Seattle Opera Pagliacci

A lioness of the mind


I have been reading the many tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin, my friend of 52 years, who died on Monday at age 88, and they are, mostly, wonderful. They make me remember my own reactions to her work, as novelist, poet, teacher, feminist rabble-rouser, and performer (something I’ve not seen mentioned).

On Facebook, people speak of which book they loved best, which ones influenced them the most, and why; and that has made me think about all that, as well. I have loved the  Earthsea books, and Sea Road, her most “Oregonian” book (it’s set in a town on the coast), and what I think is her most difficult, Always Coming Home. The night before she died I was happily rereading Sur, the harrowing and funny short story about the women who discovered the South Pole and kept it secret, so a man could take credit for being the first.

Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo: Eileen Gunn

But at the end of the day it is her last novel, Lavinia, about Aeneas’s last wife, in which Virgil makes appearances from time to time, and her poetry, the music of her poetry, that speak most eloquently to my mind and my heart. In recent years I have hated, and I mean hated, her titles, because they sound so much like leave-takings, starting with Finding My Elegy, published in 2012, which I wrote about here, and Late in the Day, published in 2016. I’m none too fond of the title of her new collection of essays taken from her blog, either: No Time to Spare.

Elegy, as I wrote six years ago, suggested a silence I did not want to contemplate. And now the silence I so dreaded has arrived. I will no more hear that lovely, emphatic voice instructing me to do my job, which is writing, or making me laugh with a joke about role models (“What kind of roles? Parker House?” she once scoffed when I told her she was a role model for me, a writer who also had a family to tend to, who was also a faculty wife, also a political activist, and who shared her passion for the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment: in one way or another I think everything she wrote is about free speech and freedom of expression.

I still don’t know how she did it – published so much and taught so much: She led writers’ workshops all over the country as well as teaching at Portland State University, and serving as writer in residence at a number of colleges (check her website for the list). And just by the way raised three children. Without Charles, whom she married in Paris about six decades ago (one book carried the dedication “For Charles Sine Quo Non”) she likely couldn’t have.

In the nineties she founded a peer writing group here in Portland. It was superbly titled the Narrative Americans, in which I was a participant, along with Molly Gloss, Judith Barrington, Andrea Carlisle, Martha Gies, Dianne Sichel, and fleetingly a number of others. For three years we met every two months, and I can’t begin to assess how much I learned and how much writing short stories, which I did, improved my dance writing. We all worked very hard, and we also had a tremendous amount of fun. And when we met at my house my cat participated, too, by sitting on Ursula’s lap.

There is another voice of Ursula’s that will stay in my mind as long as I live. In 1990, I attended a rehearsal of Blood Lodge Dances at Lincoln Hall, choreographed by Judy Patton, with set designs by Christine Bourdette, music by Todd Barton, and narrated by the author. Ursula began with a deep-throated cry, calling the performers to dances (Moon Dance, Water Dance, Summer Dance, Wine Dance, Grass Dance) that she had envisioned and described in Always Coming Home. If I’d been one of those dancers I’d have been on that stage before the call ended. Kayla Scrivner and Cynthia Chimienti performed solos in what was Ursula’s second collaboration with Patton. That collaboration continued in 1992 with Stone Dances, which also had sets by Bourdette and music by Barton.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

The Patton-Le Guin collaboration, one of many Ursula did with artists of many disciplines in Portland and elsewhere, began ten years earlier, in 1980, when Patton made the choreography for Storefront Theatre’s dramatization of Ursula’s chilling, and arguably best-known short story, Omelas, retitled The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It was directed by Ric Young, with sets designed and executed by Henk Pander, with whom she frequently collaborated over the years.

We never exactly collaborated, but like Ursula, I have written poetry all my life – but not, since I was very young, for publication. I did write some poems for her, as birthday gifts, and we would talk about poetry-writing from time to time. One day she suggested I try writing a poem on my computer, in the dark; she had done this herself and found it to be an interesting experience. Here is one result. It’s from her collection Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014, and titled Written in the Dark:

The lionesses of the mind are dangerous.

Big sinuous dun bodies range

The plains of sleep. The fangs are sharp.

The fire-yellow eyes fix on my heart.

Farewell to you, my lioness friend. Your eyes, deep amber in color, are forever fixed on my heart, where your voice continues to roar.


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Photo Joe Cantrell


Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.


3 Responses

  1. One of my sheros since I was a teen and believe it or not, one of the many reasons I moved to Oregon, just to breathe the same air. Here’s a quote from one of my fave novels ever, thanks to Karen Joy Fowler’s tribute in Paris Review:
    “If you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful earth is, is to see it from the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.” —Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974.

  2. I had the enormous pleasure of working with Ursula on 2 concerts with Marzena nearly 30 years ago in Seattle. On the program were two works based on her poems & prose:
    + Wild Angels of the Open Hills by Joseph Schwantner for soprano, flute & harp
    + The Seasons of Oling by Elinor Armer for narrator & 5 players
    Ursula gave a short poetry reading, appeared in a discussion with Elinor & elegantly performed as narrator in Oling. She also joined me on a radio show at KUOW the day before.
    About 10 years ago, Ursula & I briefly discussed resurrecting the above program here in PDX & sadly never got around to it. Happily, I have VHS tapes of her Seattle shows & once I get them transferred over to DVD, I will be certain to deposit them in the public library.
    She was wonderfully kind, generous & inspiring. When I originally approached her saying I had very little in the way of a fee to offer, she replied (paraphrase after 30 years, sorry!); “What I charge depends on who’s asking me. If I feel that someone with real means is trying to play me on the cheap, I will stick it to them. In your case, whatever you can manage will quite probably be just fine.”

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