Nature Poem, the new long form poem from Tommy Pico published by Penguin Random House is as brilliant a piece of social/cultural commentary as I've read in a long time. On top of that, its also as exceptional a piece of poetry you're liable to read this year. I say piece, singular, because at first it may seem like a collection of individual poems but as you read they begin to transform into a kind of stream of conscience, Homeresque, Odysseus, trying to navigate his way through the obstructions on his way home.
However, in this instance home isn't necessarily a tangible place - it's more like Pico is trying to discover his place in the world as a queer positive Native American who loves living in the city and wouldn't write a Nature Poem if you paid him. So, don't expect any New Age like peons in praise of being one with nature or some other noble savage shit. This is urban, slick, and very much part of today's world. He uses the language of twitter - hashtags - and the abbreviations common to text messages in his work - with none of the degradation of the language's power you'd expect.
In fact, you'd best leave aside any and all expectations you might have about poetry, Native Americans, and anything else before you start reading this book - because nothing will be as you expect it. For someone, whose texting and twittering skills are as close to luddite as you can get without smashing phones with hammers, the short forms and short cuts in language utilized by idiom were initially a barrier.
However, Pico's use of abbreviations became something that blended into the surroundings of his poetry. They take place in the fast pace of the urban environment where everybody is sending messages, which aren't necessarily the same as the signals they're sending, and the information is coming rapid fire and from all directions.
However, there is no dross in these texts. In fact the sparseness of the short form is like an emotional punch to solar plexus in places. Sharp and to the point the words catch you off guard as your mind catches up their implications a few seconds after you read them.
I can't write a nature poem bc English is some Stockholm shit, makes me complicit in my tribe's erasure - Why shd I give a fuck abt "poetry"? It's a container for words like whilst, hither and tamp. It conducts something of permanent and universal interest. Poems take something like an apple, turn it into the skin, the seeds, and the core. They talk abt gravity, abt Adam, and Snow White and the stem of knowledge. To me? Apple is a NDN drag queen who dresses like a milkmaid and sings "Half Breed" by Cher
This one stanza tells me more about the state of living as a conquered/colonized person than any number of ernest political rants. How can you use the shapes and forms of the culture responsible for trying to eradicate your own to express something about yourself? Even the difference in his use of the word Apple is an interpretation defined by a cultural reference most people reading this review won't understand.
A constant refrain running through the book is Pico's continued argument with himself and nature about writing the dreaded "Nature Poem". However, the more he struggles with everything about it, including the nature of their relationship and his desire to embrace his new urban landscape, the deeper he delves into his otherness - what separates him from those around him.
He might not have that spiritual relationship with the land New Age books stores promise us the indigenous people of North America are born with, but he can't stop talking about the land his people come from. He might be in New York City but he writes about the Viejas Reservation his Kumeyaay nation lives on in California an awful lot. However, it's in these writings that Pico best captures what's it like to be a so-called Urban Indian. The struggle to find a place among questions like, "What's your NATIONALITY?"...."but I know when he says NATIONALITY he's saying you look vaguely not like a total white boy".
Nature Poem is a brilliantly written piece of work. While the language may be a mash up of text abbreviations and urban slang, it not only doesn't detract from the poem's emotional impact, it actually increases it. Like e e cummings before him, Pico has taken the vernacular of his time and turned it into high art. If you read only one book of poetry this year, make sure this is it.
Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Nature Poem by Tommy Pico - An Epic Poem)
(Originally posted May 2017)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.