from Smoken: A Serial Poem
by Tim Shaner
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
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.”
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
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
we spot them on
occasion only, as when
rounding the corner
in my horseless Kia
I mistook what were
for the usual wild
turkeys driven into
the suburbs by dry
in the graveyard
down the street,
their raw heads
their hoodies, they
resembled the four
horsemen of the
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).