Featured Essay: Jack Collom

With many thanks to the generosity of Instance Press and Elizabeth Robinson, OmniVerse is excited to be able to celebrate the work of Jack Collom in our next three issues. Collom’s latest book, Second Nature, out at the end of 2012, is comprised of poetry and ecopoetics essays that Collom has written over the past twenty years. Collom considers this work as representing the culmination of his career as an indefatigueable poet, teacher, essayist, and advocate for a sane and balanced ecology. Indeed, Collom began teaching eco-lit classes at Naropa University over twenty years ago and has inspired countless students and colleagues to the necessity and vitality of ecopoetics. Collom’s introduction to Second Nature begins this series with OmniVerse and sets out Collom’s central ideas and concerns vis a vis ecopoetics. Next month, an interview with Collom will follow, and the series will conclude with another essay from Second Nature. OmniVerse is very grateful for the opportunity to share this material and engage with Collom’s important legacy.

Second Nature is available here from Small Press Distribution.

… the greatest amount of life can be
supported by great diversification of
—Charles Darwin, in The Origin of Species

Darwin was standing on a couple square feet of ground, good English turf,
looking down. The turf “supported twenty species of plants, and these
belonged to eighteen genera and to eight orders.”
I woke from a dream
of heart worms, my chest
seething with motion,
muscle oozing.
Was it the bloody turtle shell?
The glazed-over eyes?
I can’t wash my hands fast enough.
—Mary Crow, from “Iquitos Market”

I. Motivation aside, the rational excuse for this book is to provide some passage
to a developed sense of nature

A. so that nature can be thought of as breathtaking variety

1. of which we are but a tiny portion

a. (while simultaneously it may be looked at as generalized,
small, and even

B. unreal); thus our knowledge might blossom up and down a scale, as our
powers have blossomed and continue to blossom, since

1. it is the power/knowledge imbalance that’s dissolving life.

I remember sitting at the window of my parents’ bedroom in Western
Springs, Illinois, one day, World War II, just two or three years into birding,
seeing an immature chestnut-sided warbler come switching its way, feasting
on bugs, up an elm twig—almost to the glass! Ah, thrill of spectatorship! It
looked as perfect as a watch but twice as lively. Its colors were modest green
and gray, but what green and gray! At that moment, I think, I began to learn
subtlety. Which is not to disdain vividness but to include processual increments
as well (and also little acts and presences that don’t point somewhere).

Which reminds me, contrariwise, of the precise way I was flung most
conclusively over the apparent abyss between an adolescent sense of logical
causality and an appreciation of abstract expressionist painting. I was working
at a toilet paper factory in Seymour, Connecticut, and my job was to tend the
huge machine that made the basic paper. The bottom part of this behemoth
was a containment of “paper soup” circling and stirring about. In the center
a heated metal drum, about nine feet long and six feet in diameter, slowly
whirled in place, positioned on its side. The lower whirl of it dipped into
the “soup,” and instantly a thin paper scum formed on the hot metal. When
this scum moved up and out of the liquid, it dried quickly. Two feet up the
curvature of the drum, a “doctor blade” had been aligned and bolted into place,
from drum end to drum end. The paper was neatly scraped off, and, since
it had been hooked up already with a nine-foot roll of toilet paper winding
itself up about twelve feet away, the new paper sailed thither, drying more
completely as it flew. Every once in a while, with help, I’d flip the large roll
off its bed and replace it, in the same motion, with a wooden core for the next
roll. The Bunyanesque toilet roll would then be trundled to another part of
the mill, to be cut into handy human-size products and wrapped with various
brand names.

I got a lot of reading done between flips but would also prowl the machine
(which was as big as a house) looking for malfunctions and checking the “soup.”
The pay was $1.37 an hour.

While prowling, I’d notice the inevitable dried spillage outside the lower,
tank portion. This was the era of colored toilet paper (a festive exit from
the Eisenhower years?); we’d typically switch between green and blue and
orange and pink several times a night. So the dried by-product was a papier
maché concoction, abstractly concrete in both shape and hue. The colors
swirled, blurted, formed extreme irrational symphonies of themselves. I was
enchanted. And because it was an entirely natural process, I proceeded to feel
a certain ease about accepting, also, whatever experimental art could come
up with.

(Then, of course, I had to clean it up.)

I was already familiar, as a kid, with the adult plumage of the chestnutsided
warbler. It’s beautiful—a little more subdued than those of the Cape
May or the Blackburnian. Golden crown over a raggedy but distinct robber’s
mask which zags down white cheek to thin, bright fox-red line that in turn
runs along the side between dark (but double-wingbarred) wings and pale
underparts. A bird of brushy second-growth woods. Cock’s tail. Sings “Pleased
pleased pleased to MEETCHA.” One can think of it as related to the abstract

expressionists’ work, in regard to the impulses behind it: a few practical
necessities developed into a basic scheme (warbler, or framed canvas), then
aesthetics dynamically entwined with random play, enriched by feedback
loops (either of evolution or painting), perhaps in both cases developmentally
motivated by sexual display….

