Gertrude Stein

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.

Dear Gertrude

Good morning! It is the hundredth birthday of your tender buttons. Happy birthday to you happy birthday to them. They continue and have gone on continuing all these years isn’t it something. It is something to be sure. This morning they freshen my eyes just as they always have and they are freshening the eyes of others too. Gertrude I want to give you my hat and say chapeau. Did you say wooden object or did you say woolen object did you say the whole head that had a hole or did you say the whole bead that had a hole.

Is it so a noise to be

'Tender Buttons' and noise poetics

The one-hundred-year anniversary of the publication of Tender Buttons has a tidy symmetry that appeals naturally to the pattern-hungry mind of literary history. But, as every reader of Stein’s modernist poetic masterpiece will attest, this is a text that succeeds swimmingly at holding symmetry at bay.

Reading tenderly

I was rereading Tender Buttons, thinking of its tone, its conceptual science, over minutes, over a period of days. Then there was a day when I read sadly, a day among days of sad readings. The tone changed. “A Long Dress,” “A Red Hat,” “A Blue Coat,” “A Piano” changed. “A Chair”:

      Pick a barn, pick a whole barn, and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.
      Actually not aching, actually not aching …

The singularity shows

In Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein begins the second section, “Food,” with a semi-coloned list of foods that includes “Orange” and “Oranges.” So, in this menu of sorts, color is singular and fruit plural, separated by the singular collective nouns of cocoa and clear soup. Unlike cranberry, a color so clearly named after the fruit, orange is more a prediction, and I think of Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Orangery, and how he must have had Stein somewhere in mind with his permutations of orange and the tenuous abstract relations of signifier into composition.

Stein's wedding cake

Rachel Blau DuPlessis with the Italian edition of Stein's 'Tender Buttons,' published by Liberilibri in Macerata in 1989 and 2006, translated by Marina Morbiducci and Edward G. Lynch, with an introduction by Nadia Fusini.

How can Stein’s Tender Buttons be one hundred years old? We are still eating the buttercream frosting and rosebuds from that three-tiered cake: “Objects,” “Food,” “Rooms.”

Playing Stein

'Roastbeef,' by Kate Huh.
'Roastbeef,' by Kate Huh.

Tender Buttons is the future. Neither cipher nor code, the grammar of Tender Buttons forces the reader to play Stein. Stein’s obsession with perspective, her collection of objects, food, rooms, produces a scene of constraints (the rules of the game): a discrete spatial field where coordinates shift as the text’s gravity swerves. A game board. No, a bored game.

After Stein's closet

A tender reading from 'Tender Buttons'

Angela Carr reads at Kelly Writers House 'Tender Buttons' celebration, October 2
Angela Carr reads at the Kelly Writers House 'Tender Buttons' celebration, October 2014.

I read “A Substance in a Cushion” as a sexy, humorous love poem that plays on a little calamity and a little calm in the closet. Its sweetness and its resolution are very likely embodied in the same hand that does the sewing.

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