Saturday, June 22, 2024

Raisa Tolchinsky, Glass Jaw: Poems


[Some Things You Can’t Understand by Punching Harder]

I blushed like I had already been hit when she slipped that cotton baton
into my pocket between bells, though why was I ashamed our bodies emptied

without breaking? I rinsed blood from my hands and Coach parted the ropes.
Make him forget what you are. we never sparred the boys yet

he looked at me like the rib we had stolen was between my eyes.
Then hit so hard I heard a sound like fishing hooks in a drawstring bag

(no one really sees stars glittering above them, the dark begins at the ankles, then
zips up)—he waited to say I can’t hit a girl until I was already on the ground.

What ails you, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?

Most of the boys had seen a body bleed almost everywhere a body could
and never did I see them wince: not at the tooth wedged into the mat,

or the face shifted into a Picasso painting, or a pupil pummeled red.
Still, the fight stopped quick as the moment

God returned the Red Sea only to part it again.
What are the rules for that?

A former resident of Chicago, Bologna (Italy) and New York City, where she trained as an amateur boxer, poet and current Harvard Divinity School student Raisa Tolchinsky’s full-length debut is Glass Jaw: Poems (New York NY: Persea Books, 2024), winner of the 2023 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. Through the form and language of boxing, Tolchinsky’s Glass Jaw takes a very different approach and exploration than, say, Toronto poet Michael Holmes’ exploration through the performative language of professional wrestling in his poetry collection Parts Unknown (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2004) [see my review of such here]. Tolchinsky frames her collection around amateur boxing, but utilizing language and character studies as a way through and across a journey of deep faith, attempting to find both answers, as well as the proper questions. The book opens with a reference to prayer: “I’m not sure why I still pray,” she writes, to open the first section, “or how I do it anymore. it’s like knocking on the sky: can a girl come in? I knock with my whole body: which woman is made of engine grease and hot hands?”

There is such a liveliness to the language in this collection, and the book is organized in two sections of lyrics—“DIATRIBE ON WOMEN GLADIATORS” and “HERE THIS HOLLOW SPACE”—the first of which offers a suite of poem-scenes and asides, and the second of which is structured across thirty-nine “CANTOS,” numbering down from thirty-four (with repetitions) as a way not to expand, but to return to foundations. There are echoes of Old Testament across the pieces throughout the collection, and the first section focuses on individual boxers, an array of short scenes named for and about specific women gladiators. As the poem “Delia” ends: “comparing mascaras // all clump from the sweat / and would we still do this, / if we were millionaires?” Around sly conversations around faith, these poems seek a proper foundation, perhaps, or a footing. “I hit her hard / because he said that’s how you win,” she writes, to close out “Canto 14,” a poem subtitled “I Traveled in a Spiral, I Never / Finished the Whole Permieter,” “and I hit her until I remembered / it was him who was afraid—[.]”

Tolchinsky composes short scenes that circle themselves around a central question of purpose and belief, outcome and possibly penance, writing on power structures within the self, through and between women. “Before the ring I made a life out of language,” she writes, to open “Canto 26,” a poem subtitled “Within Those Fires, There Are Souls,” “but there were places it would not reach— [.]” There is something curious about the way that these poems do write themselves around a central question that is never asked aloud, but perpetually present, as a kind of ongoingness; pushing the body to a physical limit to seek out, not a single, end-goal, but a deeper sense of being and connection. This is an utterly fascinating collection, and one that requires further study.


We’re trying to say
we’ve watched our
bodies without us
in them. Called ourselves
orphan, coiling
through the world.
In the field we played
with pebbles like
children and made
bargains with a bold
God. We thought if
we built what haunted us
a cage we could touch it
and survive


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