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Digital Essay W. Scott Howard

"roses no such roses": Jen Bervin's Nets and the Sonnet Tradition from Shakespeare to the Postmoderns
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004

Nets is, quite simply, a clever and delightful book that performs serious whimsy.[1] The trim, unpaginated, near pocket-sized volume reconfigures 60 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets in a concrete, double-gesture of tribute and transgression, as in the following transposition:

How many discursive registers do we encounter here? Whose sonnet is this? Whose or which will? Shakespeare’s? Bervin’s? Ours? Nets is a gathering of palimpsests. Each page stages this sort of gentle, incisive interplay between Shakespeare’s ghostly language in the background and Bervin’s embodied words in the foreground; between the fading English sonnet form and an emerging so-called postmodernist line. (I’ll soon explain my wariness about the latter classification). Bervin offers the following reflection upon her method:

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 volume’s cover illustration, spine, and title page together intimate an intertextual poetics of playful negotiations between tradition and innovation, imitation and creation, identity and difference, reverence and resistance, converging and diverging fields of discourse. Upon first glance, a reader may find this image of a net on the book’s cover

which could be construed as figuring not only an “openwork material of thread or cord or wire etc. woven or joined at intervals,” but also an amount “remaining when nothing more is to be taken away”—as in net sonnet, for example.[2] This detailed netting also establishes the importance of the volume’s visual field of signification, which literally and metaphorically nets the sonnets, lifting the language off of the page. Bervin’s netting nets the net sonnets, or, as the book’s spine announces: NETS. This first linguistic title for the collection foregrounds Bervin’s innovation, while the volume’s title page presents an alternate configuration (THE SONNETS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE) that places Bervin’s originality (and difference) within and against a tradition (and identity). In all of these ways, Bervin’s whole book (as an aesthetic object) and individual pages (as poems) operate sous rature: inscribing the gaps between text and subtext of each of the culled sonnets.

Nets thus shapes not only juxtapositions of simultaneous fields of linguistic experience, but also rhapsodic (often nostalgic) lyricism in the new tracing lines that Bervin superimposes upon Shakespeare’s originals. Considered from this twin perspective, Bervin’s texts, therefore, are prose poems. I have argued recently that such formal and thematic characteristics respectively distinguish the cubist and surrealist attributes of the prose poem’s peculiar tradition.[3] Why ‘peculiar’? Because with the prose poem, we’re dealing with a hybrid form that dwells within and against a working context of and for generic and modal innovation—however scrupulously achieved—that requires a certain inconsistent protean consistency. This distinctive indeterminacy to the prose poem’s form and content makes the genre inherently open to comic (often parodic) treatments of subject matter and carnivalesque inversions of cultural, political, and social hierarchies. As prose poetry, Bervin’s Nets could thus be rightly placed within the context of what Douglas Lanier theorizes as ‘Shakespop’ parody: each page in the book allows for ‘double-access’ because the “act of transgression paradoxically depends upon preserving—at least initially—some conception of an authentic, original, or proper Shakespeare so that [the sonnet] can then be symbolically [netted].”[4]

But are Bervin’s nets really prose poems? Is Nets a sonnet remix? Are these works still sonnets? Are they concrete poems? Or, are these nets transpositions, as Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery may affirm, in the tradition of Tom Phillips’ A Humument (1980) or Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS (1977)? If, as those editors argue, Johnson’s “cosmic readjustment of the monologic universe given in Milton’s Paradise Lost” purges the epic “of the linguistic detritus and semantic impediments to a vision of the infinite”[5], then could a similar claim be convincingly held about Bervin’s divergent stripping of “Shakespeare’s sonnets bare to the ‘nets’”?

I don’t think so and here’s why. Rasula’s and McCaffery’s assertions subordinate Milton to Johnson, since, from their perspective, RADI OS achieves the “vision of the infinite” that had hitherto been blocked by “linguistic detritus and semantic impediments.” On both accounts, I see Johnson and Bervin as co-creators with their predecessors as well as with their dialogic (not monologic) exemplars. A particular strength of Johnson’s and Bervin’s transpositions, I would argue, rests in their deft attention to the integrity of the poetic conceit—a standard tool-of-the-trade during the seventeenth century—operating at the levels of the verse paragraph (in the case of Milton’s Paradise Lost) and the stanza (in the case of Shakespeare’s Sonnets). The poetic conceit can be defined as an arresting or complex metaphor upon which a larger pattern (however fragmentary) of ideas, images, or textual structures hinges.

Johnson’s unpaginated RADI OS reinforces the central conceits in Milton’s verse paragraphs through a process of etching that achieves on “each page . . . a single picture.”[6] Take, for example, Johnson’s reading/re-writing of one page from Book III in the “1892 edition of PARADISE LOST [he] picked off a Seattle bookshop shelf the day after hearing Lucas Foss’ Baroque Variations”:

All night,
With glistering spires and
        wonder seized,

                     the circling
                 extended shade

                                          from pole to pole

Through the pure marble air

The golden Sun,
           his eye.

