reviewed by Brian Clifton
“I text Girard,” is how Tommy Pico’s IRL begins. The action seems inconsequential at first—perhaps just a means to start the sprawling, non-linear narrative that is this book length poem—, but as the text unfolds, this action becomes more and more rooted in the conceptual concerns of IRL. Pico’s debut poetry collection doesn’t so much examine the intersection of our digital and physical worlds as it embodies the gymnastics we ask our identities to perform as we move from real life friends of friends to Tumblr personality to Grindr photo (and all the accounts in between).
Yet these gymnastics seem minor in comparison to the crux of IRL, namely the inability for Teebs (the book’s speaker) to connect with Muse (a seemingly abstracted version of the men that come and go through Teebs’s life). Early in the book, Teebs says ‘There’s my body,/ and then there’s your body—/ basically the plot/ of every Beyoncé song.” And this separated-ness guides the book both through the labyrinthine corridors our physical bodies use to connect with our digital personae and how we ourselves connect with others around us.
Throughout IRL, Pico shows that these two concerns are interconnected. How we interact with those around us reflects on how our various personae come together within our physical bodies. Teebs’s life is a seemingly constant feedback loop in which his digital presence and physical presence mold and react to each other. Teebs asks,
Leaving yr status up to the feed, open to the scroll, who do you want knowing you r suicidal? the obvi answer is every- body.
And later in the text, Teebs introduces himself to a person by listing the many digital ways their paths could have crossed (“I saw yr Tumblr/ I oh God was it Grindr sorry/ I drink a lot”). Both these moments in IRL betray a desire for singularity, for a completely integrated existence. Yet, Teebs’s life remains demarcated, a series of discrete bytes.
“What I mean/ is guard yourself. Erect/ fences. Crop a mound/ onto the bald land,” Teebs confesses towards the end of the text. And this desire to remain sectioned off, to be NDN and queer and a New York transplant and a writer rather than a confluence of these facets ultimately undermines Teebs’s goal of being with Muse (whose identity from the start of IRL to its last lines shifts from lover to personal goal and back again). Both in terms of structure and narrative, Teebs is on the Kumeyaay rez and in Brooklyn. These two physical locations are held up simultaneously and without preference or connection, radicalizing the extremes of Teebs’s identities. And these two extremes seemingly cause distress throughout Teebs’s time in IRL—as the book’s speaker struggles to keep his narratives and personae in check.
That said, all the identity subterfuge Teebs uses (“First conversations/ are ideal. You can/ be anyone/ for a few hours”) seems to be both a way to approach the world and a means of living imposed by that world (“Yr a garbage/ person if you can’t/ take a good photo/ is the underlying mess/-age of ‘gay’ ‘culture’”). Whether it comes by over exertion (running “30 miles a week”) to maintain a specific body type or by meticulously curating a digital persona (“I have Grindr and clean/ water, once believed in God/ and comment boards”), Teebs’s shifting interests and ways of presenting himself causes internal disintegration and a more and more fragmented self. Towards the end of IRL, Teebs’s inconsistencies threaten to unmoor the book’s speaker. It is as if the poem argues for a sense of truthfulness to oneself (and thereby the presentation of oneself) even as its speaker refuses to do so.
But how does one reconcile the “garbage person” one might be with the Beyoncé song one is? How does one realize their “dubious relationship ‘with facts’” truthfully and fully? The answer in IRL, oddly enough, seems to come from that which isn’t in real life, namely through the data that our social media presence aggregates.
IRL turns sharply in its final four pages. The section begins. “Is this ad relevant to you?/ We would like to enhance/ your ad watching ex-/ perience.” This bit of internet ephemera gives way to the confluence of identities that have been shown in brief throughout IRL. The ad forces Teebs to address his inconsistencies, to reconcile them in light of data-driven “facts.” Suddenly, Teebs is both New York transplant and NDN (“I’m NDN n doing/ this thing.”), both queer and poet—no longer are these selves separated. Through this integration of selves, Teebs gets a taste of Muse—DMing a crush on Instagram and ultimately rushing off to meet that person in real life.
Bookended by texts, IRL exists primarily in what is in between: the journey required to meet a lover, the distance between parts of self, the physical connections that are rooted in the digital world (and vice versa). It is this back and forth between beginnings and ends, between action and consequence that gives IRL its life. If “There’s my body,/ and then there’s your body—/ basically the plot/ of every Beyoncé song,” can be thought of as IRL’s thesis (and the fragmentation of self that follows, its antithesis), then “In Kumeyaay/ there’s a concept for in-/ between. Not knowing/ how to smile, how you look/ bent over a book” might be considered its synthesis.
Pico structures his book length poem so that the true persona (perhaps the Muse persona) will always develop. Peeking through our Instagram filters, our news feed, our dating apps, our true selves wait. In IRL, Teebs finds a way to be faithful to all his selves and thus free them from isolation. And so, it seems, IRL argues that it is the individual’s duty to unite their seemingly disjointed facets into a complete whole. Once that is done, Muse will text, and we can :-) :-) :-).