It occurs to me I don’t know much about mushrooms. I know that on my plate they are grey-brown and wet like a porpoise, sometimes with a soft inside that is white like an old bone. I know that in my imagination and on doodles in a school girl’s textbook they are red and mottled, as cheery as they are ribbed, and gnomes sit atop them, smoking. Sometimes frogs do, too. (Though, the frogs do not smoke.) I know they can be magic — fairy portals, the signs of sacred spaces, midnight dances, gatherings, conjurings, forbidden reveries. I know not to cross them, break them, or build on them. They are the tools of wild, spiteful things. Crickets use them as drums. I know that if you bring your lips close (but not too close, for some are ground bullets full of poison) and whisper a phrase, read the Latin aloud, have a virgin chant at the top of his lungs, something — something — might happen. I know where to find such phrases, and I know how to use maps to find the mushrooms. But this is all I know.
On the Fruiting Body
The body of a mushroom is not its body nor a mushroom at all but rather the sex organ of the creature. “Creature” probably isn’t the right word, and neither is “sex organ.” This is sort of like how we say “vagina” but really mean “vulva” — the vagina, of course, being the hidden parts, the buried parts, the machinery, the sex organs of the creature, but the word we use for its display regardless. This is, of course, all about the right words.
On Spore Rain
Poison mother, full of spores, do you grow or do you germ? Scatter the earth with stardust children born by seeming miracle – each a shard of glitter who will burst some dewy morning, suddenly, a gilled-grey baby. Holy mother with meated body, fruits flowing from the wales of your nubuck breast. Give us this day our dew and dawn, give us our toxic inheritance. We will bloom at our deaths ever more.
On What is Uncomfortable About Mushrooms
Why can’t a mushroom bloom, can’t it blossom? Why can’t its velvet fins and gills — as delicate as wet paper — effloresce, fan themselves around the stalk, pompon, an open umbrella. Too wet? Too alien? Is the mushroom too vegetable-seeming to be sensual? Too female with its birthing? Or is it too male with its shapes? Perhaps, too queer — intersexed, inhabiting both, the semantics of it too strange?
On the Toadstool Lady
There is a woman in the woods crawling on her hands and knees, her dress soiled, dusty, sequined with pine needles, sticking leaves. She folds her hands around the ground, smiling at something small and quiet from behind her glasses. Her beaten wicker basket overflows with earthy-smelling and dirt-clotted buttons and mosses, shoots and laces. Later she is behind a tree, bent over a pad of paper, her hands blackened from dirt and graphite, smudges crossing her cheeks and forehead. She draws a ribbon around the prize she’s sketched — a mushroom she’s not yet seen — a wreath of flowers, too. She writes in hurried script — gorgeous.
If I’m remembering my community college geology class correctly, and I am:
On [ORDERED STRUCTURE MINERAL MOLECULE SWALLOW IRON CHERRY STONE] Carnelian
The stone’s name comes from the name of a fruit, which is, of course, another kind of stone. I swallow the stone and hear it clack against the pit of my stomach, the drop’s impact making a little echo in my body like it might echo in a canyon. I swallow
because it will bring me order because I need to be ordered.
I swallow it because its murky red orange color — a color like it has been stained by something much redder than itself — a color like iron — the stone itself the product of our element iron — represents strength. The stone is iron, iron is strength, to iron is to smooth something out. I need smoothing out.
I swallow the carnelian.
Too pure. As though merely being pure isn’t enough — as though purity can be mere. What is too pure? A single total element or form of matter that refuses to share electrons to bond, refuses to be forged under pressure or fire with a similar bit of matter. Refuses.
I know what you’re thinking. Hymen imperforatus: a septum stretched over the vaginal opening like a drum. Percussive. Purity is inherently female, and purity is inherently lonely.
Which kinds of stones are too pure? Limestones, quartzes, diamonds.
Which kinds of people are too pure? The lonely absence of impurity. The lifelong pursuit of oneness. The ability to resist all influence by others. The ability to ignore oneself, the single most unstable element. A lockbox. See? Feminine.
When it just is — the way purity would like to be — it is fine. Igneous, vacuous, still and whole, a locked and silent system. It is fine to be this complete.
Purity is only a problem when it is applied, expected, expectant.
On Precious and Rare Gems
A rare thing, a glistening thing, a jewel or a shining metal.
[Why are our treasures always things we can melt/cook/boil/profit from/hold as our own in buildings where they don’t belong?]
I feel sad for these lonely things dredged up from their private places. They are perfect bait with their flabby soft fins, bodies like tubes of cookie dough.
[Museums are the highest order of freak show: gathering specimens, ordering them, numbering and cataloging without any respect for their real lives or their families or jobs, children: collect these bones, pin these wings, preserve this jaw and spread all of it out on velvet, under glass for display.]
Holotype — that’s pretty close to “halo” like an angel, and it must be because:
[1. caught 2. caught 3. “caught” 4. sometimes entrapped — you know, like caught or “caught” 5. found dead on beach 6. stranded 7. found washed ashore]
[1. dissected 2. consumed 3. sent to market 4. deposited 5. discarded 6. buried 7. ??? 8. partially consumed]
[1. tail broke off 2. found alive with head wound 3. likely to have been pregnant 4. tattered and broken 5. cut open]
it’s always dead.
left by the Laurentide — that old girl — as she flattened our states, as she scraped by.
Anything that must scrape by will leave some things behind. You have to skimp on the details, like the dishes (for a few days, a week, a thousand years) or the laundry or your marbles (like fieldstones).
But don’t worry about her. The Laurentide got by. She was gouging out the Great Lakes until she was starving and even then she got by, scraping by, clawing at the land. She left her fingerprints in the earth. We’re still watching freezing soil dredge up the past, churning out stones each winter because of her touch. You know, like when you start dreaming about an old girlfriend when you’re drinking. When you listen to a song that makes you a little sad. That's her. That's the Laurentide getting to you.
Here it is. I am doing a craft talk. What is Ekphrasis? Let’s look at the roots of the word, its phonemes, the building blocks. First, the Greek “ek“ which, of course, comes from the much longer word “eek” — that is, a scream — and so “ek” is to be afraid, to feel terror and fright and fear. Then “phrasis” which probably means “to make” or “to do” or “to mold together with your hands the elements of one thing into another thing” — and that is, of course, Ekphrasis. To be so shocked, awed, terrified, bewildered, the whole sublime spectrum of fear, by some such thing as a work of art or a piece of music that one is pressed into action. To feel as though that same muse who inspired the original artist has come to them as well and so they say, "I see her, too!" and so — eek! — and phrasis — that person is made to make something by something else that someone else has already made. Ekphrasis.
On “Headless Woman, Palisades Park, NJ.” by Diane Arbus
I saw her, too. On a semi-trailer in Florida in 1996. Her foot bobbed like the tick of a clock and just as impatient, so I decided not to stare at the unnatural broadness of her shoulders, the way she seemed to be wearing my brother’s football pads. Her broadness did, to my wizened 10 year old eye, seem odd — even without her head. She was clearly bored. Her foot bobbed. On a patio side table — you know, a little garden number she probably picked up at Kmart, the clerk a little confused by the “SEE I.D.” on the back of her credit card, “Ma’am...?” and she pulls out a Pennsylvania driver’s license with a blank space for a head shot — on the patio side table was a Diet Coke with a straw (which made perfect sense, of course) and a stack of magazines all greasy and crinkled from being read over and over, three nights a week and three states over. I admit, I thought briefly about this — how might one read without a face? How does she — but I stopped. These are rude things to think, and besides, she was staring, impatient, her foot bobbing. I had to leave.
On Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
What did Hans dream of down there in the dark? His eyes two wide and open black voids that stared back unflinching into the Earth’s void, that obsidian black, that black without glass, that cavernous, open-mouthed black? He dreamed of grey. Of the blue salt grey of the sky over the sea, of the leaden green of the sea itself. Of dirty and dusty sheep as they grazed for dingy sea foam lichens in field of basalt. He dreamed of brushed wool, woolen caps, woolen pants, the woolen parts of a woman he knew whose grey husband had long died, she reading the grey print from a grey book aloud to him in the soft grey light of morning. In the dark black, in the center of the Earth, Hans dreamed of grey. I saw it, too.
On “The Kitten” by Mary Oliver
I saw it, too. In the night, in the space between wake and dreaming, I saw the watery marble, the single little mewl like a baby’s laughter in the night, the sole and single eye rolling up to stare at me. What do you know, I said, about vision? About secrets and omens and foreshadowing? Maybe nothing, the kitten replied, but I’m not the one who asked. Its eye blinked and I could see then that it was growing, filling up the whole space of the forehead and then the whole of its face. Amazing, I said, and woke up.
On the Five Love Languages
On Gift Giving
When I was sixteen years old I worked at a fast food restaurant. I made and sold hamburgers and French fries. I liked my job because you got to eat French fries and you got milkshakes if you worked on Thursdays, and my friends worked there with me, and I was in love with a boy who worked there too. That’s another story, but not a very interesting one. This story is much better. One day a man in the drive-through ordered two plain hamburgers, and when he pulled up to pay I was delighted to find that he had two dogs in his backseat. The hamburgers were for the dogs. I was glad for the dogs. A few weeks later another man came through and he also had a dog in his car. I ran to the kitchen and made his dog a hamburger, even though he didn’t order one, and I put it in the bag. “There’s an extra hamburger for your dog,” I said. He looked surprised. He said “Thank you.”
On Acts of Service
I spent a lot of time listening to this record when I was sixteen.
On Quality Time
Granddad looked elderly even in 1933 when he was still young, his lungs still bright purple and full of the strong, ripe nodules of a young fish. Many of the thick, thumb-print scales were blotted black all along his body, more so than the average lungfish might be, giving him a distinct liver-spotted appearance. And, of course, he was a lungfish: primordial-looking, a big tadpole with lobed fins and a flat face, burying himself in the mud during droughts, breathing air. Preposterous. Breathing air because the lungfish itself is a species so enthralled with breathing air that when it returned to the sea from land it never kicked the habit. Granddad — again, a fish — breathed air for over 80 years at the Shedd Aquarium, sipping, gulping, slurping, his flat-faced mouth pressed out of the water, his visitors in awe of something they themselves take for granted — the act an almost conscious one, like a whale rising to the surface of the sea, like your own deep and mindful breathing, but Granddad — again — a fish. Breathing.
