Smiling Kafka

& other poems 

by Tim Shaner

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.

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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