Johnson’s typographic, page-by-page refashioning of Milton’s text not only crafts the asymmetrical (w)holes in the epic’s first four books, but also epitomizes a classic Miltonic experience—that of ‘double-reading.’ RADI OS encourages reading in all four directions (top to bottom, left to right, bottom to top, right to left) so that we might glimpse the coherent dialogic simultaneity of Milton’s figures.[7]

In tandem with Johnson’s tribute to Milton’s poetics, Bervin’s transpositions of the son(nets) reinvigorate the central conceits in Shakespeare’s originals: her bold and lyrical line in each text pays homage to the bard’s ideas, images, and rhetorical designs. Consider, for example, Bervin’s net #15:

Which words have been highlighted? “the stars / the selfsame sky / for love of you”. What is the central poetic conceit in Shakespeare’s sonnet #15? One way to answer that question is to allow the following reading: the fixed stars that provide the poet and beloved with regenerative (neo-Platonic) love also secretly influence all forms of life that rise and fall according to the measure of Time, thereby granting the possibility of transcendence; poetry best conveys that paradox, and, in this case, engrafts the beloved with new life through the sonnet’s articulation of a variable pattern. Postmodernists allergic to Renaissance humanist ideology might protest that Bervin’s emphasis upon a Godless “selfsame sky” undermines any possibility for sacred, transcendent meaning ostensibly emanating from the celestial sphere of fixed stars. In this case, however, Bervin’s emphasis exactly matches Shakespeare’s secular outlook. One of the oldest poetic conceits—going all the way back to “The Lament for Bion” (ca. 100 BCE) by Moschus—is that of stellification or apotheosis whereby the poet elevates the beloved to the stars of the poet’s (not a god’s) own making: “the stars / the selfsame sky / for love of you.” Among Renaissance writers, a common theme was that the poet is a maker not of nature, but of a more perfect second nature: “[Nature’s] world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.”[8]

Bervin’s lyric line in son(net) #15 may, at first glance, appear postmodernist, as I have provisionally suggested above. I would, however, caution readers against an unrelenting application of that reading—emphasizing perhaps irony and transgression—because here (as throughout Nets) Bervin’s playful and cogent line, though departing from the English sonnet’s form, actually recapitulates—in terms of content—key ideas, images, and linguistic units from the originals. Bervin’s nets net the Renaissance poetic conceits at the heart of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a double-gesture of formal transgression and thematic tribute. Net #135 (presented above) also plays with the crux of Shakespeare’s poem—what Helen Vendler describes as the “implications of a divided subjectivity” in sonnet #135 (“Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will”)—that riddles with thirteen forms of WILL.[9] Only one page in Nets (Bervin’s net #137) gives an exception to this rule. In that case, the transposed sonnet underscores just one word (“anchored”), which only begins to suggest the poet’s reading of and response to that sonnet’s defining conceit.

In a recent review of Nets, Philip Metres insightfully compares Bervin’s poetics to the craft of creating a rubbing from an old gravestone: though time and weather have worn away the original, the poet rescues and reconfigures a “partial version.”[10] A striking and illuminating metaphor indeed. However, Metres also advances a curious assertion that warrants further reflection: that there “are few antecedents to Bervin’s project, particularly in her use of Shakespeare”. Beyond the example of Johnson’s RADI OS—perhaps stylistically closer to Bervin’s Nets than anything else—we would do well to recall at least three books by American poets: Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets (“C” Press, 1964); William Bronk’s To Praise the Music (The Elizabeth Press, 1972); and Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets (Tender Buttons, 1989). Each of these volumes responds to Shakespeare and the Anglo-American sonnet tradition. Of the three books, Bronk’s collection may be the least familiar among readers today, but demonstrates a vivid comparison (in terms of form and content) with Bervin’s Nets. To Praise the Music gathers 50 fourteen-line poems that engage (each and all) with Shakespeare’s originals. In a 1989 interview with Edward Foster, Bronk noted that the book grew from “a period of many months, maybe a year” when he was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets very closely.[12]

However, Bronk’s fourteeners don’t explicitly line-up, as Bervin’s do, with their exemplars: he never explained which poem reanimates which of Shakespeare’s. Strong points of contact do become conspicuous, though, after careful readings: for example, “The Sense of Passage,” in my opinion, works directly with the standard Renaissance poetic conceit we could locate (as discussed above) in Shakespeare’s sonnet #15:

It is as in the story—Orpheus sent
to fetch the ghost to another world—to life:
if we act just right it is possible.

Whenever the other body, the beautiful one,
offers to take us over, beckons to us,
we believe it is something beyond what a body is.

Our lust is to carry over—to transcend:
like climbers who make the places for their toes to hold
to circumvent the overhand of death.
(Power) will bring us intact to the upper side.

