When progress and self-making turn out to be just stories, when the narratives that structure real systems leave many voiceless in the margins, when ‘the human’ as we know him has spoken too much, too firmly, too loudly over everyone, it is time to entice new tongues up from our pages.
Twisty ones, like alder tongues, uncertain and turning
lilting outward from the lush and lethal.
Cap mushrooms poke cheeky from the forest floor,
bracket fungi ripple wide upon trees,
jelly fungi slip saliva-ish upon fallen logs.
The fungal already writes itself upon our world. The mushroom already speaks. We decided it was our turn to listen, and to form both our understanding and our unknowing into a new kind of language. A poetics that dances after other cadences, gesturing at the myriad ways of being which crowd around us, even in times of destruction. Poetry which doesn’t pretend individual authorship, but instead meshes writers and all the things which feed them.
We left together, like a mountain breeze
the excess, addition, an aerosol breed.
With little to nothing and little of nothing,
we cluster, bread-butter collection. A we
closer to i as in one, a single mass
towered high into i. We, a single letter
swivelled to me, Miss Beat-All-Odds, the myco
as in mukēs the ancient we for fungus.
This poem carries the same name as our pamphlet Mycoglossia (HVTN Press, 2022). Mī·kō·glos·sia. When we started writing together, in April 2020, we didn’t know this collection would emerge. What we did know was that we wanted to try writing a few pages of poems, together, which would move like mushrooms, hyphae and spores: sprawling, dissipating, creeping, interpopulating, popping up in unexpected places. Bunkered in London apartments, neighbours in separate bubbles, we communicated in wayward lines. We each started writing poetry the previous year. Everything was new, ripe for overturning.
We were enflamed by the idea that fungi could help to repair even the most damaged environments, from oil spills to nuclear bomb sites, and equally, by how they communicate with forests through mycorrhiza, the wrappings of fungi within and around roots, exchanging nutrients and knowledge with trees. An uncontainable world beneath our feet jumped to the fore, singing out the more we considered its presence.
We brought different questions to the table, employed different styles and different ways of threading our thoughts. One person concerned more closely to the land, its peoples and their layered histories – the other more so with non-human morphology, scientific vocabulary and the sexy raucous humour of fruiting blooms. Soon, we caught each other’s intrigue, borrowed from one another’s languages. Enthusiasm is catching. A new mode of writing sprung up, a style that lives between us. We allowed fragments – micro or ‘mycro’ poems – to wriggle free and hang between poems. As we got closer to the mushroom, we lost our own edges, our names and signatures, to something unruly and surprisingly resilient. Intuition, unpicking, erosion. We allowed things to unfurl, then critically shaped them into still-new forms.
economical psychonauts / in radiation / radical
restructuring / with supernatural magnetism /
we assure you we move, when you
are least looking
In anthropologist Anna Louwenhaupt Tsing’s words, ‘We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others’. Like many readers, we were both enchanted by her The Mushroom at the End of the World. This book sits at the origin point of our collaboration, helping us pull our attention into the soil and its unsung networks. Tsing follows tangles of mushrooms, humans and trees living in the post-industrial margins of Oregon, Yunnan and Lapland, not shy of tracing the ways in which damage and resurgence have always formed our worlds. Alongside scientific studies, fairy tales, poetry, art books, and futuristic design projects, we metabolised Tsing’s images of collaborative survival, of ‘mutual pollution’, of many life rhythms intersecting. Some of her questions became our own. If we are going to live together in rupture and rearrangement, who can teach us how to move differently? We were joyfully polluted by Tsing and ‘the uncontrolled lives of mushrooms [which] are a gift, and a guide, when the controlled world we thought we had fails.’ When there is no time for unhelpful myths of purity and separation.
our lacrimose lattice
gauges life in the wreckage
of factory leakage, stump-ripped
Our writing soon bubbled and blistered beneath fingertips across screens across a distance that grew between us when one of us moved country. Enzymes and ideas built odd stanzas that carried different forms, tongues, characters, scents. Each poem was its own, each poem was co-owned, but loyal to none. A cluster reaching beyond the human, tended by two.
Mushrooms trick us: seemingly static, they are highly mobile beings, constantly changing form throughout their life. Distributed radically through the soil, a regenerating complex that springs up again and again, even when picked, from a great flexible body. A flow, an aerosol breed.
For fungi, mushrooms are just the appendage – the flourish, the sex organ that peeps above the covers of earth. Hyphae and mycelium, the veins within soil and wood, largely unseen by us, make up their bulk. They are weird, they are anarchic, reassuringly offbeat. Language was a place where we could celebrate this morphic nature, mimicking this wriggly efflorescence.
