Junk is the latest epic book length poem written by Native American poet and 2018 Whiting Award winner Tommy Pico.
In the poem, “junk“ takes on a double – actually, quadruple – entendre.
First and foremost, junk is junk, as in useless stuff. We learn that Pico’s relationship with junk began all the way back on the Indian reservation where he grew up. “There were three main industries on the rez (besides of course, meth): fire department, RV park, and the thrift shop.” It’s hanging out in the thrift where his mother worked as a kid that sparked Pico’s enduring fascination with disused, abandoned things, left to await their next life.
Throughout Junk, such objects are lovingly humanized – “don’t blame the junk for being discarded” – raising an important question. Namely, what happens when the forgotten items are people or entire populations? Dumped by a bored beau, or left high and dry by American genocide? Or both, as in the case of our queer, freshly single, NDN (Indian) protagonist? Pico places himself (or rather, his alias Teebs) in the center of his poetry, and artfully draws the reader along for the ride as he reflects on how his personal relationship with junk has been informed by coming from a lineage of people treated like literal garbage:
I’m an expert at / peacing out We all have our survival strategies growing up on / the rez America’s first POW camps In a way I’m indebted to / dissociation Shouting gets so small it’s almost quaint I fold it / into my pocket Even now it’s hard for me to come/back to my / body It’s here I hold all my selves all my Junk, and if everything / that passes through the pile changes the pile: You have changed / me.
Turns out, junk is also great for filling the void of personal and intergenerational loss. We imbibe on Pico’s prose, as he scarfs down “cookie dough brownie bites frozen yoghurt n beloved chili cheese corn snack Fritos” in a fevered break up binge. That’s followed by hook up after hook up with one boring and wildly unsuitable white boy after another. After all, it’s harder to focus on what you’ve lost when you’ve got someone’s junk to distract yourself with.
The candy, condiments, and crushes are free flowing, but so is Pico’s persistent sense of existential dread and shame – “like an Energizer battery it keeps going, and going, and going.” Somehow, through the pain of being discarded, and the seemingly relentless torrent of crushing news à la displaced refugees, shootings, and natural disasters, Pico endures.
Like a fever dream or particularly crushing break up, Junk will leave you discombobulated and reeling to make sense of it all. Yet, when the heaviness gets a little too much to bear, the reader finds reprieve in one of Junk’s many hilarious one-liners: indeed, “the grief is loud, but laffs are louder.”
Similarly to Pico’s previous works IRL (2016) and Nature Poem (2017), Junk deftly pulls disparate topics together – Janet Jackson, Islamophobia, the bitchiness of New York’s gay hook up scene, America’s collective historical amnesia, farting on planes – to form a cohesive whole. Take this passage, which begins with terrorism and ends on fad diets without missing a beat:
Extinction wipes words from earth The only way to fight ISIS / is to wipe them from the face of the earth But I’m from a group / that others have tried to wipe from the face of the earth Had / reasons like yours – savages, bloodthirsty, inhuman – War / doesn’t work Anything simple is a ruse Life somehow earns its / complications Never just the night in question I’m not saying / gay men are bad I’m just saying I don’t like them They keep / saying they “are paleo now, bitch”.
It’s this sheer range of subject matter and influences – Pico cites both A.R. Ammons and Beyoncé as inspiration – that makes his work so compelling and hard to pin down. Is it a giant Tumblr post, an act of Native American political resistance, pop culture fan art, or all of the above?
In a time when “America wants its NDNs weary, slumped over the broken horse, spear sliding into the dry grass”, Pico serves “NDN joy NDN laughter NDN freedom” alongside the heartache, defying categorization. Don’t bother trying to fully understand or even savor Junk, just hungrily devour, pause, and do it all again.