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Transforming Nature with Tommy Pico

This week, as the fifth in a five-part series of blog posts on poems that approach nature, Carl Phillips explores an excerpt of a book-length poem by Tommy Pico.

from Nature Poem

This white guy asks do I feel more connected to nature
bc I’m NDN
asks did I live like in a regular house
growing up on the rez
or something more salt
of the earth, something reedy
says it’s hot do I have any rain

When I express frustration, he says what? He says I’m just asking as if
being earnest somehow absolves him from being fucked up.

It does not.

He says I can’t win with you
because he already did
because he always will
because he could write a nature
poem, or anything he wants, he doesn’t understand

why I can’t write a fucking nature

Later when he is fucking
me I bite him on the cheek draw
blood I reify savage lust

—Tommy Pico
Nature Poem, Tin House Books, 2017

If a history of racial atrocity makes of nature a fraught space for African Americans, stereotypes about a culture’s relationship to nature present different challenges for the Native American. This is a major undercurrent throughout Pico’s book-length, many-sectioned Nature Poem, near the very beginning of which he says quite clearly: “I can’t write a nature poem/bc it’s fodder for the noble savage/narrative.” What Pico goes on to suggest is that a general truth about Native American cultures—namely, a shared understanding of the natural world as spiritual, animated by spirit, and as a space to which we humans, as part of it, owe respect—gets twisted into stereotype, and reduces a people—and its literature—to a handful of ‘acceptable’ behaviors.

In this particular excerpt, Pico, who is also queer, presents us with a conversation between two men before they end up having sex. I say conversation, and the patterning of the first five stanzas suggests that: the white man asks a question, the Native American responds. This happens three times, the pattern recalling that of call-and-response in field songs. But I notice that the Native American never has any actual dialogue. We hear the white man’s italicized speech, then we get the Native American’s non-verbal, largely interior response. So, just at the level of prosody—there’s a meaningful tension between outward form and the content that the form contains—Pico suggests an apparent equality of back and forth, but the conversation—confrontation, really—is one-sided.

Only the white man has voice, though it is interesting to consider that Pico is the one who, as the writer of the poem, grants him voice, and suppresses his own; does he mean to suggest something of how the marginalized tend toward self-loathing, and to reinforcing a power imbalance of which they are the victims? I think so. I think this may be why Pico acknowledges (different from accepting) the white man’s ability and right to write a nature poem, while the Native American tells himself “I can’t write a fucking nature/poem,” not because he doesn’t want to, but because overcoming the expectations of a stereotyping audience feels overwhelming, insurmountable.

The reduction of a respect for nature to stereotype is one of the transformations at work here; another is the turning of stereotype to fetish, a movement that seems all the more painful because of its queer context: shouldn’t being an outsider and a victim of stereotyping, especially sexual stereotyping, make one less likely to perpetuate that kind of thing? As we’ve seen, though, in Pico’s showcasing of the white voice and suppression of the Native American voice, alas, no. So here the white man sees rain ceremonies as sexual turn-on. Likewise, presumably, the idea of a savage, noble or otherwise. What does it mean, though, when the Native American speaker of Pico’s poem says, at the end, “I reify savage lust”—that he simply does, or he chooses to, or is forced by white expectation to perform the role assigned him? That last stanza, by the way, is the single instance where the two men are on an equal plane—a non-verbal, sexual one. As if sex were the one space where equality might figure, where bodies are merely doing what they do—by nature. But even this equality is a troubled one. White sex = fucking. Native American sex = reification of savage lust, which makes it something better, or worse? If it’s the performance of a racial stereotype, it feels somehow worse, more potentially self-demeaning. Etymologically, though, “fucking” derives from Anglo-Saxon, whereas “reify” is Latinate, from the word bank usually considered more complex, more sophisticated (by whom, though? Does the speaker buy into an idea of hierarchy, when it comes to language, an idea whose origin is white and European?). Never mind the positions of the two men at poem’s end. Who’s on top?

This blog post is based on Foliage & Pattern, a talk Phillips gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Carl Phillips is the author of 14 books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (2018). Other books include The Tether, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His prose books are The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004), and he has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes (2004). He is a professor in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Posted In: Close Readings