Saturday, February 17, 2007

Out of the Blizzard, Into THE ELEPHANT'S CHILD: New and Selected Poems, 1978-2005, STEVE ORLEN

Our blizzard started Tuesday night, and "going out for breakfast on Valentine's Day" vanished as a possibility within a few hours. I shoveled snow three times on Wednesday, cut through five-foot drifts on Thursday to free up the dryer vent, and opened the same path all over again on Friday. It's Saturday night now. Snow hides the Kingdom Books sign by the outside staircase, but at least you can get there from here. And aspirin for all those newly worked muscles is the best of gifts.

Without the necessity of shoveling, the mind moves into gear, and I see at last some ways to talk about a book I've wrestled with for months: ELEPHANT'S CHILD, the volume of new and selected work from Steve Orlen (Ausable, 2006).

Long loose lines, absent of rhyme; iambics so relaxed they "slope out of the room"; story after story about people I haven't known, won't meet, haven't enough data about to visualize: Orlen's work differs from most of what I've consumed lately. It's not prose poetry, because I don't get a sense that the words have been compressed into deliberate sequence on the page. It's not line-driven, because most of the time the line seems to end by accident, without a bump or indrawn breath or even a pause. And it's definitely not what Gwendolyn Brooks described when she said, "Poetry is life distilled."

But that Brooks notion turned out to be the key for me to find my way into Orlen's work after all, since if the work hasn't been distilled, hasn't been concentrated or taken to boiling or even freeze-dried to essentials, then it must be ... well, it must be un-distilled. Loose. Gentle, rambling, discursive. Ahh.

Orlen, born in 1942 in Holyoke, Mass., has five collections before The Elephant's Child -- and by the way, two chapbooks preceded his first collection. With his narrative style and his roots in the peace movement of the '60s, his poems taste like Bay Area open readings. The "new" poems in Elephant's Child draw directly on images of 1956, 1966: starving poets, whether in New York or San Francisco, feeding from the margins of society. And they roll out a midlife vision of men and women, sex and survival, conversation and silence. The book title draws from the Kipling "Just So Story" about the insatiably curious Elephant's Child who gets spanked by his relatives for asking impertinent questions. But first it's filtered through Orlen asking people about their marriages, their accidents: Parenthetically within the poem he cites his wife telling him, "You're like the Elephant's Child. I ought to spank you when you ask such questions." Yes, spank -- quivering with marital teasing and lust, as well as with the original Kipling parental overtones.

"The City of Poets: 1966" becomes frankly autobiographical with the names of Orlen's poet friends from "back then," but first lays out a daily ritual of being a free spirit, whether fictionalized or not:

At Irene Kenny's bar I conspired
In the skirmishes of poetry
And got in a shoving match
With a drunken Kurt Vonnegut who said
"Free verse is shit," then I made love
With a lovely woman, six hours later with another
Who tried to teach me how to laugh in bed.

I ate the grits and canned beef offered by the State.
I slept too little and too much.

These mellow, memory-drifted narratives are classic Orlen. Although he has newer pieces with shorter lines, more deliberate breaks, in some current journals (like issue 6 of H_NGM_N at, even when the lines grow short the story often lingers. His second collection, A PLACE AT THE TABLE (1981), offered more of these short-lined poems, and among these, "Family Cups" (included in the New and Selected also) concluded,

These two cups, chipped cold pleasures
Of the mouth, fill, are emptied, filled,
That after dinner two boys may stare
Out a window at stars lighting up,
Filling the heavens' face, where
Each of them wanders in his solitude.
The fist sorrow comes from the first hope.

There are poems in the New and Selected that speak more to my spirit than these; I like the slowly elongated lines of "The Painter" for instance, and of "Nature Rarely Confides in Me": "The pomegranates slicken after a rain. I know what color they are / Because I once had a magenta Honda 300cc motorcycle that glistened / In daylight and dimmed at night, like these pomegranates." Then I realize that I've slowed myself down, set aside the urge to shovel and sort, the tension, the push: Rather, Orlen's poems have done some of this, in asking me to be patient and keep listening.

The online journal H_NGM_N features a "Thank You, Steve Orlen" section now (issue 6), in which Orlen's teaching career is celebrated by poets who were charmed by him. He has taught steadily at both Warren Wilson College and the University of Arizona (Tucson). Tony Hoagland says Orlen taught him to "stay with your work"; Martha Zweig recalls Orlen teaching, "ride the music." Steady, supportive, gentle, despite an exterior that spoke of workingclass Holyoke and even a blued tattoo, Orlen's enduring gifts extend well past his own work to the hearts of poets unfolding in his classrooms.

These are good gifts. I'm glad I caught up on the poems that have accompanied such generosity.

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