Wednesday, March 31, 2010

`The Weft of Seeing'

The first mushrooms of the season appeared overnight last week in the backyard and I doubted their existence. What I saw from the kitchen window was a pale roundness in the grass -- a bit of rotten wood fallen from the fir or a peanut shell from the neighbor’s bird feeder left by a squirrel or crow. Instead, it was an irregular white sphere, smaller than a Brussels sprout, and there were seven of them within a six-foot radius. By the weekend they had swollen to the size of croquet balls and turned the color of a bagel’s crust. On Tuesday, despite the chill, the umbrellas opened and the caps were flecked with pale bumps like bits of onion on the bagel.

My thoughts, fueled by the mushrooms’ toothsome appearance, turned first to dinner, then to psilocybin, then to the late Paul Metcalf, author of Genoa. On my own I would never pull a John Cage and eat a wild mushroom, regardless of gustatory or hallucinogenic temptations. Paul lived in Chester, Mass., in the Berkshires, not far from the New York line. He was in his seventies when I knew him and boasted of secret morel hunting grounds in the woods. His daughter shared knowledge of the jealously guarded locations but not Paul’s wife Nancy. It became a joke among us, like tales of his friend Charles Olson’s drug and alcohol consumption.

Once I wrote a profile of a mycologist employed by the New York State Museum who, in my company, plucked a red mushroom from a tree trunk in downtown Albany and carried it to the banquet where he was the guest speaker. He sliced the beautiful fungus and ate it with his steak, the sort of flamboyant gesture I secretly admired but would be too timid to emulate. Mushrooms, like microsurgery and the writing of poems, are best left to experts.

Charles Tomlinson is becoming a favorite poet and I regret not having read him sooner. He’s fond of mushrooms and they show up with inspired regularity in his work, often associated with epistemological probings: What exists and how do we know it? These are important questions when the human and natural worlds intersect. Mistaken identity could prove fatal. This is “Mushrooms” (from The Shaft, 1978, and Selected Poems, 1997), which reminds me of my first seasonal sighting last week:

“Eyeing the grass for mushrooms, you will find
A stone or stain, a dandelion puff
Deceive your eyes—their colour is enough
To plump the image out to mushroom size
And lead you through illusion to a rind
That's true—flint, fleck or feather. With no haste
Scent-out the earthy musk, the firm moist white,
And, played-with rather than deluded, waste
None of the sleights of seeing: taste the sight
You gaze unsure of—a resemblance, too,
Is real and all its likes and links stay true
To the weft of seeing. You, to begin with,
May be taken in, taken beyond, that is,
This place of chiaroscuro that seemed clear,
For realer than a myth of clarities
Are the meanings that you read and are not there:
Soon, in the twilight coolness, you will come
To the circle that you seek and, one by one,
Stooping into their fragrance, break and gather,
Your way a winding where the rest lead on
Like stepping stones across a grass of water.”

Look attentively at the world – like a poet, in other words, or a scientist -- and accept that perception is incomplete and sometimes mistaken, and enjoy the show. I love this: “taste the sight / You gaze unsure of—a resemblance, too, / Is real and all its likes and links stay true / To the weft of seeing.”


Peter Watson said...

Thomas's observation of larks reminded me of another poet whose remains, though never definitively identified, are buried not far from his, outside Arras. Isaac Rosenberg was killed ninety-two years ago today.

Returning, We Heard the Larks

Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

'Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp-
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy-joy-strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song-
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.'

Seen or heard, there were occasionally such consolations as larks for those upturned faces.

C. Van Carter said...

I spotted some Amanita pantherina the other day. Is that what you saw?