Silk Poems, in its small, delicate package, is monumental in scope, in its place as one part of Jen Bervin’s larger research project and also in its wide-ranging suggestiveness. The material book itself has a shiny gray cover, garment-like and silken to the touch, imprinted with reproduced strands of silk composed of tiny letters. The pages are filmy and transparent. Each page contains a poem and a small corner image of a strand that loops into longer and longer strands throughout the book. Like all of Bervin’s projects, this one is based on the fusion of text and the material world, and on careful, extensive research (a short bibliography is at the end) and travel. She makes “interdisciplinary” seem too narrow a word to describe the scope of the work, and her singular fabrication of wonder.
The final pages include a description of an exhibition that premiered the book, a year-long exhibition at MASS MoCA that included a video about a medical research project at Tufts University (biocompatible silk sensors to be placed inside the body), the viewing through a microscope of a one of her poems written on silk, and a reading of the book. A “Research Sampler” of historical quotations also appears at the end of the book, the first one highlighting the antiquity of silk and its place in human mythology:
The earliest human function of silk fabrics was wrapping children’s bodies in the tomb. Inventory: a bundle of bright silk yarn thirty feet long in her hand. A billion-foot-long silk yarn for climbing to heaven.
For the structure of the poems, Bervin mimics the form silk itself takes at the DNA level, a shape that moves back and forth in the looping drawn at the bottom of the pages. Silk worms, almost unbelievably, move in a similar pattern when inscribing a silk cocoon. She explains that 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.” Wanting silk to inform the poems, Bervin created a bi-directional text common in Ancient Greece known as boustrophedon, and thus writes from the point of view of the worm, immersing the reader in the process of creating silk-and-poem at the intersection of language and biological form:
The series of poems takes the reader through the various stages of the silk worm, a history of silk, the creation of language, the significance of the I Ching, and its relation to weaving. The opening poems move from a description of the pupa stage to a moth struggling to get free: “SHEWANTSJUST/ TWOTHINGS/ TOGETOUTOFTHERE/ ANDTOHAVESEX.” Responding to pheromones, the males gather, the poetic lines enacting both the way a compound word is created and sexual creation (“ATREMENDOUS/ FLUTTERINGENSUES”) :
The mother produces 500 eggs that hatch the tiny worms just as the mulberry leaves begin to form. The worms must be fed leaves of the same age,
Attention to language, history, poetry, texts, derivations, and divinations repeat throughout; for example, we learn that the Confucian Analects are called “digested conversations” and that the radical for silk (reproduced on the page) is in the word “translate”: “MULBERRYTRANSLATESUS/ WETRANSLATEIT.” As the worm eats, writing its way through the leaf, and grows, sleeps and sheds its skin, and expands again, it makes a sly reference to a poet (“DEEPSLEEP/ COMESHINING”) that then becomes overt, the worm declaring: “WEINVENTEDLANGUAGE”:
A long section of Silk Poems details the hexagrams of the famous Book of Changes, the I Ching, and a poem notes that the word “ching,” meaning “sacred text,” contains the radical for silk and signifies the warp thread of textiles. This is followed by a list of words from the I Ching containing the same radical for silk, words for “compose,” “write,” “spin,” among a whole list of others. In many ways, the book is an exploration of and homage to change and translation, one stage of the silk worm into another, one discipline into another, silk into woven fabrics or into biomedical sensors, life translated into death, death into life, language into poetry. Moving through the entire book and holding it, turning fragile pages, a reader experiences a tactile sense of many processes, of the stages of the silk worm, of the passage of time, of the multiple objects made from both silk and letters, of the run-together letters in all caps that form words that can be parsed, but that initially require reading differently. They look strange, spaces eliminated to enact new unities, suggesting various fusions Bervin cites throughout the book, and finally mirroring DNA communication.
The poems move towards the end referring to the broad field of sericulture, of love, of living and dying, of “INTERDEPENDENCE,” and “HONORABLERELATIONSHIPS.” After about thirty days of eating and growing, the worm is now far heavier and longer; it rears up and its spinneret throws out silk thread. Light shining through breaks into colors, “ACONTINUOUSSPECTRUM/ WITHINFINITEPOSSIBILITIES,” sixty miles in three days, a silk language. Silk Poems is a stunningly original book, capacious in all ways, witty, serious, informative, immersive, an intersection of the life of silk and the life of human beings. Its reach is wide and generous. In the final words of the series of poems, the narrators speak as one, the worm and the poet offering a silken garment/book to the world:
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