A tender reading from 'Tender Buttons'
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.
Let’s start at the beginning. The title of the poem gestures inward with the preposition “in”: the substance is “in” a cushion, not “on” or “under,” and not “of” for that matter. There is no top and bottom to this substance. Is it unbounded? Is it uniform? Is it limitless? Does it belong to the cushion?
What exactly is a substance in a cushion? I imagine it is soft: it is not hard or callous; it is not covering or worn. Substantial. It is the essential material of the cushion, and it is what lies beneath everything seen and touched. But is it unseen? Is it untouched? Is it different from what is seen or touched? The callous, the hard covering of skin, is also skin; the cover, the soft covering of cushion fabric, is also fabric. The interior is on a continuum with the exterior, every tenderness points outward. Every substance in a cushion manifests the exterior as well, although is appears as a difference. Every inner feeling is outwardly touched and tender. Even buttons are tender. Every tender substance and every tender presence is vulnerable and cared for.
The prepositions in this poem are an obsession with “in” and “under” — what is hidden. They point away. The nouns, on the other hand, point to what might be seen.
Stein’s language evokes sex. “What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it?” This is sweet as well. There is a little “groan grinding” and “singing trimming a red thing.” Does all this take place in the closet?
“A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed.” How does this image work? What does the verb “connect” do with its “to”? And why is the closet under the bed? Why not in the bed, behind the bed, on the bed … is it a substance of the bed? Is the closet a substance of the bed?
The theme of the bed is “the closet,” but the closet is substantive. It is shaded, it is empty, it appears as a dash not quite connecting. It is named in the negative (not connecting) compelling an affirmation (could it connect if it were not under?). It is a possibility but not the least bit of action. Another negation appears in the sentence, “What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it.” There is no other way to say this!
One more question: Why “girls and men” in equal numbers? Why not women and men? Why not boys and women? Why are girls in this perpetual tenderness, “not even more hurt than that”?
For the 100th anniversary of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, published in a corrected centennial edition by City Lights Books in 2014, Jacket2 invited a number of writers to pen “microreviews” — short, impressionistic, discursive, or momentary reflections on the book which first appeared in 1914 in a print run of 1,000 by Claire Marie and has been republished since by Green Integer, Gordon, Sun and Moon, and others. Tender Buttons has come to be understood as one of the most important and challenging texts of twentieth-century literary modernism, what Charles Bernstein has called “the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of ‘wordness,’ where word and object are merged.”
A long dress walks independently, down your street, any street. The “current that presents a long line” is also your leg, an ambling thought-object. A long dress in Stein is shorn, woven of substantial “crackle.” Use it to carry live ingredients, figments, ammunition, endearments, “machinery.” Employ a long dress to navigate “current” or “serene length.”
Engage a long dress to compile the histories of a “necessary waist.”
A long dress is composed of the form of everything it grazes. Touches your eye. What is the purpose of an object? Certainly not to be objective. Certainly you may object. To getting dressed. A long dress, like convention, may exist to be ruined, flaunted, or remade as a ceremony — undressing expectation.
What is a word garment? And what is the purpose of purposefulness? It is easier to walk down a word century or to become ensnared in discreet thickets when wearing a long dress. A dress made of words. However, one could also wear “Glazed Glitter,” “A Piece of Coffee,” a “Red Stamp,” or “Mildred’s Umbrella.” I’d like to be “A Method of Cloak” and also “A Piano.”
“What is the wind, what is it.” Wind disarranges objects into word trajectories and accessories. Wind disarranges the books that words-objects read; for instance, Harryette Mullen wrote Trimmings (published by Tender Buttons Press) considering word-artifice, word-paraphernalia, dressing rooms of gender undone and adorned. What prescription is a long dress for gaze, gape, bedraggled shoulders, of subjective-associative feasts? Which dress-objects do we whisper or fling?
If “serene” is “a dark place is not a dark place” and “only a white and red are black, only yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color,” then what is the objective aim of a long dress? In Tender Buttons, a dress is not a dress, is hardly an object. A dress becomes a stance, an argument, or reflective surface inhabited. A long dress is a word portrait — to gather — a textual body — walks out into a field of color, plucks, arranges. A verbal trance hemmed. A lingual cluster about the neckline. Wash your face in such a dress. Cover your table. Ignite your maps. Unbutton your fingers. A long dress laughs, slips, and lifts. What unspoken vow have you made when “a bow is every color”? What unspoken bow have you borrowed? You have pulled “current” and “wind” and “serenity” and “darkness” and “color” from “machinery.”
“A line just distinguishes it.” Which signals both the line of the body, the line of the eye and also a moving portrait in words, a still life which is never still. “A bow is every color” is also a concentration palette, a slab of “Piano,” a “Red Hat,” of “A Frightful Release,” “Water Raining,” and “A Feather.”
