Introduction to Mycology

Chelsea Rathburn
Shiitake, velvet foot, hen of the woods, wood 
ear, cloud ear, slippery jack, brown wreaths

of Polish borowik dried and hanging 
in the stalls of a Krakow market—all these

were years away from the room where I lay 
once, studying the contours of your sex

as if it were some subterranean species 
I’d never encounter again. Because I hadn’t

yet tasted oyster—not even portobello— 
when I thought mushroom, I meant the common white

or button, the ones my mother bought for salads 
or served in butter beside my father’s steak.

First taste of love, or toxic look-alike, 
there was your stalk and cap, the earth and dark,

our hunger, wonder, and need. Even now, 
I can’t identify exactly what

we were, or why, some twenty years later,
learning you lay dying—were in fact

already dead, suspended by machines if not
 belief—I thought first of your living flesh,

the size and shape of you. My amanita 
phalloides, that room was to exist forever,

as a field guide or mossy path, even 
if as we foraged, we did not once look back.

Related Poems

Before and Every After

                                   —in memory


Eventually one dreams the real thing.

The cave as it was, what we paid to straddle
one skinny box-turned-seat down the middle, narrow boat
made special for the state park, the wet, the tricky

passing into rock and underground river.

A single row of strangers faced front, each of us
behind another close
as dominoes to fall or we were angels lined up
politely, pre-flight, like that was
a coffin we rode, the go-to, take-out end of it,

a shipping container for a giant.

Now every after—
Not to embellish, but I count the ice age in this story
since its grinding made that cave.

I count us too, as mourners.

A smart, full-of-fun-facts park ranger poled us
past summer. A cool which meant dark, meaning
I pictured the giant in life before
he lay down in that boat

under the blood in us, under our breathing.

Upright, his long bones
and knobby joints. He slouched in a doorway
smoking cigarettes, talking What-Would-Bertram-Russell-Do
kindly and funny to the dumb
all of us who adored him, not dream and then dream.

Repeatedly, that thing about us adoring him.

The ranger pointed out the obvious
spare mob scene of caves: the endless drip to make
a stalactite, tiny crawfish and frogs transparent, hearts
by flashlight, visibly beating away.

We got quiet drifting deeper.

What does it mean, something over and over
with your eyes shut?

I remember us from before too,
from museums. I love us there still, the same
us, the way the ancient Egyptians kept their dead
safe crossing over, smallish
intricate models—who they were and even
their sorrow to scale—those
rowing tireless to the other side.

A boat the length of my forearm, faces
to freeze like that
forward, released, the blankest wonder though I think
we came back. Of course he did not

and could not, the giant I made up

for the passage. But all night, how the whole dream
grateful I was to others
patient, more steely practical with
things sacred, who took the real one across

hours before we got there.