Thursday, December 13, 2012



The Silver Book by Jen Bervin
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010)

The most striking aspect of The Silver Book is the imperative to write.  This imperative takes many forms, including how to write, what to write, when to write, why to write -- but above all, write:

write the day - - you were here - -
write the day you were most yourself
(poem 12)

write how your friend’s yard - - contains
a tulip tree - - that looks like a
voluptuous girl falling out of a pink
(poem 13)

write the dog - - pausing to shake - -
(poem 14)

write the body of the house shines
around the house
(poem 15)

The opening lines of these four poems offer different iterations of Bervin’s aesthetic; the cumulative effect of these aesthetic reiterations is an almost desperation to write -- to inscribe the world with meaning, to unveil the world before you, to describe the world and commit it to memory, and to translate that memory into experience.  For Bervin, writing is the act of living in the world apart from analysis; the world flows by us, around us, through us, like a river, and we must write it to make it real.

Rivers are mentioned three times in The Silver Book; in poem 5 she alludes to “the river in light”; in the next poem, she writes, “”write the precise points that touch / the rivers of energy in the body - - / enter them  - - / and tell me of they are still wet”; and in poem 15, again she alludes to “the river in light. / what you’re choosing / the view from the window.”  The book is connected (though its material, that is the silver paper, but I suspect also in theme) to Bervin’s installation project, “a 230 foot panoramic scale model of the Mississippi River composed of hand sewn sequins, silver paper, and thread” (as she details in the notes at the end of the book). 

Mark Twain is perhaps still America’s best poet, historian, narrator, philosopher of the Mississippi River.  In Life on the Mississippi, Twain writes lovingly of the light of the river, seen through the pilot house windows.  Twain’s descriptions, as well as his recalling instruction that a pilot must learn to read the river, even in the dark, like a book, but a book with an ever-changing channel, strikes a chord with me as I read Bervin’s poems.  Likewise, in Huck Finn, Twain describes (in several instances) the detritus that floats downriver, many times aiding Huck and Jim in their escape to freedom and self-ownership.  The end note of The Silver Book tells us that the text “was typed by the author on an Olympic de luxe found on Union Street one summer.”  This castoff typewriter (emblematic of the mechanics for writing itself), along with the materials of the Mississippi River installation piece, lend the work authenticity (in the philosophical sense).  The River flows according to its own energy and dictate, rechanneling itself, claiming land and homes as it flows toward the gulf; likewise, the incessant flow of the river is evident in The Silver Book.  Thus, Bervin’s urgent plea is to write: 

date the paper - - it’s your early work - -
date the spaces - - it’s late - -
write - - be late with you - -
(poem 1)

For Bervin, then, it seems that experience takes the twofold act of metaphor (the body of the river / the human body; her lines in poem 5 in this regard are beautiful, among the best in the book) and inscription.  To write is, alternately, to define, to describe, to categorize, to record - - but above all, to inscribe; that is, to write the subject into the world, thereby bringing the world (or, the experience of the world) into relation with both the poet (first) and then the reader:

write the day - - you were here - -
write the day you were most yourself
- - write - - i can thank you for that - -
write you went the beautiful way - -
you made time - - you knew how to get
things done and it touched everyone
here at least once - -
(poem 12)

We can’t “make” time, but we can give time, in the act of donation, from one interest to another, from ourselves to someone else.  Time, in this sense, is the most charitable of donations, because it escapes value.  Thus we realize what may be the focus of Bervin’s book:

write where you were chosen - - when you
were chosen - - write - - what calmness
was chosen in you - - write it on your
hand - - write - - you are not too old to
write on your hand - - write - - there’s
still space there - - and you have been
in it - -
(poem 7)

The speaker of these poems is an unspecified “me”; the poems are grounded upon the reader, the subject, the oft-addressed “you.”  Bervin positions reader and subject as one, and as chosen, and   thus the sense of vocation.  But the nature of this vocation is its charitable acceptance to anyone willing to “enter the rivers of energy in the body.”  This qualification touches upon Emerson, upon Jones Very, upon Bronson Alcott.  This is also reminiscent of Whitman, of the “I” of “Song of Myself”:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you

I am tempted to read Bervin’s omnipresent “you” in the same way I read Whitman’s omnipresent (and in omniscient) “I”; the “you” that closes “Song of Myself” seems to me the “you” in Bervin’s book.  At least, Bervin seems in some ways to be in the Whitman tradition of writing large the personal pronoun.  “Song of Myself” begins with “I” and ends with “you”; Bervin begins with “date the paper / it’s your early work” and closes with “you were vast unto others.”  Bervin’s “I” is unspoken, but clearly present, in the “write” imperative.  Whitman composed the great “founding” poem of American identity; Bervin continues the work by expanding the personal into the universal, and compelling us, simply to write.


Bill Scalia has published essays on literature and film in the journals Religion and Literature, Literature/Film Quarterly, and in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema.  He also edited the anthology Classic Critical Views: Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is currently at work on a book concerning Emersonian aesthetics, poetry, and film.  Dr. Scalia teaches literature and writing at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland.

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU for sharing these-- been searching for these poems. xo