May 2002

Joanna Smith Rakoff


Joanna Smith Rakoff graduated from Columbia University's M.F.A. program. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Inkwell, and is forthcoming in The Gettsyburg Review and Jacket. She lives in New York with her husband, poet Evan Smith Rakoff.

Bergen-Belsen Documentary, PBS 

The screen expands on its ventricular tubes. Would you
like it to be cinematic?—the barbed wire bed, tooth-shaped gold
gleaming in blue intermittent light. A slim cat intrudes
upon the action, projects its arched shadow like the dybbuk

in which we no longer believe. Imagine the quotidian: to be
a cat among the prisoners—to eat the scant flesh of the dead?
Would you like it to be cinematic? Would you like to imagine
yourself among the lucky ones?—weeping at the arrival

of Allied soldiers, spooning soup into the mouths of orphaned
ghosts—the screen cracks on its ventricular tubes—would you
like to explore the excavated site of your body with hands
newly your own, newly returned to you? The smart English nurse

pries ticks from your skin—breathe the relief of extraction,
the blasts from the bombings of typhus-ridden huts. Do you
pity the SS officer dragging a city of bodies to their canyon graves,
the Germans of Bergen bussed in to witness their own atrocities?

Soon, they will return to the farmland which unfurls, endlessly,
beyond the electric fence—escapes the camera's grasp. Soon, the cat
will announce his presence—the screen will shiver—he has wandered
in from the alleyway to your home. He is lost and hungry and taken by
the light.



Sentimentia #1: Sewing My Dress  
in Dodge Locker Room

Seams slipping, at least it's not wrinkled
And my train card fills enough to race
Me to downtown stocking shops,
A dance with that red-eyed dog. Magda's child
Squirms my forearm, why's your skin so white?
I'm keeping warm, I say, my blood
Stays far inside the core. My mother knew
Names for all these stitches: chain loop baste
Buttonhole, but I learned them in Home Ec,
Became my suburb's silent thread.

The cities knotted me up like rope, stripped
Me up enough to wear this pretty frock,
Have more money, sleep like a horse, feet down
On these embittered tiles. They race
Me down to zero, to the Showerman
Who will rinse away their grey, empty my train
Card, and make it paper like in London
Where punnets of strawberries leaked
Along my arms into my Guinness hair,
where everybody loved me and I hated myself.



Kate Ahern   

My leg, attached too far down the body,
as is yours, I'm afraid, my Katie Kate.
Had we more length, we might drop these widow
weeds, stop plucking out the grey, perform each
night with pacific abandon, plait
our hair with ribbons, paint each lip a bow,
and fool your famous father pasting pennies to the wall.

Chaplin couldn't have done it better,
or, no, I'm thinking of Lillian Gish,
ribbon of lip like the White Rock fairy.
Told who you were, I held each smile to the letter,
trashing that excellent first-heard wish
to stand divorced, and asked you to carry me
through Soho, Noho, Bedford, Barrow, Washington Square.

I've told you that my world cleaves in threes, so
you see why my eyes, at first, closed to you,
Katie Kate, the two of you, the 'C' and
the 'K,' O Kate, even Keaton couldn't make a go
of it, like you, traipsing out of that blue
garret, to master French, Latin, classical guitar, no,
Keaton hadn't your father fixing forlorn coins all in a row,

so you couldn't save a dime, Katie Kate,
only managing to twine yourself back
together just to twist yourself apart
again: the orphan and the daughter,
the changeling and the doll, conjured back from
Brooklyn by envy of that copper-thick slate,
will this give you comfort, Kate, kicking the cans into the grate,

along Bedford to Barrow to Washington Square,
will we keep on these streets, will we ask questions,
Kate, when the tinkling gutter follows us
into the tucks of bed and book and hot bare
dream, when we keep getting lost in our own
yard, hitting up tourists for maps of SoHo,
LoHo, who are your parents, Katie Kate, and, my dear, who are mine?

Will we ask if there might be more than this,
pale fairytale love leaping from grandma's
half-cherished artifacts, a light for the
covert cigarette pressed to lips just kissed
with noir-esque red stick, will we? When we watched
that Girl Friday leave for the extended
weekend, that gun moll die in her own piss.

A little coat turned you into a Russian
skater and I slipped between your figure
eights. That's it, Kate, that there's no story
buried in Philadelphia, in Los
Angeles, no Cary Grant to cherish
a saucy girl like a lucky penny,
to ask "Will you come to me pure as stone?"

I've told you that my world cleaves
in coppers, I collect them, too, feeling
much the Jewess, each time I drop to Bedford,
Barrow, Washington Square, but O Katie Kate, it's the gypsy,
the seer, the lingering prophet, and if I've told you
once, I've told you a thousand times, I spend those
shiny Lincolns as quick as they lose their luck.




Joanna Smith Rakoff: Poetry
Copyright � 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 20The Cortland Review