Reviewed by Linwood Rumney
American poet Steve Orlen's A Thousand Threads, the last collection published before his unfortunate passing last year, challenges readers' assumptions about the kind of writer Orlen is. Most people familiar with his work are likely to think of him as a narrative poet, and, in his life, he often seems to have fully embraced that label. On the other hand, his poetry here is so robust and carefully textured that it is difficult to separate the lyric from the narrative qualities. It is easy to feel the rhythm in his work, as in the poem "In Spring" excerpted above. This rhythm generates a kind of music that at times seems to function as an engine pushing the lines forward; however, given the subtle and complex worlds Orlen creates, it would be difficult to assert that cadence is the foundation of his poems. Moreover, Orlen's ability to both distill and expand makes it clear that the label "narrative poet" -- too often deployed in the pejorative to suggest that such poets care about story at the expense of all else -- simply doesn't do justice to Orlen's range.
To be clear, most of Orlen's work has a strong and easily identifiable narrative dimension to it, and A Thousand Threads is no exception in that regard. Orlen is an accessible but tough-minded poet -- he seems willing to look at anything and capable of turning that anything into poetry. In this way, he is in good company with the likes of Kim Addonizio, B.H. Fairchild, Major Jackson, Sharon Olds, and Philip Levine. Still, his frequent love affair with long heavy lines that could never be mistaken for prose places him in the company of C.K. Williams; the fabulist quality of much of his work, enabling it to somehow feel both personal and universal, places him near Russell Edson; and his capacity to look at just about any subject with such honesty that it's hard to tell if it's cruelty or kindness places him, as many (including Tony Hoagland) have noted, near Randall Jarrell.
In A Thousand Threads readers will be happy to find all of the strains, obsessions, and versions of Orlen noted above, and more than a few that have not been identified. This admittedly slim collection, a chapbook after all, should not be taken as a curio, something to be acquired only by those obsessed with Orlen's poetry. It is a significant contribution to his body of work and to poetry in general. Many of these pieces must be marveled at for their musicality and muscularity. The best of these poems are spoken by a voice that is simultaneously compassionate and uncompromising, all encompassing and particular. Orlen has a unique capacity to present without condoning or condemning, as in the following excerpt from "Hard Labor:"
When they presented her with the baby she said, I don't ever
Want to see this fucking thing again. The next day she relented,
And with stiff arms received the soft weightless bundle,
Glared away her husband and the nurse. She stroked the fontanel
And looked inside. A cloud swirled. Snow was falling. A fat baby
Spun around on a pike, slower and slower. She turned it over
And shook it a bit, and started it snowing again. The baby spun.
-- p. 8
This poem, in which it's hard not to hear echoes of the terrifying ecstasy of Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song," showcases a kind of godliness that permeates much of this collection. The speaker of Orlen's poems is not here guilty of hubris, an accusation also frequently leveled at Plath -- he seems far too self-critical and self-indicting for that. On the other hand, he is guilty of a kind of fearlessness. Though self-critical, Orlen refuses to apologize. He never recoils from himself or the world around him. His gaze is unflinching.
Because of his steadiness and clarity of thought, Orlen can declare with conviction what would, in a lesser poet's hands, sound like sophomoric relativism:
[...] Nothing that happens gets erased.
Someone is stopped in a deja vu and marks the spot. There are names
Carved into trees. We stop to decipher them for a few moments,
And walk away feeling thoughtful, not sure why.
-- "Ninth Avenue," p. 5
In moments like these, Orlen balances a keen ability to observe with a willingness to accept. Paradoxically, Orlen often seems jaded though his work doesn't suffer because of it, and he even somehow manages to maintain a sense of wonder despite or perhaps because of it. Though his declarations are surprisingly direct, Orlen never indulges his reader with unrestrained ecstasy and he never becomes the egotistical writer marveling at his own genius. Orlen is more interested in the world than he is in his own cleverness.
Unlike the speaker of Orlen's poems, many of the people that populate his world are full of self-pity and loathing -- the woman pictured on the cover captures the emotional state of these characters wonderfully -- yet Orlen does not pity or hate them. They are not, in that sense, pitiful. This cast of characters -- including a pair of leather boots that is "humiliated in war and redeemed by work" (p. 7) and a waitress who is propositioned by a Frenchman and who "will profit from his ignorance and from her own" (p. 28) -- catch glimpses of redemption and truths slightly bigger than themselves, but they are never fully redeemed.
Of course, this quality of partialness makes Orlen's world feel very human and contemporary. Though he rarely outright praises the ordinary and the commonplace -- it would be difficult to imagine Orlen turning "the dark work of the deepest cells […] to praise" as A.R. Ammons put it in "City Limits" -- it is however the ordinary and the commonplace that intrigue him the most in both their ugliness and abundance. Because of this, many readers will recognize themselves in Orlen's work and perhaps even feel as though they could be included in it, both humiliated and adored.
As with all chapbooks published by established poets, A Thousand Threads feels incomplete -- a stepping-stone to something larger. As such, this last collection leaves us wanting more of his work and wondering where he was headed with it. Some poems, like "The Stendhal Syndrome: Vence, France" (p. 13) feel unpolished. There is even an occasional piece, such as "The Marriage of Echo and Narcissus" (p. 11), that explore familiar themes in ways that are fun but not particularly fresh. Still, with Orlen's passing, we have lost a unique and important voice in American poetry, and A Thousand Threads is as fine a testament as any to his greatness.
Linwood Rumney's poetry has appeared in Poetry Quarterly, Potomac Review, Carolina Quarterly, and Cold Mountain Review, among others. His reviews and interviews have appeared in Cerise Press and Redivider, where he recently served as the poetry editor. The recipient of a 2010 emerging writers fellowship from the Writers' Room of Boston and a grant from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, he currently lives in Boston, where he teaches writing.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.
Books mentioned in this post