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.
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.
If an able cloth, a spread sheet. A tag at every place settles the matter. It is so easy to see a difference in distribution and protocol. A table is, is it not, an agreement, a contract, a feeling of resignation and success. A whole steadiness.
Is it likely that a change. Of course. Two courses. Three.
Come to the table there is bumping and tucking. There is carving, there is passing, there is desire and a version. Coated cries, an array of biscuits, a tartness and some of that. A salting, pep her, and a dry most hard. Reckless, reckless resolve.
Cut, cut in white, cut in white so lately. A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly. Where there is forking, there is conniving and hope in spoons.
Instead of classification, a violent kind of delightfulness. Instead of replication, something emerges. Little chips and switches. Mince, mince, inframince.
This is use.
A table is for alimentation and acts. It means more than a glass, even a looking glass is tall. Where there is in formation, there is execution and elocution. It takes mercy and relaxation to spread a table fuller.
Between setting and serving, between savoring and satiation, there is a shaking. A thresh and a hold. Face to face, interface, and a revision, a revision of a little thing.
A round dish, a cylinder, and an array of related instruments. Gertrude Stein sets a table.
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 only way, in fact, to see (/catch) the motes without them scurrying away is to look at them aslant, out of the corners of one’s eyes, peripherally. Stein writes at the beginning of “Rooms,” “Act so there is no use in a center.” This notion of de-centering is a theme throughout, and suggests this kind of looking, of seeing things outside of one’s immediate line of sight. Peripheral vision, akin, in my opinion, to a devotional act, is like close listening — it’s a widening of what one is in fact aware of at any given moment. And in this it is a particularly humane and inclusive way of seeing. It fights for the margins, the complexity of the whole, it wants the fringe to be included and given as much weight as what’s at the center. It wants, finally, for there to be no difference between what gets left in or out, because it’s all in. Everything.
Reading Tender Buttons I also find myself thinking of outskirt Proteus, the sea god transmogrifier who, once wrestled with and bound, would (will) give up his oracle, a glimpse into the future. Living on the fringe of the classical world himself in distant Egypt (Homer) or else a secluded sea-washed cave on a far-away island (Vergil), his gifts might be thought of as comparable with Stein’s. Certainly for the reader in 1914 Tender Buttons was no less an outlying augur, what would become a compass for the century’s poetics and thinking — hard to get to or at, maybe, but worth the effort and paying off handsomely for some of those making that effort, themselves too on the outside scribbling, writing their own books in the margins.