Authors: Ursula K. Le Guin
Late in the Day
Â© 2016 Ursula K. Le Guin
This edition Â© 2016 PM Press
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be transmitted by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Crossing the Cascades” first appeared in
These Mountains That Separate Us: An East/West Dialogue Poem
, Traprock Books, 2012.
“The Small Indian Pestle” appeared in
as “The Small Yoncalla Pestle” in 2014.
“Hymn to Aphrodite” appeared in
“Whiteness” appeared in
The Los Angeles Review
, issue 17, Red Hen Press, 2015.
“The Canada Lynx,” “Disremembering,” and “California Landscape
Paintings” appeared in
Milk: A Poetry Magazine
, issue 3/4, Bottle of Smoke Press, 2015.
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015930905
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Given at the conference “Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet” at UC Santa Cruz, May 2014, this short talk sums up ideas that many of my poems of the last few years have expressed or have been groping toward.
I heard the poet Bill Siverly this week say that the essence of modern high technology is to consider the world as disposable: use it and throw it away. The people at this conference are here to think about how to get outside the mindset that sees the technofix as the answer to all problems. It's easy to say we don't need more “high” technologies inescapably dependent on despoliation of the earth. It's easy to say we need recyclable, sustainable technologies, old and newâpottery-making, bricklaying, sewing, weaving, carpentry, plumbing, solar power, farming, IT devices, whatever. But here, in the midst of our orgy of being lords of creation, texting as we drive, it's hard to put down the smartphone and stop looking for the next technofix. Changing our minds is going to be a big change. To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it.
Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animals with animals. Darwin first gave that knowledge a scientific basis. And now, both poets and scientists are extending the rational aspect of our
sense of relationship to creatures without nervous systems and to non-living beingsâour fellowship as creatures with other creatures, things with other things.
Relationship among all things appears to be complex and reciprocalâalways at least two-way, back-and-forth. It seems that nothing is single in this universe, and nothing goes one way.
In this view, we humans appear as particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation in an infinite network of connections, simple or complicated, direct or hidden, strong or delicate, temporary or very long-lasting. A web of connections, infinite but locally fragile, with and among everythingâall beingsâincluding what we generally class as things, objects.
Descartes and the behaviorists willfully saw dogs as machines, without feeling. Is seeing plants as without feeling a similar arrogance?
One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as “natural resources,” is to class them as fellow beingsâkinfolk.
I guess I'm trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.
What tools have we got to help us make that reach? In
Mary Jacobus writes, “The regulated speech of poetry may be as close as we can get to such thingsâto the stilled voice of the inanimate object or the insentient standing of trees.”
Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a rock or a river
, that is, to speak humanly
, in both senses of the word “for.” A poem can do so by relating the quality of an individual human relationship to a thing, a rock or river or tree, or simply by describing the thing as truthfully as possible.
Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.
By replacing unfounded, willful opinion, science can increase moral sensitivity; by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty.
Poetry often serves religion; and the monotheistic religions, privileging humanity's relationship with the divine, encourage arrogance. Yet even in that hard soil, poetry will find the language of compassionate fellowship with our fellow beings.
The seventeenth-century Christian mystic Henry Vaughan wrote:
So hills and valleys into singing break,
And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue,
While active winds and streams both run and speak,
Yet stones are deep in admiration.
By admiration, Vaughan meant reverence for God's sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. By admiration, I understand reverence for the infinite connectedness, the naturally sacred order of things, and joy in it, delight. So we admit stones to our holy communion; so the stones may admit us to theirs.
Dense, heavy, fine-grained, dark basalt
worn river-smooth all round, a cylinder
with blunt round ends, a tool: you know it when
you feel the subtle central turn or curve
that shapes it to the hand, was shaped by hands,
year after year after year, by women's hands
that held it here, just where it must be held
to fall of its own weight into the shallow bowl
and crush the seeds and rise and fall again
setting the rhythm of the soft, dull song
that worked itself at length into the stone,
so when I picked it up it told me how
to hold and heft it, put my fingers where
those fingers were that softly wore it down
to this fine shape that fits and fills my hand,
this weight that wants to fall and, falling, sing.
The match-flame held to the half-inch block
catches, and I blow it out.
The flame grows and flashes
gold, then shrinks and almost dies
to a drop of spectral blue
that detaches, floats,
a wisp of fire in air, dances
high, a little higher, is gone.
from the incense smouldering
sweet smoke of cedar rises
a while like memory.
Then only ashes.
My spoon of Spanish olive wood
from the Olive Pit in Corning,
Tehama County, California,
just off the I-5,
is light but has a good heft.
Short and well rounded,
the right size to stir with,
it's at home in my hand.
Matte brown of olive meat,
dark streaks like olive skin,
its grain is clear and fluent.
The grain of a wood
is the language of the tree.
I oil the spoon with olive oil
and it tells me grey-green leaves,
brief fragrant blossom-foam,
tough life, deep roots, long years.
Spain that I have never seen.
California, and summer, summer.
My plated steel mixing spoon
is from our first apartment,
on Holt Avenue in Macon,
Georgia, in 1954, the downstairs
of widow Killian's house, furnished
with her furniture and kitchenware.
An ordinary heavy tablespoon,
plain, with a good balance,
the left side of the end of the bowl
misshapen, worn away
by decades, maybe a century,
of a right-handed person
mixing and beating with it.
First Mrs Killian, then me.
I liked it so well that when we moved
I asked her could I take it.
That old thing? My goodness, yes,
with a soft laugh,
take it if you want it, child.
Old clay pot
cooked a lot
used to be
full of beans
in the oven
over and over
time and again
had to crack
all go back
Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.
Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.
I celebrate sagebrush,
scrub-oak, digger pine, juniper,
the despised and rejected
or grudgingly accepted
because nothing else grows here.
They're the ones who won't give in
to us, ornament our garden,
be furniture, or food,
and firewood only in a pinch
because nothing else grows here.
Theirs is the dour hardihood