There Must Be a God of Mycelium: A Review of Brandi George’s The Nameless

Brandi George’s memoir in verse, The Nameless (forthcoming at Kernpunkt Press, August 2023), chronicles the speaker’s battles with mental health and explores possession, witchcraft, punk rock, the early 90s, and demons of the fungal kingdom. As a fan of George’s previous work, it was impossible to ignore that this hybrid collection of prose vignettes and poetry expands upon what she has already established in Gog (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), but I never feel that I’m treading known waters because reading The Nameless is at times an exercise in cosmic bewilderment with the caveat that the work remains accessible to newcomers of George.

In fact, I recently reread Gog and was taken aback by the play between each of that collection’s poems, which allows us to both participate in the poet’s experience and question the reality of it. One poem (I’m thinking of “John Keats”) may consider an image simply part of the vast workings of a dream, something invented by the speaker to make a point, but an earlier poem might have implied the same image was a product of the speaker’s reality. The validation of one’s experience and mental health visibility is expressed in a way I’ve found unique to George’s writing, and this is where The Nameless evolves George’s work the most: it pushes these ideas further while maintaining a consistent narrative that’s heartbreaking and beautiful.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Nameless is its treatment of possessions, and the narrator’s secular reimagining of what form a possession can take:

            mushroom rings shine dissonant        sparking green

            sparking mustard   ladies lace   paints

                   there must be a god

            otherwise what is this web of roots

            arbuscular mycorrhizae? (22)

Rather than evoking images of the demons we’re familiar with through popular media, the narrator is possessed by demons inspired by nature: a mycelium emperex, by dueling bird spirits, by “wings beating / & rush of wind.” Accepting these possessions by the god of non-religion, non-mankind, the non-verbalized, as the speaker does early on, allows her an escape from the oppression of fundamentalist religion. And because the speaker accepts this possession early in the book, there is always an underlying hope to my reading of mental health—that if one can only express the inner self freely, they might be able to escape for a little while.

George’s expression of mental illness is in general unique and interesting, but her interplay between the physical and metaphorical, realism and cosmic unreality, is one of my favorite aspects of The Nameless. In the chapter “We Begin Hallucinating & Hearing Voices but Keep It a Secret Because Our Parents Believe that Demons Are the Cause of Mental Illness,” the shift between sublime horror and grounded realism is the most apparent:

         Inside our head   Moon Arachnid    sings one star one

         star one   glowing poltergeist

         their lunar           vine-choked Halloween

         of branches gone into the lines

                                       Of an electric tuner [. . .] (13)

When the voice shifts into something that feels more like the present, I feel that images of mushrooms and decay have paid off. The next poem begins:

         Behind the junior high

         we skip class with Annette

         run through the forest

Climb into an old deer blind

Annette feeds us apple slices

she is perfect & we don’t know why [. . .] (14)

The contrast between the grounded poems and the sections expressing possession is vast. These images of possession take the appearance of mushrooms, bats, insects, and mycelium, and we’re often forced physically closer to the page—these poems beg for physical closeness, multiple readings (despite being a part of an episodic narrative), and an eye for cosmic marvels.

The Nameless works to ground us through the people its speaker keeps close. In the seventh chapter, “God is a Mushroom,” the reader takes on the same role as the speaker’s friend, Annette, on the school bus, in order to acclimate us further to the tone of the work:

On the school bus Annette

         listens to our life story

how we used to hide under our trailer

until our cat Slimy jumped on our face

so that we looked like a horror movie

how the brother our mother miscarried

sings to us in the shower

& our mom nearly died so my parents tried to adopt a little girl named Patty

How she lived with us for a few years

Until her abusive mother wanted her back [. . .] (35)

Annette serves not only as a character with agency, a moment of reprieve often for both the reader and the speaker, but she also bridges The Nameless with George’s previous work (many of these images feel like callbacks to Gog). Repetitions and reused themes, however, never feel like moments previously trodden upon, but reconstitutions of imagery and feeling; we are meant to understand that the trauma of her mother’s miscarriage, the sad truth about Patty, and other childhood experiences are not repetitions, but are rightfully persistent, their memories constantly evolving and informing George’s work. In addition to connecting the individual parts of The Nameless to create a whole, these persisting thematic elements are an empowering reminder that while trauma evolves in our memory and becomes more ingrained with identity, we are allowed to evolve alongside it.

What is important to note, too, is that these themes of mycelium and decay connect each chapter and individual poem; titles are also removed, opting instead to include multiple nameless poems under the umbrella of a single chapter, creating a unified whole, a fungal network of abstraction and abundance. Interestingly, new chapters often begin with sections of prose centering around an alter-ego speaker, Thumbelina. George’s prose writing in the Thumbelina sections retains a fairy-tale motif throughout the work and serves not only as a chapter-to-chapter transition for the poetry, but as a method to further ground the reader thematically. Early in the book, Thumbelina—a Jehovah’s Witness—wants to escape from her abusive mother. She decides she would rather be an animal in the wooded darkness. But when she becomes the things she wants, “genderless, many-faced, guiltless, green,” sprouting tadpoles, her lungs “a vessel of light,” she dies. “The next morning, her mother found her face-down in the lake.” She cannot escape her trauma even through death because she is constantly revived to experience humanity again. I worried that Thumbelina’s constant deaths and revivals and the metaphor of losing oneself to trauma and experience wouldn’t be sustainable for the overarching story, but the closer she gets to freedom, the more unexpected these sections become.

The Nameless also explores a journey from suicidal ideation to the desire to live and break the spell of trauma through the act of one’s art. Poetry saves the writer and in effect, the reader takes a part in the act of salvation. George asks:

         what’s the point in being a Great Writer?

         no really     what’s the point?

                            what’s the point?

                            what’s the point in being a Great Writer? (174)

And I don’t think there’s an answer to this; however, George establishes in the beginning that the death of our bodies allows for us to return to nature:

         because you never know what Death might do

         make a blower for us to rest where it’s always spring

                   grow Death Caps     Morels     Fly Agarics

         where hair brown-black-red-yellow-violet-silver

         eats through rock            spines branching

                   underground for miles

         we’ll trade our dendrites for mycorrhizae

         irises for spore-prints              feed on the decay

         of our tragedies              because you see

         we’re made of

                                 dirt     rivers     lightning (8)

The speaker often implies that death offers us a form of omnipresence, of freedom. Mushrooms are frequently imagined as ruthless pain-bearing entities that come to “prick” the speaker awake. The presence of fungus also asks us to “embrace the abyss,” so to speak: the act of death and becoming mycelium also implies some kind of happiness—I’m not sure whether I buy this as an optimal outcome for the speaker or whether it’s something that they simply accept. But I think it speaks to the importance of poetry as a germinating, omnipresent force: “Poetry is incantation and spell. / Poetry is music and spirit [. . .] Poetry yokes together opposites” (191).

George’s ability to express themes surrounding mental health and hopelessness has always been nuanced and wonderful, and I think there’s a clear evolution between her earlier work and now. I was thinking about ways I might convince my own students to engage with poetry, and I usually ask how to give an image to a feeling: do this in five-ten lines, don’t worry about form or rules: just say something that might make someone else want to try to put their experience to writing, in some way. I feel that The Nameless is a highly assignable text. George’s interplay between the abstract and the concrete, her movement between the poems, and the unique hybridity of the collection overall are inspiring, and The Nameless is likely to be one of my favorite books of 2023.

Garrett Ashley’s work has appeared in Sequestrum, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Normal School, Reed Magazine, and DIAGRAM, among others. He lives in Alabama and teaches creative writing at Tuskegee University.

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