Breathe. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re okay.
On Physical Intimacy
Okay. It is alleged that all fruits are erotic. They are supposed to be. I don’t know. I guess fruits are just the genitals of a plant — you know — its means of reproduction. Seeds and pollen and all. We eat this. We eat plants’ genitals. I don’t think fruits mean to be erotic. An apple is just so red. And shining. They always seem to be wet. And grapes are never one but many. A bunch. That’s kind of kinky, isn’t it? Things like bananas and oranges must be undressed. Coconuts must be cracked — a hard win. We all like a little chase. Still, I just don’t think fruits mean to be erotic. I think they mean to reproduce. They are, most likely, tired of being sexy. It must be that only idiots eroticize fruit or believe in eroticism at all. I think we just mean to reproduce. Why get metaphorical, philosophical about sex like it could mean anything else besides chemicals and physical response to stimuli and seeds and pollen and all? It isn’t really as magical as we want it to be. It isn’t the words we apply: love or even lust. We just want it to be. We just want to pretend it’s more than our bodies making fruit. Anyway, I prefer vegetables.
As containers we can each only hold so much, as any container must also contain a limit. A measuring cup. A one-gallon bucket. Each has its own unit of volume, as do you, as do I. I make space for the things I must remember each week: wipe off the dining room table, make a phone call that will arrange a purposeful meeting, consume a nourishing meal so that my body may continue to carry me onward and onward and onward. Sometimes my container holds the memory of something from long ago, something painful or something no longer useful to me (as remembering to eat is useful) and I am confused and a little hurt that I could remember once seeing a train sliding along the red rocks of Nevada when I was a toddler, but not to pay to for the electricity I use. I could remember the time my father and I saw a dog fall out of the bed of a pickup truck in Alabama and then run along the ditch, afraid but exhilarated, his blood surely steaming with adrenaline as he tried to catch up with his master, but I could forget to write this letter to you.
On Forgetting My Dead Mother’s Birthday (Reprise)
I am surprised that it’s my mother’s birthday. And then I am surprised that she is dead. And then I am surprised it’s my birthday. Time is a breeze you only notice when it’s cold. Ten years have passed and in 10 years so little has changed. I am still the same. I am always the same. I imagine my mother is the same, though I know that not to be true. I know she changed as her brain changed and then I know she died. I picture the way she looked knowing that the way she looks now is ashen. Is literally ash. I forget to remember that she is gone because she has been gone for so long. I am used to her goneness. I forget to remember she was real because she has been gone for so long. I remember very little. It’s fall now, and soon after that it will be winter.
On Ball’s Pyramid
A volcano the earth forgot it had sitting up on the continental shelf, eroded, long unused and in need of dusting. That’s Ball’s Pyramid. Just a sharp little ocean tooth with nothing on it besides the signs of time: crumbling rocks, saltwater-worn edges, a single scrubby shrub (melaleuca) growing in a crack like plaque, and then, of course, the insect. Long thought extinct and then forgotten, but then found, like that thing on the shelf you forgot and then found. You know the thing. The insect is thick, stick-shaped, and black and in fact it is a species of giant black stick insect. Originally discovered there on the pyramid, they were thought to have died out. Rumors spread about their continued existence but had to remain unsubstantiated for many years, as journeys to the pyramid are difficult and climbing up its steep craggy incisor is typically forbidden. Then, they were found again under the scrubby melaleuca, a little cache of forgotten creatures on a forgotten rock. “I forgot we even had these,” someone must have cried.
On What’s Under the Ground
So much of what’s bad we bury. Our feelings, our secrets, our dead. Maybe bad isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean — the things we can no longer bear to be with, to stand near, to look into the eye, the things we no longer have a use for. So we ask the ground to take these things into it, to hold, to support, to rot and be forgotten. This is our ritual of memory. I will write down what I wish to keep, pen it to the calendar on the fridge, tie a little string around my finger. But I bury that which I choose to forget. I imagine you spend a great deal of your days looking up — I do, too. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we should worship the ground we walk on and treat our feet as holy. Spread memory — our feelings, our secrets, our dead — in soil like seed and nurture whatever grows. See the things that writhe in earth and ask that they see us. Maybe there’s more in the ground than the things we’d like to forget. Maybe those things deserve to be remembered.
Rhiannon Conley is a poet and writing instructor living in North Dakota. Her work has appeared in Moonsick Magazine, The Rat’s Ass Review, The Roaring Muse and The North Dakota Quarterly and is forthcoming from Literary Mama and Whale Road Review. Her first chapbook, Less Precious, was published by Semiperfect Press in 2017. She writes an irregular newsletter of short poetic essays called Smol Talks and more regularly tweets @RhiannonAdmidas.