J.R. Toriseva 2015 Bill Holm

Winner of the 2015 Winter in Variations: Bill Holm Witness Poetry Contest: J.R is the Director of English and Communication Arts, and  Assistant Professor of English at SUNY-GCC in Upstate New York.  J.R. has  also taught for Mills College, California Poets in the Schools, San Francisco WritersCorps, and Literary Arts of Portland, Oregon. One memorable summer, J.R. canoed from Dryden, Ontario to Ely, Minnesota through the White Otter, the Quetico-Superior and the Boundary Water Wilderness areas. Currently, J.R. is writing a long poem on the cryosphere.

Toriseva's work has appeared in, or is forthcoming, from The North American Review, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others. "Dandelion Rites" appeared in the anthology 'Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound' from City Lights (San Francisco). 






On schedule, the healing starts at midnight, chilled,

when sound is important, when light erupts within.


Every day, after dusk, after chores, after supper, I travel

to the pond. Off calendar, not to fetch wonder, not to bathe,


only to gaze, treading kindness, until the water jug of my throat

spills over in fullness. Until recognition becomes evaporation.


A scare crow cites the cipher. A gull seethes as it watches

I build my own, starting with cross of wood,


sharpen the spear on the bottom, nudge the rags in the belly,

Place the sunglasses on straight. The ritual of constructing the new


scarecrow. Torn shirt by frayed once-cuffed pants. The way we

hold our hands when we dance under the concrete rafters in the gym,


square call by square caller. The day so late now. The pond so hard to find.

The water so deep now. The bottom so hard to ignore. Freyja brings me


to where and when I was an audience, asked “What’s the report?”

“There are more crows,” I said, astonished that anything came out


of my mouth. Surprised, I had an answer. Dazed, I spoke pond.

Behind me the hammers fixing the barn roof of entanglement, in


the heat of enlightenment, in the heat of illusion. A North by

Northwest friar, the chaste cauldron, the cracked spigot and me.





They slipped into the sonnet of the pond, never dumped, this palace of snow, this piñata

of a purse, this iced hall--call it the throne room—this picturesque, this patterned pond.


This bowl once held her, seated on the diagonal diadem, feet in the swamp, hand on

 the orb, flooded spiral staircase of water. Rush of Snow. Queen and Ruler of the Universe.


A bent brook., this whole valley, my last life, there are things to see: the dark brown

belly of the trout, the flash of white in the sky. The flare of black underneath. Here to see


what has changed. Here to see. Here to see that I have changed. Here to sting and die smart.

A contented kink, this is my final destination. Maybe means I am traveling to this


pond from somewhere further than the basement this sugar tongue, this pond, Aife’s pool somewhere distinguished, some place pick pockets converge, the target of professional beggars


and the intention of travel writers some where they skip lunch and travel 847 miles to photograph  and buy souvenirs,  torn grass and algae residue, the calls of the sparrows, the crackling


of the insects, this is the place that can be an alternate source of income. This is the place

that can be grated, swept,  and kept in a frame, a personal waterway,  a transportable tributary,


a captured canal, a caged watercourse, an individual stream, a turned loop, a wringed weave,

a zig zag, a twist and turn, a slipped slide, a corked screw, a wound up coil,  my own spiral variation.



Talking in Snow: A Short History of Sound


Suspended, it’s all so much better here: the mouse

tracks, matchsticks dragged under the wonder

of meeting the flurries of others, sieving the traces

of blizzard and snow burst; this frozen encounter


has melted me. Altered: a stationary camera, an entangled

tripod, the way I erode at the edges, the way my

voice slips in and out of the frozen levels of float,

through the thoroughly submerged layers of language.


Here is where I try to swim. Here is where I drown. Inked in

ice, the hieroglyphics of water in frostbitten orbit

tell it all, but only once.  Traced. You come back stained, wild

strawberry-styled bangs. You come back thirsty, greened


by tall grasses. Spotted red, you come back

scratched in two, your eyes closing against sun,

your eyes smelling of fear from the ambled approach

of bear and cub, unannounced and all too close—their breath


imprinted on your spine. You come back to the trunk of water.

You come back to case. Here is the word written on the water.

