I am so sad to hear that the great Steve Orlen, poet and teacher and source of one of the brassiest and most beautiful of laughs, has died today. Though fiction wasn't his form, he was a man who both invited and instigated stories (in fact, you can see some of them here). Steve taught writing at both the University of Arizona and, where I met him, the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. A typical poetry course taught by Steve? "Off Your Meds: The Manic Joy of Obsessive Repetition, or The Overly-Textured Free-Verse Poem, or The Heart-Beat and the Heart-Attack." That particular class sunk into the meter and cadance of James Wright, the plain-style of Louise Glück and Mark Halliday, and George Herbert's prayers.
A Massachusetts native, Steve's last book was A Thousand Threads (2009) from the Hollyridge Press Chapbook series. His other collections of poetry include The Elephant's Child: New & Selected Poems 1978-2005 (Ausable Press, 2006), This Particular Eternity (Ausable Press, 2001), Kisses (Miami University Press, 1997), The Bridge of Sighs (1992), A Place at the Table (1982), and Permission to Speak (1978). He won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and the Foundation Karolyi, as well as the George Dillon Memorial Award from Poetry Magazine. His poems appeared in American Poetry Review, Slate, Verse Daily, Anateus, AGNI, and The Atlantic Monthly, among many other publications.
Most importantly, Steve was a kind and full-hearted man, talented and fierce and blunt. Oh! This is such a loss. He had apparently been suffering from lung cancer, a fact that was kept rather quiet up until just recently. But word has come that he spent the last days at home and with his family. And that part, at least, makes me happy.
By Steve Orlen
When I was a child I had what is called an inner life.
For example, I looked at that girl over there
In the second aisle of seats and wondered what it was like
To have buck teeth pushing out your upper lip
And how it felt to have those little florets the breasts
Swelling her pajama top before she went to sleep.
Walking home, I asked her both questions
And instead of answering she told her mother
Who told the teacher who told my father.
After all these years, I can almost feel his hand
Rising in the room, the moment in the air of his decision,
Then coming down so hard it took my breath away,
And up again in that small arc
To smack his open palm against my butt.
I’m a slow learner
And still sometimes I’m sitting here wondering what my father
Is thinking, blind and frail and eighty-five,
Plunged down into his easy chair half the night
Listening to Bach cantatas. I know he knows
At every minute of every hour that he’s going to die
Because he told my mother and my mother told me.
I didn’t cry or cry out or say I’m sorry.
I lay across his lap and wondered what
He could be thinking to hit a kid like that.
In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas
By Steve Orlen