February 2009

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Birds and Words

Jack Collom’s Fish Drum Press book, Exchanges of Earth and Sky, mediates personal experience through observations of birds. Written as a kind of spiritual guidebook, the notational revelation of bird life and person life collide in verbally compressed but thematically expansive poems that reveal the history, geography, and ornithological perceptions of an observant individual. One poem, “Carolina Paroquet / or kelinky,” offers historical perspective before situating the poem within a diary-like entry:

John Lawson, Gentleman, 1714:            “The Parrokeetes
visit us first when the mulberries are ripe
which fruit they love
They peck the apples to eat the kernels
They devour the Birch Buds
and lie hidden when the weather is frosty and hard.”

the Carolina paroquet is extinct.

Lawson’s rich words activate the presence of the extinct creature, the details of the mulberries and apple kernels providing insight to the habitat and preferences of these birds. The second half of the poem shifts attention to the author’s present condition in things:

they zigzag continually
faster than eye can see
through these particular trees,
the aforesaid 4 cottonwoods (which are really 6 contorted trunks).

And orangecrowns have darkly populated
the lower tangles
of this raggedy, raggedy line
along with lisping white-crowned sparrows.

… … …

As of this moment I’ve
been staying here exactly one week.
Male kingfisher rattled by the other day.

Sat a while ago with hosts Anne and Gary (Hausler)
outside their huge house late morning
eating sweet crumbly coffeecake,
and twenty sandhill cranes flew spiraling over the ridge
heading for Monte Vista.

For some, the paratactic frames might suggest a disorderly chaos of composition. The discursive agenda of the American culture industry is noticeably absent, with other orders of arrangement operative. The inventive structure of this and other pieces in the book rely on two framing devices to extend the notational narratives. The top portions reveal something about birds: name, habitat, description, traits, etc. Some, like “Ruddy Duck,” condense words for an extraordinarily playful and delightful effect:

or dumpling duck, daub duck, deaf duck,
fool duck, sleepy duck,
butter duck, brown diving teal, widgeon coot,
creek coot, sleepy coot, sleepy brother,
butter-ball, batter-scoot, blatherskite, bumble coot,
quill-tailed coot, heavy-tailed coot, stiff-tail,
pin-tail, bristle-tail, sprig-tail, stick-tail, spine-tail, dip-tail,
diver, dun-bird, dumb-gird, mud-dipper,
spoon-billed butter-ball, spoonbill, broad-billed dipper,
dipper, dapper, dopper, broad-bill, blue-bill,
sleepy-head, tough-head, hickory-head,
steel-head, hard-headed broad-bill, bull-neck,
leather-back, paddy-whack, stub-and-twist,
lightwood-knot, shot-pouch, water-partridge,
dinky, dickey, paddy, noddy, booby, rook, roody,
stiff-tailed widgeon, gray teal, salt-water teal

(When I read this poem to my four-year-old he jumped and hooted, laughed and wagged and wiggled with fleshy fullness). The nominal amplification provides poetic texture in the syllabic exchange of vowel and syllable, the quick, trochaic Anglo-Saxon stresses hitting the first beat of most words: “dipper, dapper, dopper, broad-bill, blue-bill.” The alliterative distribution of the alveolars /d/ and /t/, along with the bilabials /b/ and /p/, maintain a drum-like rhythm that is syncopated by subtle vowel cadences: “dumb-bird, dumb-gird, mud-dipper.” The interplay of the mid central vowel and the higher front vowel /I/ receive the plosive /d/ and bilabial /m/ to give the line a measured, bird-like cadence. Indeed, this stanza uses colloquial names for the ruddy duck to approximate a kind of mimetic bird or duck-like call, invoking the duck’s presence to the reader through the nominal amplification of its name and through syncopated aural rhythms.

The second portion arranged in these inventive patterns rely on personal notes. The poems are diary-like, as if Collom sifted through a private journal along with a bird guidebook, looking for ways to invoke and name particular birds while contextualizing them in the process of his attentive and poetic life. So, for instance, “Road-Runner / geococcyx,” opens with stanzas relating specifically to this desert creature that “nest[s] in cacti, mesquite, sage brush or thorny bushes / of rude construction / / lives / almost entirely on lizards. the young fed on lizards, / the reptile always killed / and thrust head-down in the mouth / of the youngster.” Juxtaposed to this are personal notes that are not discursively relevant to “Road Runner:”

Canada geese honk,
mallards panic, teal
skedaddle over water,
Lincoln’s sparrow gurgles from the willow bush.

Ravens pace the fall-orange fields
everywhichway (plus harrier once),
produce unexpectedly inventive
“Hoo-hoos” in the cottonwoods.

Once a redtail, chased by
assorted corvids, fled,
assumed its ravenous bulk

At night I sleep OK
(without pills -- forgot) -- wake up 6-ish
to miscellaneous interrogations, wind and sun
somehow in through/out the six whole cottonwood boles.

The incursive nature of these arrangements invites a reader’s curiosity and they present patterns through which we observe the poet in his observations. The inherent relations matter, observing a quietude or modesty of speculative presentation suggesting that self is composed of its environments, both present and recollected. These incursive movements extend the invocation of the bird talismanically, the road runner-runner here a kind of familiar by which “Lincoln’s sparrow” receives its formal registration. The prosodic precision is contained by colloquial language that gives to these stanzas a sense of effortlessness. Probably, the kinetic attentions involved here of pen, eye, mind, and memory are so enmeshed that such prosody is integrated thoroughly into Collom’s practice so that art and life blur, and words in-form experience. Exchanges of Earth & Sky offers a delightful personal and phenomenal investigation, and it shows an approach to composition that stresses process over product, the material weight of words catching the flitting and unpredictable movements of nature.