Friday, April 19, 2013

NPM: billions of breathing comets

Sometimes we experience a work of art and it flips a switch. Sometimes the bulb doesn't flash on right away -- like an old fluorescent tube, it tiks, sputters, and flickers at length from dimness to light. Such was my experience with some poems by Jack Collom, an old man I met in Boulder, Colorado (see last post).

All of the visiting adjuncts and mainstays at the university regarded him with conspicuous reverence. You could tell why immediately: the man was a genius. IS a genius, rather: he's very much alive.

His reverence was (is) for Nature. Birds in particular: one of his poetry collections, Exchanges of Earth and Sky, focuses exclusively on birds (using them as an inductive springboard into Nature). The poem we'll be looking at today, "Passage," is from another collection -- Arguing with Something Plato Said -- but it is about a bird. That bird is the passenger pigeon (extinct).

I caught Jack a few times -- chatted with him at lunchtime, sat in on a lecture and attended a reading (he read "Passage" and received a standing ovation). Coming away from these experiences, I wondered it if mightn't be worth my while to start paying closer attention to Nature than I had in the past.

On the way home to Jersey from Boulder, I sat at a park in Kansas for an hour and watched (and LISTENED to) the birds.

Five years later, I can now go outside, and -- provided I'm familiar with the area -- can listen for a few seconds and usually identify all the flying noisemakers singing out within earshot, even if I can't see them. This isn't a boast -- I'm still too inexperienced a birdwatcher even to call myself a birdwatcher -- but what I know about birds I've indeliberately learned out of love for them, and I do believe it's the result of a circuit that first became active when an old poet from Colorado charged me with a small spark of his own wonder for the feathered contingent of earthly things.

So: "Passage." It's a long poem. I had to type it from the book (point out typos if you notice them!) and it took a few minutes, so do please read it. Don't be daunted by its length: Jack switches styles too regularly (note the eight stanzas in limerick!) to give the piece the opportunity to start dragging.

(You can listen to a recording of him reading the poem here.)

Jack Collom (1931- )

   "When one is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer,
it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again the eye searches in
vain; the bird is gone."


"An infinite number,"
said Champlain, on the islands,
in 1605 &

took a great
quantity. "Fully as abundant
as fish," said the

Jesuit Fathers in
Acadia, 1610. "Incredible," added Stork
from Florida, 1766.

"Broke down trees,
took all food," Lawson, History
of Carolina, 1701.

They robbed "a
very great quantity of English
grain," complained Winthrop,

Plymouth Colony, 1643,
then (1648), blessed their presence,
"it being incredible

what multitudes of
them were killed daily." Alexander
Wilson spoke of

a flight to
Green River, Kentucky, 240 miles
of packed sky,

estimated 2,230, 272,000 individuals,
who devoured 17,424 bushels of
nuts every day.

Their nests—over
100 per tree—projected broken
limbs, ejecta like

deep snow. Below,
herds of fattening hogs gobbled
eggs, dead squabs.

"Light of noonday
sun was obscured as by
an eclipse," quoth

Audubon, soon after,
1813, about a flight which
darkened the sky

for three days.
As flocks alighted, branches gave
way, killing hundreds

of birds below.
Trees two feet in diameter
were broken off

near the ground.
Their winter roost noise was
"like a gale

passing through the
rigging of a close-reefed vessel."
No one dared

go into the
woods at night. GATHERINGS OF
by far the

most abundant bird
in the world.  Columbia migratorius,
Passenger Pigeon (extinct).

                         * * * * * * *

comes to the mouth
via Latin pipio, piper

    (When Pope Gregory was dictating his homilies in Ezekiel, a veil
    was drawn between his secretary and himself. The servant peeked through
    and beheld a dove seated on Gregory's head, with its beak between his
    lips. When the dove withdrew its beak the Holy Pontiff spoke.)

arises from the Gothic dubo
meaning diver,
as Columba, from Greek,
means also diver
(resemblance to gulls?).

In & out, roundabout, each passage pipio measured
long as a fine bottle of champagne,
perfect profile dove. Bright
skyblue back, breast of clay red,
head like an aerial chesspiece: The Flier,
to come down anywhere & checkmate the field.

Each pipio of passage had a
shiny, moving eye.
                                    When the lady
saw him dance,
eggs began to roll.
                                    When the gentleman
saw her settle down to brood,
"pigeon's milk" wetted his crop.
Each pipio billed & cooed
Bloody fights.
Monogamous, but not fanatic.
Voice like love.

