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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 21, 1929
Place of Birth:Berkeley, California
Education:B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952
Read an Excerpt
Late in the Day
By Ursula K. Le Guin
PM PressCopyright © 2016 Ursula K. Le Guin
All rights reserved.
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.
The match-flame held to the half-inch block
catches, and I blow it out.
The flame grows and flashes
gold, then shrinks and almost dies
to a drop of spectral blue
that detaches, floats,
a wisp of fire in air, dances
high, a little higher, is gone.
from the incense smouldering
sweet smoke of cedar rises
a while like memory.
Then only ashes.
My spoon of Spanish olive wood
from the Olive Pit in Corning,
Tehama County, California,
just off the I-5,
is light but has a good heft.
Short and well rounded,
the right size to stir with,
it's at home in my hand.
Matte brown of olive meat,
dark streaks like olive skin,
its grain is clear and fluent.
The grain of a wood
is the language of the tree.
I oil the spoon with olive oil
and it tells me grey-green leaves,
brief fragrant blossom-foam,
tough life, deep roots, long years.
Spain that I have never seen.
California, and summer, summer.
My plated steel mixing spoon
is from our first apartment,
on Holt Avenue in Macon,
Georgia, in 1954, the downstairs
of widow Killian's house, furnished
with her furniture and kitchenware.
An ordinary heavy tablespoon,
plain, with a good balance,
the left side of the end of the bowl
misshapen, worn away
by decades, maybe a century,
of a right-handed person
mixing and beating with it.
First Mrs Killian, then me.
I liked it so well that when we moved
I asked her could I take it.
That old thing? My goodness, yes,
with a soft laugh,
take it if you want it, child.
Old clay pot
cooked a lot
used to be
full of beans
in the oven
over and over
time and again
had to crack
all go back
Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.
Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.
I celebrate sagebrush,
scrub-oak, digger pine, juniper,
the despised and rejected
or grudgingly accepted
because nothing else grows here.
They're the ones who won't give in
to us, ornament our garden,
be furniture, or food,
and firewood only in a pinch
because nothing else grows here.
Theirs is the dour hardihood
of growing on serpentine and hardpan
with little or no water but what you steal
from your nextdoor neighbors,
so that nothing else grows here
I celebrate the gnarled cranky stem,
grey-green pungent leaf or scaly needle,
heavy cone, bitter berry, tiny blossom,
and the grand, rank smell of cat-spray,
since nothing else grows here.
Citizens of a hard and somewhat toxic land,
unsociable, undocile, willful,
they share nothing, yet they clothe
a naked indigent soil with life,
growing where nothing else grows, here.
The Canada Lynx
We know how to know and how to think,
how to exhibit what is known
to heaven's bright ignorant eye,
how to be busy and to multiply.
He knows how to walk
into the trees alone not looking back,
so light on his soft feet he does not sink
into the snow. How to leave no track,
no sound, no shadow. How to be gone.
The One Thing Missing
Finally the fireflies came across the Rockies, drifting
on damp, soft breezes blowing westward
that lifted them over the salt and poisoned deserts
and the terrible white-toothed Sierra
to the quietness of California valleys
where I saw them in a dream from the verandah
of Kishamish, all the little airy fires
coming and going in the summer dusk nearby
and farther in the forests toward the mountain
glimmering in the darkness ever finer, fainter,
meadows of innumerable motes of silver.
Across the creek stood a tall complex screen
of walnut and honey-locust branch and leaf.
In a soft autumn sunrise without wind
my daughter in meditation on the deck
above the quietly loquacious creek
observed a multitude of small
yellow birds among the many leaves
coming and going quick as quick
into sight and out of sight again.
She said to me, they were
like thoughts moving in a mind,
the little birds among the many leaves.
I have built a house in Time,
my home province. Up in the hills
not far from the city, it looks west
over fields, vineyards, wild lands
to the shore of the Eternal. Many years
went to building it as I wanted it to be,
the sleeping porches, the shady rooms,
the inner gardens with their fountains.
Above the front door, a word in a language
as yet unknown may perhaps mean Praise.
