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

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 déjà 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.

…this quality of partialness makes Orlen’s world feel very human and contemporary. Though he rarely outright praises the ordinary and the commonplace… it is however the ordinary and the commonplace that intrigue him the most in both their ugliness and abundance.

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.

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