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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Cole Heinowitz reviews
Exchanges of Earth and Sky
by Jack Collom

xiv+101pp. Fish Drum. US$15.00. 1929495080 paper

This review is about 10 printed pages long.

The Practice of Romantic Materialism in Jack Collom’s Exchanges of Earth & Sky

paragraph 1

In Natural History of the Intellect, Emerson says, “There is in Nature a parallel unity which corresponds to the unity in the mind and makes it available” (19-20). Exchanges of Earth and Sky, Jack Collom’s recent collection of bird-themed poems, would appear to pursue Emerson’s assertion by trusting in the natural world to reorient human trust in the mind. I would hesitate, however, to call Collom’s work either “nature poetry” in the Romantic/Transcendentalist sense or even “ecopoetry,” with that term’s more contemporary connotations of lexical “ecosystems.” In part, this hesitation is due to my suspicion of the label “ecopoetry.” As Jonathan Skinner writes of this term in the most recent issue of ecopoetics, “either it’s redundant, reduplicating the ‘eco’ already built into the ecology of words that, presumably, is poetry’s business, or it instrumentalizes (i.e. pigeonholes) poetry in a way that’s distasteful to any poet worth paying attention to” (127). My hesitation regarding Collom’s Romantic inheritance is more complex. On the one hand, his poems evince an Emersonian desire to locate the common ground between nature and subjective intellectual experience. Yet on the other hand, Collom’s work manages to avoid the Romantic “pitfall” of reifying the division between nature and the intellect in the process of trying to overcome it.


How does he do it? For one thing, Collom seems to delight in bringing together unlikely tonal combinations, particularly the playful and the serious. Collom’s writing can be at once gracefully well-crafted and lightheartedly whimsical, often within the same poem. Compare, for example, the quiet precision of the following extract from “Great Blue Heron” with the humorous formal oddity of the poems “Dowitcher,” “Marbled Godwit,” “Curlew,” and “Solitary Sandpiper.”


From “Great Blue Heron”:


curved neck
with a
stroke which
is quicker than the
eye and


“Dowitcher,” “Marbled Godwit,” “Curlew,” and “Solitary Sandpiper”:







that dark and dainty sprite
is the only sandpiper of the wooded wilderness (34)


In “Great Blue Heron,” Collom’s control over pacing is complemented by a spare vocabulary, allowing his syntax to shoot out with a sure, quick stroke at the end of the phrase. By contrast, in “Dowitcher,” “Marbled Godwit,” “Curlew,” and “Solitary Sandpiper,” four “poems” exist within one, two of which (“Marbled Godwit” and “Curlew”) consist of only a title and blank space, and one of which (“Dowitcher”) consists of only a title and one line. One is tempted to read the entire poem as “Dowitcher,” since that is the first title given at the top of the page, and yet the index tells us that “Dowitcher,” “Marbled Godwit,” “Curlew,” and “Solitary Sandpiper” are separate poems, albeit on the same page. Such playful strangeness works to ballast the moments of delicate balance in these poems and to keep them from becoming conventionally beautiful.


If Collom’s playfulness works in surprising concert with his seriousness, however, it also does much in its own right. In some poems, such as “Dusky Grouse,” the title doesn’t appear until the third line. In “Chimney Swift,” the title never appears at all and can only be determined by reference to the index. These ways of playing with the relationship between poem and title challenge a reflexive understanding of where a poem begins or ends, and start to suggest a more complex relationship between these conventionally separate textual fields. Collom’s formal gambols also stage an unusual dialogue between that which is traditionally considered a poem and that which is generally considered a doodle. In “Whip-poor-will,” for instance, Collom writes by hand:




The words “PENALTIES FOR” are written vertically down the left side of the page next to the type-set portion of the poem. The word “LINEARITY” is positioned on the diagonal, veering off toward the bottom of the page, leading to a simplified drawing of a hand. Collom’s willingness to embody his ideas through such directly childlike and graphic means is an essential ingredient of a poetics that is anything but slack or childish. As he writes in the recent essay, “‘To Let Through:’ How Permission Catalyzes Writing,” “The childlike gets patronized. Yet the childlike, eventually, is what all poets seek to preserve or revive. It is the freshness, the animating spark, in the greatest works” (4). Collom’s trust in the animating brilliance of the childlike allows his poems to move fluidly in and out of standard poetic form, and even back and forth between visual and verbal systems.


