'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 is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talks.
A shawl is a wedding, a piece of wax a little build. A shawl.
Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows. There is hollow hollow belt, a belt is a shawl.
A plate that has a little bobble, all of them, any so.
Please a round it is ticket.
It was a mistake to state that a laugh and a lip and a laid climb and a depot and a cultivator and a little choosing is a point to it.
“A shawl is” is a proposition no more courted into metaphor than the carafe’s blind glass, despite the array of words following the declaration. Rather than a transformative comparison conjured when like or unlike words are drawn into relationship with each other, Stein eschews metaphor for an accumulation of words giving shape to, but not subsumed by, a shawl. Her defining “is” arranges and forms, rendering a shawl a linguistic composition of words. Moving along a range of resemblances from the sartorial similarities of hat and undercoat to the categorical differences of hurt and a piece of wax, the words assemble to describe a shawl. Meanings are made through Stein’s sonic wit and playful nominative invention as the piece shifts from definition to imperative, “Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows,” to a reversal from “a shawl is” to “a belt is a shawl.” In Tender Button’s final section, “Rooms,” the text states, “Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty.” This series of sentences that assert, inquire and preserve doubt resonate with the sly last line of “A SHAWL.” It claims, “It was a mistake to state” that the accretion of beautiful words in front of the “is,” including laugh, lip, laid climb, depot, cultivator, and little choosing, fix any one semantic or spatial point in the composition. Instead, Stein’s words are defining matter, building and moving “a point” of position and perception as they are brought into correspondences with one another.
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.” 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. One of those images shows an inscription Stein added to Donald Sutherland’s first edition: “the concentration and the long struggle between sound sight sound and wide. and when it all came out so strangely” (84). As a comment, it shows Stein’s intention to emphasize sight over sound: sight should come first. As an image, of course, it stresses ‘sound.’ The image made me wonder about sound, and sound, in Tender Buttons, and about the book’s position in literary history.
Speaking, or “talking and listening,” is what Stein herself associates with the portraits she wrote prior to Tender Buttons. Central to these pieces is a voice that says and says and says, capturing slightly different moments of being in a sequence of expressive sentences (“and each time I said what they were as they were, as I was, naturally more or less but never the same thing each time that I said what they were I said what they were”). It is, however, the “breathless” Stein, the Stein who appears to delete ‘speaking’ from her poetic agenda when she starts writing Tender Buttons, that critics now put under the spotlight. This modernist Stein seems to fall in between a romantic tradition, with poets intent on breathing the inhuman air of poetic truth, and a post-modern rediscovery of breath, with for example Charles Olson calling for a poetics of breath. Yet I’m unable to look at Tender Buttons as some kind of airtight autonomous construction. I see it as a book filled with breath, with sound that isn’t talk or music but the whizzing of energy being spent — with ‘sound’ first. After all, this is writing that deals with the joys of consuming. Its collection of objects and their many uses, the “excellent vapor” the food gives off (37), the eroticism, the open rooms with its currents indicate that this is modernist poetry that reinvents Wordsworth’s understanding of poetry as “an atmosphere of sensation.” Stein constructs, rather than gains access to, her atmosphere. Notwithstanding many objections, from (poetic?) “declarations” to the state of the world (76), she takes care not to seal it off. Tender Buttons is Tender Buttons because “there is a chair and plenty of breathing.”
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.
In the arc of Stein’s career, Tender Buttons is (along with the Autobiography) one of the key nodes of change; it marks the dramatic shift from her initial constellation (Leo Stein, William James, science, typology, fiction) to the long efflorescence that followed (Toklas, Picasso, continuous excited language play, public presence). A Stein who stopped writing after The Making of Americans would cut a quite different figure.
But while Tender Buttons has become a central Steinian site for teachers, critics, and poets, I want to follow the lead of Joshua Schuster’s great piece in Jacket2 and emphasize how unfamiliar it is. “No one has settled how this book should be read,” Schuster writes; and he further unsettles matters via the quite unSteinian story of the mysterious midwifery of “Claire Marie” (Donald Evans): it was Claire Marie who suggested the format of three sections, Claire Marie who put “Objects” first; Claire Marie who elicited the title — arguably the two most resonant words Stein ever wrote.