• • •

I’m emphasizing the play of nature and art. Criticism has, naturally,
emphasized the role of (human) intentionality, as if critical thought generates
nature and art.

This book is composed of poesie and prose about nature. The word
“nature”—well, even with galaxy-sized hands, one couldn’t throw them high
enough to express the appropriate discomfort with such a space-chameleon as
“nature.” Even worse, “about” appears to creep from word to thing like some
gelid predator.

Start again. “Writings about nature” may conjure up a certain (and/or
uncertain) set of assumptions, since every large phrase (indeed, every word)
in the world must wrestle its denotation with and against a vaporous but real
connotative spectrum. For example, one can define “fish” as “legless aquatic
vertebrate” (with just a few necessary elaborations), or one can speak of “The
Fish” as Elizabeth Bishop did in her famous poem:

“—the frightening gills
fresh and crisp with blood…
the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers…
the pink swim bladder
like a big peony.”

climaxing with:

“I looked into his eyes…
far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.”

(And within the music of, say, “shallower, and yellowed” “backed and packed,”
are the little white seeds of going way beyond description.)

“ @
Mulch seals. sound ripples down
Mulch guards. into the micro-
Mulch covers. plural beyond
Mulch retains.
@ ”

“Though lacking the advantages of gas-powered mulchers in his
rural English retreat, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1811 master aesthetic
treatise, the Biographia Literaria, nonetheless foreshadowed contemporary
mulching theory in its fundamental theoretical division between the
aesomplastic and desynonymous aesthetic modes. The latter involves
redeploying quasi-recognizable pieces of experience in the service of new
wholes. Daily life and literature are in this mode both broken into tiny,
usable units that are then fitted into an evolving scheme in which their
roles and functions have radically transformed.

While the aesomplastic writer also begins with such raw material, his
imaginative blade is faster and sharper and the result is a new, aesthetic
whole that bears no immediate relationship to its constituent parts.”

“The most immediate analog is between the metamorphic and the
igneous in geological terms; since the former involves sedimentary rocks
undergoing transformation through heat; while the igneous involves a
complete reconstitution of rock through extreme heat, a building from
the ground up, that can only be experienced after the lava has cooled.”

—Lytle Shaw, from “Mulch: A Treatise”

One can divide voice according to mood or purpose. “Pass the salt” and
Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” are both beautiful instances of language. The difference
between denotation and connotation seems to be at best a distinction between
one image (which either remains technical or becomes a cliché) and many
images (which remain confusing or become, ah, metonymy). But the history
of writing about our surroundings (and our interweavings with them) has not
usually been either precise or exploratory in terms of what a surrounding is.
It’s all-too-natural to deflate nature’s geometry via anthropocentric suckage.
Nature poetry has often become (though shamelessly generalized) a sort of
specialty (as if nature were a hobby, or an acquired taste).

If we try a horizontal kind of classification, nature writing has tended to
fall into just a few modes, like:

• Examination from Above, wherein a tweedy gentleman or bedizened
lady rhapsodizes with genteel aplomb, through a distance of air meant to
set up a comfy observational scale, about a rose, or other offering, as if
nature were a dog holding up a shot goose.

• Projection of Our Cultural Concerns on This Conveniently Blank Screen
That Nature Is. This includes Wolfman, Smokey the Bear, and a legion of
cute rodents, tweety-birds, etc., as well as Come-Live-With-Me-and-
Be-My-Love, Animal Farm, and many more talking pictures. Nature as
sandwich boards.

• Nature as a Horrid Test of Our Resolve. “Hell, we’ll beat down these
African locusts, Bill, do a little cloud-seeding, then head for Utopia

I don’t object to these as ancillary images; I just want to maintain the
energy of having options. I propose that, even when nature is complimented,
nature writings usually bespeak the assumption that nature is secondary
I further propose that even in writings more plainly sophisticated than
the projections caricatured above—in writings, say, like those of Frost or
Mary Oliver—the emphasis is on intellectual control of the writings (however
bucolically flavored). That is, it seems to be taken for granted in such writings
that language is above and mostly separate from its subject matter, that the
formal concerns of creative writing are not intimately, causally, viscerally
connected with their content, that there is such a geometry as “about” that
liberates the shapes above the writing line (above the threshold of the paper)
from those below it. In other words, that speech is not particularly, not
importantly, a physical act.