But the central dialogue of Exchanges of Earth & Sky is, appropriately, that between “earth” and “sky.” This dialogue is structured by a row of seven ampersands that divides most of the poems into two discrete hemispheres: above, the sky; below, the earth. It is here that Collom most clearly invokes the Romantic dualism of the natural and the subjective/intellectual, with the sky standing for the former and the earth standing for the latter. In “Solitary Sandpiper,” for example, we have the bird, unselfconsciously going about its business in the upper hemisphere of the poem (above the row of ampersands):


advancing one foot and shaking it rapidly
done so delicately that it does
not roil the water
but starts the minute organisms that lie
concealed there—
the bird plunges in its bill and head
clear to the eyes
and catches them
as they flee


In the lower hemisphere (below the row of ampersands), we find the speaker, “I,” stumbling and unsure of his footing, distorting the natural world by the very process of traversing it.


the rock above leans out over
too tough to climb/ the rock
becomes soft and the substance
begins to move rapidly upward
shape only shaking but the same/
so I climb it
with my elongated cube of space/ (34)


In his grapplings and aspirations, this “I” is not unlike the Wordsworth of The Prelude, Book Six, who crosses the Alps unawares, lost as he is in his intellectual fantasy of crossing the Alps. But here, the speaker wavers in his resolve to climb, then seems to somehow expand his notion of what it means to climb by infusing the rock with his soft, shaking substance and “climbing” it by his sense of volatile, shared space. Masterful animal in nature above; awkward man in his subjective projection of nature below. Collom captures the very essence of Romantic dualism.


There even seems to be a distinction in the types of language that belong to the realms of earth and sky. In the portion of “MacGillivray’s Warbler” above the ampersands, for instance, Collom writes crisply and descriptively:


upper parts olive green
under parts yellow

a conspicuous spot of
white on each eyelid


One could say this is the language of nature, objectively rendered and without reflection or interpretation. By contrast, the language in the lower part of the poem is passional, lyric, and explicitly reflective:


O to say so, how themselves the things never
meant to be inner, isn’t the secret cunning
of this slippery earth, when it pushes lovers,
that to them in their feeling everything and everything clears? (85)


This counterpoint between the limpid anatomical precision above and the probing affective reflections below would seem to suggest that Collom invests the sky of these poems with a Romantic sense of nature and the earth of the poems with a Romantic sense of the intellectual.


But Collom’s earth and sky are not so mutually exclusive. Despite the tropological and rhetorical characteristics that appear to distinguish the upper hemispheres of these poems from the lower ones, most poems track (as the book’s title suggests) exchanges between the hemispheres rather than dichotomizing them, and often call into question the very horizon around which they’re structured. While those familiar with Collom’s poetry are accustomed to his use of the asterisk border and the short line to indicate discrete sections within a poem, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the ampersand horizon in Exchanges is literally copulative, bouncing pieces of sky and earth back and forth, over and under its open border in additive, inclusive, reflective gestures.


