Poem Written in 1991

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischPoem Written in 1991

When the Soviet Union Was Disintegrating

by Ursula K. Le Guin

i

The reason why I’m learning Spanish
by reading Neruda one word at a time
looking most of them up in the dictionary
and the reason why I’m reading
Dickinson one poem at a time
and still not understanding
or liking much, and the reason
why I keep thinking about
what might be a story
and the reason why I’m sitting
here writing this, is that I’m trying
to make this thing.
I am shy to name it.
My father didn’t like words like “soul.”
He shaved with Occam’s razor.
Why make up stuff
when there’s enough already?
But I do fiction. I make up.
There is never enough stuff.
So I guess I can call it what I want to.
Anyhow it isn’t made yet.
I am trying one way and another
all words — So it’s made out of words, is it?
No. I think the best ones
must be made out of brave and kind acts,
and belong to people who look after things
with all their heart,
and include the ocean at twilight.
That’s the highest quality
of this thing I am making:
kindness, courage, twilight, and the ocean.
That kind is pure silk.
Mine’s only rayon. Words won’t wash.
It won’t wear long.
But then I haven’t long to wear it.
At my age I should have made it
long ago, it should be me,
clapping and singing at every tatter,
like Willy said. But the “mortal dress,”
man, that’s me. That’s not clothes.
That is me tattered.
That is me mortal.
This thing I am making is my clothing soul.
I’d like it to be immortal armor,
sure, but I haven’t got the makings.
I just have scraps of rayon.
I know I’ll end up naked
in the ground or on the wind.
So, why learn Spanish?
Because of the beauty of the words of poets,
and if I don’t know Spanish
I can’t read them. Because praise
may be the thing I’m making.
And when I’m unmade
I’d like it to be what’s left,
a wisp of cheap cloth,
a color in the earth,
a whisper on the wind.

Una palabra, un aliento.

ii

So now I’ll turn right round
and unburden an embittered mind
that would rejoice to rejoice
in the second Revolution in Russia
but can’t, because it has got old
and wise and mean and womanly
and says: So. The men
having spent seventy years in the name of something
killing men, women, and children,
torturing, running slave camps,
telling lies and making profits,
have now decided
that that something wasn’t the right one,
so they’ll do something else the same way.

Seventy years for nothing.

And the dream that came before the betrayal,
the justice glimpsed before the murders,
the truth that shone before the lies,
all that is thrown away.
It didn’t matter anyway
because all that matters
is who has the sayso.

Once I sang freedom, freedom,
sweet as a mockingbird.
But I have learned Real Politics.
No freedom for our children
in the world of the sayso.
Only the listening.
The silence all around the sayso.
The never stopping listening.
So I will listen
to women and our children
and powerless men,
my people. And I will honor only
my people, the powerless.

–Ursula K. Le Guin
1991

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About Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent BVC ebook is MY LIFE SO FAR, BY PARD, translated from the Feline by UKL. Library of America is publishing Hainish Novels and Stories and a number of her other books.
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14 Responses to Poem Written in 1991

  1. Zena says:

    When we dig through the past to find our ancestors, it isn’t the big, shiny armour we most often find, but the incidental things that made up our daily lives.

    All of our legends are built up out of small things.

    Don’t underestimate the staying power of your “scraps of rayon:” you never know who will unearth them down the road and weave them into the immortal tapestry…

  2. Larry Piltz says:

    I love Poem Written in 1991. And I love that you posted it yesterday. The last dozen or so lines are credibly heartbreaking and hopeful to read.

  3. Salena Gao says:

    Seventy years for nothing…

    I love everything you said in this poem.

    I just want to point out how I got here. This morning, I found a man’s post on Quora that mentioned his favourite writer, you, Ursula K. Le Guin. He recommended two of your books, The Lathe of Heaven and the Left Hand of Darkness. I looked you up on Wikipedia and immediately felt an immediate connection to your work and philosophy. Hence I looked further and discovered your blog and this poem.

