Among the things that get eaten in Tommy Pico’s Feed: limes, smoked salmon, strawberry cake, tamales, deep fried rice, honey-flavored THC candies, flour tortilla, corn tortilla, sushi rolls, beef, scrambled eggs in chili sauce, peach gummies, edibles, frothy hot chocolate, crispy roasted grasshoppers, a communion wafer, leeks, “money, money, money,” asparagus, macaroni, Baja fish tacos, an orange, “tomato mozz” breakfast sandwiches, sub sandwiches, a whole medium pizza. It is no surprise then, among all this chewing and swallowing and lip-smacking, that we are admonished to be careful:

Being protective
of yr recipes is only natural. Things get stolen.

Things get stolen. Land, hearts, histories, futures, snacks. The fourth of Pico’s ‘Teebs tetralogy’—following IRL, Nature Poem, and JunkFeed (Tin House Books) is a confessional, stream-of-consciousness book-length poem about spring in New York, a “poem of nourishment” for some of its main characters: Teebs, Wilkes, and Leo.

Feed is a buoyant poem, one that meets its readers at the locus of their lives, days spent, in large part, searching for, preparing, consuming, and recovering from food. That’s not to say it isn’t filled with its share of blistering cultural criticism—Teebs is “tall and BITTER” and prone to “gutter sluttery” after all, and his words are deeply affecting, the pain coming unannounced and with startling speed, then lingering.

Often vulgar and funny, Pico’s poems emphasize the queer and decolonial dimensions of his various friendships, hookups, and relationships while living in New York. Pico’s confessional style is a summons and it’s easy to feel enamored, to want to be his friend, to be part of his life. But this a consumption politic of the highest order, one that Pico subversively likens to the “thrill of the chase” to possess others, a “loneliness” informing an essentially colonial drive.

So instead, assume a writerly distance. I am reading this in San Francisco, after moving my sister into college. And, naturally, Teebs has thoughts:

Don’t fuck
with those boys
in San Francisco, they’re all vers tops until the red light
comes
on

This humor is partly a coping mechanism, partly a voice in all of Pico’s poetry. Nature Poem examines the essentializing ways Indigeneity is represented in relation to the environment, while IRL tackles its online imperative. And if Junk deals in part with the murder and displacement that the modern city was founded on, then Feed interrogates the brazenness of that founding impulse:

and the lol “president”
says “we” “tamed” “the” “continent” and “we” “aren’t” “apologizing”
“for” “America”
and murdered and missing indigenous women never
ever
ever
ever
ever
ever
[…]

That the story of murdered and missing Indigenous women receives a cursory handwringing in modern political language is immaterial; Pico drives a stake through our reconciliation mythologies—“Reconcile: / to cause / a person / to accept or to be resigned to something not desired.”

There are, of course, various other cross-sectional themes throughout Pico’s poetry—Junk and Feed both feature their narrator Googling science facts, mulling over musical lyrics, blinking through apocalyptic warnings about current events. And Junk itself also begins with feeding: “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.”

While it employs similar motifs, and the same acerbic wit, Feed is less structurally rigid than Junk (which is written in couplets), opting instead to deepen its exploration of ‘consumption’ and the multi-poem framework Pico is building—one in which we can no longer claim to be “surprised that genocide is an excuse to unfurl America’s shameless gorging.”

Central to this consumption metaphor is land. To Pico, the expropriation and degradation of land, of our environment, are part of the larger genocidal impulse. In an unprompted news release, we are told, “78 MILLION ACRES OF OUR OCEANS OPENED UP FOR OFFSHORE DRILLING,” the capitalist system feeding off the earth. He continues:

Like anyone whose culture has been scrubbed
from history, you can scrub my apple crumble
But you can never scrub my hunger

This experience of erasure, of land theft and reanimation and loss, scars the history of first peoples all around the world, whether they be Native Americans, First Nations people, the Palestinians, the Yasidis, the Uighurs. What Pico adds is the context in which the products of stolen land are repurposed for further injustice:

I don’t have a food history.
If the dish is, “subjugate an indigenous population,” here’s an ingredient of the roux:
alienate us from our traditional ways of gathering and cooking food.

Food is depicted as a site of community-building, of pleasure, but for the Indigenous peoples faced with a North American colonial project, food was, and is, weaponized, its scarcity used as a tool of ethnic cleansing. As an NDN from the Kumeyaay nation, Pico is intimately aware of his people’s history, and highlights the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), used by the American government as a form of ‘redistribution’ to Indigenous communities—a gathering of crumbs from the stolen breadbasket of the San Diego river. Pico traces the interconnectedness of the displacement, appropriation, starvation, control, and capitalist force-feeding endured by his people:

The powdered milk, worms in the oatmeal, corn syrupy
canned peaches. Food stripped of its nutrients. Then came the sugar
blood. The sickness. The glucose meter goes up and up and up.

