Two weekends ago, Steve Orlen presided under the ramada in his backyard.
The noted poet and longtime UA writing professor had been diagnosed with lung cancer just a short time before, and he'd been sent home to die. The weather was balmy and bright, and for three days, a stream of poets, friends and family members came to say their goodbyes in the sunlit garden.
"He had a spectacular Friday, Saturday and Sunday," says Boyer Rickel, a poet, former student of Orlen's and close friend. "There was a parade of people. He was out on a daybed holding court, laughing and telling stories. It was quite wonderful."
Well-known poets he taught—Tony Hoagland, David Wojahn, David Rivard, Michael Collier, Jerry Williams—had jumped on planes all over the country and rushed to see him. One former student came all the way from Spain.
"He was happy to see people," says Hannah Glasston, one of many students who became a friend. "His eyes were clear and bright. He told me, 'I'm ready. I've lived a good life.'"
Orlen, 68, died on Tuesday, Nov. 16, with his wife, the painter Gail Marcus-Orlen, at his side. Friends stunned by the suddenness of his illness and death remembered him as a legendary teacher, accomplished poet and extraordinary friend.
"He is so loved by so many," says Rickel.
Aurelie Sheehan, director of the UA Creative Writing Program, notes that "everything about him comes down to his identity as a poet—his love of life and people. He was always warm, generous and curious, and so open to conversation and learning."
Orlen put in long hours of teaching during his 43 years at the UA—Rickel says he was in his office six days a week, always eager to talk to students and to read their new poems—but still managed to be a prolific poet. He published six full-length books of poetry, including most recently The Elephant's Child: New and Selected Poems, 1978-2005 (Ausable Press, 2006). He wrote three smaller chapbook collections; the most recent is A Thousand Threads, out last year from Hollyridge Press.
"He was a really remarkable poet," says Alison Deming, interim head of the UA English Department. "He could take the matter of ordinary experience—like taking a walk down Fourth Avenue or looking at a pomegranate—and weave it into a beautiful, complicated story. The story was not linear. You see the mind that's questing to connect the experiences that rise out of daily life."
The poems' narrative qualities make them accessible, but they are neither easy nor banal, Deming says. They're aesthetically complicated and formally sophisticated, with "richness and texture, an ear for language, an ear for something that could be really lovely or something really blunt."
Orlen's poetry was nationally known, and won him three National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the George Dillon Memorial Award for Poetry. Besides teaching at the UA, he was a faculty member in the low-residence MFA program at Warren Wilson College, and he regularly taught at the annual Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College.
Born in 1942 in the Massachusetts mill town of Holyoke, he earned a bachelors' degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and got his MFA in the respected Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
In 1967, he landed in Tucson, where at the tender age of 25, he began teaching aspiring poets in the UA Creative Writing Program. This semester, even as he grew ill, he was teaching two classes, both of them poetry workshops for undergrads. His department and the UA Poetry Center plan a memorial service early in the new year; details will be announced later.
Orlen was married for 42 years to Marcus-Orlen, a critically acclaimed painter who shows regularly at Etherton Gallery and Temple Gallery. Terry Etherton says Orlen was his wife's greatest champion.
"He was always there helping Gail, pitching her work, supporting her," Etherton says. "We've shown Gail for 25 years, and every single time, Steve would carry her paintings up the stairs. At her opening, he would be beaming."
Their son Cozi, a comedy writer, lives with his wife, Sara, in Los Angeles.
Sheehan says she was distraught as she was writing up an announcement of her colleague's death. But that changed as she began to type up his poem "In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas."
"I was stressed and sad," she says. "Then I was hooked into the cadence of his words. I felt soothed by his lines. It shows the way his poetry can continue to help us."
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.