A review of Amaranth Borsuk's 'Handiwork'
When my first book was about to come out, I remember coming to understand there was some puffy critical notion out there of “the first book” against which I would have to contend. I don’t think it’s a codified thing, but it felt like it was something known by people who fashioned themselves as in the know. One such voice was Jordan Davis, who edits poetry reviews for The Nation and writes for “The Constant Critic.” He has said he prefers not to talk about first books of poems and that he follows Publishers Weekly in this. He has gotten more specific about his reasons on occasion. In his positive review of Elizabeth Bradfield’s Interpretive Work, he avers: “I usually have a hard time getting past … self-consciousness when it turns up in the work of a new writer” and goes on to address some other cardinal new-writer sins, including “go-to rhetoric” (meaning familiar logical/syntactical constructions), “ekphrasis,” and “threes” (again, a problem of predictability). Stephen Burt, another prominent critic of my generation (most memorable to me for his late-90s mulling of an “Elliptical School”), unsurprisingly identifies first books with the pitfalls of “period style.” Boiling period style down to its conceptual kernel ends up feeling pretty unenlightening, unfortunately. This isn’t a theory or a critical position so much as an expression of distaste for predictable gestures. Maybe dude poets of my generation were especially allergic to the very trends we were simultaneously obsessed with identifying and consuming. Or, maybe we were ourselves novices, products of some sort of workshop culture — if not THE workshop — terrified to death of not knowing better. Insecurity hates insecurity, and as yet another dude poet of my generation, Joel Brower, has said, “first books of poems are sometimes, understandably insecure, and cluck like starved pullets dying for love.” A pullet is a young hen. I think people who go around pejoratively comparing things to pullets may be protesting too much …
This is all said by way of getting to talk about Amaranth Borsuk’s first book, Handiwork. I’d prefer not to try making sweeping pronouncements about the way it transcends the limitations inherent to every “first book” or to a “period style.” Honestly, I don’t know if it does or not. And here’s another kink in the tangle of the first-book-review-as-serious-endeavor: how should one go about critiquing something emergent? Without a body of prior work for context, we can either frame our approach in terms of some broader cultural lens or we can set up a “first book” straw man (or straw pullet) and push off against that. The former seems hard. That latter seems lame. I find myself doing a little bit of both. Sorry.
Something about the formalism in Handiwork reminds me of the formalism in my own first book, which makes me think Borsuk isn’t totally transcending the limitations of the prototypical first book. How productive is this measurement? Not very. Part of what I want to say is that my subjective response to this book is one of personal recognition: it feels close and familiar to me. Part of what’s familiar is the reliance on form, something I think some might dismiss as a beginner’s gambit. I don’t read for weaknesses, however. I read for strengths. Form can function as a security blanket, and it can produce disasters. It can also be powerful and weird, something that takes a writer into and through (rather than around) insecurities. I reread Harmonium a few weeks before Handiwork arrived in my mailbox. That was a good first book and one big on form, and I find surprising correlations between that old growth hardwood and this sapling. Form is present in Borsuk’s work in service rather than at expense of heart; Handiwork is full of warmth and vitality. If you read no further, know that I think this book is the real thing: poetry happening in our time, and that is what we should expect of all books — first, or four-fifths-of-second, or whatever.
There is real energy here in the “Salt Gematria,” which spans the book and makes a deep place for itself prosodically and notionally. This series is unquestionably the book’s skeletal core. And it’s a remarkable one. I can easily imagine a chapbook with this series as its whole production. The series plays a necessary role in the context of Handiwork, stitching together the other (generally wonderful) poems that make up the collection’s soft tissue. Gematria is a Talmudic/Kabbalistic numerological practice that stresses mystical relationships between the building blocks of language and of the world and cosmos. In Handiwork, gematria works as part of a procedural poetic method, and its mixed engagement with contemporary experimental and ethno-traditional engagements obliges at least passing comparison with Jerome Rothenberg’s auto-ethnopoetic work (which includes copious gematria). In the case of both writers, sacred/devotional tradition is reinscribed as avant-garde strategy in a way that opens new, often radically new, territory while maintaining reverence for the sophistication of tradition.
