Homage to and #Review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s
Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems, 1960 – 2010
Ursula K. Le Guin is my favorite writer. No contest.
I have enjoyed, admired, appreciated, envied and learned from her novels, novellas, short stories, essays, and poetry for over forty years. She is about my mom’s age (in her early 80s, now) and still going strong. She is my idol, my mentor, and my role model. I also found out, after reading this collection, that she and share not only a love of writing, speculative fiction, feminism, social justice, pacifism and environmentalism, but Buddhism and meditation. Ah, pure bliss!
This latest collection of her poetry so delighted me that I had to write not just a short review on Amazon or Goodreads, but an entire blog post, complete with images, video, quotes. I hope you run right out and buy, borrow or sit and read aloud from this collection ASAP. You will be glad you did.
Poetry is meant to be read aloud. I enjoy reading poetry aloud as if I am the poet, wondering as I hear each word, line, idea, image, stanza, what the poet was imagining and how this exact turn of phrase came to capture it. Knowing how long many poets take to conjure the precise manner in which to describe and evoke every part of their intention, I want to savor it.
I do NOT read in that artificial, almost-questioning (upturned inflection on the end of lines), drawling almost-monotone that many poetry readers make the horrible mistake of using.
I read poetry aloud as if each poem is its own story, because this unique version of that story is interesting, new, and not mine. I use the line breaks and punctuation as suggestions to help me go with the poet’s flow. I smile, I laugh, I pause, I taste the words on my tongue.
Try it. You’ll like it!
Le Guin has many poems rooted (pun intended) in nature. This little bird caught her attention several times. She mentions the Swainson’s Thrush by name; sometimes it is unnamed and alluded /referred to throughout this collection.
I had to find what the Swainson’s Thrush looks and sounds like. Enjoy!
I marked pages of this book with pieces of scrap paper so I’d remember which stanzas, poems, titles, lines caught my heart. Here are some, in no particular order. I sometimes annotate or explain. Find your own parts to love and for your own reasons.
I want to give this poem, For the New House, to my son and his wife when they find their first home to purchase. I adore the entire poem, and here are my favorite lines:
For the New House
And may you be in this house
as the music is in the instrument.
I also welled up with tears reading this next one, Song for a Daughter, imagining myself as a new mom hearing this from my mom, and sharing this with my son’s wife should she/they be lucky enough to have a child. Le Guin captures so much of the complexity of these relationships elegantly and succinctly, with beautiful turns of phrase, like these from the first and final stanzas:
Song for a Daughter
Mother of my granddaughter
listen to my song:
A mother can’t do right,
a daughter can’t be wrong….
Granddaughter of my mother,
listen to my song:
Nothing you do will ever be right,
nothing you do is wrong.
Soldiers perfectly depicts the horribleness of most wars, particularly our most recent USA-led wars, in which the military industrial complex—to enrich corporations—sends/inspires young men (and women) to go to their deaths or disfigurements with lies and for specious causes. The anguished images of this powerful poem end with this, which completed the breaking of my heart:
And soldiers still will fill the towns
In blue or khaki clad,
The brave, the good, who march to kill
What hope we ever had.
Unsurprisingly, given the title, and with Le Guin’s being both a Buddhist (we meditate daily on impermanence) and in her 80s, much of the poems in this collection are concerned with the end of life: the end of her own life, the changing of the seasons, the ruination of nature and places. She draws upon rich and varied imagery from many religious/spiritual traditions, employing words and phrases from several languages and invoking aspects of the rituals of Native Americans/Native Canadians and other indigenous peoples (harkening to her anthropologist father’s influence, as always), among others.
I especially liked Every Land (which starts with an epigram from Black Elk), in which she repeats this line, “Every land is the holy land,” at the end of each of the three stanzas, like a wistful refrain.
From one of the longer poems, At Kishamish, which is divided into named sections, these lines from “Autumnal” were quite moving. They eloquently evoke the juxtaposition of being somewhere now, when we’re so much older, suffused with so many memories of having lived and been at that same place so many times with our children as our younger selves:
It’s strange to see these hills with present eyes
I hold so clear in my mind always, strange once more
to hear the hawk cry down along the meadows
and smell the tarweed, to be here—here at the ranch,
so old, where I was young—it hurts my heart.
One of the “good-bye” poems here could make a statue cry: Aubade, which means “a song or poem to greet the dawn.” The term is unironically used here as the poem’s title. Le Guin simply depicts what might be said between lovers or long-time intimate friends or family members who must now part due to death. She frames it perfectly in two gorgeous stanzas, which I quote here in their entirety:
Few now and faint the stars that shone
all night so bright above you.
The sun must rise, and I be gone.
I leave you, though I love you.
We have lived well, my love, and so
let not this parting grieve you.
Sure as the sunrise you must know
I love you, though I leave you.
Tibetan Buddhists talk about the “between place,” the Bardo, the state between a person’s pre-birth to our birth, and of the time between our body’s death and the shifting of our consciousness to our next incarnation. Le Guin speaks to this and illustrates her readiness, willingness, almost eagerness to “move on” to be In the Borderlands. Fittingly, this poem is placed on one of the last pages of this collection. Le Guin leaves us considering her perspective in this way, putting her thoughts of yearning to leave her body into this poem in the form of a conversation between her soul and her body, ending it in this final stanza with gentle humor and grace:
In the Borderlands
Soon enough, my soul replies,
you’ll shine in star and sleep in stone,
when I who troubled you a while with eyes
and grief and wakefulness am gone.
Thank you, Ursula, for sharing your deep and soulful moments with us all. Once again, due to your artistry with words and your generosity and intelligence, you have paved the way for me and others to follow with some surcease from pain and lighter hearts as we face our own partings, disappointments and deaths.
image from her website, photo ©by Marian Wood Kolisch
May your contributions to our literary and emotional landscapes always be known as blessings while you still live and after you die, and may all beings benefit.
Find these poems, this and all her other work here: http://www.ursulakleguin.com Her latest poetry collection, Late in the Day, is my next poetry read!