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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7 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.”

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