The interplay between the sparse, formally constrained gematria work in Handiwork and its more free, individually titled lyrics pulls one through the book appealingly. Keeping perspective on what is afoot demands special effort from the reader. I would say there is ultimately a tension in Handiwork between two poetic/aesthetic approaches, which leads to a powerful feeling of variety but sometimes feels a bit pyrotechnic. Borsuk can make language do lots of remarkable things. That I can’t help thinking of Stevens may be mostly my own anecdotal problem. But it isn’t entirely so. Handiwork is not “Stevensian” in the predictable sense, meaning you won’t find much loopy sonic play or Platonic sermonizing here (though there’s some, and why not, of the former: “Boat, boa, bowie, buoy, beau”). Borsuk manages to do what Stevens does best. She knits the objective and the abstract together in genuinely moving ways. Ultimately, this is probably better described as a Stevens-via-New York school strain in the work. At the same time, Borsuk is tapping into historical/cultural/ritual bedrock, which is a fairly un–New York school move. As Borsuk’s notes indicate, Handiwork is haunted and informed by her grandmother Rena Berliner’s unpublished, autobiographical stories. While it isn’t clear which of the last century’s events Berliner actually witnessed, it is clear that the ecstasies and distresses of a real historical person are fully engaged through Borsuk’s “translation” (“feeling’s supple / tackle, by which we are seemingly / caught and, later, released”). Twining this historical material with gematria’s ethno-formal resonances draws Handiwork even further from Stevensian/New York school tonal detachment and towards an organic grit I associate with Black Mountain and its descendants (Rothenberg, Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman).
Fittingly, the pitiful, orphaned hand is an important leitmotif across most of the lyric lyrics in Handiwork. It is delicately bound to “the salt” of gematria, and it keeps signaling the reader back to the material, embodied situation. Handiwork in this circumstance is a constant tension between bodily intensity and metaphysical extremity. The hand, which is ostensibly the most nuanced of native human tools (opposable thumbs, etc.), blunders along in Borsuk’s world, “blindfolded,” or it simply disappears, as in “Show of Hands,” from which all hands have been conspicuously excised. In Handiwork, one senses the inadequacy of human agency, of handed-ness, but in the midst of this deprecation one also finds an elemental esteem, “something to grope for.” I think these antitheses accomplish an impressive culmination in the haunting “Two Rams and Goat with Torso and Sheaves of Wheat,” which surges with oracular tones while simultaneously hovering in an indeterminate space, generated by the conditional mood of all its lines:
if your hands are separated from your body by a blast, a glance,
or their own volition
if your hands are asked to tell everything they know
if your right hand survives each disaster knowing it’s lost its left
if your wrists ache with spectral longing for their hands
if your hands are masked and beaten with branches and wild fern
Here we are encouraged to consider metamorphic possibilities for our hands (some more unexpected or unlikely than others) in a broader situation of considering other metamorphic possibilities for flower, fire, fruit, food, a ram, a boy … “Two Rams and Goat with Torso and Sheaves of Wheat” may be an ontological argument and it may be an existential argument. It definitely pits certainties and doubts against each other (especially certainties and doubts about being a human creature in the stream of history above), not in quite the shape any poets I’ve mentioned above could offer. As a brief poetics in it its own right, this poem is a metonym for the claim Handiwork and Borsuk herself are staking, however early with respect to “career.” All of it is vital and important, traditional up to the point of being very new.
1. Jordan Davis, review of Famous Americans by Loren Goodman, The Constant Critic, May 8, 2003.
2. Davis, review of Interpretive Work by Elizabeth Bradfield, The Constant Critic, March 28, 2008.
3. For the “Elliptical School,” see Stephen Burt, “The Elliptical Poets,” American Letters & Commentary, no. 11, and his review of Smokes, by Susan Wheeler, Boston Review 23, no. 3 (1998). For discussion of “period style,” see “New Poets on the Block,” review of The Body, by Jenny Boully; A Carnage in the Lovetrees, by Richard Greenfield; A Defense of Poetry, by Gabriel Gudding; Very Far North, by Timothy Murphy; Distance from Birth, by Tracy Philpot; Brief Moral History in Blue, by Beth Roberts; Worth, by Robyn Schiff; The Reservoir, by Donna Stonecipher; and American Linden, by Matthew Zapruder, Boston Review 28, no. 2 (April/May 2003).
4. Joel Brower, “Five Books,” review of Selected Poems, by Mary Ruefle; Effacement, by Elizabeth Arnold; Strange Land, by Todd Hearon; Tocqueville, by Khaled Mattawa; and Break the Glass, by Jean Valentine, Poetry, February 2011.