Silk Poetics (on Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems and Aditi Machado’s Emporium and The End)

“I came along a silk route,” Aditi Machado announces in the first line of the first poem in her new book, Emporium. The statement contains a careful imprecision: Machado substitutes the expected “road” for a near, but disorienting synonym, “route.” And the speaker is mobile, in motion; the poem refuses to situate itself in a stable location. Did Machado retrace the routes silk itself has traveled, the commercial network that crossed the premodern world? Or did she travel a road made of silk? In this opening moment, Machado hints at the complications that will define her book. If Emporium is a book about silk, it is about silk’s imprecision—the way its history and its pleasures overlap, concentrated into the space of a scrap of fabric.

Emporium is a key contribution to an emerging phenomenon in contemporary poetics—the development of what I am calling a silk poetics. If this phenomenon is small in scale, it nonetheless encompasses some of the most vibrant developments in recent poetry—and its very smallness suggests a shift in the dynamics of avant-garde work, indeed, of poetic innovation. This review examines Machado’s volume alongside Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, tracing the development—and variety—of this silk poetics. Both books are centrally concerned with silk. More precisely, Bervin and Machado work from and with silk, using its properties and its history to expand their poetic practices. Bervin works to extend our sense of what a book can be; indeed, her work would seem to reorganize the relationship between form and content in contemporary poetry. Machado’s work is similarly radical in its poetics: in Emporium and her prose pamphlet The End, she articulates a sustained challenge to traditional formal limitations. The differences between these projects are instructive. For Machado and Bervin, silk has become a model, offering, in its historical and material complexity, an incitement to pluralize poetic practice.


In the final pages of Silk Poems, Jen Bervin offers a sample of her research into the global history of silk: “The earliest human function of silk fabrics was wrapping children’s bodies in the tomb”; “Ancient Chinese writings on silk were to communicate not only among human, but between human and spiritual beings”; “In the second century, the Chinese Empress Teng, a lover of literature, asked only for chih, a paper made of waste silk, and ink cakes as royal gifts.” From these scraps of history, marshalled over the course of a half-decade of research in archives, libraries, and laboratories across the world, Bervin offers an argument about silk itself. Silk has always been close to the skin, almost painfully so: one cradles the body of a dead child in silk. Yet silk extends past the boundaries of the flesh—forming a conduit that links the frail human body to the divine. It enacts a paradox at the heart of writing: that something so material—so dependent on cloth, papyrus, paper; so vulnerable to weather, insects, fire—can become as immaterial and enduring as music. 

It is striking that Bervin ends her book with these deep historical meditations. The project’s origins are not in archives or ancient burial rituals, but in a biotech lab in Massachusetts. In 2010, Bervin visited David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto’s laboratory at Tufts University. At the time, Kaplan and Omenetto were creating biosensors made of liquified silk, which, as Bervin writes, were “designed to be implemented in the body to sense shifts in target materials—blood sugar in hemoglobin for example.” Silk, it turns out, is remarkably well-suited for this task. Silk is universally compatible with human tissue: “our immune system accepts it on surfaces as sensitive as the human brain.” There would seem to be a direct transit from the burial chambers of ancient China to the high-tech medical laboratories of the present. Scientists like Kaplan and Omenetto are not so much reinventing silk as rephrasing, in the idiom of modern science, its enduring proximity to—even tenderness for—the body. 

Yet Bervin records a sense of dismay when she saw what Kaplan and Omenetto had inscribed on the prototype for their sensor: a clip art logo for Tufts University. As Bervin recalls, 

the clip art on the prototype I saw there gave me pause—the content gap really surprised me. I thought, if it is possible to write in that context—inside the body, on silk, at that scale, I wanted to think further about what else might be inscribed there . . . I wanted to create something akin to a talisman, a powerful text hidden on the body to protect the wearer. 

The questions Bervin asks herself in this moment imply a rich and idiosyncratic understanding of writing itself. For Bervin, poetry is potentially at home anywhere—even within the body. “IKNOWMYTRUESKIN / ISTRANSFORMATION,” Bervin writes in Silk Poems. She is speaking in the voice of a silkworm, preparing to enter a new instar. She might be equally speaking of her own work, its capacity to move—as silk does—across media and scales. 

