American Idol

Indian statue

When the whites come to plant tobacco,
first thing they do is fell all the trees
so the Indians won’t have a place
to hide. No surprise, then,
that some snow-bound frontiersman
should see the profile of a former neighbor
starting up out of the firewood.
He reaches for his pocketknife.
By spring, here’s a faithful scout,
dumb as a stump, to stand
at the corner of the trading post.
If the grain’s too pale, a little
tobacco juice rubbed in with a rag
will make an authentic-
looking redskin, spit & shine.

So here I am, two centuries later,
still playing host
to strangers’ fantasies,
flies with sticky feet,
the white moths of morning.
My wooden lungs ache with dry rot,
still waiting for a light.


We temporarily interrupt our series of self-portraits to bring you another report on the strange goings-on in the fungal kingdom.

As I walked up the hollow the night before last, a thin rind of moon behind the ridge gave little light. The air was thick and still, though the first katydids of the season hinted of cooler nights to come. My feet know the road well enough that I can walk it even on a pitch-black night with little fear of stepping off the track and going over the edge into the ravine. But this time of year, the road is discernible as a strip of greater darkness through a woods dotted with glowworms, a few late fireflies, and the blurry nebulae of foxfire.

Halfway up, I paused to catch my breath next to a veritable galaxy. I reached blindly toward the glowing spots and ran my fingers over dime-sized polypore fungi on the end of a log. I couldn’t resist breaking off a couple and sticking them in my shirt pocket — they had a definite aura of currency. Once home, I turned a lamp on and quickly off again to verify that light leaked only from the porous orange undersides of their pale caps.

The literature on bioluminescent fungi rarely points out that all light is the by-product of a decay of sorts, electrons of energized atoms falling back to their normal orbits. In the case of foxfire, though, the link is more literal: light results from the oxidation of an unknown compound referred to as a luciferin, and has been described as photosynthesis in reverse, serving an unknown purpose. I can’t help thinking of Lucifer, burning as he falls.

I left the fungi on the coffee table when I went to bed, thinking I should go out another night and gather more to scatter around the house, the better to avoid collisions with the furniture on nocturnal trips to the toilet. But by four in the morning, they had curled up tighter than clenched fists around their spots of light, and I woke once again in the darkness.

De onzas de plata, la luna
de madrugada llenó mi alma.
Cerré mi puerta, en el dí­a,
por verlas. No valí­an nada!

(With silver coins, the moon
of the small hours stuffed my soul.
During the day, I locked the door
to have a look at them. Worthless!)

–Juan Ramón Jiménez (tr. by Ralph and Rita Garcí­a Nelson)