Theater archives

The Connections: A Selective History of Instant Inspiration


“I have seen/towers . . . down-razed/loss . . . loss,” runs Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64, in an eerie prefiguring of 9-11. We owe this brutal discovery to poet Jen Bervin, whose eye-widening Nets delicately scrapes 60 of the Bard’s 14-liners to create insular, startling new texts. Her treatment of #68 scans as a Lower Manhattan follow-up: “map/the/shorn away/map/what beauty was.” The parentheses in line 10 of #35 mimic the astronomical metaphor: “eclipses/in sense/( . . . )/and/need.” The reduction works even at its most extreme—draining #135 of everything but its baker’s dozen of “Will”s, retaining a single word (“anchored”) from #137. Absence makes the art grow yonder—past the mind’s edge, where the unused words exert their phantom power.

This haunting recalls both the Sapphic lacunae in Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Tom Phillips’s “treated Victorian novel” A Humument (1997). Inspired by Burroughs’s cut-up method, Phillips randomly picked his quarry—W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document—and painted over each page, in a variety of styles, isolating disparate words to tap secret rivers of meaning. The first page yields this Homeric invocation: “The following/sing/I/a/book . . . of . . . art/of/mind/art/and/that/which/he/hid/reveal . . . I.” Under such strategic and beautiful obliterations, the plot diverts into obsession and dream.

A more recent example of book-to-art fecundity (at the just-closed Whitney Biennial) is Zak Smith’s Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow—755 illos that do just that. And to go another route, with the art limiting the words, read David Lehman’s intro to the late Kenneth Koch’s The Art of the Possible (Soft Skull), which notes that Koch had his students buy comic books, paper over the balloons, and add dialogue—”a great lesson in poetry as interpretation and mistranslation.”