In this way, food stripped of its cultural context becomes a marker of subjugation, and later, addiction and ill health.

*

Pico is really good at capturing the lives of young people in his poetry, all the realness and messiness of relationships on vivid display. Realistically, this means there is a lot of sex in Feed:

But what If I do wanna find the heat with somebody?

Whitney’s on the pages here, and Teebs is playing with fire. And though he says he is resentful of “all those disgusting people in the Myspace / days with the profile headline MUSIC / IS MY BOYFRIEND,” music remains a muse for Teebs throughout. With the poem loosely structured around a track listing of different songs—I imagine it to be a playlist shuffled while cooking—readers are given insight into Teebs’s state of mind through a roster that includes Beyoncé, Aaliyah, 10cc, and Salt-N-Pepa.

In some ways, this is poetry as pop song, the same musicians he so casually references are mined for biographical insight, their lyrics developing into a clear intentionality with the poem’s themes. Heat, Pico quotes Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, “is a vital broker between separate things.”

Structurally, Feed also uses the aforementioned news releases—which range from mass shootings and police use of Amazon facial recognition technology, to Palestine and “Ben Affleck’s Massive Back Tattoo”—in order to punctuate the narrative. These blasts, often stylized in all caps, are intended to be jarring, but also searching. He writes:

and spent most of the day in bed with my eyes squeezed shut—
everything all over the news feed and the names the names

Feed serves as a noun here, a retinue of ill omens that layer the cynicism, that add to our unease. Sure, there’s “nothing comforting like getting fucked on an empty stomach,” but for Pico, the discomfort is the point. His poetry has a quality of making words sound absurd; the repeated pings to which we have been desensitized become felt again, the food we consume becomes reconstructed in our mouths. Pico writes:

Every feed owes itself to death. Poetry is feed
to the horses within me.

If it is to be believed that feeding on something necessarily means the end of that thing, then a death impulse is baked into consumption. But we also “consume to continue,” and reading poetry must also nourish and translate.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there is a self-preservation at play here; Teebs tells us at the outset that he’s protective of his recipes, but also, near the midpoint of the poem, that “I am the recipe I protect.” That, in essence, he declares himself a recipe comprised of his culture and history and family is beautiful and conjuring. An Indigenous poet has to be protective of their recipes just as they need to be protective of their self, especially when erasure is the alternative, a death by categorization by non-Indigenous readers.

In essence, that act of reading, of buying NDN poetry, is an act of capitalist consumption, and Pico is forcing us to wonder where and when it becomes colonialism by another name. What does purveyance look like when “the perpetrator and the adjudicator are one and the same,” and can a review of displacement poetics by a non-Indigenous writer ever be liberatory?

I feel a similar pang when forced to confront the aesthetic politics that is so often thrown onto people of color, one that can hit the sweet spot for a white audience: disempowered agents levelled by colonialism, embracing their reality with good humor—sarcasm, even!—and talking about the transgressions of history just enough to remind us, without it hurting too much. In his Harper’s essay, Rabih Alameddine writes, “the writers who are allowed to talk are those who prop up the dominant culture, who reflect it with a gilded mirror” and that “when the story is truly threatening, the writer is marginalized, either deemed a ‘political’ writer or put in a box to be safely celebrated as some sort of ‘minority’ writer.” Pico succeeds, however, at not being pigeonholed, at refusing to repackage the trauma levelled on Indigenous bodies by the state. It feels like a reversal of this consumption, then, for us to buy his work, our money feeding his livelihood, giving him the freedom to write his words.

Often, Teebs’s dates throughout the poem occur over food or drink, a love doomed by the arrival of the cheque. I realized as I was reading that it’s easy to want these relationships to end, sadly even. That we’ve been programmed by literature to want—to expect—a universal tragedy of queer experience.

All this can leave a bitter taste in the reader’s mouth, a perception that food and feeding are irredeemable, fraught. But this is to miss the redemptive point: food also brings all the characters joy, brings humanity to a spring spent reeling from a broken relationship, a “suture for the loss of winter and the summer’s sweaty promises.” Teebs’s irony in the face of our isolation in the wider universe, coupled with his views on the trappings of modern dating often leaves our pessimism flipped on its head. And for Indigenous communities with an orientation towards equity and sharing, food becomes a communion in Pico’s poetry, a rejection of Western “paradigms of scarcity.”

And so, there is hope in food too, it’s “an assurance of appetite,” an assurance of a future where cooking and the people around it beget much-needed community. It is a healing, and: “I says to them around the table I says, I don’t have food stories. With / you, I say, I’m cooking new ones.”

***

 

Kaleem Hawa
Kaleem Hawa

Kaleem Hawa is a graduate student and Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

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