Sunday, January 9, 2011

Decomposition—Renée Roehl & Kelly Chadwick, eds.

Well, Christmas is well past, and I have a long list of titles for review. This is exciting. It’s like being turned loose in a candy store. Actually, I was turned loose in a candy store once, and I couldn’t finish everything I took and felt a bit ill afterwards. Let’s hope the same isn’t true of poetry.

So since I can pick anything, the first title I choose is Decomposition: an anthology of fungi-inspired poems, because it’s just such a cool idea. Poetry sometimes takes itself too seriously—an anthology like this reminds me of making a mix-tape, injecting a note of fun into what has the potential to nevertheless be an inspired collection. The authors within include some biggies: William Butler Yeats, Gary Snyder, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Robert Bly, as well as many others. I find myself excited to see what any and all of them have to say about fungus.

Of course, many are not about fungus per se, but rather use something closely associated—mushroom hunting, for example—to explore something deeper. But you expected that, right? The haiku master Issa writes
before my hand
stretched out for the mushroom,
a butterfly breathing
Many poets find mushrooms an interesting, useful metaphor. The way that mushrooms grow secretly, silently, pushing their way through the leaf litter of hidden forests inspired poems by Jane Whitledge, Nance Van Winckel and Sylvia Plath. For Laura Kasischke, the hook is the idea of the vast expanse of tiny filaments comprising a single organism: the 2200-acre fungus in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.
We have waited all our lives
to taste it, waited
through hate & rain, licking
the wind, spooning through the fog, while it
spread in all directions, rolled
through the forests, across the fertilized lawns. Call
it mildew, mushroom, smut. What
is it if not
the world’s moldy heart?
Blood-surge, sweet meat, sleep. It is
a gorgeous sprawling brain, dreaming
you & me.
It is interesting to see what else tends to be connected with fungus, and how. When poets bring up the eating of mushrooms, for example, it often is to contrast something deep and ancient (mushroom) with something modern and superficial (cuisine). Decay and rot are an frequent focus, as well as earth, rebirth, and even eroticism (the physical similarity of mushrooms to genitalia does not escape the notice of a few poets, including one of my favorite writers, Sherman Alexie):
[…] I often pause in the middle of lovemaking
to think about the fog-soaked forest into which we all travel
to think about the damp, dank earth in to which we all plunge
our hands

to search for water and spore and root and loam
to search for water and room and roof and home.

As one might expect, verse is hardly represented, abandoned as it has been by contemporary poets. Exceptions include Emily Dickinson and W. B. Yeats. Dickinson’s is a delightful poem I had never read before:
The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants—
At Evening, it is not—
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop upon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet its 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—
Richard Wilbur and Elizabeth Bishop also write excellent verse; I was pleasantly surprised by Bishop—I always think of her as writing prose poetry, but the rhyme and structure of “The Shampoo” is intriguing and the images evocative:
The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.
Decomposition: an anthology of fungi-inspired poems is a great success. It seems fitting to leave you with the final stanza of Richard Wilbur’s “Children of Darkness”.
Gargoyles is what they are at worst, and should
They preen themselves
On being demons, ghouls, or elves,
The holy chiaroscuro of the wood
Still would embrace them. They are good.

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