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  

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).