Cary Nelson: On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise"

"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."


Title Cary Nelson: On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson, Ed Folsome Criticism Target W. S. Merwin
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry
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