Jen Bervin's Nets reviewed by William Owen

Jen Bervin's Nets is now entering its fourth run at Ugly Duckling Presse, making it one of the best selling books offered by the nonprofit. UDP's books, often hand made, almost always exist half-miraculously, as the editorial staff favors and seeks out the unheard and half forgotten in 'out' writing. To chose a book with deep interest (though ambiguous) in the most canonical figure of English literature seems uncharacteristic, and for those following the work of the press, another imperative to read the strange book (even more so than the intentionally botched rendering of Baudelaire in 'Flowers of Bad')

Jen Bervin's Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare's Sonnets where what is removed remains behind as a shadow of the final text. The result looks like this:
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,
Strikeeach 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.” 
The gesture of allowing the erased text to remain visible presents several blocks to an interpretation of the text. Like the above, many of the poems Bervin whittles out of the sonnets are statements of poetics, which suggests both a literal display of what so many english readers do when they read Shakespeare: look for what poetry is. At the same time, the resulting poems are rendered in a modern English with all of the 'impertinent' material on display, so that any reader can see how unnecessary much of it is. These thoughts are not entirely contradictory; Shakespeare speaks to the modern writer/Shakespeare has very little to say to the modern writer.

But this problem itself is undermined by the fact that it is incredibly unclear wether or not it is Shakespeare that is speaking. They first person singular, when it appears, points to both of the books authors, rendering dual readings opposed. The game carries on into the working note of the piece, quoted here in its entirety:

I stripped Shakespeare's sonnets bare to the "nets" 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; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.

The dual writership can bring out a humor in attempts at relevance, allowing both masquerade and assertion: 'Young New York Artist mourns 9/11 while remaining pacifist' is trite, 'Shakespeare mourns 9/11 while remaining pacifist' is absurd. The hope, I think, is not to create some solidarity of artists that spans centuries, at least not directly, but rather using the marriage of chronological distance and intimacy, power and powerlessness to deliver some kind of potency. Reading the book, it is hard not to have some reservations about the effectiveness of this.

The success of this book is in its reading of erasure, its anachronistic historical character, and dual displacement and empowerment of the reader/writer. This puts Bervin and 'Nets,' whose poetics circle near objectivism, into the territory of Susan Howe, perhaps competitively. 
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