Wednesday, July 7, 2010


(the first poem is an imaginary letter from Kafka to Felice, and also to someone like myself)

Letter from Kafka

Dear Fräulein K, I can’t believe you ask,
Does God love us? You must joke.
We are the suicidal thoughts of God.
I always have a headache ready,
can easily arrange insomnia.
Do I complain too much?
My motto: If we cannot use arms,
let us embrace with complaints.

If only I could be not the nobody I am,
but the nobody I’m paid to be.
For a minute in my mind I leaned
to peony petals rimmed with rain,
when my superior, that good sober man,
asked if we carried insurance for convicts —

I wanted to slap him with both hands.
You see what an impossible
person I am. What strength it takes
to read this letter.
How you must hate me.

But I am unworthy of hate.
My father meanwhile grows
and grows, one colossal leg
already in America,
he’s sprawling across the continents.
We have nothing in common, but then
what do I have in common with myself?

Today a neighbor coughed twice;
I know tomorrow
he’ll cough even more.
I must move away from home:
the sight of my parents’ nightshirts
makes me sick to the stomach.
I think of marriage
even more often than of death.

But isn’t marriage too high a price
for the crystal-and-snow bride?
If only I could spend my life
in a cellar with nothing but paper 
and pen, and a ribbon of light
seeping in at the edge of the door – 
But I won’t torment you by mail;
I’ll save it up until we meet.

If writing is prayer, who am I praying to?
not the one who hangs
around our neck our daily stone.
Perhaps we shouldn’t meet.
I resent having to talk
when I could be writing you a letter.

You ask: What is art?
Dear Fräulein: there is no art.
There is only the delight of failure.
Kindest Regards, K

    ~ Oriana 

From the Lost Letters of Felice Bauer
to Kafka
Felice Bauer was Kafka’s fiancée by correspondence.
She kept all of his letters; he kept none of hers.

Dear Franz: On my birthday I dreamed I walked
around a cemetery, looking for my grave.
Each man’s tomb was marked with a dresser,
filled till-death-do-us-part with white shirts.

Lifetimes of shirts! Some with pleats, Franz,
with stiff collars. Birches like leafless brides
wept at the gate. How easy for you to say,
I do not really exist. Yet you claim

a right to your despair. What about
my despair? Who were the ghosts
ironed and folded into those shirts?
When we met, you mistook me

for a servant. In our one picture together,
you smile above my head,
the smile of a man who knows
he’s handsome. You don’t fool me, Franz.

Even the shadow under your chin
lies in its place, demanding Ordnung
though when I ask what time it is,
you sigh, Eternity, or, Too late.

You write: I am not interested in literature.
I am literature. And I am what literature
is about. Nobody, meaning everyone.
Thank you for your two thousand

letters about your nerves, bad stomach,
sponge baths and Swiss exercises.
Dear Franz, you will always be
my son. Forever yours, Felice

    ~ Oriana

From Kafka’s letters to Felice:

11 November 1911 (Excerpt)
Fräulein Felice!

I am now going to ask you a favor which sounds quite crazy, and which I should regard as such, were I the one to receive the letter. It is also the very greatest test that even the kindest person could be put to. Well, this is it:

Write to me only once a week, so that your letter arrives on Sunday—for I cannot endure your daily letters, I am incapable of enduring them. For instance, I answer one of your letters, then lie in bed in apparent calm, but my heart beats through my entire body and is conscious only of you. I belong to you; there is really no other way of expressing it, and that is not strong enough. But for this very reason I don’t want to know what you are wearing; it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life; and that’s why I don’t want to know that you are fond of me. If I did, how could I, fool that I am, go on sitting in my office, or here at home, instead of leaping onto a train with my eyes shut and opening them only when I am with you?...


20 November 1912

Dearest, what have I done that makes you torment me so?  No letter again today, neither by the first mail nor the second.

You do make me suffer! While one written word from you could make me happy! You’ve had enough of me; there is no other explanation, it’s not surprising after all; what is incomprehensible, though, is that you don’t write and tell me so.

If I am to go on living at all, I cannot go on vainly waiting for news of you, as I have done these last few interminable days. But I no longer have any hope of hearing from you.
I  shall have to repeat specifically the farewell you bid me in silence.

I should like to throw myself bodily on this letter, so that it cannot be mailed, but it must be mailed.

I shall expect no further letters.




Kafka was a fascinating man, a romantic it seems. He has the same intensity in his gaze that Rilke has. I especially liked the "lifetime of shirts." Women used to spend hours ironing. Put me in mind of Eliot's "I measured out my life with coffee spoons," measuring life with the little things. And "birches like leafless brides" – an odd way to say that. "Writing is deeper than death, (we don't know that) just as one wouldn't pull a corpse from the grave, I couldn't be dragged from my desk at night" -- ah but we are victims of this world.  


Yes, I’m sure that Kafka and Rilke had about the same level of intensity. Someone said that what ultimately matters in literature is emotional intensity (I agree, though I think many times it also has to do with the finding and use of "magical metaphor"). Intensity, complexity, and drive – these are supposed to be the three main traits of gifted people. I wonder if the genetic component prevails over the environmental one, or if the intensity has to do largely with “sufficient trauma” (both these extraordinary men experienced a lot of suffering; think of Rilke as a young boy in a military academy, of all places! His father wanted to “toughen him up.”)

We are all victims of the world and the biology of aging, but the great achievers have given the rest of us so much joy over the centuries. And to be even a small light is already something.
Kafka with friends in Vienna's amusement park


  1. Thanks for the poems, Oriana. The first one reminds me how much fun Kafka is! You have him perfectly.

    What always impresses me about him is how effortlessly he imagines madness. You've got that down.

  2. Thank you, John. I feel Kafka's sense of humor has not been emphasized enough. It's true that he doesn't traffic in happy endings, but as black humor goes, he has no equal. And it's absolutely true that he was neurotic, but he was capable of using his neuroses to produce masterpieces.