Book Review

In Jack Collom’s Second Nature, handwritten notebook entries appear alongside collages and lyric fragments. The end result is a work that privileges process over product, dazzling the reader with a thought-provoking relationship between form and content all the while. Just as nature’s chaos never reaches an equilibrium, allowing us to be complacent about the world around us, language itself remains inherently unstable. As the book unfolds, the natural world is at turns “filthy” and lined with “crushed silver,” in much the same way that the terrain of the book is constantly shifting beneath the reader’s feet.

With that in mind, Collom’s use of fragmented forms is especially noteworthy. Not only does this stylistic choice mirror the instability of the natural world, but it fosters a more active role for the reader as well. The fact that Collom invites the audience to take part in the work of the poet and actively contribute to the meaning of the text, renders the work, and its meaning, even more impermanent. In many ways, these formal decisions mirror the ecological message that recurs throughout the book. Just as the text is a collaboration between artist and audience, nature itself is what we make of it, retaining the possibility of both grandeur and ruin. Consider “Eco-lunes”:

Hard to be
transcendent when there’s nothing to
eat but souls.

Slowly the castle
draws goods from what if,
slides off cliff.

The formal choices in this poem invite the reader to actively speculate and assign meaning, to forge connections between disparate components of the text (namely, the two different stanzas cited here, from which an overarching narrative has been purposefully omitted). Collom prompts us to become more involved as readers in much the same way that he encourages ecological stewardship. By showing us nature’s “transcendence,” as well as its destructive capabilities as the speaker “slides off cliff,” Collom underscores the urgency of these concerns. The form of the poem, then, becomes a subtle pedagogical device. Collom’s formal ingenuity and technical subtlety show us that, as with the text itself, a sense of investment and stewardship will be rewarded.

Collom’s use of interview material in Second Nature proves equally impressive. By presenting poetry as a dialogue between himself and other thinkers or between different facets of consciousness, Collom invites the reader to assume a more active role, to sort through the various perspectives that are presented as the book unfolds. Rather than presenting a didactic message, which the audience is expected to passively receive from the author, Collom prompts the reader to come to a sense of ecological stewardship on his or her own. The book is at its best when Collom accomplishes this goal through both form and content.  He writes:

MD:  I’m interested in how you work out scientific concepts in poetry.

JC:  I think I have a tiny amateur feedback loop with my scientific readings, which are not in any way professional. I like to read people like Stephen Jay Gould. He, for example, has this concept of “spandrels.” Spandrels are little architectural spaces in an arch. The arch is affecting a curve at its top and in older constructions of the arch—this had to be done in a series of little zigzags. You couldn’t just bend an arch, you had to step over a space, then you have these space triangles—those are spandrels. Gould uses the idea of spandrels for all “stuff” that doesn’t perform an exact function…This little extra space that’s repeated is a by-product.  It’s not anything in itself.  It’s a leftover of achieving something in a not quite direct way. And nature’s absolutely full of this type of thing. When you look closely, everything real is spandrelized.

Collom’s formal choices encourage readers to situate themselves within a discourse that is in process, unfolding before them as they make their way through the collection. Not only is the poem itself dialogic, but the relationship between artist and audience becomes collaborative as well. Much of the work included in Second Nature offers a similarly graceful matching of form and content, in which stylistic choices serve to illuminate and complicate the text itself.

Although frequently incorporating experimental literary forms, Collom’s concerted efforts to pay homage to a rich tradition of ecological writing are impressive. In the midst of lyric fragments and collages, the reader encounters specters of the great Transcendentalists—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and many others. The form of the book itself is reminiscent of nineteenth century sketchbook writing. But perhaps more importantly, Collom pays homage to his predecessors while also modernizing their various portrayals of the natural world as crucial to the formation of the self. For instance, in “An Evolution of Writing Ideas,” he writes that

A large part of the attitude I seek to celebrate and recommend comes and goes under the shifty heading (more like cloud cover than label) relativity.  Ecology and Art are loaded with Relativity.  And Relativity is the very fluid that dethroned Truth…This revolt is in a sense relative; it railed to carry Relativity to a logical extreme…

Here Collom situates the concerns of Fuller, Emerson, and Thoreau in contemporary theoretical and ecological discourse. While certainly acknowledging the importance of nature to the formation of personal identity, Collom seamlessly weaves this idea with a parody of the attitude of denial surrounding global warming in contemporary society. In many ways, these transcendental concerns about the environment, stewardship, and personal identity seem all the more pressing when situated within a contemporary theoretical landscape. Indeed, Collom underscores the danger of losing a crucial component of selfhood, identity, and the human experience as present-day ecological discourse takes a wrong turn. Second Nature is filled with poems like this one, which gracefully blend homage with contemporary environmental concerns. In short, a truly stunning collection.

About the Reviewer

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of fifteen books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and a forthcoming hybrid genre collection called Fortress (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo.