Review by Jillian Saucier
FINDING MY ELEGY: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
215 Park Avenue South
New York, New York 10003
2012, 193 pp., $22.00
“I am older than a hero ever gets,” writes the celebrated author of the Earthsea series in the title poem of Finding My Elegy. Her audience can be grateful that she remains an active writer and a poet, and enjoy the broad education in her sixth poetry collection. But Ursula Le Guin’s heroism illuminates the entire collection, through her indefatigable dedication to the craft: “Words are my matter. I have chipped on stone/ for thirty years and still it is not done.” In Finding My Elegy, Le Guin has combined the peripatetic imagination of her internationally-acclaimed fiction with the witty introspection of a widely-traveled poet and matriarch in reflection upon the last decades of her life.
Employing the same sense of fantasy beloved by readers of her fantasy and science fiction novels, she reports on microcosmic worlds as varied as Georgia, California, and the kingdoms of sixth-century Britain. Le Guin’s poetry claims the alien as familiar, and her narrative voice is often a subtle voice-over. An alert and unobtrusive guide, Le Guin shows the reader their countries and themselves in blank verse, rhyming couplets and quatrains. Many of her lines ring in the mind as instantly memorable and quip-worthy classics. “I sit here perpetually inventing new people […],” she writes, “God help me, or I’ll help myself by living all these lives.” She calls out to the gods of ancient Greece, exposing and damning the politics of war, as well as the magical thinking that inflated the American housing bubble. As both ancestress and descendent, she writes on the aging of her body, and on her place in the chain of genealogy that links her forbearers—mother and grandmother—with the future generations—her daughter, granddaughter, and their daughters not yet born.
Le Guin’s agile shift of her poetic focus from the microcosm of the moment to the full-horizon view of history appropriately complicates the notion of poet as witness, as she warns her contemporaries: “Beware when you honor an artist./ You are praising danger./ You are holding out your hand to the dead and the unborn.” The risk of bestowing that honor on the creator of and communicator with the unknown, she seems to crow to the unnamed assembly in “Read at the Award Dinner, May 1996,” is the risk inherent in praising the observer whose credibility relies on disinterested independence from institutional and political fashion: “The poet’s measures serve anarchic joy./ The story-teller tells one story: freedom.” Through the objective, rather than the objects, of their work, Le Guin connects artists of all centuries. A later discussion of her own medium more closely weaves past and present generations of poets in sounding a Homeric echo of Cavafy’s “Ithaka” in “The Merchant of Words”:
I sent my ships to rumored western lands,
heavy with hopeful cargo.
And for a long time they returned
laden with wine and honeycomb
Few ships go out now, few come back, and those
are empty, dancing on the waves.
The trajectory of human life inseparably mirrors the creative process here.
Le Guin repeatedly reminds her readers of the supra-human beauty and danger of the natural world. Of the Mount St. Helen’s Red Zone she writes, “[t]o walk in here is to stop pretending/ that what we do matters/ all that much.” Her incisively lyrical poems display the stunning beauty and wit of a lifetime of observation of America, and the fantastic lyrical Americas of her imagination. Finding My Elegy houses the fundamental poems of a life-long observer of humanity and nature, who has borne critical witness to over eighty years of the modern age.
No biography is available for Jillian Saucier.