In other words, Collom’s poems posit a clear demarcation between the aerial and the terrestrial realm only to tease and worry that distinction. While it may be tempting to associate the aerial realm with birds, for example, many of the birds found in Exchanges are more properly inhabitants of land and water. As Collom writes in the lower portion of “Redstart,” (the section traditionally reserved for human experience): “...the buzzard dived again / a few days later / and came up with his bill full of earth” (88). Similarly, the poem “Black Skimmer” takes for its point of departure a bird often found hovering just above the surface of the water, in a realm that is, strictly speaking, neither earth nor sky. And here, too, one finds a bird in the lower section of the poem:


(behind the bar)

delicious hot dogs
two cold still ferris wheels
in the gloom

lying in green
grass of existence like a
wounded, nonchalant bird (12)


Though the lower portion of the poem begins as an unmistakably earthly and human scene, it is ultimately revealed to be the tenor in an extended bird simile. Not only are the positions of earth and sky (or nature and the mind) inverted, then. Collom’s simile makes them mutually definitional.


In “Black Skimmer” (as in many of the poems in this collection), Collom evokes the sky/earth dichotomy only to reconceive it by calling into question the existence of a stable human subject position. According to whom, we must ask, are the aforementioned hot dogs “delicious”? Are they delicious for the speaker or for the seabirds that scavenge about the sites of abandoned fairgrounds? Who or what is the subject to which the prepositional phrase “lying in green / grass” applies? Are the ferris wheels lying in grass? The birds? The speaker? And who or what is being compared to a “wounded, nonchalant bird?” Read one way, the hot dogs serve to contrast with the birds. Read another way, the hot dogs are the birds. And the topological instability caused by the presence of birds on/as land is directly connected to Collom’s exploration of transsubjective (and even asubjective) poetic voices.


Furthermore, what appears to be an inversion of earth and sky staged in rhetoric turns out to be a more complex imbrication of language styles that works to break down hemispheric exclusivity. Though still organized around cool, ornithological terms, the language of the upper section of “Wood Duck” is surprisingly dense and sensuous, the form uncharacteristically ranging:


shoulder and long inner secondaries velvet black
glossed with purple and green
a greenish blue speculum bounded
by white tips of secondaries behind
primaries white-edged and frosted
on webs near end upper tail coverts


By contrast, the language of the lower part of the poem is direct and concretely itemized, the form more contained:


have you ever thought about
the miracle of speech?

walk down street

ady on porch

shouts through door (21)


This sense of clarity and order breaks down in the last line of the poem, however, when the lady shouts, “ARE YOU IN THERE, EARL?” hearkening back to the richer, noisier texture of phrases like “inner secondaries velvet,” albeit with a more homely, gravelly rasp (21).


The exchanges between earth and sky can also be more metaphorically suggestive. In “Great Auk,” for example, the fate of a bird hunted into extinction (detailed in the upper part of the poem) serves as an oblique warning to the factory workers in the lower part of the poem. Above, fishermen mercilessly, efficiently kill the birds for their meat, eggs, and feathers:


eggs: 1
laid on bare rock of cliffs
fresh meat and eggs
filled the boats “less than half an hour”

every ship salted down five or six barrelfuls.
feathers for featherbeds
and coverlets


Below, the speaker observes his work environment:


here I go again
long swings of glittering brass shavings
on the floor mottled where
Stanley’s machine is loud
Haddad is picking up boards
much noise in my ears now
lead hammer laid askew on stand of government
waste, half oily, looking like a dead sheep on a rocky hill (6)


Though the poem never didactically states that the factory worker, like the Great Auk, is being over-exploited or that the hunting of wild animals for profit represents the exploitation of working people, subtle touches like the repetition of the word “laid” in the lines “laid on bare rock of cliffs” and “lead hammer laid askew on stand of government” suggest that a similar precariousness attends the Auk’s exposed eggs and the worker’s “hammer” (perhaps a metonym for his/her labor).


