In her warm and insightful introduction to his new book, Exchanges of Earth & Sky, Marcella Durand argues that Jack Collom’s variety of nature poet stands in direct opposition to the time-honored tropes of nature-as-detached-teacher and human-as-feckless-invader. In opposition to a world where earth and sky, human and nature, are separate, mutually exclusive poles of existence, Collom posits a world in which these poles constantly and necessarily interpenetrate each other. “In his work,” Durand writes, “every thing is worthy of being included, making for an extremely real nature poetry unlike the work of those who seek to excise from their stanzas that which seems too uncomfortably close to themselves.” Rather than elide the human in the light of an abstract “nature,” Collom allows, for example, a tiny old lady’s lost “tortoise-shell/ lozenge box” equal expression with the song of a White-Crowned Sparrow:
composed of six
or at the most seven notes unless
it is doubled — the first
is twice as long as the others,
of even value — intervals accurate
anything from a third to a fifth
Collom’s is a nature, in other words, where distinctions between some imagined “us” and an “other” have become blurred, problematized — where, whether or not we consider it “natural,” a Great Blue Heron shares the same space (here, a page) as a dirty green cubicle in which
My cutters are on the floor
with the belt flopped still in thrilling
serpentines. The floor is grimed and
ashy and has some buttery patches
and a thousand masterly ways of saying “gray.”
It’s not a question of should the heron inhabit an industrial space or vice versa: herons do inhabit a human space as humans inhabit the herons’ space. It’s no less natural, anyway, to see the heron where it is than to see any of the number of birds invoked in Collom’s book sharing a page with excerpts from textbooks on animal husbandry, the poet’s translations of the work of the 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart, Rilke and Brecht, the local news, mythology, and his own poems, fragments, and journals. Like nature itself, Exchanges of Earth & Sky is a mélange of forms and shared spaces, ranging from the common acrostic to concrete poems in the shapes of cockerels and testicles — Collom’s own hand-drawings comfortably intermingling with a poem written by a fourth-grader from the South Bronx.
For the most part, though, Exchanges of Earth & Sky could be classified as a bestiary, or an aviary, or a new kind of bird book for poets. But it isn’t exactly a new book: it’s new as a book, that’s true, but as a manuscript it dates back to the 1970s. As an idea, it arguably dates back to Collom’s thirteenth birthday (he’s 75 this year), when he received a copy of Birds of America — not the Audubon one, but a book edited by T. Gilbert Pearson — of which Exchanges of Earth & Sky is largely a reworking and memorializing. The upper portion of the page is generally devoted to the reworked sections of Pearson’s text (bird names, as in a standard bird guide, serve as titles) while the lower portion is filled with any of the variety of sources and forms Collom employs. Between the two there usually sits a single line of seven ampersands that, though one might easily read over it, is essential to the book: though the upper and lower portions of the page — the page’s “sky” and “earth” — may seem to consist only of juxtapositions (of form, of content, of style), they are inherently and explicitly intertwined. For Collom, the poem, much less the world, is not comprised of neatly symmetrical either/or situations, nor is it made up of the more solemnly deconstructionist not this, not this. At the page’s horizon, the ampersands do not divide unequivocally, but rather they join the terrestrial and the celestial, the high-minded and the mundane. In place of polarized opposites, in place of negation, there’s an inclusiveness that is the key to Collom’s poetics: instead of not this, not this, we read and this, and this, and this.
The book’s cover — an upside-down photo of shorebirds on a beach, separated from the cirrus by a thin line of ocean — is a testament to another aspect of his poetics: something of an iconoclast, he loves to turn things on their heads. What’s more, the picture’s inversion of ontologically distinct positions is the first of the book’s “exchanges” of earth and sky. But if Collom returns again and again to polarities (even if they’re flipped around)—to ontological distinctions, to black and white (as in the feathers of birds: “BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER”: “upper parts white/ O/ below pure black”) — he does so to suggest a world in which one thing can quickly turn into another, or fade into it so subtly that no distinct point of change, border, boundary can be determined. Black feathers cannot be separated from white ones — they are parts of the same bird and often the same feather — any more than orange and brown ones, yellow and green:
the masters say that the yellow and green colors in the rainbow
border each other so subtly that no eye can take the true border.
likewise the first outbreak of creation was so like the angels
that Moses, with care of his people’s power to apprehend, did not
write of it, so much were they like creation.