Although Three Lives and The Making of Americans were radical innovations, neither was as revolutionary as Tender Buttons (begun in 1912 and published in 1914). Tender Buttons is the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of wordness, where word and object merge. No work from Europe or the Americas had gone so far in creating a work of textual autonomy, where the words do not represent something outside of the context in which they are performed and where the meanings are made in and through composition and arrangement. The sections of the work are not “about” subjects that are discussed but are their own discrete word objects (verbal constellations). Meaning in these works is not something to be extracted or deciphered but rather to be responded to, so that the reader’s associations create a cascading perceptual experience, guided by the uncanny arrangement of the words. The more readers can associate with the multiple vectors of each word or phrase meanings, the more fully they can feast on the unfolding semantic banquet of the work. The key is not to puzzle it out but to let the figurative plenitude of each work play out; for, indeed, this work is not invested in a predetermining structure or in precluding or abstracting meaning. Tender Buttons does not resist figuration but entices it. And the work is rife with linguistic and philosophical investigation as well as an uncannily acute self-awareness of its own processes.
Consider the title, which has many associations that bear a direct relation to Stein’s poetics. Buttons are used to fasten (attach or join) discrete pieces of fabric; this suggests a compositional practice akin to quilting and collage and situates the work not only as a form of practical art or craft, suggesting a connection to what has often been considered (and denigrated as) women’s work (buttons are often ornamental or decorative). The sense of domestic space is also suggested by the section subtitles “Rooms” and “Food” — suggested only, because the association is loose. You press buttons: the operating system here is point and click in a touch-sensitive textual environment. A button is also a small protuberance: stud or knob or bud (its etymological root). Tender Buttons suggests nipples or clitorises: the poetics is decentered eroticism (meaning disseminated evenly over the body of the text not cathected onto nouns or plot); which is to say the work is aversive to phallic or climax-oriented satisfaction. Tender Buttons, while not a manifesto, advocates a poetics of acting “so that there is no use in a center,” where “the difference is spreading.” Tender, like the poem, is gently caressing, fragile, soft (rather than rigid or hard), edible (tender food), effeminate (weak or delicate). But tender also means money, something offered in exchange for something else, as in legal tender. In the semiotic economy of the poem, words are tender and the poem is fundamentally involved with language as a system of exchange (rather than “pointing,” word to object). Yet Stein’s work is not random but intended, as she says, “no mistake is intended,” even if she is a “mischief intender.” And Stein’s approach to composition is to be less a controlling of language than its tender.
Now let’s segue into the first part of the first section the three-part work:
A carafe, that is a blind glass.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
This poem addresses the relation of word and object (this first section of Tender Button is called “Objects”), or perhaps better to say signifier and signified. It brings to mind Ferdinand de Saussure’s suggestion in his contemporaneous Cours de linguistique générale (1906–1911) that language works by creating a system of difference of one sound to another. Difference also suggests sexual or gender difference. In trying to break down the difference between signifiers and signifieds, Stein lets words “be” themselves, stand for nothing but what they are. Stein says the “the difference is spreading” — on the one hand this suggests that difference is proliferating, on the other hand, it suggests a way to see signifier and signified fused or melted onto one plane, when we “spread” words instead of using words “in a system of pointing.” Think of painting with words or think, in painting, again, the breaking down the foreground and background of perspective to get the “radical flattening” of some “abstract” painting (e.g., all surface, no depth). So, says, Stein, this approach is not random or chaotic or meaningless because it doesn’t “point” or doesn’t use resemblance (“not unordered in not resembling”: not unordered but rather ordered differently). The poem then might be seen as a carafe (a transparent/glass container: one view of what language is) that is a “blind glass” (one that you don’t see through because it is filled with something dark, so it takes possession of itself). Now, circle back to the double meaning of “spectacle”: eye glasses and something one looks at from a distance, something one is separated from, as by a glass, or even the frame of a stage. But imagine if we could melt this difference between us and a world we look at as spectacle, imagine if we could avert looking at our words as glasses that project distance, that separate us from the world. How can we break down this difference, this separation? How can we turn objects, how can we turn words, into tender buttons? This is not what the poem means. This is not a paraphrase. But it sketches a set of investments that run through the full work.
