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Amaranth Borsuk’s Handiwork and Other Things Microreviewed

By Harriet Staff

Boston Review published another round of Microreviews yesterday, with contributions focusing on new books from Kathleen Ossip, Dean Young, Christopher DeWeese, Amaranth Borsuk, and Boni Joi. Here’s an excerpt of a good’un, penned by Anna Ross, on Borsuk’s Handiwork (Slope Editions):

What information can the body hold—physically, psychically, historically—and how do we translate these encryptions into language? These are Amaranth Borsuk’s chief concerns in her debut collection, winner of the 2011 Slope Editions Book Prize. “Words so readily betray things they’re meant / to represent,” she states, the word “betray” capturing both the loss and the discovery that are catalyst to these intricately constructed poems. The book’s recurrent image of the hand reinforces the importance of care and craft—see the poems’ many brackets and erasures—to Borsuk’s interrogation of personal identity and a family narrative partly obscured by the Holocaust. Adamantly not straightforward memoir, Handiwork strives instead to capture process (“how does mind / hold slippery bodies, how map / what’s outside known boundaries?”), often suggesting a series of maps—either those of earlier centuries, in which the far side of the ocean is tenanted by sea monsters, or modern satellite images that force us to ponder what lurks inside all of those actual houses. Borsuk hints at answers first chemical and numerological (in a series of short poems titled “Salt Gematria,” which make use of the mystical Hebrew practice of assigning every letter a numerical value), then geopolitical (“Prague, Poland, Germany, Paris, / [no sequence, less information]”), then emotional (“salvaged grief”). However, it’s Borsuk’s resolve not to fill the spaces she has delineated, to leave their “little distance distilled” unbridged that, in the end, feels most revelatory.

BR remains a large house with a main wing dedicated to poetry (fun building metaphors!); and in seriousness, we’re glad for it. Read more from that section here. Also, an interview with Borsuk about Handiwork is up at iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, should you like to know more. Example:

Are there other poets, poems, or books that you feel like Handiwork is in conversation with? Either in terms of style or inspiration?

I think it is in conversation with Anna Rabinowitz’s Darkling and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (though I didn’t learn about the latter until after I had finished writing) in that both books use constraints to write through material that is either intensely personal or historically freighted. Rabinowitz uses Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” as an acrostic through-line to write about the Holocaust in a way that is both lyrically moving and fragmentary. Philip rearranges and recombines language from a landmark slavery case in which 150 slaves were thrown overboard when the ship carrying them ran off course and the captain feared they would run out of provisions before reaching land. I admire the way she navigates between telling and not telling, and the way she incorporates her own struggle with the material into the text. Handiwork is probably in dialogue with the books about the history of salt that I read while writing it (by Mark Kurlansky and Pierre Laszlo), as well as with the work of Samuel Beckett, from whose brilliant series Texts for Nothing I took the book’s epigraph.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, October 18th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.