Remembering Steve Orlen

    I saw you catch your breath
    hand to throat beneath the black t-shirt,
    some event the hand would contain, 
    some moment of self-consolation...

from "The Toothbrush," an elegy written for Steve by Alison Hawthorne Deming



I’m trying to remember you without nostalgia
thieving your words and hoarding them
because all that I’m getting is the toothbrush
you carried in a mug every day
down the corridor heading for the men’s room
to commit a small act of resistance
against breakdown.

                                I always laughed:
you have the best hygiene of anyone
in the department, which was a joke
because the stink of cigarettes
surrounded you like the fry oil
of a prep cook. Still something like
tenderness inhered in the mug
and its rigid little daisy.

Here’s how we met: me on job interview
fresh from New England trying
not to sweat in desert heat,
you after friendly dinner with Gail
and studio tour and poetry talk
driving me downtown in some big junk car
with no AC saying Barrio Hollywood
and Hotel Congress and the Shanty.

Then came the test: the story about a whore
in Nogales who had a spider web
tattooed around her pussy. I’m sure that
was the word—offense was the point
and I understood implicit was the question
does your poetry trump your politics?

This was in those years when women
were correcting men as if sex
were a policy that could be rewritten
in a pencil stroke. I passed, laughing it off:
Oh my god you’re kidding that’s incredible.
A poet can find wonder anywhere
and I did wonder how strong a woman
had to be to take that kind of pain.

Here’s how we said goodbye: I came
to visit you, the nurse recalibrating
your drip as you asked, have I got any time?
And you, thumbs down, facing it.
I saw you catch your breath
hand to throat beneath the black t-shirt,
some event the hand would contain,
some moment of self-consolation,
like air was alien.

                                Aurelie called it
the weird majesty of death
that had come over all of us,
people gathering
in a circle, each face
reorganizing itself through
the eyes of another’s grief
as if to be animated
were to violate the pure encroachment
of the inanimate.

                                There was a kiss,
me walking you to the bathroom
and then to bed where you lay
in shuttered afternoon light,
others in the room, whatever privacy
once meant it meant no longer
and you seemed nothing but
this invitation to tenderness.

And what kiss was this—not familial peck,
not lovers’ open-mouthed encroachment,
not parental seal of approval but
the mouth opened by the final
so quiet need to say
there is nothing between us
that needs to be cleaned away.
January 2011

Poet, teacher, friend.


Steve, You will be sorely missed.
We will carry your words with us:

From our Audio Video Library:
Steve in 1970
Steve at the 2009 Poetry Festival of Books

Arizona Daily Star Obituary

One of the founders of the Creative Writing MFA Program, Steve Orlen taught poetry at the University of Arizona for 37 years. His death in November was a great loss for Tucson and for the literary community at large. To recognize his many gifts as a teacher and poet, Steve Orlen’s former and present students, colleagues and friends will come together to read his poems and offer reminiscences, as well as raise a toast to his memory.

Steve Orlen was the author of six books of poetry, including The Elephant’s Child: New and Selected Poems 1978-2005, Kisses, and This Particular Eternity. He won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the George Dillon Memorial Award from Poetry magazine. Besides teaching at the University of Arizona, Orlen served as a visiting faculty member over the years at the University of Houston, Warren Wilson College, Goddard College and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.


Arizona Board of Regents