For Collom, language mirrors nature, of which it is an extension, and linguistic diversity is only an extension or an expression of biodiversity. As nature is an interdependent, interpenetrating plurality of ecosystems, so is language; “Language,” he writes, “is built to function via/ the orchestrations of plurality” But it’s a plurality that language itself, much less those who utilize it, tend to acknowledge: like species in an ecosystem, language (and its users) is largely unaware of all its possibilities, of all that makes it possible. Part and parcel of Collom’s memorializing of birds and the language of their description, then, is a memorializing of all those varieties of language (and experience) that we might just as soon pass over. As with his sense of ecology, Collom’s poetics often perform a sort of reclamation of what gets lost (the mundane, the industrial, the human) in poetic production. Take, for example, the description of a parasite, covered in Collom’s original with a simple drawing of a bird:
An intermediate host
is necessary for the
eyeworm to complete
its life cycle and t
he cockroach Pycnosc
elus surinamensis ha
s been found to serv
e in that capacity.
Birds, whose lives alternate between worlds — and who have been thought of as messengers from heaven or the carriers of departed souls — serve as reminders that we (and by extension our language) are capable of the quotidian, the highest flights of imagination, and everything in between.
While Durand notes that Collom isn’t given much to “statements” in the book — and while this is true for the most part — there is a constant awareness of the false economy/ecology dichotomy (one poem begins with the caption “THAT THE ECONOMISTS (ULTIMATE SAGES OF A MATERIALIST WORLD) ARE LUDICROUSLY CAUGHT SHORT”) and the fact that so many species have been brought to extinction by human activity: “Within/ the planet’s ecology,” Collom writes, “we’re like/ a bomb in a bus.” So it went with “the most powerful and swiftest/ diving and swimming bird in north america,” the Great Auk:
adventurous french fisherman
the banks of Newfoundland —
fresh meat and eggs
filled two boats “less than half an hour”
every ship salted down five or six barrelfuls.
feathers for featherbeds
such numbers of the bones
By the same token, it’s no accident that the Great Auk poem ends with a modern heap of bones. Only this time, they take the form of government waste:
AND revealed on a machine in raised letters
coil of broad copper flatwire reminds me of,
lead hammer laid askew on stand of government
waste, half oily, looking like a dead sheep on a rocky hill
Still, there’s remarkably little moral outrage here, no tone of righteous indignation. The tragic statement needs no stating in the poem: we killed off the Great Auk before we even got to know it, and now the world’s a duller place without it. But like Collom’s descriptions of his work in factories, of the best method to castrate your poultry, etc., which tend to celebrate the experience (and language) they relate, if an indictment is present, it is difficult to discern. Nor is it clear what purpose pointed accusations would serve (let alone the purpose of lament). Rather than simply dwelling on what’s lost, Collom brings together a plurality — of language, of experience, of species — admitting it all so that we might decide what to reject (or to decide not to reject anything at all). In this way, the poems don’t let us wallow in whatever form of guilt, sorrow, or anger the loss of the Great Auk may stir up. The poems are not blind to loss, but they would have us move forward. They prod but don’t push. As Durand writes, “if one admits the grain-processing plant into the study of wheatfields, then we might have to admit to what we do and [our] life might have to change.”
Like Lorine Niedecker before him, Collom has managed to write “nature” poems that complicate our sense of what nature is, while also introducing innovations to the tradition(s) of experimentalist poetics of which the poems are part. Against the tendency of nature poems to veer off into the pastoral, the escapist, the naïve (where nature becomes idealized as instructive other — as in Wordsworth’s formulation, “the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”), Collom’s book presents an urban environment that is as natural as any wild one (however problematic the relation between the two may become), and argues that the avowedly natural as perceived by human eyes (e.g., Wordsworth’s), may be less “natural” than at first glance. As with Timothy Treadwell — the subject of a recent Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man — “nature” is a mental (and thereby linguistic) construct that can dangerously oversimplify the complex interactions between human and bear, predator and prey, earth and sky.
Like Niedecker, who until only recently was dismissed for various reasons as a country bumpkin, Collom, too, has gone largely unacknowledged for the poet he is. It’s a shame. He’s a marvel.
Erik Anderson has poems or reviews in past or forthcoming issues of Ellipsis, Rain Taxi, Denver Quarterly, Jacket, Bombay Gin, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Cranky, and others. He is the author of two chapbooks and lives in Denver, Colorado.