I don’t want to gainsay the cubist, domestic erotic, polysemous readings of Tender Buttons, many of which are exciting and quite a few convincing, but I do want to emphasize how much it remains, as a naturalist might put it, non-descript (i.e., interestingly unknown).
What if the pieces are not cubist, erotic, domestic portraits in any settled or unsettled sense? Yes, there is Stein’s by-now commonsense explanation that she became “more and more excited about how words which were the words that made whatever I looked at look like itself were not the words that had in them any quality of description”; but a page earlier in “Portraits and Repetition,” she writes: “I for a time did not make portraits because I was trying to live in looking … In Tender Buttons, I described anything.”
It’s useful to remove the familiar frames from Tender Buttons, rather than trying to make it “look like itself.” What if some titles are not titles at all but teasing, agonistic, syntax-wielding postscripts: “Peeled Pencil, Choke”; “This Is This Dress, Aider”? (By the way, though Stein was great with titles, a title is, in some sense, rather unSteinian, entailing comparison — How is this like that?)
What about the surprising absence of pronouns, especially of “you” and “I”? Before and after Tender Buttons the materials of Stein’s writing were thoroughly social: the early typologies; the later playful manipulations of daily life. Tender Buttons, while it can be yoked into wider Steinian narratives by judicious selection, is different. In it, the part/whole question of Stein’s writing stays open-ended. In most of Stein’s work, we are reading a stretch of Stein’s activity, focused around themes, questions, procedures; here, we’re reading separate pieces. And within any piece are we reading longer units (phrases, sentences, paragraphs), or, more mysteriously, individual words?
Black ink best wheel bale brown.
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. After being assigned Tender Buttons as a reading, one of the students reported to me the following week that he had read it, and was convinced that he, too, could write this nonsensical jibberish. So he did — he tried — and only in such an attempt did he come face to face with the strange, brilliant pleasure that is this text. I couldn’t have planned a better lesson.
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.
What patterns clash? What suits ya? What cymbals? What Sabians, Armenians, Jews, Germans, Blacks, Latins, Americans? Euro-detritus? Ex-plights’ us? I wonder.
The “gratitude of mercy” is not explained. Isn’t made plain. The nose on your face, lalala vie en rose. What shades arise? Vie(w) finder the size of a nickel. A dime, the side of it, is the side of a button, the way it hems the pocket. The way you finger it. The pointed nature.
Blood in the face. Blood on the leaves. It’s a violet hue. It shifts from blue. A shift is a ditty dress. Dirty is yellow at points. Whitest whites not coal-colored. Not cool. What’s matter? A large box clocks handily. It cloaks. When I do count the clack that tells what I re-sign to be, ore no(t).
Lilies are white unless tiger, unless striped. Unless (la) t (i) tude. Un-less and un-still, etude. What’s the sound in that box? What kind of box is it? Harmonica, piano, coffin, shoo? Masque of red. Of Venice, of revenge, of reverb. The purpose of a box is to let things bounce around inside, not out. They’re all maracas, all boxes, all cojones. And that is why there aren’t brass ones. They’re bells and open at the bottom. Like a review.
Stepping up to the plate to review is base. It is the ground. It’s dirty. It’s around. It’s cutting corners like sports for war. It’s saying pen’s mightier: a tool, a gourd. Assessments are objects. Alchemical and traced.
At the bottom is Jimmy Cobb in Miles’ kinda color. Chambers’ music from an engorged lighting in a bottleneck. The fretting comes plaited, the strings curve around the fingers S, a female shape. A dress. A Tiffany lamp, a vamp to attest, to a taste. Petit for-fours.
A swallow bubbles. Bubbles up words. Polite Tourettes’. A set of words water the mouth. They are things that take shape that glide down the throat. Taken (a)back, tobac. A carbo-nation, a turbo-notion a turn. The bubbles, Brooklyn circles sweet simple syrup. Another slender needle.
A recording. These pieces of a house of hers. Her work, her dust, her…polishing. The dark places gleam in this paperstock card house and its phoneme particles across the board. A rainbow.