joanna smith rakoff

Frog Queen in Fall

Already, Iím sick of apples and trying to match
myself to myself, match sweaters to my greying hair.

Where there were leaves there are leaves of a different color
and they estrange the wind from itself, from its earlier

direction.  It is drier, the wind.  I hate it like
a sister, burning and creeping my hair, making it

all electric.  There was a time when I wanted to keep
it with myself and the flowering trees -- when it seemed

too private -- or embarrassing, that I was not chosen 
but had to choose something for myself.  Iím not sure 

you understand risk -- in your cities -- risk or what happens
afterward, when you win out, the big pay-off. The kingdoms

were like counties then -- like suburbs -- close together,
kings upon kings -- my father no more or less than any 

of them because, you see, the queens were the real
headache, brought from what was then called far away,

collapsing on stairways, ordering textiles in enemy colors,
asking the poets to dinner.  It is true that everyone was

more beautiful then and its not just childhood makes me
think so.    I am progeny of shade.  I see what is -- absent

queens, what makes change -- and safety was not yet 
a word;  Do you see why we learned to conjure?  I liked it.

The possibility of being self and self, of the windís 
selection - nothing matters to youth.  You do not 

understand risk or regret.  You imagine yourself the ghost
of your motherís final suicide;  you imagine yourself

the incision -- or the inner life of the amphibian.  Itís not
as clinical as it sounds.  That we are our secrets.  Allow

me some inaccuracies, some memory -- or do you know the word
Ďaphasia?í  I liked it.  Two slices of skin unable to slice

back together.  The streets in the town were disgusting,
beyond that -- filth, disease -- and, of course, it reached

us out here, beyond the tips of the trees. We are all wanting to
be tragedians, to set forth our little Cordelias, let

down our rapturous pre-Raphaelite hair, to die and be 
a lily or be the same but more beautiful.  I am not death or

some kind of costume, or even a stuffed effigy waiting to be
burned into something.  I heard the conversations of the 

queens -- the asking of permission, asking others to listen,
ten million poems of courtly love and I think I have written 

them all.  As metal holds to metal, there are no more sorrys,
in my exhaustion.  Sometimes I think I am the end of the

pastoral -- all those sparrows and squirrels and the men who 
make them, their endless ancestry.  Do you see now?  

Do you see risk, as it is -- the visceral -- frogs are
not like drawings of frogs.  You may have my story.  The wind

is my elective -- look how it swims me to Greece -- shows
you the truth.  Reader, this is fame -- the parts that have

kicked away, the pictures in drawers or boxes belonging
to people in far away places, people who speak and cannot

envision my ears or the actuality of the slick of the frog.

Feeding a Boat-tailed Grackle in the Everglades

We didnít know whether there would be
					gators or crocs.
We couldnít even remember the difference 
					between the two
or which tree was banyan and which
					palmetto but
we said these words to each other as
					we drove the flat
band of causeway, this filled in strip
					of swamp.  They were
relics, vague images from poems -- we
					like to say we
love language, love words like banyan 
					and palmetto --
the meaning doesnít matter so much as the
					connotation --
the association -- the inflection of oneís 
					voice -- but really
we didnít know anything about birds or
					nature and so --
when faced with three choices -- three 
					ways to see The
Sea of Grass -- by boat, by bike, or by
					canoe -- we took
the boat, the airboat, because it looked
pre-digital and because the boatman 
					seemed nothing like
Miami we took it, or the boatman took us
					in it, gave us
cotton for the fanís noise.  We didnít know 
					it would skim the
water, keel onto its side, roar through the greenish
					murk like a light
hovering insect.  We didnít know if we were
					killing any
of the animals.  We held our hands together,
					kept our sun
glasses on.  When the boat stopped -- in a closed 
					off pool -- the roar
stopped and we couldnít hear as we had before 
					it started.  The
bird appeared in silence -- perched on the prow,
					most beautiful
branch in the world.  The boatman gave me a bit
					of bread, said, ďDonít
be afraid,Ē as the bread disappeared.

Late-Talking Children

Explain the dark 

and the air that fills
it past all suffering.  Explain
cruelty, memory, words---

or how they take

a shape within---if they
float or dangle and we grab
at them, hold close the ones

our mouths can make,

the ones not stopped by tongue
or palate, those not drowned in spit.
Or does the mouth do it

alone, I mean---

does it begin there,
are they made there, the words---as when
you say 'enough' but mean

'ensure'---and then

laugh to cover up.
I have witnessed this and I think
nothing--we're not even that---

we use our mouths

to eat and scream or just
cry but we speak in unison
against you and the world

you made.  I shout

in unison with the sheep
in the meadow and I think that some
thing far from here is all

that 'meadow' means.

They keep us all in one
class and when you see us at 
the bus stop---start or end

of a trip---you must

think we are so good
and quiet, how we never fuss.
I wonder do they tell

the school inspector

what we are or why
we sit as we do, the pink lights dimmed
to make us comfortable,

or does he just

think "such workers, such
busy bees."  Last year he did
not come in---he looked

in through the glass

beside the door.  We busied
ourselves, began to copy things
from the wall---the shapes and things,

things like the sheep---

his words were mostly lost
in the glass--not lost but separated---
I heard him say we are


and see he saw us put
our cheeks to each other's cheeks,
saw our hands in our

hands, we put

the crayon in, and I see
the man beyond the skinny glass
as my sister, speaking "help

me" before

she ever walked.  She crawled
toward a garden snake and had
it crawl to her and flick 

its tail or tongue
to her.  Imagine the whole
muscled body---its one long
intestine---the dark inside

the darkness---dry

scales against the scales---
and the sound of it--all near and not
much below and I

ask you, we ask

you, what do you say?