Review of Second Nature by Jack Collom (Pt. 1)

Here, I apply techniques of Dark Ecology in a review of Jack Collom‘s book Second Nature, which received the Colorado Book Award in 2013.

Dark Ecology’s response to the Beautiful Soul Syndrome–characterized by the aesthetic move toward the outside, away from participation and responsibility–is, always, to move in and engage. Timothy Morton has identified a number of ways in which environmental art and nature writing foster attitudes of exploitation and consumerism. Using Hegel’s dialectic, he describes the condition as Beautiful Soul Syndrome or sardonically as BS Syndrome. In Ecology Without Nature, Morton identifies tropes in nature writing that frame experience within an ideological fantasy. The Dark Ecology outlined by Morton is a move through this ideological fantasy space using two techniques for engaging the Beautiful Soul: radical kitsch and radical juxtaposition. Morton eschews mystical Deep Ecology in favor of a universe of mechanical reproduction ?. In a word: Evolution. But not the folk version of evolution, summed up by the phrase survival of the fittest. Evolution, as the creation myth of our time, is a myth of mutants.

Jack Collom is what I call an experimental poet, interested in language for its own sake. He is also an ecological poet, interested in life on the planet for its own sake. In Second Nature, poems, essays, stories, interviews, and fragments collected from four decades navigate a way through nature to ecology and back again. The post-modern and avant-garde inhabit these poems as: cut-ups, lists, traditional Japanese forms, visual forms, erasure, journalism, automatic writing, and surrealism. However, quoting Theodor Adorno, Morton identifies the experimental and avant-garde as kitsch:

In its worry about the aura of lofty and commodified artworks, art tries to de-reify itself, to jump off the canvas and out of the concert hall. But in doing so, it finds that it has reduced itself to an even more reified thing… ?

The more stridently post-modern art tries to maintain a distance from reification and commodification, the more it entangles itself in those conditions. In Second Nature, the poet is sagacious; instead of trying to move ever away from the kitsch in experimental writing, Collom goes there. Forms proliferate, mutate, and motivate the writing, generating surprises and making the familiar unexpected. The writing in Second Nature is occupied with nature and poetry, but no other allegiance prejudices the experimentation. Some mutations are kitsch, but all mutations get their fifteen minutes of fame: some help, some hinder, some simply engrave the possible. ?

For example, in Snow Leopards ?, musing on the aesthetic implications of kitsch, Collom tracks the poet’s response to a painting in the men’s restroom of Biz X. Initially, the realism of the painting startles, but realism soon becomes bland and obnoxious. Realistic art also inculcates, and eventually the poet finds the painting interesting again. The poem’s final image subverts realism by taking it at face value:

…Snow/leopards look like you could stick your
finger right through them ?.

In wanting to get close enough to touch, rather than maintain an aesthetic distance, the poet directs attention toward the artifice.

Throughout Second Nature, Collom brings the ideological fantasy of nature writing into full view. Recipe for a Mouse ?, a poem written for his pet mouse Hoback, relies on scientific vocabulary, as if the move outside poetry might avoid the problems of aesthetics. Atoms form molecules, and after a billion years, amino acids become proteins and DNA. Plants appear, and then dinosaurs walk. The evolutionary process continues until:

heart, liver, lungs/ & brain–fold mystery leaves
& synapse jumps,
eukaryotic cells– ?

But science uses a lexicon of rigorous simulation that exasperates the problems of mimesis or anthropocentric suckage ?. This could be a recipe for humans or any mammal. The Beautiful Soul might want to move even further away and create a taxonomy that narrows in on the target species. Inevitably, though, classifications tell a story based on our human experience, our umwelt. Precision does not necessarily lead to accuracy.

In the final stanza, the poem acknowledges the predicament and turns toward it with kitsch images:

tell stories
Mickey Mouse, panicked elephants
jokesters, sniffing little people,
cheesewits, let it all flow over
the genuine mouse ?.

One way of reading the poem would have the genuine mouse ? derive from the scientific stories told in the first two stanzas. Another reading might make a connection with the fable of stone soup; the recipe consists of ingredients that are already at hand. Science, like the eponymous ingredient in the fable, is there to discover the explanations we already believe.

In my next post, I will consider the second technique from Dark Ecology, radical juxtaposition, and what Collom calls Swamp Formalism.

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