Those investments come in the form of a constellation of repeated words: Stein’s approach is not both derangement and rearrangement: “There was an occupation,” she write at the beginning of “Rooms.” Reading this work presents a necessary challenge to thematic close reading, which won’t work, while still requiring close scrutiny through an associational/ambient reading of the linguistic prompts and an allegorical reading of form (thinking about what the form means). All key words in Tender Buttons are repeated numerous times but the repetition is distributed throughout the work, making much of the poem less rhythmically repetitive and more abstract than other Stein works. Among the most frequently used words (after articles and conjunctions) are such forms of to be as is (1,017 times, almost 7 percent of the words used), followed by a very high frequency of be, are and being (in keeping with Stein’s approach to the “continuous present”); as well as “was.” Other frequently used words include little (ninety times), means (forty-four), and strange (twenty-five), as well as makes, shows, color, white, whole, change, single, same, suppose, and nothing. The word “difference” appears thirteen times in the work; that word plus “differ” and “different” occur twenty-four times. Center occurs twenty-two times. Come or coming or comes makes thirty-five shows, as in the specifically erotic “Cuddling comes in continuing a change” but also “The truth has come” (and keeps coming). Resemblance and arrangement each come into the text about a dozen times.
In “Roastbeef,” the opening section of “Food,” the second part of Tender Buttons, Stein briefly returns to rhythmic repetition through the use of gerunds that create a palpable sense of “continuous present.” This passage is among the most evocative and enthralling of the work:
In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching. All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and all the circle has circling. This makes sand.
If Emerson saw meaning as inflected by mood, Stein brings it into a dynamically diurnal intimacy with the feeling of time passing, from morning to evening, as well as the movements of meaning through the changes of resting, mounting, resignation, recognition, and recurrence. We are pinched awake by recognizing these conditions and by recognizing a view from “outside” ourselves and “inside” ourselves; indeed, it is this torqueing of outside and inside that marks language’s semiotic play, hear / not here. Words shift in use so that our norms and standards can take flight in exception and our lives can be as grounded as grains of “sand”. The tender of our language is change and exchange:
All the time that there is use there is use and any time there is a surface there is a surface, and every time there is an exception there is an exception and every time there is a division there is a dividing. … tender and changing and external and central and surrounded and singular and simple and the same and the surface and the circle and the shine and the succor … (“Roastbeef”)
In Tender Buttons, Stein was engaged in making a dialogic poetic of non-resemblance: words not dominating the world with their order but allowing the world to inhabit the words. Tender Buttons marks a decisive break with a voyeuristic poetics of subject and object, looker and looked at, figure and ground. It elides perspectival distance in favor of intimacy, non-goal-directed erotics, and gustation.
From Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, eds., A History of Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2015). Excerpted with permission.
1. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, ed. Seth Perlow (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014). Perlow has made some changes in previous presentations of the work, based on a review of relevant documents. They include a change in the way the titles appear. References to this work are given by section title. There are about 15,000 words in the work, which is in prose format, though not a prose poem as that term has been previously defined. This is about five times the length of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the most canonical American long poem of the era.
3. “Tender” appears ten times in the work, always suggesting tenderness, but also note “a transfer is not neglected.” While I don’t think the ten/tender was planned, the modus operandi of the works potentiates such serendipitous collusions.
7. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” (1844).
An introduction to Jordan Scott
What follows is an introduction to Jordan Scott’s reading/screening at the University of Georgia on Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Sponsored by the creative writing program, the event was held at 7 p.m. in the Lab Room at Ciné, 234 West Hancock Avenue, in Athens, Georgia. Earlier that afternoon, Scott had visited Andrew Zawacki’s advanced undergraduate workshop “Graph & Photograph,” whose twenty-one students interviewed Scott about Decomp.
I hope the Coach House Books editor, Alana Wilcox, won’t be angry with me if I tell you that my copy of this book, Decomp — coassembled by tonight’s guest, Jordan Scott, and activist writer Stephen Collis — arrived damaged. Pages 90–105 are missing, while pages 113–128 appear twice in quick succession. Correctly divvied into five chapters, but with no chapter four and a pair of chapter fives, the volume — in which its authors claim, “Our understanding is at or about limits” — is at once too little and overmuch. Coach House replaced my incomplete, excessive copy with a correct edition, but I wonder whether the altered version isn’t the truer account, given the obsession in Decomp with validating what’s written “rongly,” and with tracking the “erritory.”
One chapter erased, another repeated. What do we call inadvertent or aberrant repetition, if not a stammer? Scott’s second book, Blert, enacts a poetics of the stutter as a deeply somatic musical score that wrestles with language as recalcitrant, sinewy stuff. Replete with tongue twisters, plosive riffs, pronunciation calisthenics, fables about foibles in speech, and other outtakes of glottal spelunking and gobbledygook, Blert is at once an experiential pressure applied to the famous Freudian compulsion and a staccato elaboration of projective verse. Decomp, on the other hand, traffics in the irreducible and unrepeatable. Set in five distinct biogeoclimatic zones of British Columbia, Decomp is premised on site specificity and insists that the natural world is “unre able,” a broken term that suggests the earth is unreadable, unreifiable, unreproducible.
