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Climbing Lightly Through Forests coverIn her introduction to this fine collection of poems honouring Ursula Le Guin, co-editor Lisa Bradley comments that “the best anthologies are conversations.” She tells us how the poets are responding to Le Guin, “her work, or their own responses to her or her work: […] as editors [… we] put the poets in conversation with each other and with the readers” (p.1). This is a rich and moving conversation to be a part of as a reader, full of sadness but also delight: a multitude of voices remembering and reflecting upon Le Guin, or offering new visions of topics and themes that were important in her work and life. The volume is clearly a labour of love, but although it is a tribute to a beloved author who has died—and the editors hope readers will find “solace and support” (p. 4) in the collection— it is not a grief-fest. The editors have wisely allowed enough variety, and a movement from sorrow to wonder and back again, to help prevent the reader from being overwhelmed with a sense of loss. Nevertheless, I found myself blinking away tears several times in the course of reading this collection.

R. B. Lemberg argues in the useful retrospective essay that concludes the volume that “poetry frames Le Guin’s body of work and her life” (p. 101). Le Guin’s poems are, Lemberg notes, “smaller scale” than her novels, focusing on the local and the personal. The “magic of her poetry is quieter,” Lemberg writes in the introduction. “It is in the wind and water, the landscape and the trees, whole forests of them” (p. 2). Lemberg’s essay offers valuable insights into Le Guin’s work and writing processes: her subjects being the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, with its birds, animals and especially trees, family, aging, life and death, but also politics, mythology, and philosophy. Lemberg concludes from a comprehensive reading of Le Guin’s work that Le Guin valued slowness: the cycles of nature and “the careful, iterative process of writing about the same themes” (p. 104). The poems in this volume collectively reflect all these ideas.

Although many reference her novels and other prose works, only a few of the  poems in this collection are based explicitly on Le Guin’s own poetry—and not all the poems in the volume are even easily connected to a specific work of Le Guin’s. Nevertheless, to a reader familiar with her work, the cumulative impression of this expertly curated collection is indeed “deeply Ursuline,” as Lemberg suggests in the introduction, in its contemplativeness, in its rebelliousness and resistance, in its thoughtfulness, in its sadness and its hope” (p. 3).

Most, if not all, of Le Guin’s novels are referenced at least once, somewhere in the collection; some—like the Earthsea books and The Left Hand of Darkness—several times. There are poems inspired by her essays, by her “translations” of Chinese literature, by a commencement address, by her Taoism, by her feminism. Le Guin’s famous invention, “the ansible,” recurs at least three times, most poignantly in the sense that her voice is no longer at the other end of it. But we also find poems reflecting Le Guin’s more earthly preoccupations: the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, trees, water, stone, ice, volcanoes, gardens, cats (and birds), as well as the stars, time, and space.

Of course, this is a collection in honour of a woman who has died, so it is unsurprising that the volume as a whole is infused with an elegiac quality, and many poems address the loss directly. In the opening poem, “Dear Ursula,” Edmond Y. Chang recalls meeting Le Guin and relates the impact of her books, her “ancient generosity and keen grace” and how “the vacuum of loss widened the orbit of [her] star” (p. 8). Jo Walton’s incantatory “Where Are You” traces Le Guin through memories and through references to her work: “in the Reaches, changing the rules” or “crossing a glacier” or “watching the dragons rising.” She concludes: “That you are gone seems impossible” (p. 9). Roger Dutcher’s devastatingly simple three-line “Wind writes the Water” (p. 10) was an inclusion that made my breath catch and tears come to my eyes. The penultimate poem in the collection, meanwhile—Trisha Knoll’s “Oregon: Local News”—was written immediately following the announcement of Le Guin’s death and presents it from the point of view of a group of Oregon women, ending simply “Ursula was one of us” (p. 98).

