back toJacket2

B O O K   R E V I E W

Mark DuCharme reviews

Extremes & Balances
by Jack Collom

217 pp. farfalla press/ McMillan & Parrish. US$15.95. 0-9714668-5-8. Paper.
P.O. Box 4163, Boulder, CO 80306

Available from Small Press Distribution at

This review is 1,600 words
or about 4 printed pages long

Extremes of Startle

There is something like a taboo against the “disunified” body of poetic work. This is, in part, because less heterodox approaches may be more appealing to readers (or at least, to readers new to poetry); but more so, I’d suggest, because they are simply easier to write about critically, because critics who do spend a good deal less time qualifying what they say in order to avoid the danger of either over-simplifying, or (even worse) appearing to not “get it.” This is not to say there aren’t great artists whose bodies of work are quite unified, and who deserve every ounce of praise they’ve drawn (Wallace Stevens and Susan Howe, among others, leap to mind); merely that there are also great artists of altogether different inclinations, whose work sometimes gets lost, for various reasons, including (but not limited to) the heterodoxy of their project. One example that we could start with is Jack Collom.

I mention the subject of poetic heterodoxy at all, in fact, because in Collom’s new book, Extremes & Balances, I find myself forced to consider this motif almost every time I turn the page. Collom’s oeuvre, as anyone knows who has read Red Car Goes By, the selected poems published by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press in 2001, is almost a study in controlled aesthetic maneuverability. On a dime, Collom can swerve from an almost latter-day Projectivist all-over-the-page plainspeak; to rhyme & other formal devices (but without the ironic wink associated with Charles Bernstein’s use of same); to the humorously didactic, & the didactically humorous; toward a kind of folk-song poetics; to the use of found text and collaboration; toward an ongoing engagement with visual poetry (are you listening, Ubu Webmasters?); toward a kind of “indeterminacy” which seems to anticipate/ coexist with/ follow from/ ignore similar approaches by some of his contemporaries; toward the rigorously descriptive, the prosaic, the expansive, the concrete, & the minute. One poem here, “SOME FAVORITE & CURRENT POETS,” dated 1981, acrostically spells out the names of Padgett, Olson, McClure, Notley & Berrigan. If such an eccentric list can be taken as any guide, we can conclude that Collom’s poetic, though not unfocused, seems to reject an orderly “unity” of approach. Put another way: Collom’s work always seems to proceed from what moves him, at any given moment, and toward what may, as a result, move any reader.

...throw gravel in the mirror
like a cheese
the push to the nominative, mushrooms
in the applebutter in the toast
a cat will
not believe you, he is better
thank god I do
white shit? a purity

Extremes & Balances, then, might be an apt title for this large, new collection of older work. The book itself is something of a “found” object — as Collom explains in the Preface:

The poems in this book were largely rediscovered in a forgotten storage place. They had been generated (late ‘50s to middle ‘80s), generally, with less emphasis on being “poems” than on being poetic writing, that is, having more texture than closure, being less thematic. And the book itself (seen relative to its poems as the poems are relative to their phrases) is not thematic nor deductively derived.

If this statement — with its fascinating reference to “a forgotten storage place” as the poems’ unlikely source — seems to favor the accidental over the “thematic or deductively derived,” it also contains a provocative distinction between “poetic writing” and texts self-proclaimed as “‘poems.’” While this marks him squarely in the lineage of “process” poetics, Collom’s work, despite its richness of formal invention, is not procedural, in the sense that it is less involved with chance operations than chanced inspiration — or in other words, the kind of risk that can only stem from choosing what, finally, feels insistent —

saprophyte Willy?
why don’t we turk rapid filet
downstream? hack,
Baden-Baden really snaps art meal flap

The book is divided into five sections: “WAGNER” (dated late 1950s through early ’60s), “LAMPSHADE” (dated late ’6os), “PTARMIGAN” (early ’70s), “NO-MORE-WORK” (late ’70s), and “BROWN” (1980s). While it is helpful for readers to have a collection this large — the book weighs in at over 200 pages — broken down into manageable parts, one complaint I have is that the sections themselves aren’t particularly meaningful units within the book beyond their function as chronological markers. So why title them at all? Although the titles do point to lines or titles within their sections, this turns out to be far less significant than one might expect, because (again, to underscore the point) the work itself is happily unconcerned with thematics. And the book is constructed in a way that thwarts any readily thematic reading.

