Muna Lee's
Mushroom Town

Composed in the months immediately after the publication of Sea-Change, this sequence of eight sonnets originally appeared in the April 1924 issue of H. L. Mencken's American Mercury. The title refers to Hugo, Oklahoma, where Lee spent several years of her childhood, during the first decade of the twentieth century. In a letter sent to him dated November 5, 1923, and written at her home in Teaneck, New Jersey, she expressed her gratitude for his interest and guidance that encouraged this particular poetic venture. An excerpt from the letter illuminates not only the sequence, but also Lee's sense of herself as a poet and her ongoing relationship with Mencken as a mentor: "I am more glad than I can say that you found the Indian Territory sonnets worth working at: the characters and experiences they evoke are so vivid to me that it was impossible to judge them with any critical detachment; yet if they are not good, I can never do anything that is. […] It is very hard to do them unsentimentally. Besides the ones you saw, only 'The Methodist Revival' is finished (it came out very well) and there is still to do for instance the sonnet on rain. It baffles me to express straightforwardly and convincingly what the long-expected, long-delayed tempests of rain meant to a child in a treeless prairie town far from the sea, far from lakes and mountains and rivers; a town to which water was brought in barrels and every drop was hoarded. What a child felt for rain in those towns and in those days was a passionate pagan adoration."


I. The Drug Store

A door with blurred panes swung aside to show
The cavernous room, across whose muffled scents
Came sudden drifts, volatile and intense,
Of pennyroyal or tansy. A smeary row,
Cases of soaps and notions stood before
Long, gleaming shelves of jars in sapphire glass.
Below were drawers salts, sulphur, copperas.
The soda-taps dripped sirops by the door.

And pent in every jar, a bewildering djinn:
Linden among whose crackling light-brown leaves
Still clung small blossoms from a foreign tree;
Sesame flat seeds known to the Forty Thieves
A child for hours could peer and find within
Spoil of far lands and islands of the sea.

II. Electors

The drugstore was a club, in whose talk took part
Tall men, slouch-hatted, neither old nor young
Men who had failed elsewhere, and who had wrung
Stakes from scant capital for another start.
Not hopeless men: here was a junction which
Ensured a Harvey Eating House; next year
Congress would pass the Enabling Act; right here
Would be a metropolis: they would all be rich.

These consummations meanwhile they awaited
In the drugstore, talking politics till night.
Texans, farmers, and carpet-baggers they hated;
Feared the Negro "This state should be lily-white,"
And arguments to damn whatever scheme
Were the epithets "Utopia" and "dream."

III. August

Day after day the treeless street was baked
By intolerable sun. The molded wagon-tracks
Were rayed and rifted by the widening cracks.
Through wavering blurs of heat the red bricks ached.
Drouth made the plain stretch flatter and more wide.
There was no dew in August, there was no shade.
Upon the lake the Commercial Club had made
Hundreds of dead fish floated on their side.

Walking the sweltering street, "wet leaves," one said.
"Rainy leaves," "drenched leaves" oh words like rillets stealing
Amongst the tortured brain's heat-tangled mazes.
"Drenched leaves," "wet leaves" savoring the words of healing
For crisp forgetful moments the spirit fed
Upon cool freshness of the cress-like phrases.

IV. Murderers

On Landau's corner, the loafers saw them fall.
Meeting, each drew with an oath; they fired together,
And each fell dying without knowing whether
His enemy fell too. And that was all.
The town threshed through the story, nothing loath
Simple enough, they told it over and over:
How Billy Ascham was the woman's lover,
The Doctor's wife's; the Doctor had warned them both.

Afterwards, when the town forgot at last,
Not nudging nor whispering even when the woman passed
With that hard, veiled look of hers, one child still thought
With dull, perplexing pain, for a long while,
Of a trick with matches that Mr. Ascham taught,
And of the red-haired Doctor's freckly smile.
        V. The Carnival

The carnival came late to town that year,
Tents pitched forlornly in the baseball park,
Where a cold wind extinguished every spark
Of merry-making. A ferris-wheel, austere
In skeleton loneliness, viewed vacant grounds.
It rained continuously, a dreary, chill
September drizzle. The merry-go-round was still;
Half-hearted spiels and catcalls the only sounds.

My brother and I, small, shivering wretches beneath
Our papery coats, stood with chattering teeth,
Drinking in pleasure desired through arid days
As we watched a draggled woman lift to our gaze
Grisly tentacles of the octopus, and explain,
"This one killed three sailors off the coast of Spain …"

VI. Mrs. Hastings

Around Mrs. Hastings' house, verbena grew.
She coaxed her roses from reluctant earth,
And tenderly nursed jessamine to birth,
And through long drouth, her iris-plot was blue.
She told of an Irish childhood; of hopeless hours
Waiting tables in Dallas; of how the saints one day
Had sent Sam Hastings to snatch her far away
And build the yellow house amid the flowers.

Sam and her boy coarse as the hides they tanned,
Gamblers and drunkards and foul-mouthed fools no less
Were tinged with romance by her tenderness.
"I would not die before them!" the soft voice said.
"How could I bear that an unloving hand
Should bathe and tend the bodies of my dead!"

VII. Methodist Revival

When the throbbing drums of the opening hymns were still,
The preacher shouted, "Brethren! let us pray!"
And ardently he pled that God that day
Might bend an hundred sinners to His will.
The prayer ended, he touched a lighter note
Joked with the choir, and merrily mocked the Devil;
Then flung God's curse at the drunken nation's revel
With a voice that sobbed and fluted in his throat.

"Oh, my beloved … !" he launched his passionate pleas.
A woman stood. "Praise Jesus!" shrieked another,
A girl ran sobbing and knelt beside her mother.
At a sudden word, again the music swept
The tent with thunder. Quivering, one wept,
Wretched, and shamed, and groveling on one's knees.

VIII. Prairie Sky

Sometimes for days one can forget the sky
That god-like, indifferent, never fails to bless
With unflawed beauty our huddled littleness.
One can forget the meddling breeze goes by
Piling vacant lots with waste to catch the eye;
Or mud, or dust, or merely the heat that shows
In quivering air, can make the senses close
To everything that is far or vast or high.

Then a scrap, a bird, the casual glance beguiles
Up, up, up! till once more, swiftly, surely,
The clean, keen blade of ecstasy stabs purely:
Oh, glorious blue across which clouds are blowing,
Or lucent gray the far rain-tempests showing,
Or sunset blazing for ten thousand miles!


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