Each pipio stuck its black beak in drink, sucked
up continuous drafts of water
(bird-unique; all others
gargle at the moon).

On the other hand,
legs & feet were "lake-red."

Each pipio of passage
pumped blood into plump chest to push
pointed wings 80 mph, high
like a whistling arrow.
"Plumage peculiarly dense, but easily detached."
Loved salt mud.

Twelve feathers (each
narrowed & obtusely sharp) made up
the graduated tail.

Rich beauties of each bird (gone forever): glosses of the neck,




& the outer web edgings of the primaries

Hollow bones, & the
Black Spot (concealed) in each wing.

1 or 2 pure white
eggs laid in a
frail flat of twigs.

Hoo woo!-oo—hoo, hoo, hoo cries the scattered little sister.

                         * * * * * * *

    There once was a passenger dove
    Who divided to billions by love.
    The infinite flights
    Intercepted the lights
    That normally flowed from above.

    & the clef of that feathered eclipse
    Led alignments of notes to the lips
    Of the faces thereunder
    Effusions of wonder:
    ". . .the flotillas of lavender ships!"

    When the pigeons alighted, the land
    Was bedecked, as by miles of sand.
    Each grain was a world
    That eons had whirled
    & would flutter & sing on your hand.

    Each feather was made of a million
    Thin barbules that wove a pavillion
    Of aerial moves
    Beating nitrogen grooves:
    Light plough to sheer shine along sillion.

    Nobody knows what the brain
    Of the dove did create or contain:
    Its particular way
    Of perceiving each day,
    Plus intricate pleasure & pain.

    But its mind was an avian elf
    That spun, for the sake of itself,
    Blue volumes of knowledge,
    Columbian college,
    Atmosphere's continent shelf.

    Just like a lost city of wells
    Cupping dark informational swells,
    Circling mesmeric streams
    Of numbers & dreams
    Single cell in the bellum of cells.

    . . .

    The paths of penultimate glory
    Could be loud & colossally gory
    Of delicate riots
    Of intimate quiets.
    Chief Pokagon tells us this story:

                         * * * * * * *

"One morning
On leaving my wigwam I was startled
By hearing a gurgling,
Rumbling sound,
As though
An army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing
Through the deep forests.
I concluded that
Instead of tramping horses
It was distant thunder; and yet the
Morning was clear, calm and beautiful.
Nearer and nearer came
The strange commingling sounds of
Sleigh bells, mixed
With rumblings of an approaching storm. I beheld
Moving toward me in an unbroken front
Millions of pigeons.
They passed like a cloud
Through the branches of the high trees,
Through the underbrush and over
The ground, overturning
Every leaf. They fluttered all
about me; gently
I caught
Two in my hands
And concealed them
Under my blanket.
. . . They were mating.
I sat down and carefully watched
Their movements. I tried to
Their strange language and why
They all chatted in
Concert. The
Great omnivoring mass passed by me,
But the trees were still
Filled with them uttering
To their mates
Those strange wooing notes I
Had mistaken for
The ringing of bells."
(lines broken)
 * * * * * * *
   Ahh, those "pigeon mornings!" You'd "shoot enough before breakfast to load a hay wagon, with the sides on, full to the brim." When the flocks came in, the whole town'd be out with their flintlocks, queen's arms, string-tied gun locks. It's been known that a fouler gets 71 birds with two flintlock shots. And there'd be clubs, stones, smudge-pots, raking poles. And especially nets, great, grain-baited nets. And pigeon-baited. Just take a pigeon and sew his eyes shut so he'll flutter, pin his legs to a chunk of wood (the "stool") and watch 'em come pouring in like all the stars in the sky but a lot better eating. Those pigeons were unsuspicious. Walk into the woods and they'd be cooing all around you, raising kids left and right. The squabs were prime, and cheap 'cause Nature did the dirty work.
    And of course we're talking Market. Market, market huge and nationwide. Just one New York merchant sold 18,000 pigeons a day, and there were many more like him. Cities and towns all over just gobbled pigeons up. A delicacy! Trainloads of 'em were chugging all over America. Not just the meat—the feathers and down went into pillows and quilts. Gizzards, guts, blood and excrement sold as medical cures for damn near everything—gallstones, stomachache, dysentery, colic, infected eyes, fever and epilepsy.
    And the live birds for trapshooting took about a million a year. One club would use up 50,000 for a week's shooting. Naturally piles of 'em would die in capture, or during transport, or break their necks or wings hurled from the catapult. Still, one sporting gentleman might kill 500 in a day.
    Nobody thought the wild pigeons were anything but infinite bounty. Till about 1850, some diminishment was noted. 28 little years later, the last great nesting took place, near Petoseky, Michigan, 100,000 acres of leftover beech. Telegraph spread the news, and railways focused the thousand pro netters, plus locals from all over, like glassed rays on a bug. Every possible pigeon was slaughtered, a million or more.
    Then where were they all? The netters' story was that vast numbers had drowned in Lake Michigan, and in the ocean, caught in storms. Other folk were scratching their heads about it, decades later. A great mystery, suck rich abundance, to lose its coherence, to go out like a light. Something cockeyed somewhere.
    Northern Indians loved pigeon meat too, but never killed till the squabs were ready to fly. Advantages of Indian time. They cajoled, then threatened, whites to exercise a like moderation, to no avail. A last quarter million descended from the North in 1896 (for the Passenger Pigeon migrated any direction) and nested near Mammoth Cave. They might as well have nested at the bottom of the sea. All but 5,000 were slaughtered. Then the entire kill, in boxcars, was derailed, some kind of railroad accident, and every bird rotted by the tracks.
    The last known wild pigeon was shot four years later, 1900, by a small boy in Ohio (a future President, rumor has it).

