In attempting to describe the work of Jen Bervin, I find myself evoking a reversible logic, as if every descriptive phrase were a palindrome and I should give you both sides. She is a poet and visual artist whose thinking works in and across spaces. She creates images to be read and words to be seen; reading is writing and defacing a text is a creative act – I mean by “deface” the taking away of a subject’s wholeness, its autonomy; I mean removing it and moving it, as in let’s go this way, you’re coming with me, we’re in this together. Our faces orient us to each other, to the ground and sky, and so to deface is to make those relative, up or down, left or right, left of right. The act of writing is a route, a way through a space and a way to be in it. We ponder ambiguous phrases such as “the desert sky,” the sky a desert and the desert a sky; the color of the ground is blue. We are at elevation, or to use the title of one her books, we are “under what is not under.”
Jen’s books are also not books in the ordinary sense; most of them are artist’s books, so the production of the book object – its outside appearance – is as personal to her as the words or images inside, and because many of these are available online or only online, it’s also fair to say that her unit of thought is not the book but the page. And as much as her work is hand-produced by her, with all of the sewing and painting, she is also a poet of the machine. Both the sewing machine and the typewriter talk in these poems, and yet she said of her most recent book The Desert, “my sewn poem is narrated by the air.” In one of my very favorite books of poetry from the last decade, a non-breaking space, she quotes Einstein as saying that we “cannot use the same thinking that caused the problem to solve the problem.” I take this to be in part a reflection on her inter-media practice. A medium, whether a book, a page, an art object or a quilt, is a means to communication but it is also a problem, and the complex experience we have when we read, see and listen to her work comes, I think, from her never using “the same thinking that caused the problem to solve the problem.”
Jen is probably most well known as a poet of erasure, and this is true enough as a description of her technical approach. She usually works with one or more source texts, written but also visual ones, and either she quotes from them at length or works directly on the text to make it hers, in a sense. In the notes she adds to her poems, she has articulated a paradoxical view of her relationship to source texts. She has said, on the one hand, that “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page”; and on the other hand, she has quoted with enthusiasm this Laura Riding comment about Gertrude Stein: “None of the words Miss Stein uses have ever had any experience. They are no older than her use of them.” She thus puts into play questions of ownership, who owns the words we use, whether owning them is as suggestive and complicated as owning a cloud in the sky.
From an introduction by Logan Esdale
21 April 2009