Over the past twenty-odd years, Bervin has consistently investigated the relationship between writing and its materials. For instance, in Nets (2004), Bervin reworks Shakespeare’s sonnets, printing sixty of his poems in a light gray font with a few scattered words printed in bold—generating or uncovering a second set of poems within Shakespeare’s. As I argue in a forthcoming article, Nets not only recirculates Shakespeare’s language, it also revives the collaborative practices of Shakespeare’s culture—rupturing the borders of both the Renaissance and the avant-garde. Likewise, in The Dickinson Composites (2004–8), Bervin reproduces pages from Emily Dickinson’s fascicles as 6ʹ × 8ʹ cotton quilts, with Dickinson’s language and variant marks sewn into the surface of the quilts with red silk thread—simultaneously reviving the specificity of Dickinson’s manuscripts while radically altering their size, from the intimate to the massive. The two projects diverge from each other in scope and materials. Yet this variousness is itself characteristic of Bervin’s work. Her projects often sit at the boundary between text and textile. She regularly revives cultures of the past. Each project finds her engaging a new body of material practices and historical concerns.

Even in the context of such a wide-ranging oeuvre, Silk Poems marks a quantum leap forward. The history that Bervin takes on is unprecedented, stretching across five thousand years. So too, the cultural space across which the project ranges: within the pages of Silk Poems, Bervin references Muslim calligraphy, Malagasy burial rituals, Emily Dickinson’s letters, Vladimir Nabokov’s novels, Chinese etymology. This list could be ramified almost indefinitely: whatever routes silk has traveled, Bervin’s imagination has traveled too. The final form of the project is equally dispersed—so much so that even describing it challenges the resources of traditional bibliography. Most readers likely encounter the project in Silk Poems, a paperback volume published in 2017 by Nightboat. In the United States, the publication of a book often marks the culmination of a poetic project: a sign that it has reached its most developed, most prestigious form. In the context of Silk Poems, however, the book is just one object among an ecology of textual artifacts—and not necessarily the most charismatic. 

At the heart of the project is the aforementioned long poem written in the voice of a silkworm. Bervin reproduces the poem across the project. In one version, the poem is a long, tangled strand—its shape modeled on the tight spools of silk filament in a silkworm’s cocoon. Each line of the strand is six letters long, like a strand of DNA. As Bervin explains, “the six-character repeat in the genome is the basis for the six letter enjambed line of the strand; the shape of the strand reflects both the filament pattern silkworms enact when writing their cocoon, and silk’s beta sheet, which forms like the weft thread in a weaving.” The poem takes silk in all its variousness as its model: its genomic structure, its beta sheet. Collaborating with the team at Tufts, Bervin nano-printed the poem in gold spatter on a film of liquid silk, so that the poem itself could be, potentially, inserted into a patient’s body. Bervin also printed the poem as a broadsheet, on a 65˝ × 52˝ silk sheet. Both form part of a gallery installation, first exhibited at MASS MoCA in 2016, which also includes a film by Charlotte LaGarde, and an artists’ book, 7S (Seven Silks) (Granary Books, 2016). Viewing Silk Poems in a gallery, one confronts scale as an embodied problem: while the broadsheet can be read with the naked eye, the nano-printed version of the poem can only be read with a microscope. Crossing from the visible to the invisible, from a routine act of reading to a technologically mediated form of reading, one encounters not difference, but repetition. Everywhere one looks, one sees silk: in the form of Bervin’s poem and the materials on which she prints it. The poem circulates as silk, recapitulating silk’s fungibility in its transformations of size and format.

