Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 14, 2007

People sometimes say an object is "full of meaning" in a personal way: a souvenir of a trip, an old tool or garment, my first saxophone, your last baby tooth, grandma's chair. But the objects are moving to us partly because they are the opposite of full: They need us to fill them. Detached from the person who knows that wrench or sweater or musical instrument or little tooth or chair, the object is empty. The rich meaning of a thing is shadowed by a rich pathos. It needs us to fill it with meaning.

A poem can enact that process of filling in the emotional meaning. The poem builds or acts out with language what is barely noticed or taken for granted in life. In Steve Orlen's "Family Cups," the idea of something being full or empty becomes literal as well as emotional. Here, the objects that contain a family's history are actual containers.


I place two cups beside each other

And all the confused voices return

Bickering for a place at the table.

These two cups are fragile

As the moments before a family dinner

When the mother is too busy

To polish the silverware

And the father is attentive

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