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On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise"

Thomas B. Byers

"Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise" takes up a search for something non-human and closes with the notion that an other might also seek the self The mushrooms of the title live off decay and embody nature's regenerative cycle. Hence they recall the grass from graves of "Song of Myself, 6" and the "sweet things out of such corruptions" from "This Compost." For Whitman, however, nature depends for nourishment and realization on a human order, in which the earth "gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leaving from them at last." Merwin, on the other hand, seeks a place for the self--and a self for the place--in an essentially non-human order. Thus the poem begins with the speaker "walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves / In a place without grief"--a place not subjected to us. In "The Gods," centuries of death in war "had / Each their mourning." In the context of organic process and ecological balance, however, death loses its sting, just as in "Avoiding News by the River":

I am not ashamed of the wren's murders
Nor the badger's dinners
On which all worldly good depends
If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything

What is remarkable in "Looking for Mushrooms" is that the absence of grief survives the presence of the speaker. The threat of human consciousness must be recognized; thus "the oriole / Out of another life warns me / that I am awake." But here, for once, the threat remains in abeyance, perhaps because this particular consciousness has been shaped by the unconscious and by natural growth and has rejected possession: "The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine / Waking me." This awakening offers the "moral reform" that Thoreau said "is the effort to throw off sleep"; "to be [thus] awake" is not to be alienated by death-oriented self-consciousness, but "to be alive." Heeding this call, the speaker also obeys the command of "The Animals" not to hunt (like boys after lice), but only to "look closely" in hopes of reunion. Seek thus and, it seems, ye shall find--both the other and a restored sense of the self's origins:

Where they appear it seems I have been before
I recognize their haunts as though remembering
Another life

Where else am I walking even now
Looking for me

The memory/vision is heavily qualified by "It seems" and "as though," and it is threatened with utter collapse when, hearing the echo of the volume's epigraph, we recognize that these appearances of things might be as deceptive as any others. But even if it is only a dream, this passage offers as strong a sense of self-recovery and the other's disclosure as may be found in The Lice. To end the volume on this note suggests some faith, or at least some will to deny the despair of the immediately preceding poems. Even if invalid, this faith marks what is for Merwin the necessary fiction.

By Thomas B. Byers. From What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Copyright 1989 by the Board of Trustees of ther University of Illinois.

Cary Nelson

"Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise" offers a fine image of poetry as a response to necessities inhering in language itself. As in many of the most effective poems in The Lice, he retains the sense of a specific topic, while simultaneously making the poem reflect the mood and vocabulary of the rest of his work. Before dawn he walks "on centuries of dead chestnut leaves": the surface of the earth is a matrix of every depleted past. It is "a place without grief," seemingly with no human consciousness present to it:

In the dark while the rain fell
The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine
Waking me
So that I came up the mountain to find them

No sleep, he suggests, is entirely our own; we dream collectively. Our speech then flows from the reservoir of things said. The soft, almost shapeless thrust of new mushrooms rising through darkness is a perfect image of the half-awakened consciousness. But the stanza goes further, hinting that our sleep is not exclusively human, that our sleep is the earth's sleep. So the search for mushrooms is also part of a waning hope that mute, essential substances will continue speaking to us in the light. The day seems familiar, as though the landscape were a tapestry woven of past anticipations: "I recognize their haunts as though remembering / Another life." The poem ends in a spirit of unsettled possibility. It resonates in the mind until we choose to break with it. The conclusion is full of pathos controlled both by verbal economy and by hope indistinguishable from anxiety. "Where else am I walking even now," he writes--and the metrical pause before the next line seems endless--"Looking for me."

By Cary Nelson. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Charles Altieri

What hope Merwin can derive from the volume's journey is embodied here, but it remains qualified by the appeals of death and the void. . . .

The poem's final question casts us back on other questions raised along its way. What is it that calls him to the mushrooms--is it some common life-process they share which the morning wakes in him, or is it a deep participation in the blankness of death only imaged in "a sleep that was not mine"? What is the other life he remembers--an instinctive childlike sharing in natural growth or a state of nonbeing before life? Do the mushrooms live in or live off the darkness and the decaying chestnut leaves in which they thrive? Finally, does the final question suggest that the speaker envisions those incomplete and fragmented parts of himself participating in a natural process by which the living feed off the dead, or do these fragments seek the complete identity of nonbeing?

By Charles Altieri. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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