Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) – Part Two of a Two Part Series

Native American Mortar and Pestle

……something that I think poems do, is observe the world and make it new again.
Kevin Young (Poetry Editor of the New Yorker) from The New Yorker Poetry Podcasts, July 27th, 2018.

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 woman’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.

Ursula K. Le Guin from Ursula K. Le Guin, Conversations on Writing (with David Naimon), Tin House Books, 2018

Kevin Young’s quote is perfect for this blog post, the second part of a two-part celebration of the poetry of acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The quote so encompasses what Le Guin achieves in her poem above. And so do these lines from a small poem by American poet Greg Orr: Let’s /as Wordsworth said, remove “The dust of Custom” so things shine again, each object arrayed/ in its robe of original light.

But before I look at Le Guin’s poem in more detail I want to deal with what is becoming the elephant in the room: the issue of cultural appropriation or as the Afro-American poet Ross Gay adjures in a recent tweet responding to a controversial poem in the Nation where a white poet spoke in a black person’s vernacular voice: stay in your own lane.

I am not a polemicist and by my nature I am wary of joining in the cultural wars especially around an issue as fraught as cultural appropriation. But the title of Le Guin’s poem which includes what in Canada is considered a derogatory reference to North American indigenous people needs addressing.

However, knowing Le Guin’s support of the oppressed and marginalized including indigenous Americans directly and through her writing I do not take her use of Indian as a slight in any way. It seems, based on her essay Indian Uncles given as an address to the Department of Anthropology at U of C, Berkley that for her it does not carry any negative connotation at all. And in an essay on Le Guin by Grace L. Dillon, PhD an Anishinaabe or “Nish” from the Bay Mills Nation and Garden River First Nation and Professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State University she too, uses the the word Indian without apology. But even then the key test for me is how, in her poem, Le Guin treats this native American cultural artifact and the women who made it and used it. Is Le Guin’s tone respectful, condescending or dismissive?

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929- January 22nd, 2018)

For me, I am struck by the love, respect and reverence expressed in the poem for the hands that made and used the pestle; for the hands that left their energy and rhythm in the stone; an energy and rhythm that tells Le Guin how to use it. All I hear is a deep honouring of a culture and, in particular, an honouring of women in that culture. And if we from one culture or gender can’t appropriately honour those of another what are we left with? So it is in this context that I feature Le Guin’s poem. Both its content and craft.

Oh, how Le Guin’s poem embodies what Young and Wordsworth say a poem should do: Observe the world and make it new; so things shine again. How, paradoxically, Le Guin makes an old pestle seem new, as she brings it to life in the hands of countless women including hers. How she creates the “isness” of the object by showing the doing of the object. How she doesn’t separate it from its doing and even more important, separate it from the ones doing the doing!

As I read this poem out loud again and again (try it) I am gob-smacked by its craft. How she drives the movement of the poem and mimics the rhythm of the pestle through her lines breaks and her syntax. She doesn’t just show the doing in the poem but embodies in her rhythms and cadences the rise, fall, and pause of each stroke without a stop (no period) until the end of the poem which, of course, is also the end of the poem’s only sentence. What a move!

As close as Le Guin gets to a stop before the end of the poem is with a colon after the word tool. This pause unleashes the energy that then pours out of the hands shaping and pounding the pestle. There are further smaller pauses in the poem, just like the pauses in the movement of the pestle at the top of its rise and at the bottom of its fall.

Look closely at the enjambment at the end of lines 15, 16 and 17, how it adds to the driving momentum as each line falls into the next one until the momentum slows at the end of line 18 and then stops on the word: sing.

Yes the craft is lovely in this poem but for me it is the extraordinary hand-off in these following lines that provide the wallop; that bring the pestle alive and gives a palpable sense of animation to the pestle that also animates the narrator:

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.

Now, lL Guin becomes one with the hands that held the pestle and made it. Now an object becomes much more than an object. Now, a poet with sublime attention, has given us the “isness” of a thing. Not simply mere description.

She talks about this in her interview with David Naimon in Conversations on Writing:

Poetry is the human language that can try to say what a tree or a river is, that is, to speak humanly for it, 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 language of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or irresponsibility.

By the measure of what she says above I believe her poem is an unqualified success. It describes the pestle from both outside and inside. And I, her reader, an left with a profound sense of gratitude for the ingenuity and fortitude of the women and their culture that created the pestle, now a lifeless artifact in a museum in Oregon. Thank you Ursula for bringing it and its makers to life.


  1. K. McCaffery
    Posted October 10, 2018 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the below (from Wikipedia) isn’t relevant but I have always thought it explains a lot about Ursula Kroeber Le Guin: Alfred Louis Kroeber (June 11, 1876 – October 5, 1960) was an American cultural anthropologist. He received his Ph.D. under Franz Boas at Columbia University in 1901, the first doctorate in anthropology awarded by Columbia. He was also the first professor appointed to the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.[2] He played an integral role in the early days of its Museum of Anthropology, where he served as director from 1909 through 1947.[3] Kroeber provided detailed information about Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi people, whom he studied over a period of years. He was the father of the acclaimed novelist, poet, and writer of short stories Ursula Kroeber Le Guin.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted November 29, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    So appreciate this. Thank you. thank you. Too many great ones have died this year!

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