I further propose that such internalization of the Intentional Fallacy doth
continue into thee and me, that eternal vigilance is required to keep things
natural (although everything is natural). Hear ye! Hear ye! Once and for All,
the matter of Control is rather like Zeno’s arrow, which in effect stutter-steps
throughout eternity “until” it forestalls its own medium.

I propose that language should consider resembling nature.

John Ashbery writes a species of human nature. He’s inside it so he has
the right.

If we realize we’re inside nature, we can write it, meaning get beyond
(within) description. I mean, we do give “lip service” to being one with nature,
but we gotta give hip service (anatomy metonymy).

To that end, it’s necessary to recognize the everything-scope of nature,
and, at the same time, to contradict infinity with a universe of finites. I admit
this looks like “God,” but the trouble with God is it becomes human. Becomes
recognized as human. Nature can become human too (Pan is only an obvious
example, and so are you), but if all is seen as emanating from nature, the circle
trips are voyages of discovery. Because, no limits.

Anyway, I thought Postmodernism was gonna look this stuff over with an
eye humbly ballooning up to a size and coverage from which it might admit
the local by utterly transcending local limits, but I see PM’s just another
paradigmatic mousehole to work in.

I don’t mean to be snippy (as if anybody does); I understood from some
visual-artist friends that Postmodernism would correct not the wrongness
but the exclusivity of (what fell in) the Modern. That the progress would be
expansion rather than replacement.

Evolution, to me, represents a trustworthy soft template of how things
work, and in nature Evolution has primarily expanded. Bacteria have not gone
out of style in order to make way for birds-of-paradise. Maybe everything goes
extinct (so far, not all at once) on a finite sphere-surface like life on Earth.
But if art depends on resources which take advantage, in their scope, of the
timespace indeterminacy of what we might call art’s planet, then there needn’t
be the crowding (hence extinction) that pressures measurable space. Sure, art
“feels” crowded, but there’s a flexibility we may have to learn to roll around
in. There’s more room to ride, more “minerals and water” for creatures who
function outside the pragmatic wave. Do I contradict myself?

In nature, the dinosaurs live on as birds, physically (while psychically
Tyrannosaurus rex becomes a Capitalist—more organized). The passenger
pigeon, vis-à-vis us, shapeshifts to the chicken. More ordinarily, giant sloths
become shadows of themselves and are carried across the road hanging from
a baseball bat.

As things happen, collage lies down happily with survival-of-the-fittest,
even in off-wilderness (the only wilderness extant), and we have all the
accidental beauty of existence.

Something about strictures and
My daughter, when she was very small, said, “Isn’t the sky pretty when
there’s something wrong with it.”

• • •

I think the basic point is Variety. (I also think the oxymoronic nature of
that sentence should be no impediment.)

Some shy away from variety because it breaks up unity. I suggest there
are more and better unities “out there.” I suggest (and state) that any unity
crumbled by variety itself is like the pre-Galilean unity of Geocentrism—such
unities encourage territorial hubris and internecine slaughter (you may think
the collective Homo-sap-head swelled now; imagine if we still thought Earth
the Center of the Universe!) Variety never hurt Shakespeare.
& true variety includes its oppositeopposite.

Variety’s a gimmick by means of which to approach surprise (etymology,
feminine of: upon—before—to seize).

In writing, it’s more fun to play Earth than to play God.

This is not to claim that I, as poet, “play Earth” very well, or
comprehensively. I make impatient leaps, even to the point of texture, and
Earth is nothing if not patient. I line out clustersense but am secretly just
linear. Lots of people are/appear earthier than I am, but there are many ways
of reflecting or suggesting in writing the energies and shapes of nature. By
being playful with language, I hope to bring out some of its own potentialities,
unleash its unpredictable nerve rather than use it only as a transparency to
register some skullbound logic. But these seemingly contradictory impulses
overlap each other complexly.

I.e., a sonnet is, to an extent, nature poetry because of its structure (yes,
that artificial structure). The call-and-response is like spring and summer. The
contrast between iambic pentameter with rhyme scheme and all Brownian
motion within and around the actual line is like a forest—less and less
homogenous the further you stick your nose in. A good sonnet is like Pandora’s
box (the last two lines are the lid).

It’s delight to pursue some semblance in language of nature. This pursuit
tends to evoke true values of both. But chasing the language/nature identity
isn’t the only way to go. For one thing, brainplay’s often anti-nature because it
simplifies (which, of course, is part of nature, too). Many a light-filled goal’s
way off to the side of any logical question—it (they) just growed, like Topsy.
Value precedes formulation (but is likely to include old formulas).
I did walk along Salt Creek and around Long’s Peak and did work a score
of years in the manual ecosystems of factories; I can identify the olive-sided
flycatcher; human nature lives somewhere along a sagging line between being
a thought-up nut and just falling to the ground.