    Anyways, I just want to say that I am grateful to have come across your work and you.

  4. Linda Hadley says:

    Crying for you , with you , smiling to .
    Thank you .

  5. Stewart Dean says:

    Happy birthday! May there be light and grace in your day………….

  6. Ada K. says:

    Happy birthday! and thanks for sharing the poem.

  7. Stewart Dean says:

    I appreciate the poem’s admission that your soul is less than perfect, somewhat tattered and that your life consists of piecing it together. I’ve said to a couple of people (who might understand) that we are as medieval journeyman artisans…that our lives are the master-work we present to God, as did those journeymen to prove their worth for admission as masters of the guild.
    And Bujold had Ista say in Paladin of Souls: “…the gods desire not flawless souls, but great ones. It is from very darkness that greatness grows, as flowers from the soil. Perhaps greatness cannot bloom without it….do not despair of yourself, for the gods have not.”

  8. Brian Nitz says:

    Your words become the brave and kind acts of a silken soul, a glowing fire from darkest coal. A lexical half-mind stops understanding at that which cannot be understood. Like a quantum cat, it steps outside of its box to observe as poems collapse into emotions, pieces are smelted into peace, phrases into lifetimes of joy, sorrow and love. And for all this the author receives only the smallest gift. Thank you.

  9. Carmen Socorro Ariza-O says:

    Una palabra un aliento… This is exactly what you gave me the day I ‘d read for the very first time your Left Hand of the Darkness and it’s what is still happening in a very strange ways. For instance one of this days of 2017 I wanted to create a kind of ‘ abrigo’ with a special piece of wool. Making the design I decide to call my creation KEMMER, It’s going to be my KEMMER for this winter, I said to my husband, and later ,O surprise, in my Twitter I’d found for a very first time one of your post. Vaya una bonita coincidencia! Serendipity! I thougt and I recieved inmediatly El aliento to cut my patron. Now, thinking in you again, I’ d found this post with such as beatiful poem… Well, Ursula, I can not say seventy years for nothing because eventually, after 17 years writing not for living but living for writing, I’d published one of my novels, a kind of Sciencefiction one, all of it inspired by Sus palabras y su aliento. It’s in Spanish and I would like very much to send to you one copy as a birthday present for you and for me (13-nov.) I don’t know how but maybe you would like to contact me, via Twitter or my e-mail adress. Please! And thank you very much for be such beatiful human being and for give us your talent! @socorro_ariza

  10. Riša says:

    When the Cold War ended, I thought the world would enter a golden age. I was a fool.
    An elderly member of the Czech Green party summed it up: “We failed to create create a socialism with a human face. Now we are failing to create a capitalism with a human face.”

    I believe you have pointed out necessary condition if there is to be solution: It is to shape our souls into the likeness of a human/e face, or as you say silk, not rayon.

  11. OMG! One of my all time favourite writers/thinkers/dreamers/soul sisters is writing on the internet! Thank you for your life, your work. It lives in my head. Love this poem, and the wise words about Trump/Golem. I keep telling my USA friends something similar, though less poetically.

  12. Jody Harmon says:

    I like your poem. The back and forth, in the name of this, I do that, the same as he did in the name of something else. I’m 60 now and I see it and I am tired. I play with cats and ignore the rest. I have no army or money to force things the way I say it should be. I’m happy I don’t have an army. But I do have cats.

  13. Clive Steward says:

    Well, I am out of place here, since the machinery closed the door after a time, but want to say that your most recent Pard story felt maybe the best, really made me smile.

    And the poem…the first part has the sheer beauty of your novels like TheTelling, and their truth.

    The second, its lament entirely accurate, and the intention recovers, as ever, in your close.

    Too many things to thank you for, Ursula, too many years. Reminded again by a new friend from afar, uncovering your words on their own, a place I learned another language, another reconstructed people, their balance with all they are. Yes, that place, living across, but along its borders, on the Rhine.