Gertrude Stein

'100 years of reading and unreading'

The dominant stylistic trait in Tender Buttons is not fragmentation or perspectivism but looping. Stein writes by looping similar or associative words, phrases, riffs, objects, units of meaning, or sonic hooks. She calls it “exact resemblance.” She also loops sense with nonsense, doing and undoing, continuity and discontinuity, sensual interiors with external surrounds, looping the environs into the work. Actually, any kind of binaries can be entwined, just as two identical terms can be spooled. Here is a sentence from “Rooms”: 

'Tender Buttons' at 100

'Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty.'

Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons begins with “A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS,” and with an insistence on the nonmetaphoricity of either object. This first entry famously closes with the line, “The difference is spreading,” and it does, as Stein’s “is” is at denotative work throughout her text.

“A SHAWL” from the section “Objects” reads:

A SHAWL

A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talks.

Breed that

Tender Buttons is, famously, a text that deals with looking. As Stein details in her Lectures, the book is the result of her decision to “include what is seen with hearing and listening.”[1] The beautiful new edition accentuates this: it is the result of an act of scholarly scrutiny and its facsimile images, showing Stein’s corrections to the first edition, make it possible for everyone to experience the thrill of seeing Stein at work on her text.

Unlikening 'Tender Buttons'

Tender Buttons has become a go-to book for teaching Stein. In concentrated (i.e., short, teachable, anthologizable) form, it gives us the cubist Stein, the erotic-domestic Stein, Stein the abstractionist, Stein the polysemist.

A moment in teaching 'Tender Buttons'

When I was a grad student in the MFA program at Brown, I also had the pleasure of teaching undergrad creative writing classes there. The students were bright, engaged, motivated — partly because they had to fight for a spot to be in the class in the first place. But I had no idea how to teach — I threw readings at the students without any kind of preparation, not having the slightest clue what that would entail, anyway.

If I reviewed her (excerpt)

If I reviewed her, if I reviewed her. I reviewed her. Her her button. Her boutonniere. Herbal. Her boobeleh. Her boo. Herr Too. Her tuchas. Her view. Her book. 

If I viewed her like I used to. I talked to. I teased her. I teach her. I reach. I rearview.

“If ‘if’ was a fifth …” Black lettres. Black pov. “res” onate. Ur-words. Sona. Salon. If I revved up, I could view her through another glass, Toklas, another poem. Whats a smatter-shattering. That piece of bright bling attached to a cloth with sharp edges,

rounded o’er time, a button. A carafe.

Gertrude Stein sets a table

When is a table also a table. When, my dear, at measured intervals, there is, each in its place, a round dish, a cylinder, and an array of related instruments — some to the left, some to the right — on a flat surface with one or more legs.  

A table is laid and certainly it is elemental. A table for a lass, a table for a classicist. Columns and some rows.

What I see in Stein's 'Tender Buttons'

Jason Mitch reads at the Kelly Writers House 'Tender Buttons' celebration, Octob
Jason Mitchell reads at the Kelly Writers House 'Tender Buttons' celebration, October 2014.

Sitting outside the Pub on Passayunk East in Philadelphia on a recent summer evening talking with poet Ryan Eckes about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, I tried describing my reading experience of it to him and likened it to closing one’s eyes and seeing the tiny motes that float across them, how while trying to focus on a particular mote, it slips away — that that’s what words and things in Stein’s TB were like, which is to say they’re elusive, and that the book’s meanings, sentence to sentence, unfold in measures of shape-shifting tones, words, and syntax.

The index of 'Tender Buttons'

As Tan Lin says, Tender Buttons is an index:

As Gertrude Stein recognized in Tender Buttons, which constitutes the first literary work of non-fiction to function like a blind index or (colorless) idea that has been typographically reset, the index is a poetical text and a fictional text it sits next to, like a caption in reverse, or a dining room table adjacent to an idea of sexuality, or the temperature of the room in which someone else’s writing took place.[1]

Stein's spatial poetics

Star-light and 'Rooms'

Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space:

Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect.

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