Redefining our Subject Object Relations: Junk, by Tommy Pico
Queering the archive means seeking alternate sources of evidence; it means focusing on undermining the heteronormative, racialized, cultural, and state processes that have only produced exclusion under the auspices of forming a “national identity.” Queering the archive means to call into question all origin narratives, and all identity premised on nation–building. It means axing ownership; it means owning up to our failure to do without. In short, it means survival, particularly in the face of a culture and a history that has done its best to dis–member you. In the face of oblivion, on the face of it, over its face, Tommy Pico’s bodily, breathless ode to Junk (Tin House Books, 2018) is not just about refusal—to quit, to die, to stop moving—but moreover, it is about looking, and growth, and the many ways we build our lives, from all the stuff we find and which finds us. “I’m building the/archive of a life that shouldn’t exist, while it still does . . .” Pico writes, toward the very edge of this sprawling book–length poem, when it gushes past the past, and opens up onto the possibilities outside the junk drawer, a spatial leitmotif that Pico uses throughout the seventy–two pages, ten couplets moving down the page to resemble our own hoard of forget–me–nots and forgottens, people and places and most of all, things, misplaced among a hoard of experience.
Pico’s third book moves with a velocity that reflects our own migratory passages, careening underground or through the clouds, or more than likely, flattening in all directions via our digital movements, a peregrination that becomes as promiscuous as it is performative. And as such, Pico populates Junk with self–conscious digressions, hyper–observant annotations, and critical come–ups, starting with the art community at large, and the accountability that’s effaced from public discourse, substituted with moral outrage and emoticon–mourning, and most of all, the desire to see it on a wall—“Everyone/wants to be loud and public and right/Whose grief/can piss the farthest”—a question or statement he returns to at the very end of this book, in tracing the earliest forms of writing to accounting. Junk, by contrast, is what eludes the eye, what goes unnoticed, what remains unaccountable, what demands to be counted–for.
too busy callin themselves “poets” to notice the canary died I have only ever gotten better at being my color, w/the banded
lines and the tremors and the blues The smell of pumpkin pie
cooling Chomping thru a whole baked brie wheel We go deep
& we don’t get no sleep
& we don’t get no sleepEveryone is reading The Life–Changing Magic of Tidying Up—basically an anti–junk manifesto but it
has a point You should be accountable to what you touch The sound of Styrofoam rubbing on Styrofoam Is it possible to
manifest desire I mean to consider yrself fly as fuck without another’s recognition . . .
What is at stake here is more than just mapping one’s territory of experience but learning to read one’s history, and in learning to read one’s history, resolving, as James Baldwin wrote, to step out of the book. Pico, hailing from the Viejas Indian Reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, negotiates the desire to be desired while alternately understanding that the most subversive move might be to dodge the grip of history altogether, to refuse what has been refused to you, and in doing so, to write yourself in to a new narrative.
happens approx every time I sign a rent check Philly sure likes to brandish its colonial history Maybe I’m just bitter some ppl
get to have history But for reals on some streets they keep the charming, archaic whale blubber burning oil lamp fixtures
which, no longer using oil, might seem obsolete Whose struc– ture points at a function we might no longer “get” I’ve never lit
a lamp myself “Knowing” changes with age Ppl give you credit to appreciate the junk Nod to a past you’d like to remember So
I will always keep Janet Miss Jackson If Yr Nasty in the poem If anything exists in 50 years I have faith in the future’s ability to . . .
What’s obsolete is a collective (or collection) of belonging that forgets one can be internally excluded (and eternally out–of-–place) even and especially within one’s own country. What’s obsolete is the idea that poetry—like all art—should be timeless. Pico vacillates whether or not to keep Janet Jackson in the poem for a half–dozen pages before ultimately acknowledging that dating your work (in every sense of the word) is the point. After all, he later writes, “What/concern is permanence to the poem.” And yet, while Pico maintains faith in future generations’ ability to Google pop culture ephemera, he also confesses the certain insecurity any artist feels in the age–of–unearthing and Search Engine Optimization: the trajectory of our whole work—our whole worth—on display, a global visibility that collapses temporal borders too. “… all/our lives we are the wavelengths of light who escape the negative/space Urge toward sunset scattered roadways, morning haze,/and the gusting forward of time . . .” Pico writes, revisiting his earlier self, and allowing us to tour before self–deprecatingly declaring, “Oh shut the fuck up Voices/change How dare you tether me to lines I wrote in like 2009.”
Then again, the flow of couplets could also resemble a newsfeed, scrolling down the page, the things we see and even show off to others but hardly ever engage with—Junk isn’t what can’t be seen it’s what we aren’t seeing. And like Pico’s own poetry, the thoughts that bleed into one another or curtail completely as if to valorize not just all words but even the words we haven’t yet thought of&mash;junk, un–productive (unproduceable) trinkets of our sub–psyche—the book grapples with the desire to negate itself among the noise, violence, and heartache of a generation past and one that is still passing, the night that is “Never just the night in question” as Pico so often reminds us, the scar tissue but also the self–validation beneath it, which takes time but also the honesty and courage to take a look. Like any good artist, Pico knows it’s the object itself, the poem, the book, which guides its author. How to go on in 2018 except to allow the poem to move you, and in moving you, Pico seems to say, to show you a way out:
everything simultaneously Just because I’m not in public
mourning doesn’t mean I’m not w/grief Mourning sickness
First things first: get out of bed Another black man shot by
police Another missing woman in Indian country Another trans
person discovered by the roadside Another mass shooting They
pile like stones and overtake the poem Resist wanting to burn it
. . .
Pitable/Embrace the pivot & plow . . .
And Junk pivots; it’s all it does, turning, mounting, on one leg—as if to show off—self–reproducing, making itself pivotal; moving so that it can remark on its own rapid passage through space, time, and the translation of self through our location settings. Pico evades periods except in a sequence conflating blood scrubbed from Paris city streets and the weak vodka cranberries running deep a day before—“Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.”—a survival strategy that has less to do with our compulsion for now–ness and more to do with understanding and empathy and the ways in which everything that passes through us—everything we’ve passed and passed on—changes who we are. Motion, velocity, acceleration, again and again, and if it’s true that Pico is “only interested in writing as long as you want/to read in one sitting” then he’s also disclosing the details of the text’s many different arrivals. “Best thing abt/leaving town . . .” Pico writes, “is the poem suddenly comes differently—as if it/needs a kind of obscurity in order to really be seen Hindsight,/for example Sight becomes a craft of memory Memory—the/fantasy that actually happened . . .”
It’s no surprise that Junk opens inside the dark of the cinema—“. . . the lights go low across the multiplex”—because if pop culture and celebrity provide the backdrop through a junk–darkly, the culture of celebration that greases capital flow and makes possible our consumer–ideal lifestyle is the same one at work in preventing the passage of bodies in our culture of walls, borders, centers, camps, and the people inside or those that are still moving, uprooted for labor exploitation and the extraction of resources required for our present fantasies to be both real and ultimately, realized. “. . .There is something sick,” Pico writes, “abt/accusing an NDN of bein an illegal immigrant And something/sick about the phrase “border patrol,” and “illegal immigrant …” and earlier, ”Who built the railroads Who picks/the crops Who delivers yr egg bagel on a rainy day . . .” Junk is a reminder that our present lifestyle is only made possible by the people we have systematically disappeared or made invisible, and in this way, Junk becomes a mirror, too, a way to grasp our own complicity—poets, workers, producers, citizens—in these everyday processes of dehumanization. Ultimately, as the poem moves through heartbreak and breakdown, it shows us the freedom “from use for the sake of use/An affection for just being, a new kind of/worth outside of the object . . .” Redefining our subject–object relations means redefining what it means to own anything in a world that is as hard to let go of as it is quick to abandon. Ownership, like timelessness, is antiquated in a world in which beauty is determined by its use–value; a world that puts a value on every body. To transcend time doesn’t mean to be timeless but to exist outside of circulation. “Revisiting death for/generations, I want to make the opposite of death …” Pico writes, right before the poem, finally, fades out to naked quiet, a phatic connection with another that doesn’t require seizing, touching, or even having to look.
Junk as accumulation and digression, junk as corrigenda and catalogue, fascination, and emotional validation, present revelation of the future end and grief and grief and grief (unreturnable returnable grief), junk as occupation and resistance, junk as immortality and the craft of memory, junk as break–up and breakdown, junk as broken and used and still usable, junk as affect and after effect, junk as self and self–acceptance. Junk might not be anything new—which, in fact, is the point—instead, Pico’s resistance to closure and disconnect is a reminder for us to open up.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland, and the author of the Internet is for real (C&R Press) and Drift (King Shot Press). His “Billboards” poem, a response to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world, was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid prose piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. He edits PANK, At Large, and Tupelo Quarterly and teaches Latino literature and creative writing at Pace University and Baruch College.