In the spirit of Sir George Airy, who established the modern Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1851, Collis and Scott geotagged the spots where they placed each of five copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, whose deterioration they went back to document a year later. Rather than writing about nature, as Darwin did, they let the natural world rewrite the books. Their project is less aligned with Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” than with an outsourced creative unwriting, whereby a quintet of distinct biosystems becomes the catalyst to an elemental misprision, subjecting the volumes to the very same “natural selection” their author had proposed. This mulching of the text is all the more ironic — or appropriate — given that Darwin himself was known to tear out book pages that didn’t interest him, so he might keep the portion that did. Decomp reminds us that all writing is a species of ascesis and extraction, of erosion if not erasure: a violent cutting away from the saturated, recombinant fields of language and literature every last word and idea and form that is not the thing you’re trying to say.
That creation begins in destruction is evident in the chemical process of photography, where developing a negative means removing light-sensitive silver halides from film. Even as the digital color images in Decomp testify to the unnatural tech selection that has all but eliminated analog photography, they witness the gradual disappearance of humanity from the scene: the death of the author, certainly, and the first-person I, “only / water and / syllables giving way.” A celebration of print culture in our era of Kindle and Kobo and Nook, Decomp is also an elegy for the book, as the “leaves” of a work titled Origin return to the very trees from which they came.
Throughout the book, Scott and Collis reprint what they can discern of the still legible passages of Darwin’s text, after it’s been exhumed. Since its pages are rotting, torn, smeared, occluded, or otherwise fractured by the weather, the authors also provide what they label a “Gloss.” We can’t help but hear inside that moniker, of course, the word “loss,” and indeed the greater part of the Darwin has been effaced, leaving Collis and Scott to invent — or, as it were, translate. Or even to speak in tongues: the term “gloss” is from the Greek glossa, for tongue or language, and Decomp is arguably an inheritor of what Frederic William Ferrar, in 1879, first called heteroglossia. While removed from a Pentecostal or Charismatic context, the book has been nonetheless written by a host of friends and family members: Ken, Pauline, Caroline, Summer. “We are porous,” the book tells us. Allusions to “the with-me” and “with-us” bespeak a society constituted by the mutual exposure of bodies, by opening our corpus — skeletal and scriptural alike — to others, and evoke the beautiful, fragile caring so crucial to a community in which one’s “own” death, so called, in fact belongs to everyone except the one who dies: “stay together,” Gary Snyder implored, “learn the flowers / go light.” With salal and kinnikinnick, Scott and Collis are among those children who have honored “For the Children.”
Within the speculative gloss of Decomp we also see — just a letter removed — “glass,” which may put us in mind of the microscope, the museum vitrine, or the documentary lens. Even the realist artist’s mirror is relevant here, since it reflects an object, but only in a backward way. Furthermore, a reader attuned to the literary theory that aerates the book will look at “Gloss” and also think Glas, the title of Derrida’s 1974 hybrid that put Hegel in one column, Genet in a parallel row, and figured authorship not as a static monolith but a dynamic, conjugal relation. The word means “bell” or “klaxon,” as if a bicolumnar Collis and Scott were honking to one another, rather than conversing per se, across the proprietary zone of the signature; as if both of them were calling across history to Darwin on a far shore; and as if Nature were trying to maintain some distance from a book about Nature, even as their differences weaken with the decay of each— what Decomp calls a “loosening linking.” Or maybe the glas of Decomp is most urgently understood as a siren or blaring alarm, to warn us we’re heating and pillaging the earth at an unsustainable, irreversible pace. (It will be interesting to hear Decomp this evening, just three days after the People’s Climate March in New York. Stephen Collis was among the 400,000 who gathered at the largest climate protest in history.) Derrida took his title from Bataille’s poem “Le Glas,” which in turn had been drawn from a Mallarmé lyric, “Aumône.” Consistent with that praxis of relay and semi-borderlessness, the word glas is intriguing — and remarkable in tonight’s setting — not least because its singular form is identical to the plural.
Behind any coauthored project there lurks the question of labor. Who did what or how much, which words issued from whose mouth? And behind the matter of labor’s division resides a curiosity about how the relationship went — was it symbiotic or parasitic, collaborative or contentious? These are central provocations regarding social dynamics and economies of production that Decomp extends beyond the narrow confines of the literary. Collis and Scott stage a critical conversation about First Nations land rights and second-growth forestry practices, about third-stage global capitalism and the nearly invisible strictures that finance seems to have always prepared in advance for everything we think and say and do. If a labor of love, as they say, this is foremost a book about loving laboring, a work about the essential work of unworking. Whistled in what the authors call “forest language,” Decomp is a new wave work song, “in the service of the soil,” a choral chord in “a struck opus of beings.”
Please join me in welcoming — one of the nicest people on the planet — Jordan Scott.