(Ausable Press, Keene , NY. 145 pp., perfect bound. ISBN 978-1-931337-28-1. $16.)
Steve Orlen doesn't work to be understood. His poems can shift from line to line from real to surreal. Yet, each poem makes a meaning clear within the reality of its lines.
It is reassuring to read poems that flow through images so effortlessly--so creatively. "Permission to Speak," may explain the way Steve's creativity is manifested. It leads from "a stand of birch and further down a hickory grove," to "a boy already seen in memory, [who] gives me permission to speak." The poem is framed both as the past recalled and the future foreseen, time within time, so that in the end "The son will date his love of the world, traveling swiftly past." This is a relativity of time that reveals a genius at poetry!
We learn from "Shame, " that some of life is remarkable just because it can be remembered so clearly that it can't be undone.
"I must have called him queer or said it
To someone who knew him and it got around
Because his mother forbade my company.
I couldn't have meant it as we mean it now,
But rather weirdo, nerd, oddball, dork,
Which was bad enough and which he was,
I thought, in the 7th grade sense--though even
As my mother spoke in low admonishing tones
Across the living from the telephone call
... I understood
What pain it caused the boy."
Such moments from the past can't be erased. They haunt us and all we can do is "rise and walk off ... in a strangeness I'd tried to give away." Steve's poems may not be, as Wordsworth characterized poetry, "recollection in tranquility"--there are many troubling notions--but these are, nonetheless, recollections refined to the highest elements of creativity.
In that, Steve's poems are a rare combination of the best poetic "craft" and the sincerest of recollections and emotions. As often with academic poets, artifice can replace real feelings. There is a tendency to eschew anything vaguely "confessional." With his ability to experiment with point of view, with time frames, with language, Steve doesn't let his poetry become maudlin or melodramatic.
A good example would be the poem, "Shyness."
"I had a girlfriend once for several years
And though I loved her in those ways
Teenagers can be said to love
The problem was, she rarely spoke.
By this I mean the common everyday
Passages of speech between two kids
Walking home from school, or in the back seat,
What rises after
Shouldn't we stop? or Want a cigarette?
... The family decided it wasn't nature
But pathology, and sent her to a therapist
Who hit on the solution: Sodium amytal methedraline.
Steve doesn't need truth serum to find the words that reassure us that there is some love, some meaning in our lives. This story is told with all the art of fine narrative poetry and yet unabashed "romance."
I, personally, had the pleasure of knowing Steve Orlen in his early years as a poet. We were fellow students in a class taught by a fine poet, Joseph Langland, wherein Steve wrote one of the best sonnets I have, to this date, ever read! These selected poems, including some quite new, keep that early promise.
Not only has his career flourished with major awards during his tenure teaching poetry at the University of Arizona , but he keeps creating the most ingenious and passionate poetry.
In a poem entitled, "Art of Conversation," there are smatterings of people trying to communicate, or not. At the end it imagines "hour after hour of conversation/ Coalescing and dividing/ Like a sculpture made of liquid mercury." Steve's own poems are not so mercurial. Rather, they are solid proof of a poet who deserves a place high in the pantheon of American poetry.