The satirized tweedy stance (Examination from Above) can elicit warm
images; exposition can work like the hands or chisel of a sculptor.
Sheer wild-ass genius is so natural it doesn’t write about “nature” (Pollock:
“I am nature!”)

• • •

But we (people, Western people) can exemplify nature much more than
we typically have in writing, and thereby learn more intimately and vastly
“about” nature. & thereby be off and on joyous. & thereby not mess it up so
damnably much!

We can represent the multifarious energy of the Earth, by experimenting
and collecting. Show it to the kids. Keep showing it.

We can verbally imitate the relational multiplicity of an ecosystem. (Some
people might say, “Grammar does that already.” But nature has a thousand and
one &*@!=#()+? times more options.)

We can help educate our children of whatever age to appreciate the
dynamic immediacy of nature—to see, hear, feel, etc., that nature is “what’s
happening” just under the boring labels, even in/out Gotham windows. Maybe
we can educate ourselves to perform a little inner time-lapse photography.

i.e. MT
I met
it (me).
“Tie M
t(o) ‘I’m E.’
Shit, even all this unnatural talk is natural.

• “Nature” is everything and something:
• It’s the ocean in which culture floats like a handful of bubbles.
• It’s that which is not manufactured.
• It’s a stick. A ladybug.
• Ooooooooo.
• It’s its logic.
• It’s causal essence.
• It’s a lost purity.
• It’s a rose, and it’s a photographed rose.
• It’s the desire to smash something.
• Therefore, it’s an entity of great simultaneous scale.

Being a humble part of nature, I’d like to quote myself* (from a little “arse
poetica,” 1999):

“Passage,” written in the late ’80s, details the extinction of the
passenger pigeon, a story I only had from books but did have when I was
a kid in the early ’40s (i.e., quasi-organically). In a multitude of styles
and voices (prose, collage, lune series, vers libre, limerick, vernacular,
birdcall, freeform dimeter, chant, rhetoric) the attempt is made to lay out
the history and ornithology in such a way as to let language function like
an ecosystem.

This approach isn’t new—I’m inspired by Charles Olson’s poem-asfield-
of-energy ideas, perhaps even by (shudder) Carl Sandburg. Also by
David Hockney’s demonstrations of the multiple perspectives in Chinese
scroll paintings. It’s all tied in with the sense that, like it or not, writing
does viscerally act out its own effects. We might as well transcend the
pretense of linearity in writing, as Uncertainty and Chaos have helped us
bust out of the ideal-forms mystical snobbery of Plato and Euclid.
In other poems I’ve employed or fallen into freeform haiku, anti-“poetic”
language, notes, anagrams, concrete & visual notions, journal-style, sestina,
sonnet, acrostic varieties, rant, satire, objet trouvé, recipe, song, “just plain”
observation, arguments, lists, automatic writing, “I-remembers,” slices (a
type-space-based invention), yodels, surrealism, story, and other shots-in-thedark
seeking a spark. All in humble imitation of that nature.

In teaching (often as artist-in-residence with elementary-age kids) I’ve
tried to catalyze such variety and more. Even if the students take away no more
than the sense that things can/must be looked at in many lights, I think their
attitudes toward nature will be enriched as time goes on.

• • •

*Life: that which quotes itself.

Meanwhile, Thoreau writes, “Last year’s grasses and flower-stalks have
been steeped in rain and snow, and now the brooks flow with meadow tea…”

• • •

And, eventually, Elizabeth Bishop ends her poem by letting the fish go.


collomJack Collom was born in Chicago in 1931. Childhood full of woods and birds and books, small-town Illinois. Moved to Colorado in 1947, graduated from Fraser High School (class of four). Attended Forestry School, Colorado State University, graduated 1952. United States Air Forces for four years, began writing poetry “on the shores of Tripoli.” Back Stateside, worked for 20 years in factories, writing poetry at night. Began life of teaching in the mid-1970’s: has worked as Poet-in-the-Schools a lot for over 35 years. Has taught, as an adjunct (now Adjunct Professor) at Naropa University for more than 24 years. 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. Jack is regarded as a leader on a national scale in the field of creative writing by (and pedagogy for) 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.

In 2009, Jack spent three weeks in Milwaukee, under the aegis of Woodland Pattern Cultural Center, working with elders and with schoolchildren, developing writing groups. He has given readings widely throughout the United States and sometimes beyond. In 2008, Jack went to Brussels, Belgium and was the plenary speaker at the “Poetic Ecologies” conference at the University of Brussels. He continues to write experimental and nature poetry abundantly.