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Philip Metres reviews

Nets, By Jen Bervin

Unpaginated. Ugly Duckling Presse. Paper. $10. ISBN 0-9727684-3-2

The first time I encountered a Bervin poem was in a broadside format, among the books, chaps, seven inches, and other paraphernalia on the Ugly Duckling Presse table at the AWP conference in Chicago in 2004. In a small wooden frame, a short poem:


8                      In singleness the parts

                        Strike  each in each

                                     speechless song, being many, seeming one

When I peered a little closer at the object, I noticed that there was a raised, but un-inked, undertext: Shakespeare’s Sonnet #8. Thus:

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
speechless song, being many, seeming one,
   Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

Stripped of the sonnet’s familiar rhetorical moves and formal flourishes (no end rhymes, the iambs only cresting the surface of the first line), Bervin’s poem shortcuts the distance between Shakespeare and the objectivism of George Oppen. In particular, Oppen’s use of the word “parts” in the oft-quoted lines from “Discrete Series”: “Thus/ / / Hides the/ / Parts/ the prudery/ Of Frigidaire....” Even the title of Oppen’s later masterpiece, “Of Being Numerous,” seems to ghost the final line here. It is quite possible, of course, that Bervin has never read Oppen; nonetheless, Bervin’s poetry enables a re-reading of the relationship between the tradition that Shakespeare represents and modernism. If Shakespeare functions as a kind of linguistic mulch, then the modernist avant-garde may be a radical particularity already existing within that mulch — the cracked egg shells, or the coffee grounds.

Nets, the title of the book from which this poem comes, literally emerges from word “sonnets,” but also suggests the poetic strategy of Bervin’s “netting” selected words and phrases from 60 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Rather than employing a raised text (a kind of poetic Braille?), Bervin and the Ugly Duckling publishers opted for a faded undertext of the Shakespearean sonnets, over which certain words would be “netted” in bold ink.

In her working note to Nets, Bervin’s second collection of poems — she has published under what is not under in 2001 and a number of artist books) — Bervin writes that she “stripped” the sonnets “to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible — a divergent elsewhere. When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page.” Bervin’s tone here is suggestive of her treatment of the Bard — by no means is this poet thumbing her pen at the tradition or at Shakespeare’s achievement in the sonnet form. (Though Shakespeare’s sonnets have received as much attention as his tragedies, some have seen them as part of the “wrong turning” of the Hamlettian lyric against the dialogical energy of the plays. A colleague of mine is fond of saying, with regard to Shakespeare’s work: “wonderful plays, but a pity about the poetry.”) In other words, rather than simply engaging in a poetic deconstruction of Shakespeare through parody, Bervin’s text seems to perform an elegiac rendering of the “post-literary” moment itself.

In an age in which literature itself seems to be part of residual culture (the recent NEA report being the latest of any number of handwringings over the presumed decline of literature and literary reading), and “Shakespeare” functions as tattered banner under which cultural conservatives like Harold Bloom battle the evils of political correctness and postmodernism in the academy (cf. “The Shakespeare File: What English Majors Are Really Studying”), Bervin’s text breaks the urns of the sonnets into their fragmented parts, thus rendering the ghostly whole wholly ghostly.

To use another metaphor: Bervin’s poems are like rubbings of old slate gravestones whose original names and dates have faded into near-obscurity; the poet, the pencil etcher, wants to retain the artifact through a kind of representation of it. However, through time and weather, it is possible only to have a partial version. Still, as in good stone etchings, they take on a new life in their new form, become something other.

Frequently, the poems function as self-reflexive poetics, as in the aforementioned poem (as well as in #2, #11, #13, #45, #49, #63, and #134). The notion of “singleness” and multiplicity suggests Bervin’s strategy of opening up the seemingly monological thrust of the sonnet, in its lyrical “I” and rhetorical closures. The “I” in Bervin’s poems is an “I” in quotation marks, starved of romantic expressivity; perhaps, in this way, Bervin returns to the lyric that sense of the “I” as a performative self, rather than an autobiographical or sensate one.

