Gabriel Costello


Glass Jaw by Raisa Tolchinsky


Not much is sacred these days. Glass Jaw, the first collection by poet Raisa Tolchinsky, deftly articulates questions of devotion amidst physical and emotional strain. The lyric poems herein are not only formally succinct, they show that poetry can be both accessible and contain a dense voice. Tolchinsky as a poet is just as comfortable in the boxing ring, the cathedral, the garage, or even the Garden of Eden. She wonderfully moves, often within the same poem, from sacred to profane and back again.

Early in the collection, in the poem “Anna,” we see this on full display when Tolchinsky writes, “So small when I twirled in flattened fields, dizzied by sky. Bless the choice / to cross my own rope: twenty-two square feet of skin, stadium of blushing heart. / Bless the iron in my body, enough to make a nail.”

We move from the sky down to a fingernail in only a couple lines all while balancing at least three extended metaphors. For all of the density of the images in these poems there is also a palpable physical feeling. We watch the trauma and resilience of eponymous female boxers who make up the first section of the book. This form of character study creates the sense that while there is one lyric voice behind the camera, its subjects are many.

It becomes clear quickly that Tolchinsky spars expertly with image. This is a democratic image bank where “secret choirs of the underworld” commingle with coffee mug aphorisms like: “Yes, I can do hard things.” The effect is that the reader receives these images in a stark light. Tolchinsky’s images feel appropriately scrambled. It is clear that these are poems that must think fast on their feet. Even the lofty moments of metaphor remain linked to the physical, often specifically in the sight of the body.

Glass Jaw shows us that boxing as a practice is about more than strength, violence, and thrill-seeking. To win in the ring requires the refinement, grace, and improvisation we might expect from a jazz musician. Like all arts, it demands pieces of you, but perhaps the difference here is literal. There are small prose paragraphs that work as intermissions between poems throughout the book and these do an excellent job of demystifying the quirks, contradictions, and practices of the boxing world.

These are poems interested not only in artistry, athleticism and their intersections but also the cost of passion. Tolchinksy shows how, even in the ring, women are expected to be both fragile and compliant. There is a poignant, damning line in the poem “Esther” in which one of the speaker’s male opponents says “I would never hit a girl” only after knocking the speaker to the mat.

In the final third of the book, we descend into a Dantean hell in thirty-four cantos that show us the cost on not only the physical body but on the spiritual well-being of its occupant. In “Canto Twelve” we see Tolchinksy’s knack for vernacular beauty on full display:

Canto 12
Stones, Which Oftentimes Did Move Themselves
I wanted to be watched,
to be told every step. If my back foot
angled at a wrong degree, my error
shuddered the ground and called
Coach forth. His knotted neck,
his ears pummeled into bloom.
My own command slowed into glue
somewhere along my spinal synapse
unlike the girls who worked the ring
like a chess board, who saw
every opponent’s punch ahead of time.
One eye a telescope, the other
a microscope, I was no natural
but loved the cause to every error,
a symptom and then its diagnosis.
If a girl holds her breath
too long, a hook to the ear.
If she steps left when she should
have stepped right, an uppercut
to the low belly opens an aching bin.
What is the division
between a body and the rest of its life?
The stoplight learns to dim.

These cantos develop a system for observing the contradictions of the body. Particularly one under repeated and voluntary stress. The implication being that perhaps hell can be found where we make it.

For all of the violence of this book, teeth stuck into mats, blocked tear ducts, faces rearranged, there is a care and specificity to the people rendered in these poems. That care not only for the sport but also for its participants makes Glass Jaw succeed as much more than just a book about boxing but a striking depiction of the body as a place where pleasure and pain not only coexist but often overlap. These poems ask us how we can hope to know the difference.

First online publication June 01, 2024

Gabriel Costello is the poetry editor of Meridian #48. He is currently an MFA student in poetry at the University of Virginia. His work has recently appeared in Afternoon Visitor, Bluestem, and elsewhere.