Bervin’s Nanoscale Ode to the Silkworm

Bervin’s Nanoscale Ode to the Silkworm

An eager crowd of students and local artists packed into the Design Center’s Graphic Design Commons on Tuesday evening (October 3) for the release of artist/writer Jen Bervin’s new book, Silk Poems (Nightboat). Best known for Nets (Ugly Duckling, 2003)—her brilliant re-reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets—and The Gorgeous Nothings (New Directions, 2012)—a visually stunning approach to Emily Dickinson’s “envelope writings”—Bervin continues to apply extensive interdisciplinary research to creating singularly profound work.

Bervin’s research in the arts, sciences and humanities yields singular outcomes.

The self-described “nerd,” who came to RISD at the invitation of the Graphic Design department and the Liberal Arts division, explained that her most recent project was inspired by the 5,000-year-old, international history of silk and by recent advances in biotechnology that allow scientists to create implantable biosensors out of silk that help patients monitor levels of glucose in their bloodstreams, for example. “Silk as a material is compatible with body tissues,” Bervin says. “Our immune system accepts it on surfaces as sensitive as the human brain.”

Bervin's poem embedded in a disc of silk microfilm that’s about the size of a contact lens.

Bervin worked with Fiorenzo Omenetto and his team at Tufts University’s Silk Lab to create a poem (at nanoscale) that was embedded in a silk microfilm readable only through a microscope. “It’s essentially a love poem written from the perspective of a silkworm,” she explains. “When I imagined a person with a silk biosensor implanted under their skin, I wanted to create a kind of protective talisman.”

“When I imagined a person with a silk biosensor implanted under their skin, I wanted to create a kind of protective talisman.”

It was important to the author that the form of her poem take its cues from the material of silk. The poem is transcribed in a six-character repeat based on silk’s genome, and the twisting shape of the strand mimics the pattern created by silkworms when they extrude thread within their cocoons.


Bervin and Huo read from Silk Poems.

Silk Poems is the product of seven years of research conducted at more than 30 institutions around the world, from nanotechnology labs to textiles archives to medical libraries. Some of the poem is written in Mandarin, in part because of China’s important role in the history of silk farming and silk production. Bervin explained that the ancient Mandarin character for silkworm appears in hundreds of seemingly unrelated Chinese words. Since she doesn’t speak the language herself, she invited senior Yuexin Huo 18 GD to join her at the podium and read the Mandarin words aloud.

Bervin’s project has been featured in a year-long exhibition at MASS MoCA, a short film by Charlotte Lagarde and in research archives in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Simone Solondz

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