We were most interlocked – switching, line by line, where the other left off – in the poem stitched through this essay: ‘Contagion’. This word carries so much from its 14th century beginnings, tucked in its syllables. Con- as in ‘with’; -tagion as in tangere, or ‘to touch, to infest, to spread’. we assure you we move, when you / are least looking. A sprawling embrace of togetherness.
cuticles of the biological
we blossom from corpses
(all jelly-legs and -ears) we
leave no grave untended
no stone unturned, hunting
gold, we are everyman
in all wastelands
Wet spot, sour rot, mould, mildew; mushrooms get a bad rap for trailing death, their qualities of the untamed micro-masses. Humans call them witch’s butter and fairy fingers, interlacing with the mystics. Humans call them dead man’s fingers or devil’s tooth and doll’s eyes, how sinister. leave no grave untended. In all these names lies a fear of uncolonised patches, fear of the contagiousness of unwanted grouting dwellers, infections and takeovers. How inhuman? How essential.
bruising virulent our utopias
thrown up in extant apocalypses next
we lay our stomachs bare,
the tools of the breakdown:
acid, enzyme, and time
Wrongly thought to be plants for centuries, fungi are closer to animals – they must search out their nourishment, they cannot rely on the sun’s bask. Like us, they eat, but their ways of eating are radically unlike ours. Instead of swallowing their food, enclosing it within a stomach, fungi send their digestive juices outward, breaking down dead substrate, rocks, and occasionally living matter. Their digestion is shared with, and alters, their surroundings. Along with bacteria, fungi make the soil which enables plants to grow on land. Again, Anna L. Tsing – ‘Fungal eating is often generous: it makes worlds for others…’.
acid, enzyme and time
We are always among the decomposers, that vast range of lifeforms who break matter down so that their components can be taken up again by both flora and fauna. The type of beings which humans so often overlook or malign – the weird, the lowly, the hidden, the ‘horrifying’.
Those who remind us that death is one with life, intimately interlinked in every process.
Those who quietly clean up in the corners, dealing with shit and rot and poison. Those who make life possible – allowing for recomposition, rearrangement, realignments of matter.
rich in all wastelands
What if we thought of this as an act of translation—and our poems as a parallel form of translation? When poetry starts to burst with the unacknowledged lives so urgently needed, when those who deal with death offer hope in a time of damage and extinction, when they cycle life in their turning of earth. Tsing’s ‘art of noticing’: the simple act of acknowledging another’s being, leading us to a place of knowing ourselves more in our place. Recognition is the first stage of justice. What we urgently need to see is our intimacy. The fungi already living on our skin, in guts, in vaginal tracts. Making our wine and bread. Bringing history and enchantment to our tables. Pushing up the vegetal world from which we live.
laterally, you should have expected us
mycorrhizal and more
to dig teeny teeth into life-and-deathbed
mattering in the fat seam of past and future
viral, a network connection
Between the spores that first leapt to land and still carry on in Arctic waters.
spread like semen, saliva, sentiment
To build beyond.
viral, an infection
Meeting life when a pulse ends. Viral. Stories, histories.
spread like nudes, neopaganism, bad Netflix infinity
How indistinguishable, indefeasible.
viral like sucking on the spoilt soils: burnt, bleached, ripped
As one voice melts in the mosses.
spread like forestfires, earthshakes
Everything, for the shadows, for the margins.
like cleaning up after, like devour, like—
One that is more, multiple, surviving in the many. Overturning rigid perception, swivelling death and life, marbling time, inheriting and disowning and altering everything. Violent transformative caresses
mattering in the fat seam
Licking up against what is lost, and what is to come,
past and future
and where they have always met, at the brimming edge of sensitive bodies. Glossia speaks of the tongue, of language. Languages as ways of looking, tasting, smelling, feelings that linger past human verbalisation, speech or whisper. Still an i or we or us, mushroom tongues learn communication beyond a body, passing on and through life so silently, smoothly, massively. Here, now, always, never.
we break like boltcutters into exclusion zones
lapping fallout miles and carrying
your glowing treasures to share
oh so wide and kindly
This summer of heavy rainfall in northern Europe has seen mushrooms sprout early for their season. In our lawns and parks, flowerpots and forests, dumping grounds and compost heaps, they make themselves visible now as the soil’s tangible teeth. Ever the surprise, ever in cycle, this reminder: fungi will till the Earth as long as there is soil and bark, moist leaves and matter. When words feel dry, come rarely, or creak with long-held habits, we can remember this flush, this rush, this rubbery flood. Some things nest beneath the surface, somewhere between a hibernation and a slow slow birth, until they are resurrected by a shift in season – whether rhythmic or disrupted. Language, too, can bloom in hope, even in disturbed times. Even from seeming silence. Some forms of thought are animated by storms. The mushroom taught us to dance with language differently, line by line. What other beings and movement might our poetics learn form? Who else might we invite to fill our pages? How might we riff on their comings and goings, on wills and pleasures unlike our own?