"Old as I am, let me before / I get too old to work at all, / work for you a little more," Ursula K. Le Guin writes in her seventh and most recent poetry collection, petitioning an entity she refers to as "Task-Master." Work helps define the meaning of a life, and work is central to how Le Guin reconsiders the import of her own existence, from the vantage point of her ninth decade. Also fundamental to this book: the spiritual interconnection of all creatures, no matter what earthly or divine task-masters one answers to. Work is, in fact, a way of respecting and even tending these relations.
In a related but lighter poem, "The Job," Le Guin recasts the "company" she has labored for all these years as "The boss who drives the shiny yellow car / and those nine sisters up there by the spring." Apollo and the muses must be proud of their loyal employee. No one has served speculative literature more brilliantly and generously than Le Guin (and it's fine with me if you take the word "speculative" out of that pronouncement).
What this new book adds to the Le Guin canon is a series of clear-eyed meditations from the borderlands of age. These poems look to death ahead and work behind. Examining the permeable membranes between human and non-human creatures, they also recognize the "hard times" of rapid environmental degradation. As Le Guin writes in the Foreword to Late in the Day, we are enmeshed in a "web of connections, infinite but locally fragile." The plants and creatures here struggle to survive in hostile landscapes. Even the earth itself is not to be relied on, as she reminds us in the beautiful "Geology of the Northwest Coast." Le Guin puts future seismic calamities in the present tense, as she imagines the dark night when "the deep basalt shifts and sighs, / headlands collapse, cliffs fail." Never has a world's demolition sounded so much like a weary person rolling over in bed.
The subject matter of end-times, personal and ecological, should make Late in the Day bleak reading, but it's not. Le Guin's poems are pervaded by joy and an intelligent variety of kindness, in which the darkest outcomes are admitted to attention with thoughtful interest and a resilient sense of humor. Like many of my favorite verse collections, this book strikes me as humane.
For the eighty-six-year-old writer, poetry offers the closest possible approach between language and the fundamental mysteries of life and death. Le Guin's commitment to unknowability is highlighted in the many short verses collected in Late in the Day. Her single-quatrain poems are often especially luminous, balancing clarity against what cannot be said—the white space looming around every small, vibrant detail the human imagination can capture. For example, here's the entirety of "Artemisia Tridentata":
Some ruthlessness befits old age.
Tender young herbs are generous and pliant,
but in dry solitudes the grey-leaved sage
stands unforthcoming and defiant.
This wry voice, erudite and funny, is typical of the collection, even when the author is not so pithy. About poetic brevity, Le Guin writes in an afterword that she's "stymied by haiku or tanka, but [has] found the quatrain amazingly roomy, versatile, and satisfying," citing A. E. Housman as a particular inspiration. Like haiku, Le Guin's epigrammatic short poems cut together closely observed natural detail with larger ideas and feelings. She just makes the connections a little more explicit than the very shortest forms allow. In being "unforthcoming," that is, she is surprisingly plain, almost conversational.
Occasionally a poem in Late in the Day is still more condensed, and the effect is uncanny and lovely, as in "Song":
Untongued I turn to still
forgetting all I will.
Light lies the shadow
on the way I go.
Those riddling three-beat lines are highly sound-driven, drawing together paradoxes in a way that's not entirely accessible to reason. Yet the emotion rings out clearly. "Song" is a charm for forgetting, finding unexpected peace in the losses senescence brings. To be "still" is, enigmatically, to "go"; to be "untongued" is to locate a resonant speechlessness. As Le Guin says, there's an amazing amount of psychic room in that quatrain. A whole afterlife, maybe.
Such verses as "Song," in conjunction with Le Guin's affinity for wild seascapes and autumnal weather, sometimes remind me of Yeats at his most spare and magical. Like Yeats, Le Guin's work is mythic and syncretic. It's also more than a little mystical, as "Constellating" shows:
Between two solitary minds
as far as Deneb from Altair,
love flings the unimaginable line
that marries fire to fire.
The poems tend to be less concerned with human love than the relation of human beings to a richly evoked nonhuman world. The key subject, nonetheless, is relation, betweenness, the tension between beings or phases. "Between," in fact, would have been an equally apt title for the whole collection. Here is the short poem with that title (again in its entirety):
Between the acts, the interval.
The leaves were late to fall, this fall.
Between the verdict and the doom,
a whisper in the waiting room.
A non-event between events
holding a secret and a sense.
A winter wind just whispers where
two winter trees stand tense and bare.
This is a prepositional book, in which Le Guin explores a fascination with fraught gaps. "Between" may sound more like Eliot's "The Hollow Men" than Yeats—Le Guin is definitely echoing the final movement of Eliot's despairing poem. Her landscape is no wasteland, however, nor is her perspective exhausted. Instead, Le Guin looks around her with interest, straining to hear the world's speech, because what happens in the waiting room has its own power and importance.
Late in the Day, for all its virtues, is not arranged felicitously. As a poet and a poetry scholar, I read with a twitchy desire to rearrange pieces and, sometimes, to boil verbiage down. Some lovely single-quatrain poems are printed two to a page, and they deserve more white space for their echoes to reverberate. The thematic section breaks—"Relations," "Contemplations," "Messengers," et cetera—seem too simple for the poems. Nor would I have given first place to Le Guin's odes to objects such as "The Small Indian Pestle at the Applegate House" or "Kitchen Spoons." Importantly, these pieces grant serious attention to nonhuman creations; as the author writes in the Foreword, "I'm trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us." These talismans delay, however, the book's most resonant meditations on the connectedness of all things, many of which come in the collection's second half. Also, while Le Guin's personal reflections on form and free verse are interesting, the Afterword is too detailed. Her list of which poems deploy iambs in which rhyme scheme—that's over-explanation. Even for a beginner, Le Guin's quick gesture to Lewis Turco's famous handbook would suffice.
Yet, despite these quibbles, this book felt like a gift marked especially for me. As I raise teenagers, and as I think and write about middle age, Late in the Day addresses some of my biggest questions with missives from a later decade of wild transitions. I hope I live long enough to reread them in my own ninth decade, muttering "Song" to myself as shadows lengthen.
Lesley Wheeler’s poetry collections include Radioland and The Receptionist and Other Tales, shortlisted for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Recent poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Poetry, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and she blogs about poetry at http://lesleywheeler.org/. Wheeler teaches at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
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