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The Kinship of Poems and Mushrooms

Mushrooms seem to have been on my mind the last few years. A recent poem, "In A Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed" is included in both the 2012 Best American Poetry and the 2012 Pushcart Prize anthology, and morels also make an appearance in the 2012 Best Spiritual Writing anthology selected poem, "In Daylight I Turned on the Lights."

I don't think either poem would have been written if years before, Kelly Chadwick hadn't asked me for poems for a mushroom/fungi anthology he and his partner Renee Roehl were assembling, just for love: Decomposition: An Anthology of Fungi-Inspired Poems. Kelly works as a wine distributor in Spokane, WA, and doesn't to my knowledge write poetry. The anthology can be found here:



I had no mushroom poems at the time. My penance for this was Kelly asking me to write the introduction for the book instead. It got me thinking, and of course reading everyone else's fine fungal inventions. It took a few years, but like spores that take a while to find their right habitat, eventually that third biological kingdom came into my poetic psyche, for which I am grateful. I've finally gone back and looked at that introduction. Skipping over the parts specific to the book's contents, here are its final two paragraphs:


Reading through these poems, I found myself pondering as well certain similarities between our relationships with mushrooms, poems, and poetry itself. 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 Michigan’s northern forests, so poetry’s mostly unseen devices underlie, sustain, and connect over vast distances other dimensions of language, whether lullabye, 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.

                                                Jane Hirshfield