Windows are open to the summer air.
In winter rain patters in the courtyards
and in the basins of the fountains
and gathers to drip from the deep eaves.
Contemplation at McCoy Creek
Seeking the sense within the word, I guessed:
To be there in the sacred place,
the temple. To witness fully, and be thus
the altar of the thing witnessed.
In shade beside the creek I contemplate
how the great waters coming from the heights
early this summer changed the watercourse.
The four big midstream boulders stayed in place.
The willows are some thriving and some dead,
rooted in, uprooted by the flood.
Over the valley in the radiant light
a raven takes its way from east to west;
shadow wings across the rimrock pass
as silent as the raven. Contemplation
shows me nothing discontinuous.
When I looked in the book I found:
Time is the temple — Time itself and Space —
observed, marked out, to make the sacred place
on the four-quartered sky, the inwalled ground.
To join in continuity, the mind
follows the water, shadows the birds,
observes the unmoved rock, the subtle flight.
Slowly, in silence, without words,
the altar of the place and hour is raised.
Self is lost, a sacrifice to praise,
and praise itself sinks into quietness.
Mind draws the lines between the stars
that let the Eagle and the Swan
fly vast and bright and far
above the dark before the dawn.
Between two solitary minds
as far as Deneb from Altair,
love flings the unimaginable line
that marries fire to fire.
Hymn to Time
Time says "Let there be"
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats' flickering dance.
And the seas' expanse.
And death, and chance.
Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time's womb
begins all ending.
Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.
Meditations for Melville
Whiteness crossed the continent
a poison fog and where it went
villages were vacant
hearths and ways forsaken
Whiteness with greed and iron
makes the deep seas barren
Great migrations fly daylong
into whiteness and are gone
Whiteness in its righteousness
bleaches creatures colorless
People walk unseeing unseen
staring at a little screen
where the whiteness plays
an imitation of their days
Plugged in their ears white noise
drowns an ancient voice
murmuring to bless
Geology of the Northwest Coast
The little towns, the driftwood fires
all down the beaches burning ...
It will be dark in that night when
the deep basalt shifts and sighs,
headlands collapse, cliffs fail.
the tumult of the sea returning.
The slow drift of stars.
We want it to be a sentence on our sin,
our greed, our thriftless wars,
we claim the fault as warning.
But what to them is any act of ours,
the new shores at the dark night's end,
the beautiful, remorseless morning?
Hymn to Aphrodite
Venus solis occasus orientisque, Dea pacifica,
foam-borne, implacable, tender:
war and storm serve you, and you wear
the fiery tiara of the volcanoes.
Young salmon swimming downriver
and the old upstream to breed and die
are yours, and the fog-drinking forests.
Yours are the scattered emerald half-circles
of islands, the lost islands. Yours
are the sunken warships of the Emperor
and the slow swirl of pelagic polymers.
The moon is your hand-mirror.
Mother of Time and daughter of Destruction,
your feet are light upon the waters.
Death your dog follows you down the beaches
whining to see the breakers break
into blossom, into immortal
foam-flowers, where you have left
the bright track of your passing.
Pity your fearful, foolish children,
O Aphrodite of Fukushima.
Shifty, elegant Hermes, guide of the traveler,
god of the stockbroker, dealer in margins,
thief and errand-boy, heel-wing'd, swiftest of messengers,
trusted with truth, yet lord of the liars:
Hermes, holding the snake-wreathed staff of the healer,
beautiful poisonous quicksilver element,
silent Mercury, moving lightly, implacably
ahead of us, showing the way into darkness:
peaceful and clear are your eyes, O kindest of con-men.
It's just part of a story, actually quite a lot of stories,
the part where the third son or the stepdaughter
sent on the impossible errand through the uncanny forest
comes across a fox with its paw caught in a trap
or little sparrows fallen from the nest
or some ants in trouble in a puddle of water.
He frees the fox, she puts the fledglings in the nest,
they get the ants safe to their ant-hill.