(Skill) (heroic virtue) (ruthlessness).
Nothing does. Constant survivors, ghosts
perpetually, our reach is really back
into the body myth of mortality.[13]

Bronk’s text operates inversely to Bervin’s net #15. If, as I have argued, Bervin’s line formally departs from the English sonnet’s visible presentation while underscoring the poem’s thematic crux, then Bronk’s work formally reveres yet thematically resists those same elements. Whereas Bervin praises the Renaissance conceit—“the stars / the selfsame sky / for love of you”—Bronk protests: poetry can not preserve the essence of the beloved (of the “beautiful one”) for a life beyond the death of the body because “Nothing does.”

Where Bervin’s transposed nets lift and highlight clusters of key ideas and images from Shakespeare’s originals, Bronk’s skeptical (if nihilistic) translations overturn the conventional seventeenth-century, humanistic conceits. Bervin’s net #24, for example, limns the following tracing of “stell’d / perspective / through / windows glazed with / eyes”:

Her line reinforces Shakespeare’s central conceit that only the poet knows how to look through the painter’s perspective to the inner window of the heart where the lovers’ eyes reflect upon each other. At least two of Bronk’s fourteeners address Shakespeare’s sonnet #24: “The Want” and “The Fiction of Shape.” In both cases Bronk critiques what Bervin celebrates. “The Want” deconstructs the reflexive inter-subjectivity of sonnet #24 (“place, I want place, want I, / want other place, other I, I want”) while “The Fiction of Shape” exaggerates contradicting tensions between a desire for empty forms and for shapeless contents: “I am the unbeliever, lover of form, / the vector of empty spaces, fiction of shape.”[14] These texts by Bronk also skeptically reply (I believe) to Shakespeare’s sonnet #38, which articulates a conceit similar to that of sonnet #24: the beloved’s light is more potent than the Muse’s powers. In her net #38, Bervin underscores that crux through her phrase, “pour / in / light / these curious days”:

Every work has at least one weakness, and I would be remiss if I neglected to address this point. Nets is Jen Bervin’s fifth book of poetry: a very slightly revised version of her M.A. Thesis (2001). Other reviewers may express their disappointment with the brevity of Nets, and I would share in that feeling. The book certainly could have been extended into an even more exhilarating, multi-faceted project. As it currently stands, the volume has essentially just one trick to exploit. To less sympathetic readers, that single gesture may appear somewhat precious.

Are Jen Bervin’s nets prose poems? As I noted at the beginning of this essay, Nets has been designed with a keen eye on the physical aesthetic. Everything about the book engenders a particular reading experience, including the startling effect of animation. Yes, animation. Nets actually moves like a flip book: the son(nets) are identically placed on only one side of each sheet of paper and, when the pages are flipped in succession, Bervin’s bold lines literally dance right off of the page and out of the book, hovering in a liminal space. That performance in fact reveals a prose poem enmeshed in the book’s netting:

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A complete transcription of that lengthy and fascinating prose poem—the culmination of Bervin’s lyrical lines from each and all of her son(nets)—would occupy far too much space here. I will offer these excerpted lines, however, in order to rouse your curiosity:

Beyond all date bold
sovereign mistress over rack pleasure her quietus to render
beauty borrowed no name, no bower, so our becoming says
motion sounds the tender inward of hand, lips, boldness
extreme trust to make the having extreme
I have seen roses no such roses
I use the whole, and yet am I not

What has Jen Bervin done to the sonnets of William Shakespeare? Whose poetic tradition is this anyway? I recently asked those questions (among others) to a group of English majors during a talk on the sonnet from Petrarch to the postmoderns. Their responses were nearly unanimous: Nets gives new life to the sonnets, to Shakespeare, and to all fascinated/netted readers and writers.



1. I would like to thank my colleagues at the University of Denver, Rafael Fajardo and Miguel Angel Tarango, for their generous contributions of creative energy, expertise, and time to the digital files that complement the text of this essay.

2. “Net,” Oxford American Dictionary, 1980 ed.

3. W. Scott Howard, “Human Crying Daisies: Prose Poems, by Ray Gonzalez,” Double Room 4 (2004): <>.

4. Douglas Lanier, Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 19.

5. Jed Rasula, and Steve McCaffery, eds., Imagining Language: An Anthology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 199-204, 244-52, and 246.

6. Ronald Johnson, RADI OS OI-OIV (Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1977).

7. Here I’m noting structural features in Milton’s poetics (i.e., double-reading, dialogism, and simultaneity) and their resultant readerly effects that are recognized standards in the field. Rasula and McCaffery, however, suggest a monologic, static, and restricted interpretation of narrative, tropes, character, and plot in Paradise Lost, just as some critics are wont to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as overdetermined by a unified subjectivity. On both accounts, I would encourage such readers to embrace a more capacious stance toward the intractability of the original (as well as of the more recent, innovative) literary works.

8. Sir Philip Sidney, “An Apology for Poetry,” Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams, rev. ed. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992), p. 145.

9. Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 574.

10. Philip Metres, “Nets, by Jen Bervin,” Jacket Magazine 25 (February, 2004):<>.

12. Edward Foster, Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews (Hoboken: Talisman House Publishers, 1994), p. 17.

13. William Bronk, To Praise the Music (New Rochelle: The Elizabeth Press, 1972), p. 11.

14. Ibid., pp. 28 and 33.