An elegy from Ursula: poems for then and now

From cats to politics, celebrating a rare new collection from Ursula Le Guin

EDITORS’ NOTE: Writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Martha Ullman West have been friends for almost a half-century. Le Guin – author of revered stories from “Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Lathe of Heaven” to “Searoad” and the “Earthsea” series – is also an acclaimed and accomplished poet. Here, Ullman West celebrates Le Guin and her newest collection, “Finding My Elegy.” At 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 14, Le Guin will give a free reading of her poetry in The Black Box of the Milwaukie Arts Academy at Milwaukie High School, 11300 Southeast 23rd Avenue in Milwaukie, as a guest of the monthly Milwaukie Poetry Series.

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

I could wish that Ursula Le Guin’s recently released collection of new and selected poems, “Finding My Elegy,” had a different title: we have been friends for more than forty years and elegy suggests a silence I don’t want to contemplate.

Ursula has been writing poetry since she could hold a pencil, and it shows. Her craft is finely tuned; her artistry speaks to the heart as well as the mind.  The poems collected here, written over a period of fifty years, evoke many personal memories, as well as what drew us together when we met in 1966: a love of poetry itself, of shopping for shoes, of cats and freedom, and peace; our historian husbands, our mothers and fathers, children — she had three at that time, I would eventually have one.  Not to mention the ocean and the beach, and music and dancing — an ongoing metaphor in Ursula’s work and the subject of most of  mine.  And words, oh yes, words, their rhythm, their sound, their message, their being.

Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo: Eileen Gunn

I love what she writes about cats in this book.  Of “Sleeping with Cats,” in which, as all who do so know full well, “Purring recurs.”  Of “Raksha,” a little story about a cat gone feral, typically, fed and befriended while Ursula was doing a residency in San Jose.  The Le Guin cats of days of yore need seek no elegy of their own. Ursula provides it in “I think of them,” making me remember, as if I could forget them, my own Mickey, the tuxedo cat; Bogey and Winnie and Caboose.

A poem about visiting Rodmell, the Sussex home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, reminds me of my own visit there with a friend I nearly killed for speaking sardonically of “the holy of holies,” Virginia’s writing studio at the bottom of Leonard’s garden.  “She Remembers the Famous Poets” is a witty, lovely coupling of Ronsard’s lines about a lady love, and Yeats’s lines about Maud Gonne, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep…,” a poem I’ve cherished since I was very young and in love with all things Irish.

All writing is political, I once heard Ursula say at a reading, and there are many overtly political poems in this collection, including the brief but pungent “The Next War, “The Vigil for Ben Linder,” and the stunning “The Curse of the Prophetess,” which begins, “Hear my curse on the nation of Israel and the nation of Palestine,” and includes the lines, “May your young men take no joy in combat, and your old men be fearful for them, saying, ‘Is it right that my son give his life for me?’” and “Let the child set down the stone in his hand and be allowed to learn to make bricks for the building of houses.”

Mothers and daughters and granddaughters are the subjects of several poems; my favorite—until I decide it’s a different one — is “Lines for a Daughter,” which concludes:

Granddaughter of my mother,

listen to my song:

Nothing you do will ever be right,

nothing you do is wrong.

 

There are highly subversive poems, too, among them “The City of the Plain,” about Las Vegas; “Watching the Fractal Set,” lampooning, among other things male politicians in no uncertain terms; and “Read at the Award Dinner, May 1996,” which contains the lines:

Above all beware of honoring women artists.

For the housewife will fill the house with lions

and in with the grandmother

come bears, wild horses, great horned owls, coyotes.

 

The last poem in the book, “The Conference,” the most subversive of all, contains a primer of the religions of the world, many of them anyway, ancient and modern, that ought to be required reading for every college freshman studying the humanities, for every ideologue, for every politician, for every lover of words that speak many truths.

My sister friend, I salute you, and were we lunching at this moment in the long gone Diamond Head café, I’d shoot the paper from my drinking straw at you in celebration, though I’d probably miss.

 

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