Review of Second Nature by Jack Collom (Pt. 2)

I am continuing my review of Second Nature by Jack Collom using the techniques of Dark Ecology. In part one of this review, I considered aspects of radical kitsch in Collom’s book. Specifically, I noted the poet’s perpetual move into the kitsch of experimental and avant-garde writing as well as his use of kitsch to redeem anthropocentric suckage ? in so-called environmental writing.

In part two, I consider radical juxtaposition, a second technique Timothy Morton makes use of in his Dark Ecology approach, and how this technique might jibe with Collom’s description of Swamp Formalism.

Dynamic twists, such as turning from scientific grandeur to kitsch imagery of Mickey Mouse, are frequent in Second Nature. Every poem–every line is a fresh experiment with what is possible in language. Collom describes his approach to poetic composition as Swamp Formalism because like a real swamp it unifies liquidity and detail. ? Swamp Formalism evokes the complications, multiple axis, introduces numerous slant vectors, sifts and strews miscellany. ?

The style varies and opens space for contradiction. Collom favors the sonnet, often writes acrostics, plays with font, makes good use of iambic pentameter, and experiments with free verse, fable, haiku, epistle, and essay. Throughout his career, Collom has associated himself with those perennial language experimenters: children. For several decades, he has led poetry workshops with school children. As a Writer-in-the-Schools, I have twice been in his workshops. Collom is a gifted teacher. Some of the children’s poetry is included in Second Nature. There are also several interviews. Many pieces are peppered with epigrams and quotes, often phony. For example, there is this pithy couplet attributed to Alexander Pope:

Einstein alone has glanced upon beauty bared; Once and for all, it is E=mc2. ?

The wit is playful and sharp. Second Nature juxtaposes various forms and the voices speaking those forms. This is the other technique Morton identifies: a radical juxtaposition that questions the ideology responsible for making meaning.

At every turn but especially the turn away, we find ourselves mired in ideological fantasy that never delivers what it promises. Morton is hesitant to offer Dark Ecology as a solution to this predicament, since solutions turn out to be the mechanisms by which the ideological fantasy does its work.

Dark ecology holds open the space of what used to be called the aesthetic, until something better comes along. ?

The techniques of juxtaposition (montage, collage, list poems, etc.) are a means to reconsider space by repositioning elements in space. Radical juxtaposition is radical because it also reconsiders form and subject position. These are the elements in the production of space. Morton uses the term space in a way that covers the various denotations (according to Meriam-Webster, some of these are: “a physical extent occupied by objects”, “a blank area and the material used to produce the blank area”, and “the opportunity to express one’s identity”) and develops an interrelation between the various connotations.

Collom’s poem DANCE! ? begins with a morbid tautology: In the history of this particular dustball, one man’s life is the minutest tick of time. ? In that cheerless voice, the poem continues to decry population growth, technology & consumption ?, and the glitch of hubris & addiction ?. The conclusion is a dire proposal for mass suicide, forced contraception, or genetic manipulation. But shuffled between those lines and emphasized with all-capital letters is another voice, an exuberant and sensual hedonist. The alternating lines interact with one another to create surprising resonances:


SNAP TURQUOISE PEARS
an almost instant snap, compared to the billions of years before
INTO YOUR ORANGE MOUTH!
solar death. Ahh, what wonders to be pinched off, by a glitch of
SHOOT UP
hubris & addiction!
INTO THE PALE EMPYREAN! ?

Rather than two contradicting voices, the poem reveals one voice in harmony with itself. Framing different content from two perspectives side-by-side susses out the identical attitude inherent in both perspectives. The hedonist’s urging and the pessimist’s rant share an ideology and an intention to preserve the world for continued consumption.

Another cycle of poems hold content rigorously steady and juxtaposes form. Collom first presents three Nightmare Turquoise ? poems as Shakespearean sonnets that are also, of course, acrostics. Each poem is rewritten on the facing page in tercets, so that the acrostic vanishes. The iambic pentameter is disrupted. A new rhyme scheme puts stress on internal rhymes buried in the sonnet form. The effect of both forms side-by-side is chiasmus; sonnets give way to tercets that enrich the sonnets. Each version emphasizes a different set of emotions, even though the texts are repeated verbatim. Changing line breaks and stanzas juxtapose prosody and brings attention to the deeper structure of the poems genetics, which are not ideas or words but rhythm and sound. Later in the book, in an essay on poetry as ecology, Collom explains:

…each syllable is like Blake’s world in a grain of sand ? (sound). ?

That same essay, An Evolution of Writing Ideas ?, makes a defense of the concept Truth but calls for an image of a slightly tattered, slightly sleazy Truth ?. This call is not unlike Morton’s injunction that radical kitsch hold the slimy in view. The essay continues with a discussion of poetry in terms of an inside and outside that joins the immaculate with the messy. Collom labels the essence of poetry as the mental act of focusing, an urge to strip away the confusion of perception and be in the world. He contrasts the pristine inside with poetry’s ecological surface ?. The outside of poetry is sound and sense rolling out a field ? that is both finite, barely wrestled to an end ?, and infinite, as a fine poem rolls on rolls on ?. The fine poem he specifically refers to is The Windhover ? by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Collom doesn’t describe it as a nature poem but as a natural expression of verbal growth.

The effect that Morton calls fantasy space or ambience is the sense that nature both ends and rolls on and on. Nature goes on forever, changing, metabolizing, growing, sprouting–an endless orgasm of life, jouissance. Ambience, Morton argues, offers a seductive fantasy. Collom’s description of The Windhover ? frames the poem in just such a fantasy space, an ecosystem of sprouting language, the way another nature writer might describe fauna, flora, or weather. Collom acknowledges that his writing is also an ecosystem of sprouting language (and so is this review, for what it’s worth). As radical juxtaposition, the frame is the content.

Heady as all these sprouting frames can be, it may be less efficacious than appears at first blush. Morton cautions that sometimes the very gesture of embedding us in a deep, dark inside ? can induce a perspective where everything is seen from the outside and exoticized ?. Turning frame into content can have the adverse effect of turning all content into a frame as the Beautiful Soul looks on. Radical kitsch and radical juxtaposition isolate the ideological fantasy and invite the Beautiful Soul in to participate.

Second Nature makes the radical move by including, as exemplars of verbal growth, poems by school children. While these are exemplary poems, they are framed in a way that collapses aesthetic distance. One appreciates children’s artwork as a type of kitsch, outside normal aesthetic consideration reserved for art in museums or commercial galleries. The Beautiful Soul encounters the children’s poems and wants to make the aesthetic move–the poems themselves invite such a reading–but the frame cancels the aesthetic. What is left are open, energetic little chaos systems ?.

Second Nature is a little chaos system itself, which makes reviewing it an interesting challenge. An initial perusal yields one or two gems: an expressive essay about transplanting antelopes on Colorado’s Front Range or the poem Back to Basics ? which recounts a day of bird watching. A reader expects hits in a collection by an accomplished poet. Such a review, though, one that looked at what delights or what doesn’t, would fail to recognize Collom’s timely declaration of eco-poetics, a poetics of evolution. A critical approach, like Dark Ecology, helps a reader stay with a text that does not cater to any particular poetic taste, only to change and mutation. And Second Nature pushes eco-criticism by its boundless trust in language, evinced by the willingness to give even a vexed word like nature ? a second chance.

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