Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Earth Is Best

By Peter O'Leary

Reviewed By Kelly Weber

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The philosophy of the rhizome, as coined by Deleuze and Guattari, is particularly suited to the field of poetry, and it feels as though “rhizomatic” has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Yet few books seem as potent, and as luminous, in their embodiment of rhizomatic thought as Peter O’Leary’s latest book, Earth Is Best. Developing the concept of mycopoetics, “a fungal-imaginal making . . . in language . . . a pursuit of uncultivated wildness at once restorative (because adept at destroying toxins) and entheogenic, awakening divine awarenesses within,” O’Leary has created a book that both essays and enacts the fungal answer to human toxins in the Anthropocene. By turns a phenomenology, dictionary, system of ethics, ontology, and theology, Earth Is Best digests and composts the ecological crisis and offers a poetry (and model) to neutralize the poisons of the world. The result is enthralling, a euphoric, encyclopedic litany that draws as much from Walt Whitman and Christopher Smart as scientific guidebooks of mycelium. It also teaches the reader a good deal about mushrooms.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is the way scientific names and purposes for fungi are transformed into incantations. Consider “Seventeenth Amanita Ode,” for example, contemplating the uses and types of moly with language rich and Latinate and enchanting:

for abortifacience
for alternativity
for ambecide
for anodyne
for aphrodesia
for diuresis
for emesis
. . . . . . . . .

In moly there is an incantation, and in its steam there is a remedy for seventy-two diseases. (emphasis original)

One need not be familiar with these terms to take pleasure in the wash of them rolling over the body—in fact, like an incantation repeating over and over, the words both cease to mean anything and mean even more deeply through repetition. Earth Is Best has been my first encounter with many of these terms, and yet it’s hard not to be delighted that these words exist, just as the uses exist against the toxins and diseases of the Anthropocene.

As evidenced by this passage, litany and poetry and ethics coalesce into one kind of philosophy of being in the world, one large pharmakon that processes through attention, repetition, sound. O’Leary references Gerard Manley Hopkins in the poem/lyric essay “Thirty-Third Amanita Ode,” and Hopkins seems kindred here in the rich sound play. Consider the lush rush of sound in the closing section of “Twenty-Third Amanita Ode”:

Three monostiches

i. Lakeshore’s bluish dusk mid-November dims down.

ii. That’s the lake’s glaucous glass a cormorant’s invisible vortex scratches.

iii. An accidental eternity the lake’s waves swell with mist enlumes in aerosol.

At all times, the environment, the mushroom, and the language are depicted as overwhelming experiences: the syntax rushes into a strange tumble as clauses bump against one another within a single sentence. The adjectives and Latinate phrasing, elements that many poets learn to eschew, serve to capture the synesthetic rush of sound and language that embody and enact the world as a sacred experience. Sometimes that rush comes from anaphora, and sometimes that rush comes from attempts to metaphor terms like mushroom: “food-jewel and madness-jewel.                        Moon’s stone and / Sun’s bane . . . / Moon’s urine      mainstay pillar fulcrum.” These feel playful and holy all at once, a way of understanding the mushroom and mycelium as possibly the fundamental force in the world. Indeed, the reader is left asking by the end of the book: what could possibly be more powerful and awe-inspiring than the mushroom, transporting and toxic and restorative all at once?

As with any poem, the language play here feels like an attempt to articulate the inarticulable, to somehow render into time and page the overwhelming simultaneity of the mycelic, ecological, meditational experience. In this, I was reminded at times of Inger Christensen’s spiraling and all-encompassing Alphabet, as O’Leary’s “Seventeenth Amanita Ode” captures the tangibility and simultaneity of a place, delving into:

Apotropaic ward of the evil eye.
Wild rue. Syrian dragon.
Mercurius. Feeling the intoxification of the demiurge.

In Earth Is Best, stems, grasses, caps, spores, fans, spumes, dampness, snow, stalks, and caverns capture the juxtaposition of things in time and space without pinning the lyric voice down in a specific narrative or clearly defined location. Parataxis and litany hold all these details together, not grounding in specific moments or proximal distances from one another. A good example of this is the beginning of “Twenty-First Amanita Ode,” which puts natural objects in directional relations with one another without ever falling into straightforward prosaic description:

Light first radiated on the right side, darkness
on the left. Consummate radiance, high depth
of the issuing light. Angelophanic umber, shadow
of death, sponginess that the light slows into—
the expanding scribal matrix
expands

Umber, shadow, light, and matrix have direction and verbs, but the poem’s stranging of language and syntax deliberately resists a straightforward picture: “high depth” and “the light slows into” can be imagined, and yet they can’t. It’s an example of the way O’Leary so brilliantly makes language itself a rhizomatic experience, a syntactical force that allows the reader to experience directionality and conjunction in the language as a consequence of the luminous simultaneity of the natural world. The tactile, concrete details and sensuous quality of the words combine to make a deeply strange sense out of a word-picture that’s fully worlded without being fully grounded. It’s astonishing.

Earth Is Best is a fierce ethos against the poisons of the world with poetry, suggesting that “the foraging way is the visionary way” in processing toxins in the environment and in unilateral thinking. It calls to mind a quote from William James that I heard raised in a lecture on poetry at Bread Loaf Environmental last spring, that “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.” O’Leary captures the feeling of and and but, both in the way he so frequently uses them in the poems and in his rhizomatic syntax and details. Earth Is Best, as the title declares, reminds us of what matters and offers a phenomenology of how to live beyond the page. Let’s live the mycelium. Let’s try to think as mushroom.

Kelly Weber is the author of the chapbook The Dodo Heart Museum: A Fabulist Curiosity Cabinet (Dancing Girl Press, 2020), and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Ruminate, Timber, Fourth River, Qu, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Frontier Chapbook Prize and Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize and has been longlisted for the PANK Book Contest, and her work has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She has received professional support from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference workshop and served as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.