April Diary 8: talking mushrooms, Utnapishtim, dead poet society

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
This entry is part 9 of 31 in the series April Diary


8:30 am. Dear April this is pushing the definition of “showers” rather far don’t you think? But we need the rain and I probably need to give my walking muscles a rest… at least until mid afternoon

Previous research has suggested that fungi conduct electrical impulses through long, underground filamentous structures called hyphae – similar to how nerve cells transmit information in humans.

It has even shown that the firing rate of these impulses increases when the hyphae of wood-digesting fungi come into contact with wooden blocks, raising the possibility that fungi use this electrical “language” to share information about food or injury with distant parts of themselves, or with hyphae-connected partners such as trees.

But do these trains of electrical activity have anything in common with human language?

Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’, scientist claims

half an hour before I saw this article in my Twitter feed believe it or not I had just been wondering whether fungal communication could be considered a language, and thinking how vital it is regardless for anyone trying to write ecopoetry to grapple with the role of fungi in an ecosystem

“the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic” says University of Exeter professor Dan Bebber about the new research. what an absolutely classic British put-down

whether language can exist without the sort of consciousness that members of the animal kingdom possess seems more a question for philosophers than for scientists

but “hey, let’s ask a philosopher about this!” is about as common a reaction as “let’s send a poet into space!” — something that would’ve seemed dead obvious under any past civilization, but, you know…

fungi are not just algae farmers (forming lichens) and essential partners for most plants (forming the wood-wide web) they are also the planet’s main engines (along with some bacteria) for fermentation, digestion, and decomposition

and you can’t have composition without decomposition. for one thing there’d be no room

last night as I was heading for bed an amusing concept for a sci-fi novel occurred to me: organisms in the human microbiome become sentient and start going on strike, demanding that everyone eat as much as physically possible

don’t think i’ll ever write a novel but if i do, it would probably start out as satire and just get successively stranger with each chapter until eventually it switches to cuneiform and the reader hurls it across the room in disgust

and now the sun is shining through the pouring rain

April why are you torturing me

speaking of cuneiform I did some quality wool-gathering earlier while sitting on the porch watching the rain come down. here’s the seedy fleece:

introducing Utnapishtim Press: distilling the world’s great literature onto clay tablets before everything goes kabloobie!

Utnapishtim Press makes essential collectibles for any cultured survivalist — priceless artifacts of human civilization that could survive for millions of years and delight alien archaeologists

porcelain isn’t indestructible but manufactured in sufficient quantities and spread around the globe, the chances are good that something would survive

its major project would be an open-ended, multilingual Book of Life with a poem for every known species with whom we’ve shared the planet

a decentralized network of potter-printers could work independently, downloading whichever portions of the vast, Creative Commons-licensed corpus would be appropriate to their bioregion

this is one of those big ideas i can’t quite seem to banish despite my commitment to dilettantism. i ain’t no Utnapishtim (Babylonian Moses) and if human civilization is going to collapse under the weight of our greed, hubris and brutality, maybe we need to just let all of it go. let decomposition take place… so completely new compositions can arise

after all such total erasure of cultures is nothing new, even without genocide. “oral literature” sounds oxymoronic with the way literocentrism is baked right into the word literature, but at least 99% of all works of oral literature that have ever existed are lost. whole languages are winking out all over the globe under the pressure of colonial, consumerist monoculture

so why would poets want to contribute to that monoculture by in effect creating a new canon in the form of a potential new sacred text, spread in differing versions all over the globe? just what the world fucking needs

I finally got out for a walk around 3:00 when the rain slackened into mist with occasional sprinkles. Other than when i scramble up a steep slope, it’s no trouble to hike with an umbrella. that makes it much easier to stop and jot down thoughts

though today nothing much came and i suspect that’s because i have only so much creative energy in a given day and i’d already shot it on two erasure poems not to mention all the B.S. above

a fellow former student of my original poetry mentor, Jack McManis, happened across my 2004 blog post about him and emailed me with some of his own recollections. he took a couple of Jack’s classes back during the period when I was regularly hanging out in his office as a high school student. i asked permission to quote from the email:

Jack got assigned — against his will — to teach a freshman English comp course in 1980. By luck of the draw, I ended up in his section. As a rebellion, he threw out all of the required BS essays freshmen were supposed to write and let us write whatever we wanted. I’ll never forget him saying “Writing is writing.” So I turned in poetry, short stories, rants about things that bothered me, song lyrics. 

I got an A, and took his poetry writing class after that.

He loved one of my poems I submitted in the poetry class. It was about the shallowness of my classmates. At first they didn’t get it, but he had me read it a couple of times. And he asked the class questions. As people got it, it made some folks angry and others uncomfortable. He was delighted. I was proud. And scared. He labeled it as “powerful.”

