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 Tim Shaner

 

Smiling Kafka & other poems

Smiling Kafka

Somebody says there’s something wrong  

about smiling Kafka, the photo, that is,  

something downright creepy about someone  

like Kafka smiling, a friend on Facebook said,  

though there’s no one remotely like Kafka,  

except the man himself, even if what Kafka  

taught us is that everyone is exactly like Kafka  

in the modern bureaucratic state, in the same  

way, come to think, that John Malkovich is John  

Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich,  

which as we know ends with everyone in the room  

actually being John Malkovich, though, in this  

updated version of the now postmodern disciplinary  

state, also known as the society of the spectacle,  

everyone’s a movie star in their own appropriated  

yet depleted way, even if they’re just the same old  

Hollywood squares we’ve seen time and time again.  

It drives John crazy to see himself everywhere he looks,  

the waiter being John Malkovich, his date being John

Malkovich, all the random, peripheral people 

in the restaurant being nothing other than

himself  warmed over, ad nauseam, in every

direction.  What’s the use of being a movie

star, even an odd  ball star like Malkovich, if

there’s no way of telling  who the real John

is from the movie version of him  playing

himself ? Had Kafka been the creator of 

Being John Malkovich, instead of Charlie

Kaufman  and Spike Jonze, that might

explain why a guy like  Kafka would be

smiling, the whole idea coming  to him one

day seemingly out of nowhere, though  likely

after consuming cannabinoids, it being the

sort of idea that gets tossed around with a

joint,  something Walter Benjamin might

have smoked  before taking one of his

famous walks through Paris, thinking about

things like mechanical reproduction and

how in today’s days there’s no aura around

to speak of, just an anonymity  that haunts

us at night where dreams used to be, 

snuffed out by sleeping pills and other

miracles  of the pharmaceutical industry,

producing if not that institutional smile

Gloria Steinem critiqued, then some sort of

feigned merriment, the good cheer fast food

clerks are forced to sport  as they crack

open the window to hand you the order. 



 

Our Side of the Street 

Location three times boiled over,  

Where words turn in on themselves,  

Just the fact that we’re close by,  

Whose car’s parked in whose spot,  

Party noise, garden noise, leafblow 

Jobbers and other handy work,  

Including, well, just our breathing,  

How we look and the looks we give  

When looking away, exchanging  

Pleasantries we feel unpleasant  

Giving, something in the way  

We move and frankly live, out there  

Yet hidden, for all to seek and  

Destroy, our source of daily dis 

Ease, how we occupy our windows,  

Crack open our doors for a whiff  

Of the other’s demise, an ambulance,  

Say, to cart a body away, yet getting  

All friendly when the snow  

Shoves us each into the other,  

Shoulder to shoulder—shoveling it. 

 

Potlatch for Scott Wilber  

(May 31, 1957 - February 12, 2021)  

If a book is like a wallet  

full of poems, would the poems  

be worth the wallet they’re in?  

The money that’s in the wallet  

is like a metaphor, the paper likes  

the value it holds. Unlike the poem,  

the paper value is printed on  

is worth more after it is printed.  

I’m not going to go tearing up  

dollars for their failure to represent  

what I value, whereas I may tear up  

my poems, tear them & toss them  

and then start over afresh, a new  

sheet for a new day, its blank potential  

still worth something before the ink’s  

mark deflates the paper’s worth, for  

what use is a poem when it comes to  

money? And don’t all poems disappoint  

the page? Not worth the paper  

they’re printed on, they say. Which is why  

in the future we poets will make,  

what’s in our wallets will be a present  

full of poems. As such, we will have  

to bargain over their value. Some sort  

of aesthetic criteria would have to be  

in place, or so we think. Your ear for  

melopoeia may not be my kind of line 

break. Perhaps I want a plain, unadorned 

diction whereas you prefer to frig the 

imagination with all sorts of baroque

twists and turns. Arguments may thus

ensue over our shares in the bargain. 

If, for example, we were to exchange 

the poem I make for you for  

the wallet you make for me,  

I might say that a poem is a work 

of art and hence priceless, and that

the wallet you make is craft-work

and so worth less. While your wallet 

may last a good hundred years or

more, my poem can last forever 

as a poem is worth more than  

the paper it’s printed on, the paper

being arbitrary, hence easily replaced 

by future parchment or say the binary

code on a screen or, even better,

by word of mouth. It is not confined 

to the paper, that is, but your wallet is 

its material condition—leather—it is 

by its very nature perishable, some thing 

to be held in hands that perish too. 