    * * * * * * *

Too much was not enough.
The party got too rough.
The big old woods
Delivered the goods
& the pigeons' flight
Was massive purple light
Until death
Mechanized its dire breath,
Till bony chance
Turned from a dance
To a march
Over the arch
Made of slaughter,
Over the air-without-water
& out.

When royal purple commonality miles wide
& fifty feet thick pipes its own breath,
& pigeon's milk flows sweetly
Through the convulsions of the crowd—so the
Crash of broken homes is just a tinkle in a
Roaring red-blue song—so the parental bill
Is a fluttering pipe organ forest, vast enough to chart
So the rich blood, wing to wing, caresses the chance orphan
Then the violent thinning of that
Explodes an atmosphere, blows holes
Through a general, moon-colored, feathery flesh,
Tatters population that it
Pisses its peculiar oxygen into No-bird's-land.

Already, in the very center of the rich, chaotic, pigeon
Country they carried anywhere,
Through the breathtaking thin air,
Was a white eye—the single egg, absolute
Number & color certainty,
Central circle in a whirlwind of rainbows
A hole to stick a finger in, curl tight & jerk.

Ain't no maybes, boss, there's safety in
numbers but not nearly enough of it.
Somebody's pushing pins into my giant singing poem, my
Everything syndrome!
("Why not take all of me?") 

It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions of
        breathing comets.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions of
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions of.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am billions.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I am.
It is possible to lose my coherence though I.
It is possible to lose my coherence though.
It is possible to lose my coherence.
It is possible to lose my.
It is possible to lose.
It is possible to.
It is possible.
It is.

Hoo woo!-oo—hoo, hoo, hoo.

They seemed to be all things, exchanges
of earth & sky 
feathers, words pressed dry, from flash-
in-concert to an isolate float, lit up, letting fly,
settling to rest, infesting forest with violet
violence, leaving reeking plaster over
bronze landscape, squatting
iridescent figures of strong streamline,
atmospheric opals,
but the very diamond is but buttonbright against the wonderdumb
luster of the last crumb of terra-firma crust:
coming up—sky
being sucked out, leaving a blot, oceans
going up in smoke,
molecules re
forming. & is there an end too all things? Tectonic plates
wiped clean? & we are
birds of passage
birds of passage
birds of passage.
We are
pipers in Avernus,
getting along,
concentrating & leveling.
The beating of infinite wings
PLUNGES through the body,
passes the breath, & down through
space barely shaped to perfection, bird of passage,
everything pointing at light
ness, to that most
complex occurrence, double curls of genetic
acid, & down
to nothing
one more time. 

                         * * * * * * * 

Wake up & okay!
In the shapes of leaves-&-sky I see
Snarling little demons.

                         * * * * * * *

Vast, breathing, pearly presence
Extinguished by wonderful
Intelligent cancer.  


  1. Interesting, thanks for sharing. Possible typos:

    "An army if horses"
    "infected eyes, ever, and epilepsy"

    I look forward to checking out the recording.