The little fox will come back later
and lead him to the castle where the princess is imprisoned,
the sparrow will fly before her to where the golden egg is hidden,
the ants will sort out every poppyseed for them
from the heap of sand before the fatal morning,
and I don't think I can add much to this story.
All my life it's been telling me
if I'll only listen who the hero is
and how to live happily ever after.
Arion, my dark-crowned guide
through the long dream, your name
I knew when I was waking
in the dark today before dawn.
Through dark seas the dolphins glide.
Dreams are and are not what they seem.
All that's made is in the making:
achieved, completed, gone.
Kind, silent presence at my side,
was our way away, or home?
Am I forsaken or forsaking,
brother, lover, stranger, Arion?
The Serrano Indians knew that earthquakes in high valleys
of the Sierra Nevada caused changes in the level of the pools of
the Oasis of Mara, far down in the Joshua Tree Desert.
The waters of these quiet pools are troubled
suddenly, sink away into the ground,
shrink down to mud, and then flood upward, turbid,
disturbed; the desert palms all round
shiver in the hot silent air. A hundred
miles away in hills a mile higher,
a valley shudders with subsonic thunder,
an impulse of the earth's intrinsic fire
moving through lightless arteries to bear
the message of the abyss, the underplaces,
to those far ranges shining high in air
and desert Mara's shadowy oasis.
The shadowy springs of thought sink down or flow
obeying impulses as deep and strange
from the body's inwardness, and shaken, we know
the imminence of mystery and change.
The Dream Stone
Seeking the knowledge I only know I lost,
I take the intangible into my hand
to pay the price of what is past all cost.
It is a grey stone lying on my palm.
Its even substance deepens to a mist
and in it moves a fire, contained and calm,
as in a cloudy opal or a hummingbird's
rose-turquoise breast. These soft, colored flames
speak in their motion without sound or words,
to tell me what it was I knew and lost.
By this remembrance blest, I understand
that I am free, and have come home at last.
I wake to find that I have paid the cost.
I wake to look into my empty hand.
hommage à R.M.R.
When a god grieves
the deep stones
at the four corners
of the world tremble.
Of all gods, that one!
Lighter than Iris even,
airy, jaunty — the feathered
flutter at cap and ankle,
the quick eyes, the acumen,
the cool aplomb — equally
at home in mid-air,
Olympus, or the underworld —
fleetest of messengers,
when a thief was needed,
His greatest charge
was to meet the mortals
who stood bewildered
on the doorstep of their death,
and, silent, reassuring them
with his quicksilver smile,
gently to guide them
on the only way,
the way down
to the long fields of shadow.
And to this task, this trust,
he was always faithful.
Holding his slender wand
with the thin playful snakes
curling round it, he led
his flock like any shepherd.
He never missed a soul.
Always he took them all
into the darkness,
on the one path, down.
Once, once only, was his task
allowed to change,
That once, a girl's hand
in his hand, he could follow,
not lead; could go up,
not down; up to the light.
And his heart was light.
The burden of his deathlessness
weighed ever less
at every step of that
brightening way with her.
And then the fool,
the poet he followed,
broke the promise, betrayed her,
betrayed him — turned.
The only time
in all his endless being
that he might learn
what being mortal was:
and it was gone,
the one chance
stolen from him by one
who didn't even need it.
His hand was empty,
the girl already
gone into shadow.
She knew the way down.
He would not grieve.
He leapt up to the light,
airborne and airy.
But the deep stones shook.
Excerpted from Late in the Day by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © 2016 Ursula K. Le Guin. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Small Indian Pestle at the Applegate House,
The Canada Lynx,
The One Thing Missing,
Contemplation at McCoy Creek,
Hymn to Time,
Geology of the Northwest Coast,
Hymn to Aphrodite,
The Dream Stone,
Harney County Catenaries,
Written in the Dark,
To Her Task-Master,
Definition, or, Seeing the Horse,
California Landscape Paintings at the Portland Art Museum,
New Year's Day,
THE OLD MUSIC,
The Old Music,
Crossing the Cascades,
The Old Mad Queen,
2014: A Hymn,
The Mist Horse,