In Handiwork, winner of the 2011 Slope Editions Book Prize, Amaranth Borsuk makes a case for the importance of looking back at a shadowy, fraught history and the current-day implications–both personal and political–of this history. She employs a number of formal constraints to “write through” her grandmother’s story, a story that exists equally in imaginative gaps and actual gasps. Handiwork resists totality and closure, yet the lyric beauty of Borsuk’s fragments provides much to sate readers.
Whitney DiMeo: Borsuk utilizes her grandmother’s past to reveal the lost history of the Holocaust. Through a personal touch, she is able to draw a connection between what her grandmother had experienced and other Holocaust victims. In “Adonics for Finia” she writes, “Finia among them / thin summer dress on / think of you often / pleasures and sorrow / being alive. you”. By doing so, Borsuk is able to illustrate not what history has taught us, but what history has forgotten: the emotions experienced by Holocaust victims. Borsuk additionally uses hands to symbolize the strength and weaknesses of the Holocaust victims. Furthermore, she uses this idea to celebrate human survival during the Holocaust; while history centered on tragedy, Borsuk celebrates human life.
Josh Kanaga: Drawing upon her grandmother’s experience of the Holocaust, Borsuk’s poems illustrate a yearning to mend un-mendable events of the past. Borsuk’s theme of unattainable healing is perhaps most apparent throughout her many bracketed poems, which according to her, “attempt to write through, and into, the gaps in [her grandmother's] story.” While some brackets contain text, which strives to literally fill the void of the past, others remain empty to indicate an overarching shroud of unknowability. By adopting her grandmother’s voice in retelling these traumatic events, Borsuk binds herself to her grandmother’s pain, and presents the story as one of her own identity. [Read the full review here.]
Victoria Kiarsis: Amaranth Borsuk has mixed detail and lack thereof in her collection of poems that follow the life of her grandmother during the Holocaust. The forms vary between mounting words or silence in brackets and spacing the words unusually. The structures of the poems add to the meaning of the poem and show the great effort put in by Borsuk. She uses the symbol of hands to demonstrate the labor of the prisoners and their immense loss and struggle. Through varying structures and startling stories, Borsuk has created a piece of art worthy of pause and admiration.
Siwon Kim: Borsuk arranges the lines in an innovative way such as alphabetical order, as shown in her poem “Show of Hands”: “1. a bird in the / 2. a dab / 3. a firm .” Beyond such restraint, Borsuk dons more constraint by omitting the word “hand” and instead putting spaces as shown in “8. at the of.” Such restriction and lack of words depict the oppression that the Polish people experienced during the Holocaust, while the possible gap of comprehension serves as a true confession of the history of Borsuk’s lineage, full of missing pieces, and broken.
Daniella Knutsen: The Holocaust is part of Borsuk’s family heritage, yet she has found a way to see the positive aspects of it rather than just focusing on the negative. Borsuk tells this family story very delicately because it is such a sensitive subject. She uses the metaphors of salt and hands to symbolize the work and torture that her family and other victims underwent. By putting together the pieces of her family’s history through Hebrew sayings and stories passed down to her, Amaranth Borsuk turns her grandmother’s somber memories and her family’s profound history into a beautiful and poetic anecdote.
Danielle Liberman: Borsuk attempts to recreate her grandmother’s stories by using the symbols of snow and fire to represent the death and atrocities in the Holocaust, while also conveying the emotional toll of the events. Snow becomes a part of a bigger winter landscape in order to emphasize its connection to the gaps and ambiguity in the narration. Symbolism allows this collection of poems to become a story about survivors who are unable to tell their stories, and uncover these painful memories. Snow and fire are used to display a small fraction of the narrative, allowing Borsuk to create a voice for those who cannot express tragedy.
Elisha Machado: Handiwork serves as a diary that brings the story of Borsuk’s grandmother’s struggle during the Holocaust to life. One way in which Borsuk represents this struggle is with her symbolic use of hands, which can sometimes be “separated from your body” when they are told do things that the heart disagrees with. By writing Handiwork, Borsuk feels that her own hands are causing violence by writing about such a tragic, impactful event. Perhaps Borsuk writes Handiwork to show readers that we will never fully be able to explain the past, but we can speak up about it and change the course of the future.
Jon Pou: Borsuk’s use of form plays a major role in the emotional aspect of many of her poems. By creating the physical gaps between her lines as well as cutting off sentences, a lack of closure is felt. This, as well as her use of the image of hands being these beautiful things that are able to cause so much harm, allows her to achieve the themes of lack of closure, fear, solitude, and oppression that she strives for.
Christina Serpa: Borsuk uses the image of hands as a survival tool to express the struggles of people who experience war. She writes of the hand as removed and separate to express the brokenness and emotional detachment of people in times of war. Borsuk struggles in sharing the oppressing stories that her grandmother has told her. She admits, “Some things the hand refuses / to put to paper,” but even with all of the holes and missing facts in her grandmother’s history, Borsuk believes her “hands are asked to tell everything they know.”
Evi Shiakolas: Where is the line between memory and history? In Handiwork, Amaranth Borsuk exposes memory as a multidimensional entity of blurred-knowledge and slurred-time. Her poetry grows from her grandmother’s narrative into a well-wrought image of the trauma of the Holocaust. In fact, her grandmother’s words write the poems while Borsuk’s rest in brackets, a mise-en-abyme. As she tears down bridges between memory and reality, Borsuk translates the past to the present and thus sculpts a book of Slaughterhouse Five-esque layers that hold onto each other in different places, times, memories. Her claims and writing leave readers with both questions and a sense of violent-remembering. Through Handiwork, we cross the “hidden boundary / between / world | and | written / / struggle of | the | book.” // the mark of | minds.”