FROM THE INTRODUCTION
. . . Poems, like mushrooms, demand our close attention before they can be found or seen at all. As mushrooms are a hybrid kingdom—first thought to be plants, now believed closer to animals, but truly neither, a life form in fact uniquely their own—so it is with poems, which reside hybrid between music and speech, between logic and feeling, between waking thought and the leapings of dream, doing work they alone can. And then, as the largest living creature on earth (described in Laura Kasischke’s poem) is a fungal mat whose expressed DNA extends over many square miles in Oregon’s eastern forests, so poetry’s mostly unseen devices underlie, sustain, and connect over vast distances other dimensions of language, whether lullaby, sermon, or political address at both its best and its worst. As mushrooms hold dangerous powers, so do poems—Plato famously banned poets from his ideal Republic because their words can sway in ways beyond reason’s reach. Both mushrooms and poems hold shamanic potential; when taken inside us fully, they have the power to alter consciousness in profoundly unpredictable ways.
Neither porcini nor poems are day to day staples: continuous availability is confined to the more easily grown, more easily storable grains. Yet the intensities of the rare, the seasonal, the brief, the strange, and that which requires both a kneeling intimacy and depth of knowledge to be safely known at all—these are needed as much as oatmeal, rice, or bread. It is that elusive, concentrated presence, the sudden coming and going of life forms mostly hidden, the awareness of mysteries that can only be given, not forced into being, that both the mushrooms and the poems in this volume point toward. Gathered from the root-zones of many different trees, knife-scraped from rock-face, lifted from dung, spore-flung into air, these gathered mushroom poems offer undomestic, distinctive discoveries to all who choose to join the effort to find them.
Sherman Alexie • A.R. Ammons • Margaret Atwood • David Axelrod • John Bargowski • Marvin Bell • Simeon Berry • Elizabeth Bishop • Robert Bly • Todd Boss • John Cage • Jim Daniels • Alison Hawthorne Deming • Xue Di • Adam Dickinson • Emily Dickinson • David Dodd Lee • Alan Dugan • Donna J. Gelagotis Lee • Harry Gilonis • Mark Halperin • Robert Hass • William Heyen • Christopher Howell • Andrew Hudgins • Charlotte Innes • Louis Jenkins • Laura Kasischke • Basma Kavanagh • Christine Boyka Kluge • Yusef Komunyakaa • Ted Kooser • Maxine Kumin • Ann Lauinger • Dorianne Laux • D.H. Lawrence • Jeff Mann • David Mason • W.S. Merwin • Mary Oliver • Allan Peterson • Sylvia Plath • Robert Michael Pyle • Alberto Rios • Pattiann Rogers • Michael J. Rosen • Kay Ryan • Tomaz Salamun • Lynne Shapiro • R.T. Smith • Gary Snyder • William Stafford • Gerald Stern • Arthur Sze • Lee Upton • Sidney Wade • Robert Penn Warren • Michael Water • Richard Wilbur • Nance Van Winckel • Jane Whitledge • Robert Wrigley • W. B. Yeats • David Young • Gary Young
29 May 2010 / Fungi Magazine
Review by David Rose
Decomposition: An Anthology of Fungi-Inspired Poems
edited by Renée Roehl and Kelly Chadwick
(2010) Lost Horse Press: Sandpoint, Idaho.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was well versed in agarics; Walt Whitman sang the praises of Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae (Cedar Apples); and William Carlos Williams knew his cèpes. While it should come as no surprise that poets have trained their eyes on the fungi, the path to the poetic delineation of the fifth kingdom has been overgrown with attention lavished on flowers and trees. Students commonly associate Wordsworth with daffodils and Blake with the rose and sunflower, but why not Yeats with the mushrooms glistening in the dew? Perhaps it’s a strange, attenuated form of mycophobia that has hushed the mushroom-loving poets and the full range and reach of their voices, for poems about the fungi are far more common than one might first believe. Like the mushrooms themselves, the poems are out there hiding in the duff, and it takes a bit of work and a knack for where to look in order to scrounge together a full basket.
