Book Reviews

So Anti-pretty It’s Actually Beautiful

by Anna Newman | Contributing Writer

Tommy Pico
Tin House, 2018

In his 1993 collection, Garbage, A.R. Ammons argues that garbage “has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough / to get our attention.” Garbage’s credibility lies in its materiality, its visual representation of what we privately hope to get rid of. Tommy Pico’s book-length poem Junk (the third installment in Pico’s Teebs tetralogy) reframes Ammons’s “garbage” as “junk,” which, he writes, “has 2 be the poem of our time” because of its “Pointless accumulation / Clinging to a million denials.” Pico’s “junk” represents the accumulation of sentimental items that have little credibility, but that we can’t quite seem to get rid of. If garbage allows us to privately dispose of what we no longer need, junk is a public version of our private obsessions. Pico’s collection examines the way that personal experience builds up, like junk, in our poetry, and the way that this junk (unlike garbage) refuses to break down and decompose. Pico manically and obsessively catalogues and dissects the speaker’s shame, lust, and embarrassments, exposing them in something like the way that our junk reveals us.

In a Paris Review interview, A.R. Ammons says that “the garbage heap of used-up language is thrown at the feet of poets, and it is their job to make or revamp a language that will fly again.” Pico’s book takes on this task: in Junk, Pico juxtaposes lyric moments with cultural references—including slogans, song lyrics, and internet slang—as he moves from self-reflection to public embarrassment to cultural pastiche, all of which is underscored by a restless mania that stems from the speaker’s social and personal anxiety:

What I’m tussling with is the pathway from
definition to validity Dummy, is this the poem or the essay abt

the poem Pennies fall out of my crotch when I stand up Clap!
Laugh! Must have slipped out of my coin purse when I took the

change from brunch It’s like a diorama of class anxiety What
goes into the display case vs What goes into the Junk drawer

. . . Prove
it says every actor who’s ever been in a police procedural

Readers familiar with Pico’s work might recognize his signature quick pace and use of confessional cultural collage from IRL and Nature Poem. In Junk, Pico pushes this form and mode further than in past collections: the book consists of a single 72-page poem in largely unpunctuated couplets. Throughout the collection, the speaker compulsively documents and dissects everything from his junk food binges to his relationships and anxieties: 

. . . Let’s play a game called sociopath or
gay man Let’s bottomless brunch Let’s Let’s Let’s petal bagel

w/ strawberry tofu cream cheese toasted snickerdoodle
smoothie fuchsia puree adrenaline hole bellinis I’ll eat it daddy

baby I’m the opposite of a foodie I’m like a junkie Don’t blame
the Junk for being discarded 

Pico’s use of the word “junk”—repeated on almost every page—shifts throughout. Sometimes it names the moves and modes of the poem itself: “Junk is discovery and anchor”; “Junk is so anti-pretty it’s actually beautiful”; “Junk is also a way of not letting go—containing the / stasis.” Pico also uses it to define his own persona: “Junk not immediately useful but I’m still someone I can’t stop”; “Junk Cookie dough brownie vanilla / frozen yogurt swirl wipe Whenever we finish n I stare directly / at you, you act like I spilled something”; “I am in the Junk shop of my thirties.” And Pico uses “junk” to provide various definitions for the full collection as the poem develops: Junk is a poem of “vibrant inconsequence,” an “archive of a life / that shouldn’t exist,” an “accumulation of doomsday and birth certificates.” Part of the obsession of the collection is to reconcile junk-as-form with junk-as-experience; one of the modes of this obsession is anxiety.

The speaker’s anxiety is palpable throughout as Pico juxtaposes a constant stream of physical junk—pennies, dioramas, coin purses, frozen yogurt cups, M&Ms, old wigs—with the “junk” of his personal experience. Junk moves from sensuality to self-disgust, from cultural criticism to feelings of personal invalidation: “He’s / like the morning and I’m like crud underneath a toenail My / stupid waterbed body / Shame is such a shutdown sucking feta / from an olive’s soul Oh he def has an edible butt … there’s this / idea that only some bodies are worthy of desire and the others / don’t even exist.”  The speaker’s body causes him physical and psychic discomfort throughout the collection, partially because the speaker, for the first part of the collection, is operating under his alter-ego, Teebs (for whom the tetralogy is named). The anxiety at the core of the poem concerns Pico’s attempts to shed this alter-ego.

The constant self-referentiality to form and identity—and the importance Pico places on explaining his own writing process—risks becoming excessive. But just as the poem’s self-awareness begins to seem overly patterned and controlled, Pico reveals and steps out of his Teebs persona in order to get at the true “junk” of his everyday experience: 

When I started this I was delirious frenetic and in the

cyclone I found Teebs, the bratty diva, my alter ego You rang?
I put him on and everyone loves him … He

doesn’t ‘do’ hesitation Just hyperbole …

But the more
I AM Teebs the less I’m writing because writing requires the

hesitation, the fear, the insecurity, the reflections So Teebs I’m
going to leave you in the lines I can write you or I can be you

but not both Touching all yr Junk hides it from obscurity

This acknowledgement of facade in the collection both redeems and complicates its self-referentiality by bringing up the question of which self is referenced throughout the first part of the collection—and if, in the end, it matters: “If part of / Junk is letting go, partly Junk is letting go of you.” In this way, Junk, like IRL and Nature Poem, is a breakup poem (with both the self and the reader). But while IRL captures a romantic breakup, and Nature Poem addresses a break with a poetic tradition Pico feels he’s been forced into, Junk is a breakup with the poetic self present throughout the tetralogy.

Pico refers to Ammons’s Garbage as a stylistic and thematic precursor to Junk, both in the poem itself and when discussing the collection. He borrows Garbage’s unpunctuated couplets, as well as the character of the self-critical poet reflecting on his own poetic practice. The humor in Pico’s poem, his juxtaposition of disparate styles and diction, and his breathless pace also bear resemblance to Ammons’s work. Nature Poem, the second volume of Pico’s tetralogy, contains a nod to garbage that would eventually provide the idea for Junk: “I used to read a lot of perfect poems, now I read a lot of Garbage / by A.R. Ammons.” In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pico said he views Junk as “kind of my answer to Ammons.” And this answer partially stems from Pico’s alignment of his experience of poetry with “junk” rather than “garbage.” The reader doesn’t need to know Garbage in order to understand the interaction between Pico’s poem and its predecessor: Pico’s constant writing and re-writing of the word “junk” articulates the difference between Pico’s experience of poetry and Ammons’s. Instead of viewing the junk of his experience as something to get rid of, Pico views it as something waiting to live on in another iteration; he views shame and embarrassment as central to his experience of writing. In one passage, Pico writes that “Junk isn’t / garbage It’s not outlived its purpose,” “not as dramatic as ‘trash’ It’s important / to value the Junk, Junk has the best stories.” He exposes his junk in order to reveal his poetic persona, and argues for a mode of poetry which would allow the poet to bring all life experiences to their poems—even those that might, at first glance, seem unpresentable, unimportant, or disposable. 

Pico exits the collection by sliding the junk drawer shut, still aware that it contains an urgent, personal mess. He writes that “junk food was meant not to satisfy,” and reaches for a mode of closure that allows his material to “lie quiet in the buff, not touchin.” Pico acknowledges the complexity of the collection, and takes the risk of inviting readers to spend more time with it: “Sometimes you need to read something more / than once.” The joy of reading Junk is that you want to take Pico up on his offer; his collection rewards return visits, and like Pico’s persona, “somehow earns its / complications.”

Anna Newman holds an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets, RattleTikkunSugar House Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.