Might I then claim the raw end

of the deal? But then that presupposes

this older form of value we’re presently

stuck in, rather than the new form of 

living a wallet-full of poems might bring 

to the mix. For when poetry stands 

in for money, it will be like the potlatch 

once practiced in these parts, wherein

value is determined by one’s propensity

to give things away, my giving to you

worth more than what I may receive

in turn, finding value in the giving trans-

action, a gift that blesses our currency. 

 

Retro Futurism (After Darjeeling Limited)  

Won’t it be nice to go slow. For the change of it  

alone. Like a telephone tethered to its cord,  

its immobility mobilizing us to talk again, which may,  

like strolling to the store instead of driving, seem like  

we’re headed backwards, losing quality time, when  

in fact it is a sign of progress of a different kind  

that allows us to continue breathing and living  

in a cleaner way. I want to be on that sleeper car,  

the curtains drawn wide, blur-full of countryside  

with only distance in focus, wood-paneled compartments,  

faux or otherwise, their blue/turquoise color schemes,  

plus the kissing scene, of course. How a train creates time  

for a kiss, a piss or two too after some beers or tea, time  

for siestas, to say things back and forth, side by side or  

face to face across the table, to reconnect with brothers  

and sisters, to the lover you’re with and the one left  

behind. It will be like taking a cruise instead of flying,  

on a trip, say, to Iceland, how it compels us to look  

at the ocean, to see the Atlantic we’re crossing, to be  

enveloped, in it, like the letters we’ll aim to write,  

what with time papered all over our hands. We won’t  

know what to do at first but we’ll settle in ‘cause it’s for  

the long run. We’ll craft a new notion of technology,  

where the residual will abide in the emergent in a present  

that moves neither forwards nor backwards just finally  

here. We won’t expect you to arrive so soon anymore,  

acting as if yesterday’s already too late. Plus it will help us  

prepare for the coming company, with time to change 

the linen, sweep the floors and set out the

towels,  with a fresh cake of soap in the dish,

and perhaps  a mint on the pillow, as a kind

of joke, as if we recall having had those

moments. But it won’t be kitschy because

there will be no such thing as nostalgia, as 

we’ll never have really ever lived that way

before,  just in a manner nobody would want

to duplicate.  

28 January 2020 

 

 

 

 

 

Our New Life (24 April 2020)  

--for Teresa and Colin, and Caden  

 

1.  

I took in the prospect around 9:22 AM  

and saw for the first time the vista  

had changed just over night, or had  

days lapsed since I looked last?  

Sprung Spring had fully loosed its  

leaflets, large enough now to fill  

the triptych of our picture window  

but blocking our view of the Cascades  

hunched below grey layers of cloud  

pigment, now but a thin blue banner  

amid pulsing greens. I saw there and  

then I was writing living in a new way.  

2.  

At 2:43 Pacific Time, we called you  

in Newark, about a week after your birth  

to my late sister’s grandchild, her first.  

No name yet but Rebecca’s somewhere  

in the making. It’s coming up to five  

years now. Our mother’s anniversary 

on whatever number Mother’s Day was

in 2019. I recall capturing the sounds 

of Canadian geese flying into the frame

of my i-phone, which I figured I’d do

something with. They collided with a contrail

in Colorado. What month is it, Mona? 

Coronavirus is just a dumb thing doing its 

dumbfounded thang, writes Žižek, in record 

speed, a slippery meme that’s sticky as hell.

 

3.  

In my dream I didn’t notice I couldn’t breathe 

underwater. I thought I was grading papers, 

but all I could read were boxes melting

into shifting deadlines. Last night, in a plot

that dragged out far too long, I chose to stop 

making M my murderer, brain-training 

something brighter onto the agenda as I sunk 

back into Lindell’s pillow. I have learned 

in my later years how to shut down dreams 

gone bad, so they’re no longer nightmares, 

just a miniseries you want done with, fantastical 

or not. There are new birds in our neighborhood 

to wake to, Teresa, Colin, Caden. We step into 

their triphthongs in clean air. 