Here is the water written on the word.

Here is the papered wasp of the nest unfolding.


Dissolving in this place that is not ocean,

not sea bank, just pond-- sans salt, sans vista, sans

eased floatation--no promise of more.

I hand myself the thin mirror of water.


I hand myself the layer of sky reflected back.

I hand myself the moment of mallard floating over

minnow, of blue heron stepping on fingernail clam.

I hand myself to myself. We hold hands.


We breathe backwards. We fall together, earth and sky; the all that is, more than enough.



The Benchmark of Water


Water sets the time, the lacy roots of the duckweed follow.

The small water snail zigzags. There is no map of this place.

As day falls off, behind my shoulders, light tells.

This is the trick of reality: the knowledge of dusk.

I peel off the edge of the decal

with my thumb. I travel everywhere, stopping for all

river alders, poplars and milk vetch ponds;

reading their red-osier dogwood placards

As closely as if they were historic sites.

Walk no farther than the alfalfa field and there they are:

they of claw, of thigh, of petrified hemlock.

Here is the sandpiper marking the fossilized snail

Here is the snowshoe hare resting on the burst of glacier.


Horn Lark and Vesper Sparrow mirror write in the pond;

I am their visitor, back against a poplar,

the smooth glide of the skates, submerged.

Water now filling the footsteps. The glass voice.

The smooth touch of a silver faucet,

this pond is an ant farm, a tape recorder,

a row of wooden seats, a pew of poetry,

books, a wet mop, the slide of floor wax,

the yellow of the shade pulled down,

the unzipped suitcase, the stretch of yarn

unraveling the sweater, the vacant carcass of a fire

extinguisher, the transformation of attunement and empty.





The big freeze runs through the

veins of road and elbow. This is how


winter outlines everything:

death, despair, birth, jealousy.


The bad heart, defining tongue from throat, heart

From hand, lays down the birch bark.


I make a rubbing of the snow.

What does my soul seem like


flake by flake? Poetry in pieces

on her brain. She was looking


for death with its white breath

and its odd, wide, icicle pattern of walking.


Freezing in its own tracks, before the next step,

winter shows the shape of trees


So, why not my soul,

half in-half out, of this body?


If I turn quickly enough, I will

catch myself standing there. One


breath, one half step behind me,

glinting, having been present always.


Ice tells. Its density will give me the weight

I’ve craved, the sweet knowledge of the self,


the strong self having been holding out its damp hand,

the embroidered edge of the pillow, the sodden


waiting all this time, when all that was really needed was snow.

Robbed of leaves, rich in icing, winter spills what summer steals.



Winter, December #73


Always here by four, in time for the deep shape shifting

of the dark coming down and the day light rushing up

and over and out to gift some other place—

Tibet or Helsinki—with the warmth to breathe

interim, pause, shattered window:

the warmth to think in the frozen stillness,

across from Westphal’s field, next to Herman’s woods

this pond sits off the ditch of the Johnson road.

Here on this cracked ice sits this crooked heart 

The left ventricle sets up shop. The broken twig

whispers, betrayed by hoarfrost, set against honeyed snow.

This pond ice stoppered: magic potion in a corked, smoked bottle.

eye to eye with the artic loon, Today is all sleek rock,

 the freezing rain. My throat anesthetized.

My eyes brewed the red moon. I walk to the broad curl

of ammonite and look in. The snow shapers are out in whisper

thought form sipping jeweled tea. The avalanche in my brain makes

me look for the immersed Lady of Shallot, drowned Greensleeves,

Ophelia upside down; Joseph likes to look at women underwater.

Is this how he sees himself? This is not someone else’s grail; this is

my own mead cup. A dance of rocks solidified in space and time, iced out

The breath revealed here on this cracked ice. My throat slips. My hand races

past my nostrils, past sight, blinding me. This pond the fourth angel, the one who carries

the trumpet. I wait at the junket water’s edge to see the beginning

every rock tells the story of the start. When I look at the pond

I stare in the molten center of myself: The moving, unformed, steaming bit.

Slightly frosty now, frozen over, spiking the air within—

the beat suspended, the ice cracked in the slit of the breach.