not even he is immune to the hypocrisies and clichés poisoning the conversation about how to save the planet. He’d rather eat burgers, make out, and enjoy life. He refuses the notion that one should come across as a joyless scold when talking about major issues. Yet another reason he didn’t want to write a nature poem in the first place.
Tommy Pico’s latest book solidifies his status as a formidable new voice in American poetry. Nature Poem’s power becomes apparent as it struggles against the reductive stereotyping the United States associates with the Native Americans. This tension between reinforcing the stereotypes and attacking these same presumptions gives the poetry a unique forcefulness. Along the way, Pico lacerates American excesses and empty materialism, yet at the same time has written a kind of sideways love letter to the very same empty materialism he should be condemning. “Songs are spells / like poems.”