He had me submit it to the Central PA Festival of the Arts (or something like that), where he was a judge along with two other people. He recused himself from voting since he knew me. He later told me one judge said it was shit. The other judge said it should win first place. He worked out a compromise and I got an honorable mention.

He made a great impression on me, as here I am 40 years later thinking about him and writing to you.

Chuck Hall

my friends who are teachers will appreciate that sentiment i’m sure. though it does seem like a bygone era indeed when professors could actually get away with letting students feel uncomfortable in class. the horror!

here are some lines by Jack (from my original post; go there for more samples of his work)

So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!

Jack McManis, from “Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”

four decades on and i think we can still say Amen to that!

Terra Incognita

watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

My first videopoem to use footage from another, equally fun hobby, homebrewing. The poem by D. H. Lawrence is now in the public domain, and I found it rather quickly because my copy of his complete poems is quite throughly annotated with marginalia by its previous owner — my poetry sensei, Jack McManis. Jack had put a big check-mark beside the title and underlined all the best parts, helping me see past its — to my mind — overly didactic framing.

Here’s the text.

Terra Incognita
by D. H. Lawrence

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars,
and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
alternately palpitant,
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.

Remembering Jack

Up at dawn for some musical multi-tasking: listening to white-throated sparrows through the open window while playing a Leadbelly cassette and flipping through a sheaf of poems by Jack McManis.

Jack was my mentor in poetry, someone who taught largely through silence – he only ever commented on things he liked. He led writing workshops for 25 years at Penn State, but I never actually took a class from him. Instead, we met regularly in his office to exchange poems, starting with once-a-week visits in 1978 when I was in eighth grade, and continuing (with somewhat declining frequency) until Jack’s death in 1989.

Jack McManis was one of the first generation of post-war college poetry teachers. He placed poems often enough in magazines and anthologies, but – much to the distress of his numerous friends and supportive colleagues – never got around to finishing a book-length collection. This omission stemmed partly from the alcoholism that consumed the first half of his life and partly from the altruistic energy that consumed much of the second half. (I didn’t realize until well after his death just how active he had been in Alcoholics Anonymous, helping set up chapters all over the country.)

Jack grew up in southern California, fought in the Pacific in World War II, and was an excellent tennis player – at one time he was the tenth-ranked amateur player in the country. He helped found the poetry magazine Pivot, which still survives, though he was always content to remain Associate Editor. His former students include Diane Ackerman and the late Agha Shahid Ali.

Even after achieving sobriety and becoming a “born-again Anglican,” Jack was no saint in the conventional sense of the term. He office reeked of the snuff he dipped from a silver box, and he loved to try and get others hooked on the stuff. (I always refused it – I’ve never been big on the idea of nasal ingestion.) Although his satires and parodies grew a little less biting after his recovery, he never stopped writing them. Nor were bawdy subjects off-limits: a poem about his neighbor’s wife’s ass was one of his standards at poetry readings.

Jack’s favorite poet was Hart Crane; other favorites included William Carlos Williams, Melvin B. Tolson and Theodore Roethke (who also taught briefly at Penn State). He believed that a poet should be “drenched in words,” as he once wrote me, quoting Hart Crane. He was haunted by Crane’s death – he committed suicide in April 1932 by leaping off a boat in the Caribbean and feeding himself to the sharks. This more than anything seemed to symbolize the end of innocence for Jack, who grew up in the Roaring Twenties. In one satire, he imagined the Statue of Liberty being buried at sea: “slide her down / to the oil shark / republic.” Sharks seemed to possess a kind of limit-value for Jack, as in the following elegy.


by the breakwater after the funeral,
Corona del Mar, California

My father, John, a gentle dusty man,
loved the country earth and what it grows.
He most loved lowly and neglected things
we glance at or gaze past but rarely see:
hawberries, snaky wildgrape, wormed crabapples,
swamp shade pools under willow oaks that home
nightsinging whippoorwills and clacking treetoads.
What reliquary for my father’s love
of earth? Wind-driven leaves and locust shells?
Earth crumbled over him, put out his stars
and hushed the cardinal’s clear water-fife
back in his boyhood Indiana woods
still whistling in the now, now lost to him.
My father’s Baptist testimony praised
all these as God’s. He praised the blind fin.

Love as your father loved, the preacher said.
I hear his hands wash now in slap and seethe
of wave on rock and wonder how to love
all this, my father, you its lover gone:
this sky of tearless blue, it’s dead-man’s-float
of the day moon and that lone firefly ghosting
hope, last night flown where in the too-bright noon?
O these feed the blind fin’s tidal appetite –
the sharkfin there by the quay carving its track
straight out, out into the afterbirth grey-green
Pacific and maybe on to infinity
shredding our mirages, love and time,
that fin’s synoptic arrow tugging sun
– to drown the sun? All worship the blind fin.