Amid all this, Catherine Rockwood’s “There Must Be Darkness” is a fitting conclusion to the anthology—moving, like the collection as a whole, through grief to face the possibility, even the necessity, of moving on. The speaker ’s father tells her of a dream he had in which her son—his grandson—runs away into a seemingly infinite landscape, too swift to catch, even though the father boards a train in pursuit. She tells her father that the vision reminds her of The Farthest Shore (1972), but he doesn’t understand the allusion, heightening their inability to communicate about their fears for the child, or perhaps their mutual unspoken fear of death. She thinks to herself she must reread the novel, but she is not ready: “The feelings would die down, I thought, / They’d be more manageable later, surely.” But they are not; her mistake, she thinks, “lay in wanting to be unmoved / by what I knew was there, somewhere, in The Farthest Shore” and when she finally does read the novel again, on the porch of their summer cabin:

Oh how I cried on that quiet porch, reading.
“That’s right,” Ursula said, “that’s right.”
“Now go on, there’s more to do.” (p. 100)

As in that final couplet, there are frequent references throughout the collection to the notion of taking the next step in a journey; there are also reflections that those, like Le Guin, who went before us leave us knowledge and inspiration. Lyta Gold’s “Journey” asserts that artists like Le Guin “leave us / signposts, tickets, breadcrumbs, / a path and nourishment for the journey” (p. 89); in “Lessons from Mother,” Lynne Sargent suggests that Le Guin taught us to “Embrace change / Even if the only way to enact it is in imagination” (p. 84). Issy Wasserstein writes in “The Day before the Revolution”: “I belong to those who may come after me” (p. 41). But she also recognizes a debt to those who came before, who laid down their lives so that others may have a better life: “we are those obliged / to tend the garden they planted, / to cultivate what others may yet become” (p. 42). In “Atmospheric Inversion,” meanwhile, Kim Goldberg writes that “the best thoughts, the ones that could save us,” are “stabs of / hope, backlit notes of dreamy possibility paddling upstream on / a wishbone raft” (p. 35).  

As one might expect, many of the poems in the anthology reflect on the experience of reading or rereading Le Guin, and on the impact of her books. Bernard Han’s “Earthsea” (p. 82) relates reading The Wizard of Earthsea to his daughter, and again now as a grandfather to his grandson. In Mary Soon Lee’s “On Reading Le Guin,” the speaker describes meeting the young, impatient Ged in Earthsea, “while I, / outside the story for so long, / had grown older, fatter, named my son, / but now am coming home” (p. 81). The notion of “coming home” is one that recurs several times throughout the collection, most notably for me in Aimee Ogden’s “The Long Road Back,” which I believe is a response to the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973). Omelas is a quasi-utopia, where the happiness of its inhabitants is founded on the suffering of a child. The people are required to see the child, to be aware of the misery on which their happiness is based, and some walk away. Ogden proposes that some will walk back, to exact change:

Hurrying homeward in search
of something better that we but
dimly understand and that
you dare not examine. (p. 40)

One of the more challenging poems in this anthology, “Dream Logic,” by Ada Hoffmann, is a response to a different work, The Lathe of Heaven (itself an exploration of the dangers and responsibilities of power). In what is essentially a dramatic monologue interwoven with fragments of dream interpretation—the symbols “Mountain,” “Bear,” “Volcano,” and “Turtle”—the speaker addresses the unscrupulous psychologist from that novel, Haber. One assumes the speaker is (although is not necessarily) George Orr, the same novel’s protagonist. Overall, The Lathe of Heaven is a discourse on the conflict that could arise if someone had not just the desire but the power to change the world for the better. It is possible that the name “Haber” in the novel references the Nobel-prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber, whose work in transforming ammonia to make fertilizer offered the potential to greatly improve agriculture and ease world hunger, but which was later used to make gas for chemical warfare and thence ultimately in the Nazi death camps. Hoffmann seems to reference this connection in the line “you never understood the dirt” (p. 31), and in the conclusion the speaker tells Haber that what he should have concerned himself with were plants rooting themselves in the ground and “Green faces turning, / hesitant, to the sun” (p. 32). What is paramount throughout is the underlying Taoist message of the need for balance and wholeness: the speaker tells Haber, “You cannot wipe all pain from the world” (p. 31), and the events of the novel, like those of the chemist Haber’s life, are a warning of the potential dangers of trying to do so.

