Imagination, Experience, and Knowledge — Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems by Ursula K. Le Guin

Finding My Elegy

Finding My Elegy
BY Ursula K. Le Guin
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Best known for her science fiction and imaginative literature, including the Earthsea series, Ursula K. Le Guin gathers new and previously published poetry in Finding My Elegy, a collection that is wide-ranging in form and subject matter, with poems divided into two sections. The first, “Wild Fortune,” considers the best poems from Le Guin’s earlier collections 1960-2005, while the second, “Life Sciences,” explores new poems in five sections named for various fields of study, including “Socioesthetics” and “Developmental Ontology.” In both parts, Le Guin has a startling command of line and image, as well as a tender, yet rigorous, eye for the worlds she reveals and shares with the reader.

Attention to place and nature is consistent throughout Le Guin’s work, with poems grounded in California, Oregon, London, Israel, near mountains, and the sea. Places become sites of epiphany, hope, premonition, praise, and loss. In these poems, nature is where we begin and return, and where we can find answers, even when they are difficult. In “Antigua: The Silence of the Mountain,” she writes:

it draws the eye and draws the eye
higher and higher still, amazed
that silent earth and raise so high
a pure geometry of praise.

— p. 78

Observations of and comparisons to the natural world become the way to knowledge, the way to understanding, as in “Infinitive”:

To be we need to know the river
holds the salmon and the ocean
holds the whales as lightly
as the body holds the soul
in the present tense, in the present tense.

— p. 63

In “To Walk in Here” (from In the Red Zone: Mount St. Helens, October 1981), Le Guin writes in a similar vein, “To walk in here is to stop pretending.”

The poems of Finding My Elegy explore the relationship between imagination, experience and knowledge, between wishes for the self (“To ourselves we matter / terribly,” says the speaker of “To Walk In Here”) and the reality of nature (“the small, cold rain of autumn”). In Le Guin’s attention to nature and specific geography, the reader finds a kaleidoscope of universal concerns. After all, according to her in “Every Land,” “Every land is a holy land.”

Many of the pieces in this collection, in a variety of ways, revolve around a question articulated in “To Walk In Here”: “What’s real?” The domestic sphere, for example, is probed in “For the New House.” It is through natural images that the speaker creates a kind of blessing for the home, a wish for the future: “May this house be full of … a flowing like a warm wing only slower / blowing the leaves of trees and books and the fish-years / of a child’s like silvery flickering.” In later poems, like “GPS,” the speaker considers the significance of home: “There are two places: home, away. I lack / a map that shows me anywhere but those.” Here, as in so much of Le Guin’s work, each word demands attention, and the line break is particularly important. Throughout, Le Guin’s work takes this precise approach to form, through word choice, breaks, and structure. Though some readers might find the number of poems employing end-rhyme tedious, Le Guin’s overall mastery of rhyme and meter reads as effortless and creates a kind of unity that punctuates and highlights the work’s emotional intensity, rather than distracts from it.

…Le Guin has a startling command of the line and the image, as well as a tender, yet rigorous, eye for the worlds she observes and helps the reader to recognize.

Just as Le Guin returns to formal conventions, she also makes a consistent return to the feminine, to mothers, daughters, and grandmothers throughout the book (a consistency that is all the more remarkable given that the poems span fifty years. Often, these are cyclical returns that recognize the transfer of knowledge between generations and the subsequent repetition, eventually blurring the distinctions between these generations, as in, “I am back in the old house on the hill, / daughter, grandmother, sister, ghost. The feet / I follow are my children’s feet, and mine.” Likewise, mothering and motherhood become ways to interpret the world, highlighting the feminine, as in lines like “Maybe the hearthstone dreams the mothering fire.”

Le Guin boldly takes on patriarchy, just as she also takes on war and violence, both through verb selection and images, and in overt, even sarcastic, condemnation. For instance, in “Read at the Award Dinner, May 1996,” she writes,

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.

— p. 55

The poems of Finding My Elegy make an argument for the role of the poet in the world, about the relationship of the poetic and the political. In “Hexagram 45,” Le Guin presents the poet-writer as leading an army of words, a commission taken up in different ways throughout the book. Much of the collection concerns itself with writing. “I chose to sing” she writes, and that “words are my matter.”

In the final sections,Le Guin seems to focus more on reflection, mindfulness, and death. There are a number of extraordinary pieces among the new work. There are poignant moments like “But still the sea is salt, and tears are salt. / Sometimes it seems that salt is all I taste.” The title poem “Finding My Elegy” and the last piece, “The Conference,” a gathering of religious figures from all over the world and throughout time, are particularly stunning. “The storyteller tells one story: freedom,” says Le Guin. Finding My Elegy presents a lifetime of such stories. Writing “having chosen / the heavy art, / the bone of thing, / of stone, of earth” Ursula K. Le Guin shows the reader, with great grace and deftness, what happens to the “the word if you can find it / for what is and / what is beyond it.”

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