Thomas B. Byers: On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise"

"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.

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Title Thomas B. Byers: On "Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas B. Byers Criticism Target W. S. Merwin
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin
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