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

To the two boys made of metal

As they play with toys and make a clamor.

Two cups on a table, wide-open flowers

Eager for a common life. But

Something is lacking, someone

Is too happy, someone is angry,

Stirring the grounds in a jealous cup.

Coffee you can't see through

Is a humble substance. Over the steam

And the image of a face, we sit down

Or stand up, excusing ourselves.

A family at dinner is one long drama,

Needing that frame to be heroic.

These two cups, chipped cold pleasures

Of the mouth, fill, are emptied, filled,

That after dinner two boys may stare

Out a window at stars lighting up,

Filling the heavens' faces, where

Each of them wanders in his solitude.

The first sorrow comes from the first hope.

There's a winning candor to Orlen's approach to this material, a shrewd understatement of imagination. The humble, unimpressive chipped cups, the ordinary domestic pleasures and miseries, gain the dignity of their plainness. There are no melodramatic claims or dire implications to this "one long drama." The homely, unvarnished quality in image and language -- "angry," "happy," "emptied," "filled" -- is reflected in the direct, generalizing formula of the last line. Defying the writing workshop rule that forbids a summarizing moral conclusion, Orlen makes his reflection feel genuine: that hope and sorrow have a single origin, dramatized by empty cups overflowing with memory.

(Steve Orlen's poem "Family Cups" is from his book "The Elephant's Child: New & Selected Poems, 1978-2005." Ausable.

Copyright 2006 by Steve Orlen.)


Robert Pinsky's most recent book is " The Life of David."

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