GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews
Nets by Jen Bervin
(Ugly Duckling Press, Brooklyn, 2005)
THE MS OF M Y KIN by Janet Holmes
(Shearsman Books, Exeter, U.K., 2009)
Even at first glance, Nets is a very appealing little book. Its small (5x6 ½”) size and unassuming (paper-bag-brown, simply letterpressed, blurb-less, unlaminated) cover are inviting, and even the interior pages are visually pleasing. Poems are numbered, not titled, and printed on one side of the paper only—there is very little clutter. Certainly the whole package, meticulously presented by Ugly Duckling Presse, makes it clear that Nets is not an average book of poetry but something more like a literary-product-verging-on-becoming-an-art-object.
The contents of Nets are, in author Jen Bervin’s own words, the result of “Shakespeare’s sonnets [being stripped] bare to the ‘nets’ to make the space of the poem open, porous, possible” (Working Note). In Bervin’s book, each poem is carved from a corresponding Shakespearian sonnet; Shakespeare’s poems appear in gray ink, while Bervin’s modified versions overlay them in black. (Some poems from Nets are cleverly presented here: http://www.conjunctions.com/webcon/bervin.htm.) The choice of presentation clearly invites a comparison between the poems—Bervin’s and Shakespeare’s—that is emphasized too, in the selection of the words themselves. Bervin writes, “I //////// use /// the whole, and yet I am not” out of Sonnet 134, and in Sonnet 135 she highlights every instance (there are thirteen) of the word “will” in the poem, calling out Shakespeare’s name as if he is some longed-after comrade or incantatory muse. (Or, if we read straight through the selected text, disregarding the unit of page or line, we find a sentence of clear acknowledgement: “I use the whole, and yet I am not Will” (135-135)). As the title Nets (itself taken from Shakespeare’s title: THE SONNETS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, as reproduced on the title page) suggests, Bervin’s act of writing is more akin to fishing words from the sea of the original sonnet than actually composing a poem. Bervin’s speaker desires that Shakespeare “Bring me within / your wake” (117) and her resulting works are always “anchored” (137) by his writing.
While the individual poems of Nets tend to be rather fragmented (I’m particularly charmed by the cryptic #49: “mine own desert, / this hand against myself.”), they are joined by their conceit as well as by Bervin’s deftness at the art of selection. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, Bervin’s poems too explore love in its many forms, including the admiration for a “master” (20) and the emotional fulfillment to be had by working from within his text: “adding nothing” Bervin “prick’d [words] out for pleasure” (20). Certainly many of these poems foreground words typically associated with beauty or love: “tender” (128, 141, 145), “roses” (130), “heart” (93), “lips” (128,142), “pleasure” (20, 126), “desire” (45) to describe both the compositional process and human relationships. Everything about this intriguing book underscores a connection, both imagined and real, between Bervin and Shakespeare; because of the care taken in composition and presentation of this text, the resulting project is both an affectionate homage to the source poems and an attractive object we might keep on our nightstands.
Janet Holmes’s THE MS OF M Y KIN follows a similar mode, as she forms the poems in her book out of “Emily Dickinson’s poems of 1861 and 1862, the first years of the United States Civil War” (Note on the Text). Unlike Bervin, though, whose creative project appears to be the result of a literary experiment in pleasure-seeking, Holmes’s work has an outside agenda: using Dickinson’s language to formulate a commentary and response to the events of and after 9/11. The devastated political landscape Holmes perceives in contemporary America and then works to examine in her book is reflected by the physical erasure of Dickinson’s poems (Holmes doesn’t include the original poems in grayscale, as Bervin does, but she represents Dickinson’s omitted words by leaving equivalent blank spaces instead. Useful examples can be seen here: http://www.shearsman.com/archive/samples/2009/JHsampler.pdf and here: http://www.coconutpoetry.org/holmes1.htm), as well as the tone created by the words selected. However, little of Dickinson’s sense of questioning and wonder shows through in Holmes’s text. Instead, readers receive a bleak vision where “‘Hope’” is no longer “the thing with feathers” that can comfort us “in the chillest land” (Dickinson #314); in Holmes’s world “‘Hope’ is the // tune without the /// Bird” and “the chillest / strangest /////// sunshine” (61).
Pushing Dickinson’s poems to fit in a contemporary context, Holmes chooses words and phrases that emphasize the wars in the Middle East and criticize U.S. foreign policy, often glossing over the original intent or context of the poems. She writes, “It matters // that the oil / is gone” (24), “Men / of // Faith slip— and / see / Evidence— ////////// in lies—” (98) and makes note of “the surge” (7), “Decades of Arrogance” (31) and states, criticizing President George W. Bush’s election win in 2000, “You // cheated / grinning” (12) and “Mine— the Election! / Mine / Mine” (120). Holmes’s book communicates an overall disapproval of our current political state forcing Dickinson’s widely varied subject matter into the narrower realm of protest.
While the title, THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON implies, through the selection of the word “kin,” some mutuality between the poets, a sense of emulation or admiration is not particularly detectible. Instead, something of a scavenging quality appears in the text. The way Holmes chooses to combine multiple Dickinson poems in order to create a single new poem, emphasizes white space, and draws poems across multiple pages makes the work less connected to the original text. Holmes’s numeric titles are needlessly complex and even at times misleading; she explains “Each poem…is titled by the year in which Dickinson composed the original(s), its order in the current sequence, and (in parentheses) the Franklin numbers of the erased poems” (Note on the Text). While Bervin’s poem #11 obviously comes out of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 11, Holmes uses a looser rule for linkage: two of Holmes’s poems may contain language from the same Dickinson poem, or language from one of the source poems noted in a title may not actually appear in the accompanying Holmes poem. (For example, bits of Dickinson’s poem #342 “How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand,” are found in Holmes’s “1862.18 (336-342)” (76-78), but not in “1862.19 (342-347)” (79-81). )
Holmes’s book, which from outward appearances (5½ x 8½”, laminated cover, blurbs on the back, double-sided printing) is the more traditional of these two books of erasure, is actually more controversial (both politically and literarily) and more ambitious. The way she attempts to bridge the gap between two time periods and two completely different wars is impressive. Though it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read Dickinson in order to better understand our recent foreign policy dilemmas, the fact that Holmes brings her words into the discussion adds depth to the debate.
Both authors use a method of modifying canonical verse to create new and surprising books of poetry, but their projects are uniquely different. Books like these, which are the result of a project of erasure and revision (rather than composition) are hard to quantify—Are they poetry? Are they plagiarism? Are they conceptual art? Are they moving?— but exciting to examine. The danger, perhaps, is that the idea of the book could be more thought-provoking than its contents. Both of these books (as well as others in the same vein: Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, Tom Phillips’s A Humument) are well worth reading as much for what they say as for how they say it. Even beyond that, these odd texts are important because they implore readers to re-examine what we think a book of poetry could contain and how it should be presented.
Genevieve Kaplan's poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Jacket, Gulf Coast, and jubilat. Her first book of poems, In the ice house, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press, and she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, which publishes literary translations.