Jen Bervin, Silk Poems, Nightboat Books, 2017

Reviewed by Anne M Royston

[Review Guidelines]

Writing that's self-conscious about its material form often is drawn to the much-fussed-over etymological link between text and textile. Embodying or animating that link, however, proves somewhat more difficult. For poet and book artist Jen Bervin, the text-textile thread is not merely suggestive or evocative but serves as an actual premise for her work, especially in the new Silk Poems (Nightboat, 2017) and its larger intermedial world. The Silk Poems have historical precedents in Bervin's previous work, which suggests an ongoing engagement with the text-textile premise. Consider her work with Emily Dickinson, ranging from the large-scale artist's book The Dickinson Composites, which embroiders Dickinson's marks on the page while absenting her language, to the New Directions trade edition of The Gorgeous Nothings, full-color reproductions of Dickinson's scrap poetry with careful interpretations en face. Or pieces such as The Desert, which stitches over the page to create an altered book, or the site-specific, month-long Weaving at Gridspace. Perhaps it is only natural, then, that the Silk Poems project isolates a single thread, that of silk, to consider it as historical signifier, means of production, and poetic object, all subtly shaded feminine. Under Bervin's microscopic lens, or pen, what appears to be one thread splits into many, mimicking a prism held to the light.
     We begin at the end, where a "Research Sampler" addendum picks up the idea of material-as-embroidery and suggests the scale of resource woven together, naming sources from Nabokov to the Koran to Su Hui's reversible fourth-century silk poem, whose design enabled eight thousand readings. On the page, however, Bervin's language is minimal and rigorously exact. Every stanza is two lines, typeset in small caps with equal spacing between every letter, immediately suggesting DNA strands. The effect of this equalizing spacing is that words signify multiply (here I mean multiply as an adverb, modifying signify). In

isathing (16)

it takes a long beat to recognize "so a wing" and "is a thing," instead of the gerunds the eye wants to read ("soawing" modifying "isathing"?), especially given "soawing"'s proximity to sewing—which is exactly what the silkworm is doing throughout the poem. Other times the lines suggest homophones, as in "insideher" (4) or "anew" (20).
    At the same time near the page's edge, there begins to appear a sinuous strand, at first scarcely bigger than the bar of a T. Blown up to 6400% on the "microscopic lens" of a computer, you can read, in an approximate way, hairs of text that mimic the text on the page. In the first appearance, on page five, every I has been emboldened; further iterations continue the mutation of the I. On every spread, the strand grows as the silkworm's story unfolds.


     The I—and this may startle you—is the silkworm herself. Gendered feminine, the silkworm begins to tell her story, which is at once singular and also historical, modeling the modulating play of scale that characterizes Bervin's entire project. Her originating desires: to burst forth into the world—and, as soon as possible, to have sex. However you slice or splice it, this poem begins with the big bang. So it isn't long before more silkworms emerge, attaching themselves all over the cocoon. Then: feeding. Silkworms devour mulberry leaves, overwriting the leaves with their silkworm language, even loaning the leaves words usually reserved for fabric:


of leaves (43)

Perhaps the world, too, is female, the silkworm's inscription a pure expression of Cixousean écriture feminine. After all, the silkworm-voice informs us, "if we mate/ we are all/ called/ queens" (19). With its focus on voracious appetites, the silkworm's écriture feminine is also deeply concerned with her own embodiment.




centimeterslong (26)

reads a page which, following a page that mentions the "breasts of a woman," casts the "mulberry buds" as another expression of sensuality, even fertility. Above these scenes, the moon shines benevolently, ordering the preparation of the mulberry leaves:


theshort (67)


The silkworm's voice is considerably erudite. "Are you surprised?...Don't be," she coolly tells us. "We invented language" (50). She has just quoted poet C.D. Wright:


anddeclarethemso (49)

Writing—here, Wright-ing—is another nod towards the spinning of silk simultaneously functioning as the spinning of poetry or story. As the silkworm-voice relays the connection between silk and "divinations," Bervin gives characters directly on the page: "silk," "silkworm," and "tortoise," as in shell, the site of inscription (51). Drawing our attention to the shell also recalls another homophone, linking site of inscription to sight of inscription, which is what is happening as the silk thread image unfurls on the page.
     Books, or texts, have historically been inscribed in silk, as the silkworm-voice matter-of-factly informs us; in fact, the I Ching, in its oldest form, is an artifact of silk (77). Indeed, ching itself

threadsofatextile (79)

This linguistic observation spools out into a series of etymological threads. The radical for silk is written, the silkworm-voice continues, over hundreds of times in words, "words for paper/ textile/ for the volume for a book," among many other iterations (88). Silk, the word-object, unfurls its weave under the touch of the poet as the silkworm continues through its life cycles.

writteninme (105)

The language reveals itself anew with every successive instar, or moulting cycle, during which the silkworm sheds her skin. In fact this cycling is the essence of the poetic material, which relies on the fluidity of "transformation":



material (102)