Bervin has continued to extend her poem outside the gallery. In the Nightboat publication, she reprints the text of her strand-poem, but alters its form. Instead of a six-letter genomic line, the poem is printed in couplets with no spaces between letters. For instance, in its final pages, the poem’s silkworm speaker describes its own literary practice: 



In the bottom right-hand corner of each recto page, the strand reappears. It grows as the reader moves through the book, starting as a tiny squiggle and growing to a full strand. The strand replaces the poem’s page numbers; page numbers appear only on the versos. The book offers another form of citation: a self-citation which links Silk Poems, the book, to the strand poem. A web of reference binds these versions of the same poem together. 7S, the artists’ book, can only be described as a book in a loose sense. It contains a range of silk objects, collected in an acid-free box:

1. A silk cocoon image printed on silk
2. Silk Poems strand, printed on silk, folded
3. Silk Poems, in the Nightboat Books edition, signed
4. A glass jar with a Bombyx Mori silk cocoon
5. Glass vial with silk skein
6. Glass vial with silk scroll
7. Glass vial with liquid silk 

Among these objects, only the Nightboat edition of Silk Poems is not literally made of or printed on silk. On the one hand, 7S would seem to emphasize the difference between a trade-printed, glue-bound mass market paperback and the bespoke, organic objects collected within it. On the other hand, it would seem to encourage us to read Silk Poems as an expression or extension of silk—a translation of its material properties into formal principles, from textile to text. 

Silk Poems earns its plural, articulating itself across media and in different sizes. For all the project’s disruptive richness, though, Bervin’s writing itself is unpretentious. The poem follows the silkworm as it feasts on mulberry leaves, enters its cocoon, and spins its filament. Bervin’s attention is often on the embodied experience of the silkworm. Here she is, for instance, describing the silkworm’s first encounter with a mulberry leaf: 




In such moments, it seems the speaker of the poem is a silkworm—a single insect, absorbed in the pleasures of its immediate existence. At other moments, the speaker becomes plural: not one silkworm, but all the silkworms who, over the five thousand years of silk cultivation, have absorbed an intimate knowledge of the human cultures and languages with which they interact. The speaker quotes C. D. Wright, discourses at length on Chinese linguistics, and quotes Confucius’s Analects: 




In moments like this, the silkworm teaches the reader how to read the project, in all its variety: each corner of the project implies, and perhaps contains, all the others. 

Silk Poems has begun to receive substantial critical consideration. In a forthcoming essay, for instance, Jayme Collins argues that Silk Poems articulates a queer temporality: “By linking language to the textile inscriptions of silkworms, Bervin reflects on how language unfolds queerly in time.” Likewise, Kathryn Crim reads the project alongside Das Kapital, arguing that “Marx and Bervin illuminate the homology between, on the one hand, the ideology of labor that naturalizes the relationship between bodies and materials and, on the other, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content.” These articles should form a foundation—not only for future readings of Silk Poems, but also for the study of Bervin’s broader oeuvre. They help us see the full stakes of Bervin’s project as it challenges publication practices and transforms principles of poetics. In its sheer plurality, Bervin’s project ruptures the boundaries of poetry, bringing in a range of other arts into conversation with each other—book arts, textile arts, performance, installation, filmmaking. Silk Poems suggests that poetry could shed its parochialism and become a meeting point between the arts—could become, that is, a vanguard art, unconstrained by current structures of publication and academic promotion. 

In this sense, Silk Poems would seem to point outward, away from poetry; would seem to challenge poets to expand their practices beyond the boundary of the book. Silk Poems also offers an additional, albeit quieter, challenge to the practice of poetry itself. Poets are routinely taught to find an accommodation between form and content. Robert Creeley, for instance, famously proclaims, “Content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content.” Silk Poems presents a banquet of innovative forms. But these forms are not an extension of the poem’s content. They are adaptations, imitations, translations of silk itself—its genetic structure, the loops of its strands, its beta-weave. What if form is not an extension of content, but rather an extension of the material world—of the acts of cultivation and labor that produce what we wear, write upon, and use to swaddle our dead? 


Silk, Bervin suggests, is located at the interface between the human and the divine; the material and the immaterial; the body and the written word. Likewise, in French, the word for “silk,” soie, and the word for “self,” soi, are phonetically indistinguishable. The possibility haunts the language: that silk and self, object and subject, commodity and consumer, may be inextricable. In “Herewith the prologue:”—the first poem of Emporium—Aditi Machado pauses over this fact of the French language, reveling in its sonic affordances: 

questioning, comment, comment, comment, quel, quelle
laine, quel lin, quel coton, quel satin, quel crin, quel
chanvre . . .
quel cuir, quelle soie, quel soi, quelque soit,
quelque soie, quelle soi 

I am quoting here from the end of the poem. The poem is largely in English. It offers a narrative account of the book that follows (it is, after all, a prologue); Machado details the intellectual and political difficulties that accompanied its compositions: “I bartered my socialisms for something / hierarchic,” she admits. In other words, it is a poem that behaves like a poem. Then the poem plunges unexpectedly into this litany of fabrics, this concatenation of sound. The end of this poem, when it arrives, is not so much an ending as a rupture, breaking the implicit contract a poem makes with its reader: its course will be smooth and predictable with manageable and intelligible surprises and epiphanies that will illuminate but not disrupt. 

