Although mushrooms grow throughout the year, I have a tendency to notice them more in the fall. I think this may be because they become more prominent when the grasses and the low level vegetation begin to recede. Or, it may be because I am not distracted by the wildflowers and abundance of bird song. Either way, I have noticed a lot of mushrooms this week and this got me thinking about their role in poetry.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) often wrote about nature in her poetry. In the poem, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants-(1350)”, Dickinson’s observational skills and knowledge of the natural world is evident. It also seems like she is questioning where the mushroom fits in the larger scheme of things.
“The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants-(1350)” – Emily Dickinson
The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants - At Evening, it is not At Morning, in a Truffled Hut It stop opon a Spot As if it tarried always And yet it’s whole Career Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay - And fleeter than a Tare - ’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler - The Germ of Alibi - Doth like a Bubble antedate And like a Bubble, hie - I feel as if the Grass was pleased To have it intermit - This surreptitious Scion Of Summer’s circumspect. Had Nature any supple Face Or could she one contemn - Had Nature an Apostate - That Mushroom - it is Him!
What I find interesting about this poem is how Dickinson moves the reader through her observations of the mushroom. We start with the almost magical appearance of the mushroom, we then shift to its short life, and end with questions about its relationship to other objects in nature.
In that last stanza where Dickinson says, “Had Nature an Apostate-” and “That Mushroom -it is Him!” made me stop and think. These lines seem to be a recognition that mushrooms don’t follow any of the traditional laws of nature. Mushrooms are a breed unto themselves.
Poet Paige Quiñones provides another poem about mushrooms. However, this poem focuses on foraging.
“Mushrooms” by Paige Quiñones
Pulling my first from its place in the forest floor felt like slipping a key from its partnered, well-oiled lock. Broken so cleanly at the stem it appeared scalpel-sliced. You assured me this was a good find, a Boletus from its reddened bruise and lack of gills. But chanterelles proved easiest to forage; their penny-bright caps glinted between dead leaves, ripe for the taking. Spiders were the largest animals we saw that day: orb weavers bigger than a man’s fist, sharp-legged seamstresses whose webs like neural networks transgressed each clearing. Without hair they weren’t so frightening, as if each spider had disrobed herself to display a less menacing skeleton. Still, we kept our distance. And suddenly what I had never paid attention to was flourishing: oysters in bursts around a rotting stump, Amanitas with their white burial shroud, indigo milk caps as fluted and blue as a ballerina’s tulle skirt. You told me the wildness might not be as feral as we think. That the fungi’s filaments weave a pattern, a conscious fabric, engaging the nearest tree with its opposite furthest tree to say entwine your roots with my mycelia and I will tell you my secrets. We followed their invisible cartography by whatever heads peered up from autumn’s detritus. And though we were strangers there, unmooring each mushroom that seemed least dangerous, we could feel the vast organism underfoot. Silent but for the sounds of insects, unwitting and soon to be caught.
What I really enjoy about this poem is how Quiñones draws our attention from the easily seen to what lies underground. The reader is guided from the harvesting of a Boletus to imagining the secrets that are shared between the mushrooms and the trees. Secrets that we as humans may never know.
A third poem that I wanted to share today was Arthur Sze’s “Mushroom Hunting in the Jemez Mountains.” This poem can be found in his most recent book, The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems.
Walking in a mountain meadow toward the north slope, I see red-cap amanitas with white warts and know they signal cèpes. I see a few colonies of puffballs, red russulas with chalk-white stipes, brown-gilled Poison Pie. In the shade under the spruce are two red-pored boletes: slice them in half and the flesh turns blue in seconds. Under fir is a single amanita with basal cup, flarinannulus, white cap: is it the Rocky Mountain form of Amanita pantherina? I am aware of danger in naming, in misidentification, in imposing the distinctions of a taxonomic language onto the things themselves. I know I have only a few hours to hunt mushrooms before early afternoon rain. I know it is a mistake to think I am moving and that argarics are still: they are more transient than we acknowledge, more susceptible to full moon, to a single rain, to night air, to a moment of sunshine. I know in this meadow my passions are mycorrhizal with nature. I may shout our ecstasies, aches, griefs, and hear them vanish in the white-pored silence.
What I really like about Sze’s poem is the journey the reader gets to go on. We get to notice all the different types of mushrooms that are on the mountain trail. We get to name them. But then we get to wonder about the challenges of labelling living things and limits of our own perceptions. But in the end, we can relax knowing that we are held by nature, because we are nature.
One last poem that I want to encourage people to read if you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the mystery of the fungal kingdom is “Ants” by Matthew Rohrer. In this poem, Rohrer describes the parasitic nature of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This fungus takes over the mind and body of carpenter ants as a means to propagate its spores. It is definitely an interesting poem and explores the more aggressive side of the natural world.
I am wondering if you have any poems about mushrooms that you would like to share? Feel free to share your comments below.
Resources and further reading:
- Emily Dickinson, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants”
- Paige Quiñones, “Mushrooms”
- Arthur Sze, “Mushroom Hunting in the Jemez Mountains”
- Matthew Rohrer, “Ants”
Books by the poets:
- Quiñones debut poetry collection The Best Prey is now available. This collection won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize and is described as an investigation into the trauma of desire which is populated with stark dualities.
- Arthur Sze’s book The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems has also been recently released. His writing is described as “Fusing elements of Chinese, Japanese, Native American, and various Western experimental traditions–employing startling juxtapositions that are always on target, deeply informed by concern for our endangered planet and troubled species.”
- Matthew Rohrer’s poem “Ants” came from his book Surrounded by Friends. The publisher describes this book by stating, “Friends, family, and the urban peoplescape are gathered together in these poems, with more and more poetic voices joining in, and ending with poems written in collaboration with Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, Matsuo Basho, and Hafiz.”
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