Goodbye, Friend  

After downing a fifth, finished with your last Face

book post, a drunken string of them—one could tell 

by how swiftly one followed the other, moving from 

a series of White Stripes to the final episode of MASH, 

you know, the one where Loudon Wainwright III 

sings “suicide is painless”—ending with George Carlin 

raging at the idiot world, you had had enough for the night 

and so you lifted your heavy soul, wobbled through the door, 

bouncing between it like a sluggish pinball, its frame 

the helping hand you were always reaching for, before

pirouetting at the top of the stairs, not the best platform 

for one’s last dance, and fell backwards, your body collapsing 

down into the gravity of its self, the weight of you too much

for any neck to brace, which snapped in an instant, and so that

instantly was it, your soul bailing before the rest of you

reached its final step, leaving what was left crumpled there

in a tangled heap for someone else to clean up. It’s not so much 

that I’m angry with you, my friend, fearing at first the worst, 

and so, relieved, in a strange way, to learn of the accident 

it appears to have been. They say drinking is slow suicide, 

and maybe it was for you after you left the bar each night 

with a few pints and a mound of nachos in you. Yes, we all 

indulged in another wee one or so when home, but hitting 

the hard stuff is another story, and clearly you wanted out 

of the lonely place that was your home, no companion to greet, 

who’d welcome you like some kind of Mary Tyler Moore 

in your dream version of what a marriage might be. Not that 

you didn’t know better, being long divorced, with your two 

daughters to look after once she committed suicide. 

The decades didn’t get any kinder after that, though most

would have thought otherwise, what with your profuse charm,

the good cheer that spilled over the bar at the young bartenders 

a bit too readily after the first pint set in. You told me you didn’t

mind my mild scoldings when I thought you were pushing it 

too far, edging toward harassment, but who was I to speak, 

having my own, supposedly more subtle ways of doing it. We 

all knew I was full of shit and had a good laugh at that. Likewise, 

that evening at our house, back on the deck under the Douglas 

fir, a party for my wife’s sixtieth birthday, happily drunk and 

getting louder, you confessed to your heavy drinking, the fifth 

that ended your days being nothing new, but a pattern increasingly 

regular. I was shocked at the amount of it, told you that was crazy 

and that you must stop and, once again, you thanked me for it, 

implored me to continue, that people needed to tell him that. 

I guess not enough of us did, as if that would have really mattered, 

or changed things in the long run. Was it the pandemic then that 

pushed you over the edge, the bar at the bar closed down 

over the summer and then only outside tables available once 

the cold set in, after September’s fires? Or was it the Non-Hodgkins 

lymphoma treatments that slimmed you down in a good way 

as if that can be called good? We loved you in whatever size 

you came in and, damnit, you knew that, and should have been 

more careful, that’s all I guess I’m saying here, left alone now with

the many others who like me must forever learn to live without

you.

from Smoken: A Serial Poem

                                             

September 8, 2020  

“When exactly did we land on Mars?”  

you texted. The summer has slipped  

away from us but was it ever here  

to begin with? We were banking on  

a smokeless season but this orange fog  

is not the autumnal windfall we were  

counting on. In hindsight, happiness  

had snuck up on us, the community  

that comes when confined to pods, but  

sometime between 6:11 and 7:47 last night,  

a cooling agent whipped us back to the earth  

at hand, where the shit-show’s still heavily  

full of it and flying. Prior to this, weather events  

had been happily somebody else’s business  

to capitalize on. Expendables were dropping  

far away, yes, like flies and we were fine  

with that deplorable trope as it seriously  

needed swatting away. But now, back at it—  

“a poem each day it’s smoken,” I wrote back  

then, only I figured this series had ended  

two years ago—I don’t have the gumption  

to crank it all up again, the glow worn thin  

as this thickening fog smarting our eyes.  

Besides, the fumes this time around  

are so close they’re set on kill, like those  

dumb fucks deep in their confederacy,  

running their generators full blast. It was  

hot as hell and clearly they’d rather die  

than read the instruction manual. I can relate,  

I guess, as I don’t want to understand either. 

September 9, 2020  

At a cafe next to a supermarket that we mostly no longer shop at due to their rule that employees  cannot wear BLM face masks, six of us escape from the smoke and ash, distancing ourselves per the  cafe’s Covid plan, everyone but me on laptops, alt-pop on the speakers, people outside walking by  against a backdrop of burnt air from the encroaching fires, all of us here carrying on not like things  are normal but fucking all too real—as if saying, “what else are we supposed to do?” I sense this  collective groan, unuttered, that all could be gone in days, maybe even by tomorrow. Many of us in  Eugene thought the same thing just a couple years ago when the Paradise fire ripped through that  town, which is only several hundred miles or so south of here.