In the plunging conclusion, “Herewith the Prologue:” carries us into the provocation and promise that animates Emporium as a whole: that pleasure can and will overflow its boundaries, flooding the mechanisms that organize our epistemic and economic lives—and our poems. As Machado writes in the title poem,

       but silk, to me of silks, of the brushing of blouses
against silken nipples, of between her legs the stolen
red, & even money isn’t quite like money when silk
buys me or have I, it, or has it 

In this poem, the pleasure of silk is inseparable from the fact of its purchase. To enter an erotics of silk is to enter an economy of it. So much so that subject and object switch. By the end of the quoted passage, silk purchases the poem’s speaker. Quelque soit, / quelque soie. The speaker surrenders herself, utterly, to silk. (Or, as Machado puts it much later in the book, “The experience is so wild any path you cut through it / cuts through you.”) This also could be read as a consummation of a capitalist logic, in which even pleasure is a participant in the market and determined by its forces. Emporium does not decide the question. Instead, it investigates the relation between pleasure and purchase, body and cloth, subject and object, in an exploration of the way these dichotomies collapse in the presence of silk. 

Emporium is Machado’s second book of poems; it appeared almost simultaneously with The End—a prose meditation on the way that poems end—which was published as part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s 2020 pamphlet series. Examining The End and Emporium side by side, one feels the two texts folding into each other, pulling away, then returning to their former closeness. In The End, for instance, Machado offers a summary of the conventional workshop wisdom for disciplining and controlling a poem, the “sort of things one might, for The Reader’s sake, manage”:

  sonic excess, wherein language approaches music or noise;
  arcane references, epigraphs, citations;
  word play, especially punning;
  erudition, particularly in the form of “big words’’;
  and epiphany (the going rate is one per fourteen lines, from the All- 
    Lyric-Poems-Are-Sonnets school of thought).

The summary comes in the context of a sustained critique of the institutional aesthetics of creative writing programs in the United States. But it also returns a reader to Emporium’s prologue, with its multilingual, punning, erudite ending. In moments like these, the two volumes braid together. The End offers a critique of workshop aesthetics; Emporium models an alternative poetic practice. Together, they form an articulated, but integral, whole. 

The End finds Machado meditating on the ends of poetry in both senses of the word. She is concerned with the way poems finish; she is also concerned with their purposes. The essay opens with a consideration of two poems that end in apparently similar ways: Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (its final line: “you must change your life”) and James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (“I have wasted my life”). Both poems end with a kind of epiphany. Yet, Machado argues, the stakes of these epiphanies diverge:

The scale of time against which Wright’s poem issues its epiphany is the time of an Individual. The scale of time in Rilke’s poem is the time of art and myth and human history. “I have wasted my life” is psychological, therapeutic. “You must change your life” is existential. It will not heal you. 

In Machado’s account, Wright’s poem is contained and comfortable; its final leap feels well-earned because it is otherwise so demure. (Rilke’s poem is something else entirely.) As Machado is quick to point out, the vocabulary we use—that I have just used—to describe a poem like Wright’s is shot through with money: well-earned, payoff, stakes. “Language,” she writes, “is full of money.” And an epiphany like Wright’s is the tried-and-true way to get money as a poet: 

It acts as the salable essence of a poem. It’s tweetable. It gets all the snaps in the event-space. It’s never brutal, but it can be tragic. It almost always follows the telling of an anecdote and is nostalgic. It’s armchair psychology. It lacks mystery. My instincts tell me that the market seduces us into writing this way. It feels way too good—I don’t trust it.

