JUNK, TOMMY PICO’S delicious new book-length poem, his third in as many years, opens in a multiplex. Teebs, Pico’s speaker and alter ego, doesn’t care too much about the movies; the movie theater is a place to eat junk food and make out, sometimes at the same time. The book begins:
Frenching with a mouthful of M&M’s dunno if I feel polluted
or into it — the lights go low across the multiplex Temple of
canoodling and Junk food A collision of corn dog bites and
chunky salsa to achieve a spiritual escape velocity
In these opening lines and throughout the book, Pico’s tone is casual and intimate. Reading Junk often feels like receiving a long text message from Pico, the kind of message your friend texts you from a bathroom at a party to share news of something illicit, or strange, or wonderful. In this movie theater moment, Teebs divulges a small pleasure and invites us to experience it with him. Junk food, in the dark, can help us achieve “spiritual escape.” And fast.
So much of Pico’s verse recalls the work of midcentury poet Frank O’Hara, and O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria” is an unmistakable precursor to Pico’s opening lines. “Ave Maria” begins with the delightful command: “Mothers of America / let your children go to the movies!,” which O’Hara follows with the subsequent explanation:
they may even be grateful to you
for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
and gratuitous bags of popcorn
For Pico, writing decades after O’Hara, the movie theater occupies the same imaginative space. It is a place for transgression, both sexual and gustatory. It is a place for low, gratuitous (and maybe even a little gross) pleasures in the dark, for the transcendent experience of junk of all kinds.
It may seem uninspired to compare a queer male poet who lives in New York City to Frank O’Hara, but I can think of no other poet who manifests O’Hara’s nerve and verve without sounding like a weaker imitation. Pico shares O’Hara’s generosity with words, his seemingly spontaneous language, a love of proper nouns and names of friends, a willingness to sometimes issue a pure vocative “oh.” Yet if Pico deals with many of the same subjects as O’Hara — urban gay life, culture high and low, celebrities (Janet Jackson is to Pico as Lana Turner is to O’Hara), love, friendship — his voice is distinctly his own.
Junk is a poem that tells, mostly through vignettes and digressions, and barely linearly, the story of Teebs’s relationship with an unnamed man. It is a breakup poem that refuses the details breakup poems usually provide. We don’t even know how long their relationship lasted; as Pico writes, “Sometimes we were together for six weeks Sometimes / eight months Sometimes I don’t know yet.” But more than a long breakup poem, the book is a meditation on the many kinds of junk that constellate our lives. Pico’s junk is a catalog of Chili Cheese Fritos and movie theater candy, male genitalia and literal garbage. Junk also becomes, powerfully, a metaphor for the Native Americans abused and discarded at the hands of white people past and present. Pico, who is a member of the Kumeyaay nation and grew up on the Viejas reservation in Southern California, is an American Indian (in his terms, an “NDN”) for whom the injustice of being treated like junk is a reality of daily life. The beating heart of Junk lies in the intersection of this junk experience: as food, as sex, as being Other-ed in America.
In a somewhat unusual decision for a poet in 2018, Pico forms Junk around the couplet. Pico’s couplets do not rhyme and they are unmetered. Very few of his lines are end-stopped, so the poem is heavily enjambed. His syntactical units don’t end where his lines end, so Pico’s words are always running over the couplet structure. In this way, Junk echoes A. R. Ammons’s Garbage, a clear predecessor, which also consists of enjambed couplets. Like Ammons, Pico resists the closure that the couplet offered poets such as Pope and Swift in earlier centuries, or even that the couplet offers Bernadette Mayer’s poem “First Turn to Me…,” a sexually explicit poem in which the couplet form echoes the content of sexual coupling. But for Pico, the couple/(t) is a form to work against, not within.
swap spit in the karaoke booth An attendant comes in tells us
to stop How many peeps try to bump uglies in private karaoke,
like is there a secret queer history of the private booth Yr
thinking too much dummy Close yr eyes Abstain from that flat
grey jaded-feeling Here comes failure He wears white Being
butt-fucked is a symbolic encounter with death Omg dummy,
you need to smoke less Is it called a bruise then the lips are
marbled by sudden heavy hickeys in the space between new
In this sequence of couplets, Pico’s fast-moving language pushes against a form that ultimately cannot contain it. Just as the couple — Teebs and his boyfriend — fails, so do these couplets. Make no mistake: Junk is no aesthetic failure. Pico knows how to make the most out of an enjambment, and his language, for all its air of casualness, is surprisingly dense. These lines are filled with slant rhymes and several kinds of sonic echoes: “history” and “dummy,” “feeling” and “Being,” “death” and “less,” “heavy hickeys.” Pico’s italicized lines (in which Teebs seems to be addressing himself), his abbreviations and text speak, his low diction, his rapid shifts between moods and tones: all belie a carefully composed line. And Pico’s imagery startles with its precision; the lips “marbled” by hickeys recall prime marbled red meat.
If it hasn’t already become clear, Pico is hilarious. He knows how to make his audience laugh, and while his Teebs sometimes berates himself for caring too much about punch lines, his couplets about dating men made me laugh out loud more than once. He is Rabelaisian in his grotesquerie: Teebs’s body — and the poem’s body too — is porous, he and it are constantly consuming and expelling all kinds of junk. Much of Teebs’s humor works through declarative claims: “I believe in butterscotch candy / and chocolate covered gummy bears from the pic n mix at the / Virgin Atlantic terminal.” Also: “You are the kind of person who keeps // a white shirt white I am literally guac stains.” Pico also uses these declarative statements to force surprising juxtapositions, which are sometimes painfully tender, other times, just a little gross: “My body holding onto u / despite myself or bc of it America is all action, no memory Me, / mostly memory and farting on airplanes.” This poem is capacious: everything enters in (and then, like Teebs’s ex, out).
A running concern for Teebs is Marie Kondo’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which he calls an “anti-junk manifesto.” Teebs, who aligns himself with junk — junk food, men’s junk, junk shops — also notes that Kondo’s ideas about cleansing oneself from junk appeal to him: “The Kumeyaay custom of burning / the dead’s possessions, ascending the objects to heaven, was // a lot simpler when everything was organic.” Humor, with a bite. And despite his commitment to junk, the Kondo/Kumeyaay methods sink in, and by the end of the poem, Teebs reaches some kind of peace regarding his relationship: “If part of // Junk is letting go part of Junk is letting go of you” — and the last few lines of the poem end in an image of fire, though the end of the poem is not quite as conclusive as it might be.
Tommy Pico, like his contemporaries Morgan Parker and Kaveh Akbar (both of whom blurb Junk), writes poems that are complex yet accessible, that sound like 2018 but that have staying power long past it, in the same way that O’Hara’s poems resonate long past their midcentury milieu. Pico’s poem is marked by energy and grace, silliness and variousness, and it elevates junk of all kinds; through Pico’s lens, nothing is not worth our attention. As I was writing this review, I checked in on Pico’s Twitter timeline. Pico had just rewritten a moment from O’Hara’s long poem “In Memory of My Feelings,” the moment which is etched on O’Hara’s headstone. In Pico’s hands, O’Hara’s lines “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible” become “grace to be born and live as scary spice as possible.” To that, I can only imagine O’Hara would say: Exactly.