There is one important caveat to this book’s unthematic stance. Many of the poems contain autobiographical references (to wives, children, divorce, jobs, health issues & the like). That, & the book’s overtly (awkwardly) chronological arrangement, do underscore a “theme” of sorts — contrary to the author’s declaration. Yet Collom’s writing, like Paul Blackburn’s or Ted Berrigan’s, includes the autobiographical not in order to dramatize or create a dominating “myth” of the artist’s life, but as material appropriated in a way similar to that in which any bit of text might be appropriated —

Step 1 — give
wife a good-night Busserl, she throws her head
from side to side insanely
shows her teeth, she does not want

too many steps

I wanted to kiss my
wife good night and she threw
her head insanely back and forth and
bared her teeth. She wants me to

She got up
I was getting wine and ink
poor Jack I must
help him puke,
now my knees
form a green wool
trapezoid bracing the green wool blanket
dark, cool green
                        The clock
is at three before nine

The “autobiographical,” then, in Collom’s practice is not the ideologically derived, fake, problematic, and boring tendency we associate with Confessionalism and its descendants; it is merely one starting point that could, just as easily, have become another. Yet it is Collom’s openness to the autobiographical — that “post avant” taboo — as well as to so much else, that has made him and his work an open secret among so many emerging poets. The “high” and “low” playfulness in Collom’s writing — the kind of playfulness that leads to terms like aesthetically heterodox being thrown about — is both refreshing & exactly what’s needed, in the wake of an overly serious-seeming, if inspiringly prolific, postmodern “orthodoxy.” The risk of Collom’s project, that air of flippancy which belies its seriousness, masks a staggering prolificness, a body of work (much of it unpublished, or simply photocopied and passed along to friends) which, like an iceberg, hides most of its bulk & heft beneath a remarkably placid surface.

The “surface” is an important axis in Collom’s writing, as it is in much of the New York School poetry with which he obviously feels some affinity. In the example above, it is easy to see how the surface features of language are far more important than what is being “said.” By “surface features of language” I don’t mean simply the use of repetition, or whatever rhythm the linebreaks create, but also the care to make it startling (“I was getting wine and ink/ thinking/ poor Jack I must/ help him puke”). As an autobiographical vignette, the passage is fairly meaningless — and in general this is characteristic of Collom’s writing. More so than O’Hara, who is actually one of the last century’s greatest love poets, or Berrigan, who has a tendency toward his own undramatic brand of self-mythologizing, Collom’s use of the autobiographical is almost giddily free of nostalgic baggage, & thus circumvents much of the “post-avant” critique of the autobiographical, the “I” and so forth. Furthermore, he has a scientific eye which in its own way asserts a remarkable poetic clarity:

GIF image of Ptarmigan poem

At the heart of Collom’s project is a playfulness, a sense of poetic adventure, yet also a precision, which arrives at experiment from a very different sensibility than has become the quotidian —

So goes it, in the stamp of every age —
But now I’ve reached the bottom of the page

There is a primary vibrancy and health in the poems of Jack Collom. If you have never heard him read, you should immediately put that on your list of things to do, at least once but preferably several times, before you die (or he does). This book, Extremes & Balances, is no substitute for the more comprehensive, keenly edited — and even larger! — collection which Lyn Hejinian published, but for anyone who is looking to add to their Collom collection — and considering the fact that so many of his often slim, fugitive volumes are either out of print or difficult to find — this generous but almost random selection deserves a welcome place on the bookshelf.

October 2004  |  Jacket 26  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400+ book reviews |