Introduction to Mycology

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.

Copyright © 2018 by Chelsea Rathburn. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 27, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“‘Introduction to Mycology’ addresses a friend and one-time lover who was a victim of a workplace shooting in September of 2012. At the time of the shooting and my friend’s subsequent death, I was home with a baby, navigating motherhood and my changed body; I wasn’t prepared for the places the news would send my mind as I was writing, but I decided to follow the poem wherever it led me. This is part of a series about various kinds of education, all titled ‘Introduction to…,’ and I think of it as an elegy not only for my friend, but for innocence too.”
—Chelsea Rathburn