A Feature Review of
Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems
Ursula Le Guin
Reviewed by Caitlin Michelle Desjardins
I’ve been contemplating the shape of the soul lately. Death does that to us and in the circle that is my life, a child has recently died. So I’ve been thinking about the soul: where does it reside? What shape does it take? Where does it go? I’ve turned first to the poets, for I’ve found that the poets—Irish mostly, with a dappling of American (for who can truly contemplate soul without a sincere nod to Mary Oliver’s Bone?)— are invaluable companions in this journey of contemplation and wonder. If anyone has influenced the shape of my thought on the shape of the soul, it has been John O’Donahue. The soul, he says might after all not reside inside the body. Perhaps, instead, the body resides inside the soul. And perhaps the soul is not fixed, but fluid and tendrils of this soul in which I live can reach out towards other souls, be they souls of winged birds, aging oaks, little children or lovers.
With this image of the soul in my mind, I found myself opening the new and definitive collection of poetry by a woman known to me previously as a fiction writer: Ursula K. Le Guin. I sensed an appropriateness that she would find her way into my hands just now, for her fiction—mysterious, imaginative and elegant—has taught me a great deal about being, about names and dragons, and that which we fear and love. Until now I have not known that Le Guin as a poet, but in fact the front matter lists 11 previous books of poetry and it is clear in the first half of this book that poetry has been as much a mainstay for Le Guin as fiction, though she isn’t as widely known for it. I confess, too, that though I may not judge a book by its cover, I have been known to judge one by its title! Finding My Elegy gripped me from first glance. Le Guin, now into her 80’s, is just the sort of sage whose elegy, ‘a poem of serious reflection,’ I suspect will have words both disturbing and healing. My premonition proved correct.
In Finding My Elegy, a collection divided into two sections, Wild Fortune: Selected Poems, 1960-2005 and Life Sciences: New Poems, 2006-2010, Le Guin accomplishes something of wonder and grace. Partway a review, an account of where she’s been, and partway an opening to the new, Finding My Elegy left me with the distinct impression of having accomplished something miraculous. If the soul perhaps resides outside of our bodies, and if it is possible for our souls to reach out and caress each other with comfort and wonder, I felt like I closed this book with a new soul-friend, my soul having touched the very soul of the poet and come away enriched. Finding My Elegy spans vast themes: the themes of a long life with many travels, wonders and imaginings, relationships, observations and pain. This expansiveness is part of the gift of Finding My Elegy and in no way does its vastness eclipse the tender particularity of the poems themselves. Much of its expanse lies in these particularities, as all good poetry, by showing us that the purr of a cat, the cutting down of a tree, the bearing of and being a daughter are far greater offerings than previously realized. A particular grace of Finding My Elegy lies, too, in Le Guin’s transparency as she holds her own aging, experiences of death and grief, and her fears and hopes for the earth now and the earth to come open for us to touch and explore with her. She is not reserved in both her fears and critiques, and I suspect because of this her poetry might not be for everyone. Indeed, for all its beauty, it requires a certain mettle to read honestly. The example of this edge that most holds me is her poem The Next War. It read simply:
It will take place,
it will take time
it will take life,
and waste them.
Finding My Elegy, I believe, offers itself most fully when read as a book, a collection purposefully shaped and meant to be held in its entirety. The placing of poems is evidently purposeful, with themes held together and tumbling into and over one another in succession. A poem very obviously addressing the conflict in Israel/Palestine is followed by one titled Every Land that concludes with the line “Every land is the holy land.” The book flows towards its last ten poems or so, which all wonder about death and grief, and then, in closing, about God, the gods, and the future of this sacred space called Earth. This movement is at once illuminating and haunting. I had a hard time closing the volume after the last poem, finding myself feeling both enlightened and disturbed. Le Guin, in her tenacity, doesn’t leave us with tea and cake, but a vision of the future that requires deep pondering and even, perhaps, action. Through the whole of her work there is, unsurprisingly, a sense of looking back. A number of her newer poems, even, refer to events that took place long ago, such as the damming of the Columbia River at Celilo Falls in 1957. Le Guin’s looking back, however, is never divorced from the present, and ultimately the collection lends the distinct impression of being prophecy more than history.
At times, Le Guin’s poems, particularly a few of the earlier ones, feel flowery and overwrought. Some of this is her commitment, in this age of free verse, to stick with form where she can and her courage to explore rhyme in many manifestations. Still, at times I wished her words were translucent and was grateful to find more straightforward language that didn’t seem to be groping at an academic audience in the second half of the volume. Sonnet, Villanelle, Rhyming Couplets all make their appearance here and I found myself joyous at their return to a modern poet’s voice—especially as she explored the natural world.
Wherever my soul resides, Finding My Elegy, even after a single reading-though, has expanded it and opened it to new ways of seeing the world, God and my place in it. By letting us in to see deep parts of her own soul, Le Guin helps us to access and touch our own. There are poems that I will read again and again here for the sheer way they upturn my thinking and challenge me to be a different person, a different Christian, in this wide world. And there are poems here, like For the New House, that I will treasure for their vision of beauty, simplicity and grace in the everyday realm of our world. It is the everyday, after all, that Ursula Le Guin has come to cherish in her many years and offers back to us as both hope and challenge. She writes:
What happens every day is what’s surprising.
The treasure’s never where I look to find it
but where I simply look—the sky, the wind,
sunrise, a silver arc, the moment’s chance.
Caitlin Michelle Desjardins is a student in Theology at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She enjoys all forms of the written and spoken word and drinks copious amounts of tea.