An Engagement with Amaranth Borsuk's Handiwork

by Ronni Davis

It is our natural desire to have everything - every detail, every thought - laid out before us. But in her book Handiwork, Amaranth Borsuk draws on the blanks left in her grandmother’s history to depict one truth. In life, there will be gaps where things left unsaid, stories were never told, and memories forgotten. Borsuk illustrates the disruption absence causes in life through the words she chooses to give to her speakers and the abstract forms her poems take.

Borsuk shows the impact of absence's disruption through the removal of words, use of ghost words, and direct diction. Her speakers’ thoughts are so carefully crafted and not overtly complex that her poems leap off the page and engulf the readers. For example, in the first “Salt Gematria,” the speaker uses mostly one and two syllable words to describe his or her slow moments. When read out loud, the reader feels sluggish, due to the repetition of long 'a' sounds: “afraid,” “slate,” “wading,” and “take.” The simple language leaves the reader wanting to know more because of what is withheld - the absence of information. Similar diction is also seen in “Adonics for Finia,” where the speaker says, “Finia among them / thin summer dress on / think of you often.” It's understood that something happened to Finia, but the lack of facts leads to a haunting absence. Handiwork draws more attention to absence through the removal of words, as seen in "A Show of Hands." The poem is a list of familiar phrases, interwoven with spaces (“into his own __ / lay a __ on / lend a __”) that are lacking the word “hand.” By directing attention to something missing in the short phrases, Borsuk forces the reader to pause unnaturally where absence is disruptive. Handiwork also sees the use of “ghost words.” In most of her gematrias, there is a presence of absence in the words that appear in other words, such as “salt” in “slate” or “crystal” or “sultan.” The ghost words serve as reminders of what hides and haunts, what is inescapable. The language manipulation techniques in Handiwork leave the readers longing for more, especially when paired with the form of Borsuk's poems.

Borsuk's poems are all unique in form, such as bracketing words or listing phrases, to unsubtly display absence. Handiwork uses brackets throughout to enclose explanations or comments that were not explicitly said. In “Pillar of Salt,” almost all eighteen lines are bracketed except for “Finia," "what had happened," and "what has happened.” That is what the speaker knows for certain: that something has happened to Finia. Everything else is unknown (“[who can, holds]”). On the other hand, poems like "The Smell of Rain on Surfaces" depict the conflict between absence and presence as two columns speak over a curved space. This speaking over muddles the conversation, barely coherent:

                                           how does mind
hold slippery bodies           how map
what’s outside known            boundaries?

And it’s this unique structure of back and forth (“back to front, / back to back, / hastily stacked”) that truly emphasizes how disruptive absence is. Borsuk also uses erasures, but severs the source text with vertical lines instead of leaving it as a backdrop for her poem: “Don’t be | a | child / be | amazing.” The vertical lines in "Tonal Saw" represent the idea that what you see isn't the whole picture, serving as another stark contrast between presence and absence. In “A New Vessel,” Borsuk uses a more structured format of going back and forth with no white space between. There’s no clear interruption until the line:

a lovely absence, a space
                                        of thinking over space.

Borsuk uses form to her advantage here. As the reader gets to this point, it visually astounds because absence now disrupts our train of thought. There is an unnatural jump made in the middle of an otherwise smooth moving poem. Borsuk’s unconventional methods of form visually exemplify the disturbances absence has on what is present.

What is present in Handiwork is Borsuk's control over language, through ghost or noncomplex words, and creative use of space to show the disruptive impact of absence on presence. These refreshing, unorthodox techniques break the mold of contemporary poetry, but Handiwork truly shines at its core. It is Borsuk's way of working through her incomplete knowledge on her grandmother during the Holocaust. But this is not a book about the Holocaust; it's a book about experiences - the ones we kept and the parts we didn't.

Ronni Davis is 3000 miles away from home and 100 times colder as she pursues a Business Administration degree at Boston University. This is her first official publication in a literary journal and sincerely hopes it won’t be the last.