Mushrooms in a Museum
Once the emerald forest held
Their urgent growth; the banks of rivers
Nursed their roots a while. Like favors
At a children’s party, frilled
And stiff, they poise behind this glass.
Each specimen is perfect. There,
One labeled morel raises queer
Sea urchin heads above a mass
Of muddy stems. Edible,
The sign propounds. Its warty cheek
Like satin soothes the palate’s ache.
And ragged lepiota‘s circle,
Mottled brown on brown, in all
Its ugliness asserts a use:
Agreeable. That tawny maze,
That labyrinth of pipes and small
Lopsided pods, honey agaric,
Consoles the tongue like vintage wine
Although inelegant in dun
Attire beneath some crooked oak.
But as a moth espouses fire,
The eye leans out to those white wings
Molded in flight like waxen things
To slender stems. It fastens there,
Imagining a cedar grove,
Cool, at dusk, with whippoorwills
Spilling melancholy pails
Of song haphazard on the olive
Night. And starting through the gloom
This opalescent glow, this snowy
Nimbus beckons artfully,
So like perfection none could blame
The hand that reaches out for grace
Or beauty. Plucked, preserved, the wan
Alcina props a wary sign:
Death Angel, deadly poisonous.
Under the forest’s heavy freight
Of green, what legions plunged their teeth
In succulence to find the pith
Detestable too late, too late?
Joan Swift is the author of four full-length books of poems, the two most recent winners of the Washington State Governor’s Award. Her most recent collection is the chapbook Snow on a Crocus, Formalities of a Neonaticide. Her poems have appeared in The Yale Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Puerto del sol, DoubleTake, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review and others. She is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.
“Mushrooms in a Museum” appeared originally during the first year of Poetry Northwest‘s publication, in the Fall 1959 issue.
Two poems by Joan Swift will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of the magazine.