One of the most intriguing self-reflexive poems is #13:

O! that you were yourself; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you yourself here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
again after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet
form should bear.
lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might up
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
   O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love,
you know,
   You had a father: let your son say so.

This poem is indeed “after form” in two senses — both seeking for a form from which to speak, and finding a provisional form in the ruined houses of the sonnets.

In Bervin’s hands, “Shakespeare” suddenly becomes the courtly love object, rather than the courtly love pursuer; appropriately, perhaps, a tension develops between the “I” of Bervin and Shakespeare, as in #63:

Against my love shall be as I am now,
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn;
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night;
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
vanishing or vanished out of sight,
Stealing away the treasure of his spring;
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife,
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life:
    His beauty shall
in these black lines be seen,
    And they shall live, and he in them still green.

The “I” here could both echo back to Shakespeare’s effacement as a person in history, as well as Bervin’s own sense of confinement within, and effacement by, the Tradition that these sonnets have come to embody.

There are few antecedents to Bervin’s project, particularly in her use of Shakespeare, a foundation to the English poetic tradition and national ideology, not to mention a crucial node in the network of lyric poetry and the invention of the modern subject. One thinks of Jackson Mac Low’s and John Cage’s use of mesostics (a kind of “writing through”) of the modernists such as Stein, Barnes, Pound, Joyce, and others. Yet their techniques, often aleatory and chance in nature, don’t have the same intentionality, purpose, or look on the page as Bervin’s. There have been all sorts of modernist and postmodernist writings that use “found” language or even whole poems, such as: Kenneth Koch’s parodies of Robert Frost (“Mending Sump”) and William Carlos Williams (“Variations on a Theme by Dr. Williams”); Ted Berrigan’s long poem, “White-Out,” composed with typewriter correction to cover most of the words of an old novel; John Tranter’s “Blackout,” derived from Shakespeare’s The Tempest blended with an essay by Joan Didion and portions of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Still, Bervin’s poems have a kind of gravity whose weight hefts closer to the works of Susan Howe, though Howe’s poems tend (though not exclusively) to work through forgotten — not ubercanonical — voices in history.

Despite the reflexivity of many of the poems, still others suggest the contemporary moment. In #64, Bervin calls forth the ghost of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty
towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with
loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
   This thought is as a death which cannot choose
   But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Through the spaces left by the ghostly “and” between “loss” and “loss,” the poem becomes a concrete embodiment of the falling of the Twin Towers.

On the same theme, #55 seems a little thin in its anti-war sentiment:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with
sluttish time.
wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
wear this world out to the ending doom.
   So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
   You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.

At the same time, though, it also pushes back against Shakespeare’s glorification of courtly love and poetry. By shifting the referent of the “you” from the beloved to war itself, the poem suggests our own culture’s courtly romance with the Dark Lady of warfare.

One possible critique of Nets is its slightness; for a book of 60 pages, one can easily make it through this book on a typical subway commute or during a short lunch break. Its minimalism, however, is only minimal when we refuse to read the “nets” back against Shakespeare’s sonnets, and see how they talk back to the “originals.” Take Bervin’s net of Sonnet #135; in it, she highlights (literally and figuratively) the exaggerated profusion of “Wills” in the poem. It may be a critical cliché to point out the 13+ “wills,” and those “wills” sound different when a poet named Jen (and not Will) emboldens her Wills — is it a stadium chant for Will, or Bervin’s own Will to poetic Power? Bervin’s Nets rides on the tension between these possibilities. Either way, this reader looks forward to Bervin’s future exertions of will, whether within the ghosts of old poems or in the divergent elsewhere she comes to inhabit.

You can read four poems for Jen Bervin by Aaron Belz in Jacket 29.

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