The End is part of a growing body of literature on the workshop and the MFA as political and aesthetic formations in their own right; it sits alongside longer studies like Mark McGurl’s The Program Era and Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire. Machado’s work is distinctive in its focus on what she calls the “conceptual moneys of poetry”: the formal grammar of the program era, the way that creative writing programs have tended to discipline poetry itself, rewarding certain kinds of poetry with prestige and, often, literal money. Machado, the recipient of several prestigious awards, agonizes over her own place in this economy in The End, writing, “I am a paid member of the US academe. I capitulate to capital on a daily basis.” Yet she also finds space within the academy to “commit acts of antidiscipline using precisely these works (writing, reading, teaching).” The End might be one such act of antidiscipline, an attempt to challenge and transform the poetics of the program era.

Breezy and bourgeois, Wright’s poem exemplifies this institutionally approved poetics. As Machado notes, “it belong[s] to the unofficial anthology of teachable poems one inherits when one becomes a writing instructor.” It is, ultimately, a disciplined—and disciplinary—poetics, which limits the excess of language to something manageable, which is to say, something monetary. The point is not to pick on Wright’s poem; Machado is addressing a broad phenomenon, broad enough to be called a poetic tradition. The breadth of the claim makes it provocative; it is also a limitation of The End’s argument. It is outside the scope of this pamphlet—a mere forty pages—to provide an in-depth reading of the poetics of the program era. Machado’s interests lie elsewhere, at least for now. She is concerned to ask: Is it possible to write beyond or in resistance to this formal grammar? One may not write like Wright does. But, as Machado documents throughout The End, it is hard to get away from the aesthetic lessons that have been handed down from one generation of workshop leaders to the next. Like the history of silk, this history has its own inertia, its own weight: it has become common sense. One sometimes finds Machado in a kind of despair about this possibility, as in the title poem from Emporium:

The poets stall. Vending short texts & long texts, scarves run through bodily fluids . . . The chief epics are of markets spinning, carnival eyes . . . Sweetness the provocation & chief style of the poets. 

Here Machado not only locates poets in the emporium. She also specifies that their activity is stalling—at best, playing for time; at worst, joining the spinning markets. 

Does Machado locate herself in this emporium? Is she too spinning and stalling? Her work does involve a kind of dilation—an extension of the moment of poetic composition. “These days I write only long poems,” she notes in The End; “I’ll write the same poem for weeks or months at a time . . . It’s like extending a single annotation over an obdurate duration . . . The whole thing drips with time.” Like Bervin’s silk poems, with their ramified versions, Machado’s poems refuse to end. As a result, their borders become porous. Take, for instance, the reference to “scarves run through bodily fluids” above. We have already seen that, in Emporium, silk and self are proximate, even indistinguishable. The line lends an embodied intensity to that principle—if not necessarily an erotic thrill. Twenty pages later, though, in “Notes on the Passions of Patient M.,” an adaptation of Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault’s Passion érotique des étoffes chez la femme, the scarves and the fluids return, transmuted into objects of intense erotism:

In wielding the silk, she has soiled it, evidently by placing it against her genitalia . . . It is sufficiently clear the cloth does not intercede for the masculine body. In fact, it appears to agitate of its own accord, by dint of its solidity, brilliance, odor, & sound, properties nevertheless secondary to its tactile qualities.

For Clérambault’s patient, the sexual allure of silk does not lie in metonymy: silk does not “intercede for the masculine body.” Instead, its pleasure is its materiality. It represents nothing but itself, its own tactility, its fragrance, its sheen. Clérambault presents his patient’s practices as a deviation from what he understands to be normative sexuality. Machado presents it as a model, a vision of what sexuality could, should, look like: pleasure for its own sake, detached from any teleology, any appointed end.