Such traces of synchronicity between the natural realm and the human realm are precisely what standard Romantic poetics strives for. But poets such as Wordsworth tend to underscore the separateness of these two spheres while striving to unify them. Think, for example, of the Wordsworthian “natural piety” according to which the poor old leech-gatherer of “Resolution and Independence” suffers in order to provide the poet with a lesson of instinctive fortitude under duress. Wordsworth’s contact with “nature” is at once salutary and alienating. Similarly, the naïve cottage girl who has lost her siblings in “We Are Seven” seems to exist solely in order to rouse the poet from his jaded and worldly conception of mortality. Moreover, her ability to infuse his imagination anew with childlike wonder is overwhelmed by the poet’s ultimate sense of despair on realizing how absent such wonder is from his regular consciousness. Collom certainly does not write about “glittering brass shavings” or the sounds of “Stanley’s machine” in order to naturalize industrial labor the way Wordsworth naturalizes rural poverty (6). The speaker in Collom’s poems (when there is a speaker) is not immured within his mind, struggling to break free into nature. Though Collom is clearly aware of the tendency to distinguish between mind and nature in such ways, he is equally aware of the materiality which unites all things, including mind. Or, as Collom himself writes, “NATURE IS...ALMOST EVERYTHING” (59).


If (almost) everything is matter/nature, then the distinction in Romantic poetics between the material and the ideal (or nature and the mind) ceases to signify. Emerson’s claim that “The senses minister to a mind they do not know” is challenged by Collom’s exploration of the materiality of mental experience (37):

38, the most disappearing. once
anything, only once. once and no more. and we too
once. never again. but this
once to have been, when it is especially once:
once to have been earthly; looks like you can’t call it back. (83)


The physical accumulation of the word “once” as one reads it again and again (seven times in five lines!) pushes the experience it sought to indicate further and further away, such that the act of recuperation is revealed as complicit with loss. This struggle against and succumbing to disappearance is mental, but it becomes physical by being patterned into and through words.


What is perhaps most remarkable about these poems is that they inherit a Romantic concern with the relationship between the material and the ideal, and yet they effectively resist the Romantic impulse to “transcend” dualism. In large part, this is because Collom’s poems are less about the percipient than about the perceived. The exchanges Collom tracks pivot on a certain wry materiality rather than on any pretension to transcendental harmony. Nor does this “most factual of relations to nature give rise to a new form of the transcendental,” as Angus Fletcher suggests regarding John Ashbery in A New Theory of American Poetry (5). Because of these differences, I would locate Collom’s poetry in an alternative tradition of nature writers such as William Cowper, George Crabbe, and Gerard Manley Hopkins rather than in the more familiar tradition of Wordsworth and Emerson.


Perhaps the best testament to Collom’s wily dance with dualism is his inimitable yodel (familiar to anyone who has heard him read): part Appalachian throat singing, part word game, part birdsong. In this unique form of hybrid chant, Collom is at once able to imitate nature, transcribe it into human culture, and push the whole mess adrift into that additive, synthesizing horizon between earth and sky. As he sings in “Red-winged Blackbird”:


o-ka-lee cong-quer-ree
you chootea, oolong tea
gl-oogl-ree conk-a-tree
quange-se-tree shoo-chong tea!


Works Cited

Collom, Jack, “‘To Let Through’: How Permission Catalyzes Writing.” Unpublished essay.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Natural History of the Intellect. New York: Solar Press, 1995.

Fletcher, Angus. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.

Skinner, Jonathan, “Statement for ‘New Nature Writing’ Panel at 2005 AWP (Vancouver).” In ecopoetics no. 4/5 (2004-2005).

Wordsworth, William. “Resolution and Independence,” “We Are Seven,” The Prelude. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature volume D: The Romantic Period 8th edition (Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams, eds.) New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006.

Cole Heinowitz

Cole Heinowitz is the author of ‘Stunning in Muscle Hospital’ (Detour, 2002) and ‘The Rubicon’ (A Rest, 2007). Her poems have also appeared in magazines such as The Poker, 6X6, The Brooklyn Rail, HOW2, and Highway Robbery. She is presently at work on a study of the relationship between British poets and Latin American revolutionaries during the romantic period. Cole Heinowitz teaches literature at Bard College