NETS by JEN BERVINNICHOLAS GRIDER Reviews
Nets by Jen Bervin
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004)
Jen Bervin’s Nets uses a very simple and compelling strategy to explore a number of “big questions” about poetry, from the authority of the reader and the historicity of a given poem to questions of how poetry is made (rather than expressed). The simple strategy Bervin uses is to pick certain words from all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and present those arrangements of words and phrases as a poem “written over” the original text.
Because of the visual nature of the poems, this process is easier to just demonstrate than to try to describe, so here is the Bervin/Shakespeare version of Sonnet 20 [Editor's Note: Due to Blogger constraints, what's not featured in the poem below is how the non-bold words are supposed to be in text colored light gray]:
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be they love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
Rather than discarding the unused portions of the text she’s over-writing and to which she’s responding (as in other similar projects like Ronald Johnson’s Paradise Lost elision, RADI OS), Bervin leaves the original sonnet in place beneath and between her chosen words. And this, which seems at first like a minor but clever editorial decision, becomes the hinge of the entire project. If she would have left the light-gray text out completely, she would have one short, spare and ambiguous poem, but the authorial gesture of keeping the unused text actually produces a multiplicity of poems by emphasizing what Bervin left out as much as what she kept.
This tension between the original text and the partially redacted is (for me, at least) incredibly exciting and great because it thoroughly disrupts a “clean” reading of either Shakespeare’s original or Bervin’s edit and instead produces the generative energy of a possibility of endless poems being produced between writing and reading—a kind of Pandora’s box of language that resists finality and endlessly shifts between readings.
Or maybe a better way of addressing this openness would be to list a few things that come out of reading between the above double-poem:
1) Bervin mostly avoids using any of the gendered phrases in the poem except “master-mistress,” highlighting the emphasis on gender in the original and the apparent absence of it in Bervin’s own version.
2) “master-mistress” gets foregrounded as the tension going on in both poems; in the original, it’s a question of the tension between the narrator’s authorial power, Nature’s agency, and the agency of the addressed woman’s Natural beauty. In Bervin’s gender-avoidant use of the phrase, though, the relational status of both master and mistress are redefined because, rather than being attached to the engine that drives the original’s writing (i.e. “my passion”), master and mistress are attached to “my / shifting” and the purposeful space and silence between “my” and “shifting.”
3) Bervin’s choices represent both her and Shakespeare’s poems as fields/clusters of words instead of one long broken line. An example of this is in the lower left-hand corner of Bervin’s poem: instead of choosing the “by” next to “adding” she chooses the “by” that hovers above it, calling attention to both the repetition of the word and raising questions over the choice of the present-tense and active “adding” over the nearby “addition.” Additionally, because of the low number of words Bervin selects in each sonnet, the reader’s eye skips in unexpected and nonlinear ways: looking at the above poem, for example, I’m able to read “shifting / nothing,” “master-mistress of my / nothing,” and “nothing / prick’d thee out for…pleasure” as lines contained within Bervin’s otherwise linear revision of the poem.
4) Bervin mostly avoids the shiny $10 words in the poem (like “gazeth” or “a-doting”) in favor of making connections between Shakespeare and her careful choice of more ordinary words—the superficially similar “shifting” “adding” and “nothing” are linked in a way that invites the reader to consider the relationship between those words and how they’re used in Bervin’s version as well as the original.
5) Finally, all of what I mentioned above about Bervin’s edit reflects back on the original, calling forth phrases from the original that lead in interesting directions away from the poem itself—instead of just thinking of this as the demonstration of “passion,” for example, with the “Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting” serving as a kind of buried footnote reminding the reader of the Renaissance’s wholesale appropriation of the more family-friendly parts of ancient Greek and Roman culture and how that was formalized into an idea of Romance as odd, stiff and flashy as the ruffs worn by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
So it should be clear, here, that this is a pretty strong endorsement of going out and buying this book ASAP especially if you’re interested in Shakespeare or contemporary US versions of the sonnet by Bernadette Mayer or Ted Berrigan. The book is not without its flaws—dealing with 150 sonnets on a small group of themes, it’s sometimes difficult for Bervin to present a reading./writing that doesn’t end up hugging the curve of the original, and her valiant attempt to deal with the tacky Sonnet 135 never quite gets off the ground—but ultimately the project as a whole, in calling forth a multiplicity of readings between old and new versions, becomes more rewarding the more you reread it and get explicitly drawn into an authorial position yourself.
Nicholas Grider currently lives in southern California.