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.
Médée Furieuse, 1838
Furious Medea, Delacroix called her,
but I can see no rage, unless we count
her breasts, twin weapons pointing fiercely
at us, or the hand clenching a dagger,
its shadow slicing her nearest child’s leg.
There is disorder in her hair and robes,
but her face, caught in profile, reveals what we
might read as sadness, a jaw too soft for anger.
The painting’s tension lies in the lack of fury,
in the illusion that she might be guarding
the boys, in our knowledge that she is not.
And the children in her arms—they know it, too.
The one half-hugged, half-throttled squirms away.
The other is folded in a pose so close
to the surrender of nursing he seems at peace
almost, but for his eye, open wide—
and looking directly at us.
How many times
have I seen that look, the flash of fear
on my young daughter’s face when I have raged
at her or some small thing? It passes, the fury
and the terror—my daughter puts on socks;
the driver yields—but I’m left shaken, a stranger.
Maybe all mothers murder their children’s
innocence. In the painting, Medea holds
her boys so close they’re one body again,
two cords she must cut. The children have no choice
but to love the hand that holds the knife.