Movement is the surest form of creation.


iwanttospendtimewith (139)

From the silkworm-voice, this is no less than a poetic manifesto. No ideas but in things, cautioned William Carlos Williams. Silkworms are poets, and also, maybe, a stranger idea: poets are silkworms (No words but in strands, cocooned William Carlos Silkworms…). Anyway, these lines are borrowed lines, as the "sampler" later reveals: Agnes Martin, appearing again after her epigraph at the book's beginning, and textile artist Dianna Frid. At this point in the poem, other borrowed lines appear, many of them from women: a predominantly matriarchal lineage that includes Emily Dickinson, Cecilia Vicuña, Rosmarie Waldrop.
     Labor, too, is subtly feminized—the labor of giving birth to eggs, and the labor of weaving or sewing, where the expression of silk from the worm encapsulates both birth and weaving. Lest we forget, both of these are work. Even the silkworm's self-professed love of counting ("sure i count," which also indicates pride), her obsession with fractals, suggests a network that ties together the computational and the loom of early computing, the women "computers" who engaged in this labor, the "poetical science" of Ada Lovelace (whose instar-name was Byron) (137). As such the silkworm voice is able to see its helpers whisk away its fecal matter: "We see you," the silkworm acknowledges. "We see you doing the work" (70). As for birth, the poet, too, may give birth to the poem, again positing a delicate symmetry between poet and silkworm.
     If this is labor, it is also, clearly, a labor of love. The silkworm-voice asserts that "sericulture is a culture of love" (111). As she describes her physical self, she mentions the horn. According to the silkworm-voice, its utility:

sure (116)

The only word on this page, say it with a long breath, savoring the sweet. It's jouissance, Barthes's pleasure of the text.


The play of scale I mentioned at the beginning, which allows the silkworm to be at once an I and the we of history, also applies to the Silk Poems project as a whole. It is a scale of time and space, and a scale of inscription.



anyintention (145)

At the end of the Silk Poems, a "project note" explains that silk is an acceptable material for transplant into the human body. Bervin describes bioengineers at Tufts University in 2010 creating "reverse-engineered liquefied silk" that can take the form of a biosensor with writing at the nanoscale (165). What else, Bervin imagines, might be inscribed there? "Imagine the language/ written in me," but spoken, now, by the silk itself. Humans have supplanted the silkworm, on the sides of material production and textual production alike.
      Hence the form of the sinuous strand poem that develops as we turn the book's pages, mirroring what is inscribed on the silk biosensor. Bervin writes,

The form of the poem strand is modeled on silk at the DNA level—the six-character repeat in the genome is the basis for the six letter enjambed line of the strand; the shape of the strand reflects both the filament pattern silkworms enact when writing their cocoon, and silk's beta sheet, which forms like the weft thread in a weaving. (171)

     Actualizing or enacting the idea of the poet as silkworm, Bervin turns a worm herself, silk poems now mediated through the human. The genealogy of threads again spirals: Worm-Bervin authoring silk-poem which can be implanted into the human body, which becomes another cocoon, the bearer of the poem, and a kind of silkworm itself. In "the language/ written in me," the subject me is made both fluid and solid—liquefied silk—writer, worm, woman. This linking chain recalls the successive instars of the silkworm, those life cycles that characterize art.
     As the subject is also the poem, its creator or its container, the destabilized subject also corresponds to a destabilized poem. The silk film, luminous, is able to be viewed by a human reader with the aid of fiber-optic light:


emergeprismatic (131)

Such an iteration of the Silk Poems became part of an installation at Mass MoCA, a silk film accompanied by a video film (available at http://jenbervin.com/projects/silk-poems) by Charlotte Lagarde. If the research feeds the poem, as mulberry leaves feed the silkworm, we have few edges that aren't selvage. To put the question more clearly: where, exactly, is the location of the poem? One of the great marvels Bervin's piece accomplishes is to be insistently material and, simultaneously, impossible to pin to a location. Hence the title, Silk Poems, with their deliberate lack of an article, something to position them. Indeed, Silk almost functions as a subject, taking poem as its verb: silk speaks, writes, poems.
     Further destabilizing definitions and genres, the project also asks us to consider how lines between old and new media are blurred in a piece that combines contemporary medical technology with the ancient technology of silkworms and of weaving. For this, we require a different scale of time, one that grasps the common thread between old and new. Or is the body that will house the poem the final medium? And if so, then what of questions of readability? For at the point where these threads converge, the silk biosensor, the poem becomes inaccessible to its physically closest reader, the one in which it is embodied, despite


byher (14)

The writer and the reader turn cocoon; there is always, one supposes, a measure of blindness to desire.
     The scale at which Bervin is working, the silkworm scale, suggests a limit to the human scale. Or, perhaps, an expansion. We are big, or small, or both, existing in a time that links and differentiates, like a substance slowly expands and contracts, like breathing. We are always seeking at the edges of things, and devouring them with pleasure.