Ursula K. Le Guin, So Far So Good

SO FAR SO GOOD: FINAL POEMS: 2014-2018, Ursula K. Le Guin. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2018, 89 pages, $23 hardback,

I was standing in front of the poetry shelf in Edmonds Bookshop, planning to pick up a book by Jericho Brown or Ada Limón, when this little treasure caught my eye. Hardback, brand new. Not too long after Le Guin’s death in 2018.

How It Seems to Me

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

The poems here are elegiac, but also playful (“Judging beauty, which is keenest, / Eye or heart or mind or penis?”). They draw from Le Guin’s childhood, and lean into science and natural history. A sequence of 12 poems are built on the final voyage of Lt. William Bligh—or, not “the subject,” but “the metaphor” (“this little boat my body / its ragged sail my soul”).

As a wannabe novelist, this poem especially appealed to me:

The Old Novelist’s Lament

I miss the many that I was,
my lovers, my adventurers,
the women I went with to the Pole.
What was mine and what was theirs?
We were all rich. Now that I share
the cowardice of poverty,
I miss that courage of companionship.
I wish they might come back to me
and free me from this cell of self,
this stale sink of age and ills,
and take me on the ways they knew,
under the sky, across the hills.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Did Le Guin know this would be her last book? Maybe my knowing was enough. But Le Guin does seem to be letting go, or taking hold of something else, something larger: “I am such a long way from my ancestors now / in my extreme old age that I feel more one of them / than their descendent” (from “Ancestry”).

I bought the other books, too, by the way. But this one is such a lovely artifact. There’s no end of praise—and awards—that I could list here. You can read more at and

By the way—should you miss it on the home page, I am reading with four other Northwest poets on April 21, 6-7 p..m, on Zoom, hosted by Edmonds Bookshop and Rose Alley Press. Navigate to to find out more.

The Autumn Equinox

Tomorrow — at 12:21 p.m., in my area at least — autumn begins. It seems an excellent time to write a fall poem. Here’s one that I’ve cribbed from the collection at

For the Chipmunk in My Yard

I think he knows I’m alive, having come down
The three steps of the back porch
And given me a good once over. All afternoon
He’s been moving back and forth,
Gathering odd bits of walnut shells and twigs,
While all about him the great fields tumble
To the blades of the thresher. He’s lucky
To be where he is, wild with all that happens.
He’s lucky he’s not one of the shadows
Living in the blond heart of the wheat.
This autumn when trees bolt, dark with the fires
Of starlight, he’ll curl among their roots,
Wanting nothing but the slow burn of matter
On which he fastens like a small, brown flame.

I am still reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter an essay each week or so — and I just came across “The Beast in the Book.” She got me thinking about animals and how we share the world with them, not very politely, and how rich children’s literature is with animals. As Le Guin puts it:

The general purpose of a myth is to tell us who we are — who we are as a people. Mythic narrative affirms our community and our responsibilities, and is told in the form of teaching-stories both to children and adults.

–Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin doesn’t find it at all curious that children learn to read by sounding out the words in “Peter Rabbit,” or that they weep over Black Beauty. She finds it a shame that as we grow older we lose our facility to identify with animals. I loved this paragraph, about T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone:

Merlyn undertakes Arthur’s education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn’t make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

–Ursula K. Le Guin

I think it’s that “sentience of trees” that really made that paragraph stick for me, as I’ve also been reading Peter  Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees

My challenge for you this week is to write an autumn poem about some living being in your backyard or near environs. Like Robert Gibb’s chipmunk, how does this creature, with its small flame of wildness, teach you to be alive?

I don’t have chipmunks in my backyard, but we do have the small brown Douglas squirrels and the invasive, bigger gray squirrels. We sometimes have possums and raccoons; more rarely we’ve sighted deer and coyotes. Always, there are the birds: flickers, juncos, towhees, Stellar’s jays, flocks of crows each dusk. Last week, on a late walk with my dog, Pabu, I watched a flock of geese pass over, honking. The other day, my husband saw what he swears was a merlin, which is as good a sign of the changing season as any.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Late in the Day

Although Ursula K. Le Guin died this past January, I would like to argue that we have not lost her voice, or her capacious and expansive soul.

I fell in love with this hardback book, Late in the Day (PM Press, 2016) and its gorgeous cover. Each time I saw it in the bookstore, I picked it up and reread the first poem, this one:

The Small Indian Pestle at the Applegate House

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.

Le Guin was best known as a writer of science fiction, but she was also an essayist and a teacher (read her Steering the Craft, for an excellent example). What I notice about this poem, “The Small Indian Pestle,”  is that it is a little craft lesson all on its own. Its 16 lines in iambic pentameter are also a single sentence (the : may be cheating). It doesn’t rhyme, but the words are so strong–“Dense, heavy, fine-grained, dark basalt”–and the repetitions are so well-executed that it’s music.

Elsewhere in the book, she plays very deliberately with form and rhyme (and writes about it in a closing essay). I’m going to break with my usual routine and share one more poem, a rhymed one, that touched me in a very deep place.


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.

“Between” is deceptively simple. It shows us how one needn’t be showy and ostentatious in order to be profound.

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin