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May 17, 2017

Book Notes - Tommy Pico "Nature Poem"

Nature Poem

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tommy Pico's Nature Poem is a startling and thought-provoking examination of identity.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Pico centers his second book-length poem on the trap of conforming to identity stereotypes as he ponders his reluctance to write about nature as a Native American . . . In making the subliminal overt, Pico reclaims power by calling out microaggressions and drawing attention to himself in the face of oppression."


In his own words, here is Tommy Pico's Book Notes music playlist for his short poetry collection Nature Poem:



To say that the terrain of my latest book-length poem Nature Poem was inspired by a landscape of popular music is an understatement. There is a whole page dedicated to the dissemination of "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman. There are multiple references to Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, and Beyoncé. There are LITERAL direct quotes from Guns N' Roses & Sade. Here is a partial list of the songs invoked by Nature Poem, and the page on which they were divined. Oh plus a bonus song because I'm a brat.

1. Guns n Roses – Welcome to the Jungle (pg 12)

Comparing the city to a dense and almost impenetrable wilderness is so on brand for Nature Poem that this song absolutely has to commence this playlist. I used "Welcome to the Jungle" to discuss colony collapse disorder and the disappearing bees, NBD, but in a broader sense a question at the bottom of the book is: what is "nature," and "natural"? It's a reconciliation of being from a small Indian reservation in the middle of nowhere, but living in the biggest urban jungle in America. Knees, knees, bb.

2. Amy Winehouse – Love is a Losing Game (pg 14)

Another obsession of the book is wondering if romantic love is futile, so Amy's rendering of it via gambling made a lot of sense to me. On this page in particular, the narrator likens her performance of "Love is a Losing Game" at the Mercury Prize in 2007 to literal magic: "Blue breath breakin on a voice is the kind of magic that makes people believe." Also lol I Googled the lyrics and whatever bot transcribed them turned "laughed at by the gods" to "laughter by the docks" and I actually like that a whole lot better.

3. Hole – Malibu (pg 19)

"Malibu" is another song that gets a whole page dissemination. It asserts that songs are spells, like poems, and being under them is a powerful experience. BUT: if the Amy Winehouse jam was describing the futility of romantic love, in a way "Malibu" is addressing the futility of art. Imagine casting a spell to try to get your famous lover into rehab, or to get someone to love you or whatever, creating a divine hook and all that, but ultimately failing to move them. Also the song is just pretty ok?

4. Aretha Franklin – Don't Play That Song (pg 34)

@heyteebs and @AngelNafis discuss her holiness Aretha Franklin on Twitter, going through a list of the songs that make them feel, as @AngelNafis says, "more river than a river." I chose "Don't Play That Song" for this playlist because like a lot of the other songs on here it references the reflective power of art over our squishy brain things. Specifically here, it's that a song reminds her about an ex-lover. First off singing a song about a song makes me feel like one of those magic eye puzzles, and secondly another obsession of the book is how we make meaning from the "natural" world based on our associations we have with it. Red becoming a color of danger, for example. Also if you would like to know how magic sounds, please watch this video of her singing it live in 1970 because good god.

5. Al Green – Love and Happiness (pg 41)

I use Al and Bey on page 41 to talk about songs that, when they come on, demand my total and undivided attention for their duration please hold on a minute I'll get right back to you sorry stop talking cos I can't hear you anymore. I have been in the middle of a discussion with my bff when the beginning of Love and Happiness comes on, and what makes her my bff is we both gave each other that look like, "give me three and a half minutes and we will continue where we left off."

6. Beyoncé – Mine (pg 41)

It's no secret that Beyoncé is all about control, and one of the things I loved about the self-titled album was it's awareness not only of this, but also the fallacy of control. It comes up a lot in Nature Poem. To me "Rocket" is a song about reconciliation, about coming together with a lover and "making" love: a perfect, gravity defying miracle of human engineering that can reach the stars. I think "Mine" is about miscarriage—"not feeling like myself since the baby"—an understanding that you can do everything "perfect" and have a "perfect" career and the "perfect" life and your body remains unpredictable. This trifecta ends in "XO," which begins with audio after the Challenger explosion, a recognition that even the perfect rocket can explode.

7. The Shirelles – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (pg 46)

Speaking of unpredictability, how freaking human is it to wonder if the person you went to bed with will be the person you wake up next to. The Shirelles come into Nature Poem at a moment when the narrator is reflecting on being from an Indian reservation and feeling like he has to play cultural catch-up in the city. That everyone seems to just know about the Shirelles and the Whitney Museum and roth IRAs, and all he has is this crushing generational trauma. lol.

8. Cher – Half Breed (pg 50)

L to the O to the L for reals, just go to Google play and read the lyrics.

9. David Bowie – Space Oddity (pg 61)

"Space Oddity" is invoked when the narrator reflects on his experience leaving the reservation and feeling like he's "far beyond the moon." Major Tom leaves Earth but he "thinks [his] spaceship knows which way to go." This is perhaps the first time the narrator suspects that he might be on the right path. Fun fact! I think the spiritual successor to this song is "Sound & Color" by the Alabama Shakes, because if "Space Oddity" is the search for new life, "Sound & Color" begins at the destination: "A new world hangs outside the window: beautiful and strange."

10. Tracy Chapman – Fast Car (pg 69)

You can fight me but "Fast Car" by Tracy motherfucking Chapman is the greatest song in human history. I love how the phrase "You got a fast car" stays the same but changes meaning. It goes from a kind of plea, to perhaps a diversion, to a solemn repudiation. It's effing deep. It's cyclical nature, from the perspective of a person escaping an alcoholic father only to land in a relationship with an alcoholic, describes a "two steps forward/one step back" situation. While the dude ends up being a mess, the narrator realizes she doesn't have to stay with him. Get in your fast car and go. Don't let the pavement hit yr butt on the way down the road. The narrator of Nature Poem realizes, in all its complications, the reservation will be with him wherever he goes.

11. the Knife – Heartbeats (bonus)

While this song isn't actually referenced in Nature Poem, "Heartbeats" underlies a lot of the discussion of god, religion, and spirituality the book addresses. The song references the necessity of human connection, and that "to call for hands of above to lean on wouldn't be good enough for me." My narrator shows a similar suspicion with the idea of a personified god, though one of the reasons he doesn't like nature is that it makes him suspect that a god of sorts exists.


Tommy Pico and Nature Poem links:

excerpt from the book
the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Brooklyn magazine review
Ploughshares review
Publishers Weekly review

BookCulture interview with the author
New Yorker profile of the author
Out interview with the author
Poetry Foundation interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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