The first time I ever cried in class in front of my students was the day I heard Steve Orlen had died. Orlen had been my teacher at the University of Houston, when he was a visiting professor and I was second-semester MFA student writing absolute crap. Until Orlen’s class. He was such a smart reader and calm person–you felt you could write your real thing, your riskiest thing, and he’d honor it, and tell you how to make it into the poem it needed to be. In his class, I wrote the poem that got me my first major publication, in the Indiana Review. I still thought I needed permission to write, and he humored me and gave me that. When I think of my favorite poems of all time, this poem of his is on the list:
In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas
By Steven Orlen
In the house of the voice of Maria Callas
We hear the baby’s cries, and the after-supper
Rattle of silverware, and three clocks ticking
To different tunes, and ripe plums
Sleeping in their chipped bowl, and traffic sounds
Dissecting the avenues outside. We hear, like water
Pouring over time itself, the pure distillate arias
Of the numerous pampered queens who have reigned,
And the working girls who have suffered
The envious knives, and the breathless brides
With their horned helmets who have fallen in love
And gone crazy or fallen in love and died
On the grand stage at their appointed moments—
Who will sing of them now? Maria Callas is dead,
Although the full lips and the slanting eyes
And flared nostrils of her voice resurrect
Dramas we are able to imagine in this parlor
On evenings like this one, adding some color,
Adding some order. Of whom it was said:
She could imagine almost anything and give voice to it.
It’s a poem about imagination, so that I often can’t help but read it as a metaphor for poetry–that it’s our job as poets to try to give voice to our imaginings as well as Callas did. And when I had Orlen as a teacher, I told him how much I love the line, “ripe plums / Sleeping in their chipped bowl,” and he said, “Thank you, thank you, that means a lot to me,” in a way that made me believe he really did take my opinion seriously, and then he asked, “What makes it a good line, do you think?” At the time, I think I said that the verb surprised me, and so I learned you could pack a metaphor into your verb, you didn’t need to spell it out for people, but also I learned that you could use a line break to set up your surprise. It was a lesson I should have learned in Latin–the first word and last word of the line are places of emphasis and intention, and you could leave your loaded words there. Often, Latin sentences have the important words, the verbs, as the first or last words of the sentence.
Now when I read that line, I think it’s the rhythm, too. Here’s how I scan it: “Ripe plums” is a spondee, “sleeping” is a trochee, “in their” is pyrrhic, and “chipped bowl” is another spondee. All of these are considered strong feet except “in their,” and it’s the perfect softness to set up the precise sound and strength of the “chipped bowl” spondee. The way you put your lips together for the p’s in “chipped” is broken by the pursed lips you have to make to read “bowl,” so it feels really good to read it out loud, too.
There’s a great hint of alliteration in the middle, when we get the archetypal opera plot information–“breathless brides,” “horned helmets.” The longer narrative sentences keep going on their imagination, but also on their music.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Write an elegy for an artist you love, as Orlen’s lyric is an elegy for Callas. Inhabit that person’s art in a way that makes a statement about what work that artist did or has made possible for you. I’m going to write “In the House of Voice of Steve Orlen,” maybe.