Anthologies of poetry are created to chronicle a movement or to gather poems on a single subject or theme. There are poetry anthologies on war, love, death, food, and a host of special topics. With the publication of Decomposition, we now have a superb collection of poems that derive from the perception that the fungi have much to teach us about the surrounding universe and life itself. Fungi-inspired poems—is this so unusual? Poems celebrating flowers, trees, and gardens have informed literary traditions since Ovid and Chuang Tzu, for nature themes are universal in poetry the world over. We frequently find poems tucked away in mushroom club newsletters, primarily because mycophiles tend to open their lives to the devotion of fungi in every conceivable fashion. But the realization that mushroom-inspired poetry is itself a singular tradition, one that has largely proliferated underground or at the margins of literature, has had to await Roehl and Chadwick’s splendid collection of mushroom poems that have sporulated and fruited in a vivid wordscape of color and form.
Among the poets represented in Decomposition, there are some usual suspects. Emily Dickinson, Robert Penn Warren, and Sylvia Plath each has a single notable mushroom poem that has seen print on several occasions. Others, such as Elizabeth Bishop, A. R. Ammons, Richard Wilbur, and W. S. Merwin are poets whose work forms an essential part of the canon of 20th century American poetry. Still others, like Ted Kooser (“The Mushroom Hunters”), Laura Kasischke (“The World’s Largest Living Thing”), and Sidney Wade (“Pluteus Petasatus”) are not familiar to all, but they penetrate the cloud of unknowing that engulfs the vulgar attitude about mushrooms with poems whose vitality of style wholly assimilates their subject: are we dreaming of fungi or are the fungi dreaming of us? Useless to embark on a litany of names of all the authors that grace this collection; what is apparent is that the collective perceptual paradigm achieves a catharsis of popular mycology. The astonishing poems of Harry Gilonis, for example, constitute nothing less than a taxonomy and nomenclature based on visionary insight. The editors of this volume deserve hearty congratulations not just for expertly assembling an attractive miscellany, but for introducing us to a world of poems that fulfills Shelley’s dictum that poetry is “that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred.” If this is hyperbole, it is also unfashionable truth. The poets are vindicated, and they rest their case (well, poets never really rest their case).
“Decomposition” is a trope (and a playful nod toward deconstructionism), and so is “mycelium.” These signify two of the grand, cosmic characteristics of the fungi. As decomposers, mushrooms are the great re-cyclers, ensuring the return of dead organic matter back again to life. By way of mycelium we apprehend interconnectedness via the extensive threadlike weft that permeates the rhizosphere, constituting the vegetative soul of the world. Science may not see it in quite these terms, but poets might; and it’s entirely fitting that Decomposition includes the work of Gary Snyder, a poet whose worldview synthesizes ethics, aesthetics, and science in exacting complementarity. A champion for the protection of all beings, Snyder’s poem “White Sticky” underscores the value of teaching children about mushrooms, but his appreciation of their critical role in supporting life runs deeper still. Snyder has written, “as climax forest is to biome, and fungus is to the recycling of energy, so ‘enlightened mind’ is to daily ego mind, and art to the recycling of neglected inner potential. When we deepen or enrich ourselves, looking within, understanding ourselves, we come close to being like a climax system.”
Snyder’s perspective is shared by the poets of Decomposition to the extent that their inner transformations are revealed in precise language about natural cycles and mycological phenomena. Elsewhere Snyder has remarked, “Poets are more like mushrooms, or fungus—they can digest the symbol-detritus.” From Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” based on actual observations of fungi documented in her Yaddo notebooks to Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s wry “Ode to Fungi-filled Face Cream,” the poems in this collection digest the symbols to make sense of living fact. Humorous, authentic, and intelligent, Decomposition is not to be missed. One would only hope that Roehl and Chadwick will one day compile a second volume of mushroom poems in translation or poetry written by mycologists and microbiologists. Decomposition is a stunning achievement—foxfire for the mind.
They’re here. Among blades
Of grass, like divided cells.
Between plant & animal. Good
For nothing. In a rain storm, spores
Glom together. Yellow-white
Pieces of a puzzle. Unable to be
Seen till united. Something
Left over from a world before—
Beyond modern reason. Primeval
Fingers reduced & multiplied
A hundredfold, the most basic
Love & need shape them into a belief
System. The color of scrambled eggs.
Good for something we never thought
About, these pets of aliens crawl up
The Judas trees in bloom.