Between the Mouth and the Stinger — A Thousand Threads by Steve Orlen

At one end, the tongue, at the other a stinger. In between
A flying machine that bears the bee from flower to flower,
From field to hive, the fat Queen. The boy picking flowers
In the field is in love with his teacher who’s in love
With the carpenter, who loves her, and her sister, too,
Who loves the field and the flowers but is scared of bees.

— “In Spring,” p. 3

A Thousand Threads

A Thousand Threads
BY Steve Orlen
(Hollyridge Press, 2009)

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.

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