During Lockdown in 2020 I became obsessed with fungi. My regular walk around a nature reserve became a daily ritual, during which time I looked out for fungi, took pictures of them on my phone and tried to identify them. At a time of collective trauma, my fascination with fungi and learning about their life cycle, their problem-solving abilities, and their diversity, was an escape from the endless traumatic news on the television in the stuck environment of the living room.
Fungi seemed to offer answers, or at least to not be defeated by obstacles. Their determination to survive, their multifarious uses from medicine to food to connecting plants and roots with essential nutrients, opened a wondrous underground world, and sometimes overground world. Finding a mushroom – the fruiting body of fungi – felt like a gift; an omen there are better ways to negotiate life’s challenges through connectedness and co-operation. The fact that some fungi can also kill us if ingested, and their arcane qualities, afforded an added supernatural aura. I wanted to learn from fungi.
On a day when it was too wet and boggy to go on my usual route, I decided to walk around the suburbs and stick to the pavements, not expecting to see any mushrooms. People were keeping their distance during any encounter, according to Lockdown rules, and there were not many people out as it was raining. So, a passing woman holding a bunch of mushrooms lent her a mystical presence in the drab streets. A goddess from the underworld; Persephone’s autumnal twin. Fantastical musings perhaps, but the impression she made stayed with me and I wanted to follow in her footsteps and find some mushrooms.
I found some in the small meadow, which is a remnant of an original common, and run by a Trust. I picked only one as I was not sure if it was edible and took it home intending to fry and eat it if I could certify it wouldn’t poison me. Back home, with nothing much more to look forward to than another government briefing on the spread of the plague, I felt overcome with a sense of melancholy and the need to write and process my feelings. Sometimes, a change of scene, away from your usual writing environment can generate fresh work. I took my pen and paper into the cupboard under the stairs and shut the door, so I was in the dark. This offered my first line of a free write – ‘You are in the dark as you write. Literally in the dark.’
I had no intention of writing a sestina. The cramped, musty space offered its own images, and the day’s walk gave the narrative thrust. My knowledge of fungi worked its way into the writing. The darkness and sense of having disappeared from the normal domestic space of the kitchen into a neglected enclave, often associated with punishment in fiction, dictated the tone and mood. The most significant line for me is, ‘Try to think like a mushroom.’ I wanted to become one, part of the mycelium, letting my thoughts and writing entangle like hyphae. It didn’t happen, but the writing did. For many writers, that is the revelation. You don’t know what you want to write until you start writing.
On the practical side, I decided not to fry and eat the mushroom. I chucked it away but felt an enormous guilt. Somehow, it had become something I should care for in the creative process of cooking, but instead discarded. For me, the mushroom had an affinity with, or was a symbol of, all the sick and depressed people suffering during the pandemic. Later, the feelings of failure and inertia in the writing transformed into a sense of agency as I worked with the material and moulded it into shape. With the free write, certain words kept repeating, and they became the six words of the sestina. The circling, obsessive nature of a sestina – its relentlessness, felt apposite. I can’t remember how long it took me to finish the poem – that time feels nebulous now. But my foray into trying to think like a mushroom is something I have taken with me as an ongoing practice – when I can’t sleep, when I am problem-solving, or when I am attempting to become more connected with my environment.
You can read ‘Mushroom’ alongside three other poems from Lisa Kelly in Issue Thirteen of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
Lisa Kelly‘s first collection, A Map Towards Fluency, is published by Carcanet and was shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Poetry Prize 2021. She is co-Chair of Magma Poetry and is studying British Sign Language.
Issue 13 cover photograph by Jo Mazelis.