Perfect night

This entry is part 16 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fifth poem in the second section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

Amanita Phalloidus*
by Paul Zweig

To be alone in the woods, poking at the moist odors
For mushrooms, knowing the diffuse sexuality
Which comes after a long rain has soaked the forest floor…

[Remainder of poem removed 9-24-05]

*Zweig apparently means Amanita phalloides, a.k.a. Death Cap. Despite its scientific name, it is not nearly as phallic as the stinkhorns (Phallaceae).

* * * *

Fungal Earth

This afterlife in the upper air
is a form of exile. The forest drips,
oozes, swells like a sponge

while we huddle under
our umbrellas, painfully swollen
with these spores, our names,

waiting for some
transcendent breeze
or the diaphanous touch of a beetle’s under-wing.

But below, in the perfect night of the earth,
we one-eyed men are King.
Sparrows fall into our efficient nets.

With garrote & poison we keep the soil safe
for our charges, whose every eager rootlet
finds its hyphen

until a clot of fungal
flesh encloses
each cell of sunlight.

The forest is our whore,
soliciting godhead
in knots & gnarls,

crossed branches rubbing
each other raw,
excrescencies of wood.

Hardly a flower bud
opens to a bee
without our hosannas.

Our lucky coins shimmer
& turn green
at the bottom of the sky.

Most plants rely on symbiotic relationships with mycorrizal fungi for basic tasks such as water and nutrient uptake and protection from disease and predation; the study of these relationships, including basic taxonomy, is in its infancy.

Many of the more familiar fungi are the primary agents of plant decomposition in forest ecosystems, and they too are turning out to be less plant-like than was traditionally supposed.

Mushrooms, it turns out, are even more interesting than scientists suspected. They know that the colorful forms we call mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of fungi and that each one is sustained by miles of microscopic filaments, called hyphae [or, in aggregate, mycelia]. Those hyphae snake through the forest floor and into rotting logs, secreting enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates into the nutritive sugars needed by the mushroom. Such saprophytic mushrooms break down woody materials into soil. Without them, our woods would suffocate in their own debris.

The mycologist George Brown and his graduate students at the University of Guelph in Ontario have recently made more remarkable discoveries about what fungi do. Apparently many of them are not benign saprophytes, but fierce predators which attack and eat the microscopic nematodes, rotifers, amoebas, copepods, and bacteria that share the soil with them. And the ways in which they capture and eat them often have the makings of a horror story – catching them in adhesive nets, crushing them with constricting rings, immobilizing them with toxins and eating them alive, attaching to them like tapeworms, impaling them on spores shaped like grappling hooks, and shooting them with projectiles.

– Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Autumn

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