Featured Essay: Jack Collom, “S w a m p F o r m a l i s m”

Our special three-part series on the work of Jack Collom concludes with an essay and poem from his latest book, Second Nature, now available from Instance Press. We would once again like to thank Elizabeth Robinson for sharing Jack’s work and legacy with OmniVerse.

S w a m p F o r m a l i s m

“Eco-ethos-eros.” What we’re in the middle of, what we think about it,
what we feel about it. Lots to talk about.

I’m going to try to recite a personal thought-process.

In the early 1940s, when I was 13, I read about a situation on the Kaibab
Plateau, north rim of the Grand Canyon. The wolves and cougars had been
shot off; hence the deer multiplied; thus the browse and vegetative cover was
largely destroyed; therefore the starving deer sickened and died; ergo not much
nature left, on the surface anyway.

I’ve been a Balance-of-Nature fan ever since.

So: due to either a moralistic or selfish-greedy, or both, elimination of
predators, the balance of nature was locally wrecked. The world is dotted like
a dense pox with such stories, large and small. And they interweave.

Let me pause here and remark that some citizens have declared the Balance
of Nature invalid. That’s B.S., and pernicious. Nature doesn’t maintain a pure,
unchanging, even-keel balance; it’s an upsy-downsy, propulsive, real balance.

Experiencing Nature as a dynamic balance, embracing contradictions,
one is naturally led to such a concept as Swamp Formalism. A mindset that
unifies liquidity and detail. This metaphor came to me about 20 years ago.
Partly, I wanted to be just to Nature. In the swamp, there’s, apparently, a living
disjunct between soupiness and precision. Historically, humankind has used
such apparent binaries to condemn much of nature as sloppy, and has set out
to improve it, make it more orderly, when it’s really been subjective human
phenomenological inadequacies and distortions that have created “slop.”
Compounded by the hubris that claims exactitude as a property of the human,
examining mind. Pythagoras was wonderful—especially for saying, “Everything
is alive!”—but his discoveries were approximations in a greater, subtler reality
than he or anyone could imagine. Nature is just not sloppy. Judgment is. Our
environment is a great ocean on which we happen to ride like a handful of
colossally egocentric bubbles. We’ve applied our tinhorn absolutisms to a
much bigger Sea than we can see into. The insights of Chaos Theory can help
us realize the exactitudes that exist and function in scales other than the scale
of our normal perceptions. Bigger and smaller. It’s the fractal approach. At the
molecular level, and at every scale, the swamp is precise. It’s just too complex
for our understanding. With a just appreciation, with knowledge, we can work
and play with Nature (the rest of Nature). Swamp Formalism. With a spit-andpolish
morality and a grid aesthetic, we can only abuse it.

The secret of Chaos Theory is: “Little things mean a lot.” Eros has always
known this.

Historically, we’ve drained swamps wholesale—destroying concentrations
of biodiversity, along with those twin sources of life: dirt and water. Then
we’ve brought dirt and water in artificially, depleting the larger sources and
poisoning the plate. We’ve turned fields into lawns, jungles into parks, prairies
into dustbowls, and, with short-sighted greed playing a larger part, Earth
into a lunchbox, with our name on it. We evolved for immediacy, so that
greed—you could even say “desire”—overpowers our scanty sense of time.
And our cleverness pushes destructive technologies along time’s road ahead of
us a thousand times faster and stronger than it pushes philosophy into any sense
of future.

I think we needn’t abolish closure, absolutism, labels, certainty and the
like; we “must” (beware of that word) simply include them in a greater show
and flow. And if that slightly emasculates those tight qualities, let it be so.

But more and more, in recent years, the cries of the ecologists and the
songs of the creative writers have reached…more ears. Partly, this is because
the world situation is more obviously desperate. But public opinion forms its
own swamps, not all of them life-giving. Being composed of opinion, they
don’t necessarily have the precise working fractal depths a real swamp does.
They may fall short of Swamp Formalism.

Another reason I like Swamp Formalism is that it’s an exciting approach
to poetic composition: it evokes the complications, multiplies the axes,
introduces numerous slant vectors, sifts and strews miscellany. Helps us
appreciate varied doses of time. And, everything circles around:

Perhaps via the springboard of composition, various Beethoven’s 9ths,
Gertrude Stein syntax, Rembrandts and Pollocks, special acts and tones of
kindness, loving work, even some organization, we can evolve a communal
philosophy, with arms that reach as far along the path as tech already does, a
workable balance.

I don’t know. If disaster is the only way the planet can keep a larger balance
going, let it be. The viruses will survive, and the bacteria will start over.


B a c k t o B a s i c s

Out birding with Merrill
this morn; windy so
we went for the McClintock

rather than Boulder Valley Ranch (the plan),
noted some Chautauqua chickadees, didn’t
bother to see if they were

Mountain or regular, & also
decided McClintock path looked too icy so
we went up the (though also icy) road

that circles around east—eventually passed the tree
I always think of as great
horned owl spot, nothing there, kept on slogging up (I’m
          getting slower by the month)

finally to Mesa Trail cutoff heading over
toward Bluebell Canyon Shelter
House (boomp! I fall down) talking about
Sophocles, the NBA, sickness & death
(beautiful walk), and
I suddenly realize we haven’t
identified a single bird—great!
I wanna set a record, be perfect

down from Bluebell there’s
something in a faraway bush Merrill
says moves like a solitaire, I say:

could be a towhee though, and we turn off,
descend through the cottage area where
there’s an indubitable magpie standing

about 20 feet in front of us
could be a yellow-billed, says Merrill

black & white aren’t real, I submit

we climb in the car & disappear


collomJack Collom was born in Chicago in 1931. Jack has had 24 books of poetry (including chapbooks) published. He’s been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry, and a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, plus many other grants for magazine and book production and, especially, work with children. His books on leading children into producing excellent creative writing are: Poetry Everywhere (with Sheryl Noethe), Moving Windows, and A Slow Flash of Light, all published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative, New York. He has given readings widely throughout the United States and sometimes beyond. He continues to write experimental and nature poetry abundantly.