Monday, June 23, 2008

Steve Orlen's The Elephant's Child

I first became familiar with Steve Orlen through Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. Here's the poem, “Monkey Mind,” in its entirety:

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.

“Monkey Mind” isn't among the sixteen new poems in Orlen's The Elephant's Child, which also collects work from 1978-2005; it's from his 2001 book, This Particular Eternity. By far, my favorite, and I'd argue the best poems here are from the last ten years, and even Orlen (or his publisher) agrees, since earlier books, from 1978, 1981, and 1992, are represented by four, four, and seven poems, respectively. He seems to hit his stride – and by 'stride' I mean come into a comfortable and recognizable style – in Kisses (1997), a book that also addresses Orlen's Jewishness. (An earlier poem collected here, “The Pripet Marshes,” has the Holocaust as its theme, but its voice is more reportorial.) Which doesn't mean there's no discernible style or voice in the thirty-year-old poems by Orlen; if I picked up the aptly-named Permission to Speak, chances are I'd recognize right away a poet whose work talks to me, whose words I really hear. The best thing is, his poetry has both improved with age, as well as become better, more incisive and personal over time, reflecting a fine tuning of Orlen's work and obsessions.

One of Orlen's great subjects is sex, which he approaches unflinchingly. “In Praise of Beverly,” from Permission to Speak, is the first chronologically in this collection, if not sequentially. What he exhibits here, as well as in later works, such as “Poem for Women and for Men,” and “Nature Rarely Confides in Me,” is not just 'honesty' but a rejection of sentimentality. As a poet grows older, the inclination for them is to mellow with age; the same is certainly true, and perhaps more evident in contemporary music. But while the not-necessarily-well-fed rock and roller loses their bite as well as their bile – meaning 'success' is neither the measuring stick, nor the impetus for toning down the barbaric yawp that came naturally early on – the poet, already a creature of isolation and introspection, should be immune to such a dwindling of character, or at least an extreme case of it. Orlen's work here, especially the most recent, shows no sign of wimping out.

Back to “Monkey Mind” for a moment. What I admire about this poem – and what grabbed me right away – is Orlen's deft mental maneuvering through a minefield pocked with memories and emotions. For him, crass lust is on a par with stupidity, is equal to childhood fears, measures up alongside love and forgiveness; he doesn't prioritize these all too human failings and feelings, creating a rhetorical argument for one, and against another. That so much baggage apparently at odds with itself can coexist in one poem is a laudable already, but Orlen makes it appear natural, leads the reader by the hand without drawing attention to the disparateness around them. As to style, he doesn't give eyes a workout by letting lines meander or zigzag across the page, but employs instinctive breaks between sentences and stanzas, breaks that are not uniform yet which both inform the text as well as allow it to move gracefully. Notice the shortest line in “Monkey Mind” –

I'm a slow learner

– how it says what it says by saying as well as showing. Great craft, great poems.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tom Carey's Desire

I'm not exactly sure where I read about Tom Carey's Desire. I'm a big list-maker and an inveterate jotter, specifically in the pages of my trusty At-A-Glance appointment book, where I know nothing escapes my scrutiny for long. If it's worth remembering, pondering, vetting, analyzing, dissecting, it winds up there. Those items that do are ritually moved to later pages if not dealt with in a timely fashion, and as I'm transitioning from an elder planner to a neophyte edition, I make one final pass of the former's pages, just in case something fell through the proverbial cracks. Cary's book found its way into my At-A-Glance, and after some shuffling and juggling, I finally got myself a copy.

Carey is a native left-coaster – specifically, a southern Californian – who grew up in the shadow of Hollywood. IMDB only lists one screen credit, but his bio notes a role as well in Day of the Locust (one of the best book-to-screen adaptions ever), which is apt because of its poison pen attitude toward Tinseltown. He studied acting seriously, and seems to have continued with it after a move to New York in the late '70s. However, in 1988, he became a Franciscan brother in the Society of St. Francis, a religious order in the Episcopal Church – “men who live under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” according to their web site. It continues, “In addition to the work of prayer, most of the Brothers are engaged in work outside the friary.” Indeed.

Desire bears the subtitle, Poems: 1986-1996. Does Carey write or, more specifically, publish anymore? The book is ten-plus years old, and the only other publication credit I can find is as co-editor of James Schuyler's Collected Poems (Desire is dedicated to Schuyler); a poem about Joe Brainard appeared in Jacket, in 2002. That's it, based on a cursory search. It's not the selected work of a longstanding writer; Desire instead seems to be a compendium of poems written during a decade, including some overlap with Carey's entry into the Franciscan order.

Carey ain't no Thomas Merton. He's obviously influenced by the New York School, and writes in a cosmopolitan, chatty, yet often world-weary style about people and places in bohemian New York; his poetry isn't universal, but it also doesn't feel hermetic, like the worst graduates from that particular alma mater. Unlike the NY poets, though, many of Carey's poems are confessional, written by a mind on the cusp of being both gay man and religious acolyte. He doesn't appear to be torn about the religiosity, in fact relishes the rituals of his chosen vocation. But it's an unusual blend, to say the least, these poems of longing and lust, death and dying, life and living.

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