I am intrigued by Hoffmann’s use of the figure of a bear to refer to Haber, because the bear is also inescapably connected with Le Guin herself. Perhaps Hoffmann is suggesting that even the most benevolent of authors advocating for change needs also to be conscious of responsibility, a notion with which I’m sure Le Guin herself would have concurred. A poem that directly acknowledges the meaning of “Ursula”—bear—and discourses upon it is also—for me—another standout, albeit one that somewhat resists easy classification: “The Brown Thing” by Sofia Samatar. Inspired by Le Guin’s “imaginary translation” of nüshu, “an unofficial, fugitive language reserved for women’s songs” in one area of China, the poem is at once a meditation on naming (“bear,” she writes, means “brown thing”), on writing, on authenticity, and on the real and the imaginary. Le Guin did not read Chinese. Samatar asks whether her “translations” are less genuine: “Did you transgress in your poem, should you have left the way clear for the genuine translations, was it a mistake to write the imaginary?” (p. 63). Finally, she writes: “There is the word bear and there is the bear’s forgotten name and there is the bear. Writing: a brown thing” (p. 64).

Likewise, in her beautiful “The Humanist Chaplain Watches her Daughter Walking through the Herb Garden,” T.D. Walker demonstrates how a single moment can become a meditation on past and present. She takes as an epigraph a line from one of Le Guin’s own better-known poems, “Hymn to Time”: “in times womb / begins all ending.”  Structured with two voices side by side in conversation or reflection, the poem’s first voice takes her daughter to the herb garden, among “those green rows, too / orderly to be a home” (p. 77). She goes here because it reminds her of her parents’ garden growing up. In memory, she returns to her past life, which informs her present thoughts, and leads to the future she foresees for her daughter, but may not see herself.

How can we see the world
as anything else, but as potential,
some time we’ll have anywhere? (p. 78)

There are sixty poems in this collection; they are all wonderful. I regret that, of necessity, it was only possible to highlight some of them, and those will naturally be the ones that affected me the most deeply on a personal level. Another reader will respond differently and to different poems. The poets chosen are very diverse. There are many countries represented: Greece, Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Chile, the UK, and Canada as well as the US. R. B. Lemberg tells us in the introduction that there are over a dozen poets of colour collected in its pages, and notes the representation of queer, trans, and non-binary poets. Every reader will bring their own interests and taste to the poems here, and I believe there is something for everyone. I share with many readers a deep love and respect for Ursula Le Guin herself and her work, but someone unfamiliar with her work will find much to treasure as well.

It occurred to me, after reading and thinking about the poems in this anthology, that poetry is the perfect medium with which to capture the essence of a writer like Ursula Le Guin: so multifaceted, her interests so wide-ranging. Fantasy and science fiction express or speculate upon broader truths about human life through imaginary worlds; poetry can represent the essence of an abstract truth through concrete imagery. In both speculative fiction and in poetry, we learn, as Susannah Mandel suggests in her poem “Evening (terza rima),” “how to find / the sense in the almost-familiar, halfway changing, ever new” (p. 55). The final lines of Rachel Swirsky’s lovely found poem, “Upwards Toward the Light,” capture what is for me the essence of Le Guin’s work, and, in a sense, of this anthology:

To see how beautiful the Earth is,
accept the responsibility of change
see it from the vantage point of death. (p. 27)

Now happily retired, Debbie Gascoyne taught English literature, composition, and creative writing at Camosun College in Victoria for many years. Her PhD thesis was on intertextuality in Diana Wynne Jones, and she continues to read and write about children’s and young adult fantasy. Follow her on Twitter @debbieg.
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