August 2020 Poetry Feature: Raisa Tolchinsky



Table of Contents

  • A Note by the Poet
  • Circling the Ring
  • Below the Belt

After training for multiple years with womxn boxers who had the Olympics on their minds, I began to grapple with the dynamics of control I observed within the spaces I encountered. These poems are from a longer series which ask: what does it mean to be a womxn fighter (both inside and outside of the ring) in a world still dominated by men? In what ways is the ring an escape or subversion of the power dynamics encountered outside of it, and in what ways does the ring reinforce or sanction manipulation, harassment, and abuse? Both of these persona poems are composite portraits, representative of the osmosis between bodies and narratives that occurs among close training partners. Though I didn’t have what it took to pursue a fighting career, these poems are a way of writing into the imagined life where I became a boxer instead of a poet & scholar. Through this work I am also asking: how does the poem function as a body? How does the page function as a ring? 

—Raisa Tolchinsky


Circling the Ring

When I look into Sammy’s eyes I can’t tell if he sees me or not so I speak to him like a dog, say, good boy, cluck hard and fast so he knows where to put his body: 16 hands tall, legs veiny as a maple leaf, thorough-bred and made for racing. What’s it like to lead a thing that big, I ask Jillian, the instructor. She’s under 5 feet but Sammy believes she’s big as a house. They like to be ridden, Jillian says, though at first I feel almost guilty when she pries open his mouth, tightens the girth. Saddled up, I expect him to rear to his full height, shake me off into the dust. Instead he stands still, waiting patiently. I want to ask him, don’t you know what you could do? Once I met a dominatrix. She had feet the size of a child’s. In one hand she held a glass of champagne and in the other, a leash attached to a man 6 feet tall. His face was so gentle when he called her mistress—
he said it like a prayer. She winked at me when I bumped into her in the dungeon’s bathroom, brushing her hair. She said, honey, you could do what I do, if you wanted. Do you want to beat me up, asked a man when I told him I trained as a boxer. I didn’t answer, so when I was least expecting it, he wrapped a hand around my throat: gotchya. Sammy is a good horse, says Jillian. He’s a thorough-bred, made for running as fast as he can, but between my legs, he’s slow as a cow— I make him walk in circles, just because I can.


Below the Belt

At my first fight he smeared my face 
with Vaseline then turned his back 
until I punched hard enough the blood 

in her mouth spelled out his name. 
Only when she spit out an incisor 
did he look at me and say, that’s my girl, 

девушка боксер, my little devushka bokser,
those words the only thing more
beautiful than the bell. 

Most living things do what they can
to stay alive but maybe winning makes you 
stupid with pain, willing to risk 

ligament, tendon, sacrum, neuron and 
life I will be too bruised to carry. The truth is, 
it’s easier for me to fight in a ring 

than to keep my body safe
in the world outside of it

because when I’m not in the ring
I’m waiting for him to come home 
with eyes like a thrown mirror waiting to land: 

some days a hook to the rib,
some days a snapping jab. When 
he lets me press my ear to his chest

I swear to god his heart
sounds like a speed bag.
I’m a liar every time I win,

the little girls screaming my champion 
and holding up signs glittering with
my french-braided queen. 

If only they knew the origins of
every bruise, they would 
know I can only win a fight 

contained in red ropes and rounds,
they would know I can only speak of love
with my back in a corner


Raisa Tolchinsky hails from Chicago and is currently a candidate for an MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia. A 2019 Brooklyn Poets Fellow, she has read and edited for Tin House Books and Tricycle Magazine, and is founding editor of SIREN Magazine. Her poems, essays, stories, and interviews have appeared in Kenyon Review, Muzzle Magazine, Tricycle, Blood Orange Review, Lumina Journal, and New Limestone Review, among others.

August 2020 Poetry Feature: Raisa Tolchinsky

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