An Engagement with Amaranth Borsuk's Handiwork

by Josh Kanaga


In her collection of poetry, Handiwork, Amaranth Borsuk engages with elements of history, language, and trauma, and, drawing upon her grandmother's stories of the family's experience in the Holocaust, explores the violence of synthesizing a person's memories into a distilled biographical narrative. Borsuk's poems illustrate a desire to mend un-mendable events of the past, searching for healing by sharing each story, while recognizing that some wounds are too deep and painful to be repaired.

The nauseating violence of the Holocaust as a whole, braided with the pain Borsuk and her grandmother traverse in recalling and recording specific events, allows readers to embody each poem as a “somatic experience”, and explore their own emotional pain. According to Borsuk, “language doesn't perform a function until someone encounters it and struggles with it. This creates a relationship between storyteller, author, and reader.” Development of this relationship is especially apparent throughout the many bracketed poems in Handiwork. In the book's notes, Borsuk states that “the bracketed poems attempt to write through, and into, the gaps in [her grandmother's] story.” Some brackets contain text, in which the author attempts to mend or write into the void of the past, while others remain empty to indicate the absence of certain details which remain shrouded in unknowability. In each case, the brackets serve a dual purpose, offering the reader a bridge to understanding of the narrative, while maintaining the jagged barrier of missing information and emptiness.

In an added layer upon her factual bridge, Borsuk provides a pathway for her audience to simultaneously attain a greater emotional understanding of the text, by illuminating the personal connection between herself and her grandmother's pain. “If it wouldn't / happened to my loved ones I wouldn't / believe it,” Borsuk's speaker states in “What is Withheld.” In a sense, the same injuries and violence that have been felt by previous generations of Borsuk's family have been passed down to her. This theme resurfaces when the speaker notes, “She asked me to tell her story / but I couldn't because I was in it.” Untangling oneself from the effects and implications of another person's experiences, especially those of a close friend or family member, can be violent, complex, and painful.

Throughout the collection, Borsuk evokes a sense of being trapped, caught in the middle ground between hope of being able to outlast pain and the inevitable danger and trauma contained in each story. “Peckish, it / chiseled away at heavy matter, five limbs closed in, a / flying wedge that broke down all resistance,” the speaker shares. “Chiseled,” “wedge,” and “broke down” are sharp, abrasive word choices, which bind the author's own struggle in compressing her grandmother's stories into text with the intense reality of the traumatic life events she is depicting.

Amaranth Borsuk allows readers to join her in the process of unlocking painful memories of her family's past, believing that somehow in sharing these stories, their violent sting may begin to ease, and healing will take place:


time untunes our violins let be
                                                   the strings that bind the sound
what wounds is easily unwound—
                                                               a coil of wire razor-sharp that
                                                   threads us
to air—let it stay there.

Josh Kanaga is a Music Education and trumpet student at Boston University. His interest in creative writing has led him to explore poetry as a new artistic medium, which complements his musical endeavors. Josh is originally from Cape Cod, MA, and is pursuing a career as a high school band teacher.