You are all probably aware of Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy novels and stories but did you know she writes poetry too? Say what? I just learned that bit not long ago. So I had to borrow Finding My Elegy New and Selected Poems from the library. Le Guin’s poems are nature-centric and often Pacific Northwest-y (she lives in Portland, Oregon) flavored.
Looking back through the collection I notice a good many of her poems are filled with absence:
Do you see: there where his absence
stands by each tree waiting for nightfall,
where shadows are his being gone, there
where grey pines that no one planted
grow tall and die, and grain that no one sowed
whitens the August hills with wild ripeness,
and an old house stands empty,
the averted face of absence
This is an absence of the human in which nature goes on, indifferent. There are several poems in which people are superfluous. But there is also the absence of nature haunting the collection as well. In “The Aching Air” a huge old horsechestnut tree is cut down because it blocks the light, makes a mess and attracts birds that shit on the cars. The tree’s dismemberment is so painfully detailed I burst into tears. And then the poem concludes:
The broken wood
was sweet and white.
People kept coming by,
slowing down in cars,
stopping walking, to stare.
Only the tall,
The poems are also filled with a silence that is not silent:
my love silence
in whom alone is heard
the meditation of the twilight bird
and the never to be spoken word.
There is also “the small talk of swallows” and the sound of the sea, the “tek!” of a hummingbird, the rustle of leaves and the sound of a heron’s wings.
But within the silence there is also an attempt to communicate:
Slick Rock Creek, September
touches the wind.
A lacewing fly touches my hand.
I speak too slow
for her to understand.
Rock’s warm under my hand.
It speaks too slow
for me to understand.
I drink sunlit water.
Le Guin struggles with ambivalence when it comes to language. Silence lets her hear, words help her communicate, but speech also destroys:
you interpenetrate my mesh.
What shall I say in the speech
that tears the web to shreds,
the tongue of my killing people?
Can singing heal the sea?
(‘Where There Aren’t Any’)
I like how she offers the idea of song as a possibility for healing.
Le Guin is not a complex poet. Her poems are fairly straightforward with no fancy poetic flourishes. Some of the poems are beautiful, some of them are ok, and a few aren’t that good. Taken as a whole, the collection is enjoyable and guaranteed to make you want to hug a tree or go for a long walk through a meadow or woods. If nothing else, her poems will encourage you to sit quietly listening while looking — and seeing — the world around you.