Like many of us, Jack hated to let a poem go. There are no definitive versions, just endless rewrites. The above poem seems to have been his last revision, although I admit I did substitute one line from an earlier version that I liked better – I don’t think Jack would have minded. Now, as I continue to leaf through my folders of his poems, I’m finding so much more that I can’t pass up! How about if I just put a few things down, assemble a brief, fairly random collection of McManis fragments, a la the Greek Anthology?

Tin can sacristan,
cling clang buoy!
. . .
I dream and look over
the rail at flaking
light churning,
pouring out
electric tears
as I lose self
in the jewelry
of water.

I was born
in a heat wave:
South Chicago.
Headfirst I popped out
crying for a drink . . .

And what about sweetsinging Bobby Jones gone paralytic,
Big Bill Tilden humbled in prison and Paavo Nurmi, Finn
ironman, loping off into Arctic twilight, last marathon
against a ghostly polar bear tireless as time?

(“Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”)

So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!


Let Satch blast out for you, Gabe,
that trumpet note
we’re just dying to hear.

(“Conceit for a Cloudy Halloween ’82”)

The Puerto Rican
counterman comes
and pries
the pair of clowns
out of that
glass coffin.

(“Daily Circus at the Automat / New York City”)

A long time ago
(but not so long)
when we pilgrimaged
down to Avenue C
in the cell-block
Lower East Side
to see Leadbelly,
America’s great folk
poet and musicman
(before the polio
things ate his spine),
sitting straight
in a chair in
his walk-up flat
he told us how when
he heard JS Bach
he couldn’t keep
still, but thumped
with his hands
and his feet and
from time to time
broke out into
half-chant and
“The beat and the
repeat and the
jubilee,” he said,
“shake the lyrics
out of me like
a hound dog
being gristed
and ground around
in a song mill!”

(“Kin: Remembering Leadbelly,” Prairie Schooner, Summer 1971)

I’ll prop the saint erect again come spring
but now his milky eyes feed on the grosbeaks.

(“Letter to a Friend Before the February Thaw”)

Inside the crinkled ghost-transparent tent
she’s stretched out gaunt, a green sarcophagus
suspended in seawater, head stuck out
of the bedsheet envelope and pillow-propped,
hawk nose thrust up a wedge to split the air,
to reach, to strain up to the source of it –
that dense life juice she mouths and gums and gulps.
Pinched nostrils labor hard ringed faint with blue-
fadeblue of robin eggshells on cement,
the cheeks caved in to make the forehead loom . . .
All birdmouth gaping she sucks air so hard
I listen for the wind-work hiss of lung,
but stillness hangs a curtain round her mouth
that quivers in and out and seems a stranger
to the frozen skull, the sheeted body mound –
the last sign visible of life the twist
of thin lips flexing their beseeching O.

If I woke where she is in a cloud of green,
what thoughts would consciousness, a broken wing,
flap fluttering against the swoongreen cage?
Or if eyes opened, tried to weave a way
through blear, what make of all the blurring ghosts
beyond the cave and gliding by like fish?
These the loved dead that slip my hands in dreams?

(“Life Mask”)

Finally, here’s a Jack McManis poem I couldn’t resist including in its entirety.


–Sir, some sacrilegious clown
has gone and dotted
that Tintoretto sunset
with tiny fly specks.
–There, there, and there.
–Don’t touch the painting
you fool! Those
aren’t fly specks,
they’re birds.
Tempo giasco
with the Old Master.
The birds
on background of pink sky
are humorous.
–Yes, the birds are fun.
–Yes, loads of fun.
–Oh, I see what you mean.
Just a minute, Sir.
Let me write that down.
The birds are fun.

Last fall my friend Jo, who is in the process of moving very gradually to Arizona, prevailed upon me to take what she calls the Jack McManis tree. This is a handsome, four-foot-tall Norfolk pine that used to belong to Jack. It doesn’t travel very well – the slight bruising and bending necessary to transport it home in the car caused extensive needle loss in the upper branches. But with plenty of light and water it’s growing vigorously now, and if anything has become more attractive as a result of this partial damage to its symmetry. Most of my house is too dark for plants; the only place I could put it was right at the opposite end of the table from where I write.

Thus it happens that when I look up from the screen I find myself staring absent-mindedly into the foliage of the Jack McManis tree. And sometimes then I am transported back to Jack’s “bartelby den of an office,” as he once described it, sitting companionably with sheaves of each other’s recent poems in our laps. I hear Old Main tolling the quarter hour. Then the rattle of a page, and an appreciative grunt gives way to a chuckle, the blowing of a nose. “What a great line,” he enthuses, and I crane my neck, staring with pretended comprehension at another pure accident, learning slowly and without realizing it how to value those moments when the words come mostly on their own.