Jack Collom’s Second Nature

 SECOND-NATURENature, what exactly is it? (Aside from being literally everything) Who’s to know…Jack Collom for one doesn’t pretend to. But he invests much of his writing time poking around within some ideas of what nature at times might be glimpsed to be and mulling over how he himself manages locate his own relationship(s) towards it. In short, Second Nature documents Collom’s lifelong engagement with the world of nature via writing. Gathered herein are various occasions when Collom goes and looks about the world that is ‘out there,’ as in beyond the window, and writes about it. In his own, ever wary, words

This book is composed of poesie and prose about nature. The word “nature”—well, even with galaxy-sized hands, one couldn’t throw them high enough to express the appropriate discomfort with such a space-chameleon as “nature.” Even worse, “about” appears to creep from word to thing like some gelid predator.

Collom is passionately engaged with considering the ramifications of how poets and writers approach discussing, understanding, and engaging nature, and/or ecology, in their work. He also simply takes delight in the mere pleasure of approaching, investigating, promulgating, and, not least importantly, playing with introducing ecological concerns into his own work. Born in 1931, he’s been a birder and avid outdoor enthusiast since childhood. This book presents various records of his getting out and about in whatever landscapes are near at hand everywhere he lives. Although Second Nature is destined to prove a seminal treatise within rapidly emerging ecopoetics, ecopoetics as such is not the subject or topic of his book. After all, Collom has been “doing” this writing since far before the term was ever bandied about.

Primarily this book is a celebratory demonstration of playing with language. It remains generously instructive without any haranguing of readers or dry self-extolling. Managing to give an encouraging shove for creative writing (ugh, not that “term,” as Collom might say) to be seen as a quite natural activity. A suitable space quite fit for presenting consideration of our ongoing and future relationship with nature; that writing is, no big surprise in fact, an expression of nature itself.

Collom provides conscientious observation of what’s happening around him. Whether he’s walking or driving around local neighborhoods, or hiking far out of town, it’s all offered up in the greatest diversity of writing. He’s an inveterate fan of not just exploring new uses of language, enlarging the scope of what’s envisioned as possible, but also continually steps outside the box of permission: “I think we needn’t abolish closure, absolutism, labels, certainty and the like; we “must” (beware of that word) simply include them in a greater show and flow.” He’s interested in promoting writing concerned with meeting expectations inside of its own immediate needs rather than courting current fashions. Writing that is always an engaged response to the immediate environment: “I propose that language should consider resembling nature.” Nobody can tell you how to write something down any more than control where grass takes root in soil. Writing happens.

Collom resists over-categorizing what he’s up to, nonetheless perhaps despite himself there’s much of use to be gleaned from attending to his reflections. The lessons are humorous, the tales fun, the language smart. The emphasis upon observing and doing, the sharing of experience, comes across in a most disarming manner seeking to neither classify or explain so much as report.

Recently I was walking in the foothills among mountain mahogany and I heard an awful thrashing close by. My heart jumped; I’d seen a small bear in this ravine just weeks before. It was quite a hullabaloo, and I expected some immense creature (aggrieved Mama Nature?) to rear up any second. But what the sound and fury signified was—a towhee, this time the western rufous-sided type, flecked with lots of bright white above. This little ounce can stir up a storm in a thicket. I thought of Chaos Theory—just a resemblance. Little things mean a lot is what it says.

Do with that what you will. For Collom, “little things mean a lot” serves as a mantra for what proves a thrilling guide to the practice of being present in order to apprehend firsthand what previously went unnoticed.

Life is a prolonged engagement which constantly self-generates new means and opportunities to indefinitely continue our learning. Our abilities of adaptation extend indefinitely. This goes for writing as much as any other activity or pursuit. Collom reminds that when consulting other living entities, critters and more dormant types such as rocks and such, there’ll be no end to your finding “the little brown language / you always wanted to learn.” In the end, Collom’s just curious about things he isn’t already a part of. And his interest remains focused upon how what’s ‘other’ keeps going, as for the rest (including his own species): “I don’t know. If disaster is the only way the planet can keep a larger balance going, let it be. The viruses will survive, and the bacteria will start over.” Self-interest goes only so far; it’s a good lesson for beginning writers: lose yourself. Start over.

Collom notes in his Preface, “I think the basic point is variety.” His multifarious writing demonstrates this assertion. Material included in Second Nature ranges from individual poems to connected poem-series, on to short selections from out longer prose and interviews: a wide spectrum ranging from lyric reverie to straight eye-witness reportage of detail, all gathered from publications throughout Collom’s life. Even including a mini-epic adventure as told from the perspective of Collom’s pet mouse Hoback.  Second Nature is both a natural as well as necessary companion text to Collom’s colossal in size and ever great Red Car Goes By: Selected Poems 1955-2000, from which it also borrows some material. As if that tome didn’t already handily attest to Collom’s abilities, Second Nature only further proves him a premiere versifier, ever capable. Collom presents an array of exemplar writings and commentary effortlessly performed. It is a truly dizzying presentation.

This book yields best to a slow reading. It’s full of learning, Collom’s peripatetic teaching career—a student to all ages, as he might put it—being frequently referenced and drawn upon. This is as much an ideal introduction to Collom’s life work as it is also a summation of it. Although when discussing his work he’s circumspectly demure: “It’s just a song. An available job.” Don’t buy his modesty. Collom works the sidelines like an old pro, he’s comfortable there. But there’s no doubting he’s long been a strong contender all the way. Second Nature is a large cog in the ever churning wheel of terrific writing that’s overlooked far too often. Collom’s work deserves much greater attention. He’s an in between sort of writer deservedly classifiable to his own genus. A true rogue and scoundrel of the merriest sort, Collom carves out his own grooves, leaving long lasting impressions. This is the kind of rare stuff reading is all about discovering. It will lead you into unfamiliar territory you’ve somehow missed but all along always wanted to know more about. Best of all, it gives you the means to fully dig its scene.

Buy it from SPD: $16

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco.  His books include GUSTONBOOK and Das Gedichtete.

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