Tommy Pico’s debut book, IRL (Birds LLC, 2016), is an origin story rooted in epic tradition and a long-form poem that unfurls as a hyperconfessional scroll. Confronting legacies of colonial trauma, it inscribes an identity in “a post-apocalyptic America / that started 1492.” Pico’s speaker, Teebs, is an alter ego à la Sasha Fierce, navigating his experience as a queer Kumeyaay Indian alienated from his ancestral language, religion, and history. The personal is always political, but rarely is it treated with such deft humor. Sharp, successive pratfalls land us firmly in tragicomic moments, so that even as Teebs mourns a cultural inheritance marred by loss, there is play—or rather play is employed to access that mourning. Despite its precision and proliferation of wit, it would be a mistake to frame IRL as light. If anything, levity is patched in cyclically, as an insistent refrain. “I am a pattern maker,” Pico writes, and then elsewhere:
We play word games every day. In this analogy I am the Earth, my dad is the ozone layer, and the Sun is the United States. He deflects most of the harmful rays. Me n mama play hot potato with English— Quick, name all the words you know that start with M!!!— mom, monday, mmmy… butt?
Throughout the book, he addresses these harmful rays emanating from the United States, which include capitalism, suicide, metabolic disease, team mascots, cultural erasure, and the dominion of English itself—the very language the poet must use for rebuttal. Pico takes aim in all available registers, demotic slang and Oxford English alike. He writes, “Dictionary is kind of a blast / of chill air. Language is living / history class, like you n me, / conquest hardwired / into lingua franca.” The individual is located in a blur of high and low, where popular and traditional cultures unite in a public voice capable of critiquing hegemony both obliquely and overtly, from inside and out. The poem finds its continuity through associative heteroglossia, with influences running the gamut from Susan Sontag to Sonic the Hedgehog. Pico shifts focus with strobe-lit rhythm. The chaotic immediacy of the Internet comes through in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness rush. The effect is expansive, obliterating any binaries.
Winking at epic invocation, Teebs crushes on Muse, a character who is a “sun of answers,” “a heavenly body,” and an alluringly aloof text messager who gets him on his “pen game.” But this could-be love story meets with violent interruptions: “conquerors / invade the narrative n just mow / the whole thing.” Strangers spit at Teebs for his queerness, yet the poem asserts a kind of power in being so reviled. Undaunted, Pico wants America to know “who is still dying for its sins.” When we first meet Teebs, he’s living in relative isolation, across the continent from the Kumeyaay reservation where he grew up. He finds virtue in the privacy and pleasure in urban seclusion, confident that “ignoring each other is merciful / for everyone” and claiming, “I am so good at being Alone. / All I need is my phone.” But when his friends post about suicide, the long arms of the Internet pull him back, and he is forced to account for “How much NDN carries / with you if you leave.”
Thus IRL becomes an identity quest, with Teebs searching for himself “in-between / Kumeyaay and Brooklyn,” as well as in the liminal space between so-called real and Internet life. These boundaries prove porous, as internal discoveries spill into text messages, status updates, Instagram posts, and tweets. Formally mimicking an infinite online scroll, IRL highlights the tension between private and public writing, examining the role of the Internet in the way we present our personal experiences for public consumption. Charged with controlling his own narrative, Teebs refuses to withhold indigenous stories more traumatic than those typically exhibited behind museum glass. He observes his audience’s selective interest in the light fare privileged by dominant culture, which sees itself as “basically doing you a favor. / You don’t want your / stories wiped out / when you are.” Paternalistic condescension notwithstanding, Teebs struggles with the parts of his ancestral story that have been erased without consent, fragments irrevocably colonized and consumed. Indeed, the gaps in his culture’s oral history, systematically eradicated through violence and legislation, expose the limits of the Internet’s supposed omniscience.
He sits alone with knowledge he cannot access:
Kumeyaays knew a rounded Earth based on the curve of stars or didn’t, I’ll never know. It’s a dark part inside me.
Yet Pico takes the text beyond the elegiac, filling in these dark parts with vitality, and suggesting that poetry can function as a bridge to an essential self. In its magpie-integration of Internet lingo, slang, and more formal English, IRL achieves a synthesis that may relieve some of the identity-driven anxiety it depicts. Teebs clips his hair short in mourning for the things he’ll never know, but he grows his poems long instead. He writes a fresh foundation, moving beyond identity and into a new ceremony: the poem itself.