So I plant my head back into my book, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, thinking how funny it is that the  famous are themselves star-struck by the presence of the famous, referring to page 105 when Patti— can I call her that?—spots Joplin, Hendrix, Grace Slick, and Country Joe hanging out at the El  Quixote next to the Chelsea Hotel. They on their way up to Woodstock. This gets me thinking about  Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew and how he writes, per his un-famous friend, that all around  us are these brilliant souls we never hear about, that, in effect, never, as Judith Butler would say, get  an obituary. “It’s snowing in Denver,” one of the baristas says. I’m thinking that, at moments like this  one in particular, we’re all famous, except we’re not, and who needs (or dares) to be? 

 

 

 

 

September 13, 2020  

We tried to get along on the coast, where the fog was indistinguishable from the smoke, but our  private lives kept crashing into each other’s personal profiles.  

Restless, we checked our watches every ten minutes to see whether we had moved enough.  

Back home now in our discrete domiciles, we text each other about what a fun time we had, then  turn our attention to loved ones far away. We’re okay, we keep saying. They’re not convinced, either.  

The neighbor across the street’s still at it with his leaf blower, tidying up his death camp. It’s clean  as real estate and is primed for a hot offer.  

The Douglas fir in our back yard are conspicuously still. Time is swollen, stuck, stopped up, what  have you, what is it?  

The dazed creatures who travel through our hazed hood keep to their anthropocentric routines.  Do their eyes burn like ours? We are concerned about their lungs.  

Stay inside. Keep the windows tight. Don’t go out without your mask and goggles, and stay away  from the air, as it’s in need of serious conditioning.  

The electricity’s safe so we may travel as far as our canned imaginations will license. We keep on  flipping channels for the usual something that never comes. 

 

 

 

 

 

September 14, 2020  

1.  

I had another one of those Covid dreams. In this version, the poet Carolyn Forché was hosting a  reading and the house was packed with pious hipsters. For some reason, I chose to read my latest  experimental poem but couldn’t make sense of the letters or how to read them once the words came  together. Stumbling and in panic, I remembered the recent, more mainstream poem I had saved on  my smart phone, figuring it would go down well, but the interface had changed and kept directing me  to the app store which I somehow couldn’t exit. At that point, I decided to pass my reading off as a  performance piece but no one in the crowd was buying it. I left the stage, apologizing to the host, “I  don’t know what happened.”  

2.  

I glanced at the clock before looking outside for the morning update, hoping for the improvement I  knew wouldn’t be there, and as I laid my head back down on the pillow, I thought, with things as they  are, why bother getting up? Just a week ago, I looked forward to each morning, with the whole day  ahead, how I’d start up a pot of coffee, feed the cat and check out the garden before sitting down to  review yesterday’s creativity, the latest poem or most recent entry in my would-be novel forever in  progress, but now it brought to mind those two weeks in Fort Collins before my mother died and  how I hesitated to rise each morning, preferring to stay in bed rather than face another day of my  father’s denial, his insistence that she’d get better soon, and that I should back off with the pain  management. “I’m an expert too,” he had said, when I told him I was following the hospice nurse’s  advice, Dad insisting I wait until she felt pain to administer relief. They didn’t grow up that way in  Iowa, he later explained to the nurse, “We didn’t talk about pain.” Yesterday when I told him that the  air quality in Eugene is presently the worst in the world, according to reports, my father mentioned  climate change in a way that suggested he had changed his mind about it. But who knows what  tomorrow will bring. 

September 15, 2020  

The flies are all in  

on quarantine.  

They can smell fire  

when they breathe it. 

Safe inside, they won’t 

drop like flies because 

they are flies. Birds,  

on the other hand, are 

falling from Southwestern 

skies like cats and dogs, 

though likely not as 

thick as those frogs  

in Magnolia. As for the 

scorched Northwest, 

we spot them on  

occasion only, as when 

rounding the corner 

in my horseless Kia 

I mistook what were 

turkey buzzards  

for the usual wild  

turkeys driven into  

the suburbs by dry  

climate. Grounded  

in the graveyard  

down the street,  

their raw heads  

hunched inside  

their hoodies, they  

resembled the four  

horsemen of the  

apocalypse, which  

many in these parts 

believe is imminent, 

those who reject science 

and won’t wear masks. 

Tim Shaner is author of Picture X (2014) and I Hate Fiction: A Novel (2018). He received a Ph.D. from SUNY-Buffalo’s Poetics Program in 2005. His work has appeared in The Poetic Labor Project, Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. With Kristen Gallagher he curated the Rust Talks series on poetics in Buffalo and edited Wig: A Journal of Poetry and Work, and he published, with Jonathan Skinner, the pamphlet Farming the Words: Talking with Robert Grenier (2009).

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