There is thus a kind of optimism running through Machado’s thinking in The End, and, at times, in Emporium too: that it has been and remains possible to write, and to desire, otherwise. “Come on, eros arrowly. Why not / the emporium?” Machado asks. But Machado is far too attentive to the histories of capital and colonialism to imagine that poetry offers unconditional release. Machado’s work is often sonically rich—a richness that she valorizes. Describing an alternative to Wright’s epiphany, Machado offers a model of epiphany as “a kind of thickening up, a tendency toward music or noise, an opening out.” Yet even in its moments of greatest linguistic and erotic intensity, the threat of violence haunts Emporium. The excess of sound—the riot of punning, multi-lingualism, and erudition that Machado champions—bears the scars of historical trauma:

For in the beginning there was sound and the sound
was good. I licked it. It made sense. I milked it.
But you see the war unsettled it. A clean historical
break right down the landing strip of it. I licked it. 
Something in the shape of it, something in the
touching of it. The music went out of it. And my desire
for it, a widening gyre. Lyre? You sense it? We lost
our measure. I licked it. This myth.

Here, one feels Emporium pulling away from The End: encompassing a history of violence that extends beyond the workshop and its discipline of poetic form; that can be addressed, but not healed, through mutations in poetic form, since its scars lie in the language itself. In the face of such violence, poetry itself loses its power: “the music went out of it.” This possibility haunts Emporium. Indeed, the book draws much of its complexity—and much of its reward—from the way it sustains both pleasure and violence, refusing to diminish either. “Like / I get I’m out of tune,” Machado writes.  

In both The End and Emporium, Machado returns to the same phrase, which becomes, as it echoes between the two books, something like a thesis statement or a refrain. In Emporium, she notes, “I struggle to see / how each body is separate, no precision / that isn’t imprecision.” In The End, she writes, “The phrase, ‘No precision that isn’t imprecision’ haunts my practice.” In both cases the phrase falls at the beginning of the book: an announcement, almost an advertisement, for the complications contained within and across these volumes. But one might say the opposite, too, about Machado’s work: no imprecision that isn’t precision. One tastes such (im)precision, for instance, in the confusion between soie and soi. In Machado’s treatment, it is not so much an accident of language, but a reflection of silk’s proximity to the self. Or it is an index of language’s contiguity with luxury and violence. The precision of Machado’s imprecision allows these crossings and convergences to occur. Just before the end of Emporium, not quite on the last page, Machado returns to her earlier thesis, her refrain: “I write, ‘No / precision that isn’t imprecision.’ ” Machado has the reader observe a moment of writing that has already occurred—as it occurs. It is not quite an epiphany, but it does have an epiphanic structure: a rupture in the ordinary time of reading and writing. It is a rupture that invites the reader to return, to read backward toward Emporium’s opening pages—instead of proceeding toward its end.


The history of the avant-garde has, traditionally, been generational, even Oedipal—with one movement surging forward to wipe away its predecessors. One wonders if such a model will have much purchase going forward. The contemporary avant-garde operates by different, more diffuse models. In place of self-conscious (and self-aggrandizing) movements, we find figures like Bervin and Machado. They have not signed their names to stringent shared manifestos. They might not think of each other as immediate peers—though they are press-mates at Nightboat. Most pressingly, perhaps, their practices and poetics do not neatly align. Bervin works across media; Machado has, so far, largely worked within the traditional constraints of the trade-bound paperback. Machado’s work emerges from an exact and overwhelming attention to poetic sound; Bervin’s work is comparatively quiet, restrained. Their engagements with silk are likewise various—Machado attentive to its economic history and pleasure, Bervin to its production in traditional and high-tech sericulture sites. Yet both poets turn to silk as a model for a new poetics—a poetics that ruptures the frame of the poem or of the book. Reading Silk Poems and Emporium together does not produce witness to the emergence of a new movement or the consolidation of an avant-garde consensus. Rather, one witnesses the emergence of silk poetics: a poetics that is, like silk, fungible and multiple.


*An essay-review of

Silk Poems. By Jen Bervin. Brooklyn, NY: Nightboat Books, 2017. 200 pp. $15.95.

Emporium. By Aditi Machado. Brooklyn, NY: Nightboat Books, 2020. 112 pp. $16.95, paper.

The End. By Aditi Machado. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020. 48 pp. $12.00.


Toby Altman is the author of Discipline Park (Wendy’s Subway, 2022) and Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017). He recently received a 2021–22 fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems can be found in Gulf Coast, jubilat, Lana Turner, and elsewhere, and his critical writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, and English Literary History, among other journals. He holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD in English from Northwestern University.