Reviews

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. In “Food,” the lines between plural or singular, collective or not, are never clear, with apple standing alone and milk appearing twice but unrelated to itself, and breakfast a singular event that consists of many things. Sugar is made of a thousand tiny grains and eggs would have been easier to describe as one, therefore, plural, eggs, to complicate the description, the apprehension of its perfect form (which so inspired Brancusi). Volume, too, is an important part of food — the mass and conception of it, and how it slides from bulk to emptiness.

Singularities are complicated, joined, pluralized: apple becomes “apple plum” and eggs are “in white in white handkerchiefs with little dots in a white belt all shadows are singular they are singular and procured and relieved.” Again, in “Silent Knight” by Sorrentino, an echo of the play between one and many. “A wanting. A desire. / The current cant is ‘needs.’ / What does one need / to live?” Food, obviously, but perhaps not all of Stein’s “Objects”; I think one does need “Rooms” and its intensely musical phrases (on rereading Tender Buttons in the first time for some years, I was amazed at the music of it — fully modern music that takes its tune straight from language itself and not language crusted with centuries of metrical expectations — “cadences, real cadences, real cadences and a quiet color”) to live.

The movements between many and one in “Food” are quickened in “Rooms” — questioned, Why, why they are such things. And then Stein’s intense conjunctive phrasing — everything joined together equally in a way not seen before in language traditionally constructed to indicate dominance and subordinance. Marvel at the syntax below, from “Rooms,” where there is punctuation and where there is not punctuation when there “should” be and how beautiful when that “should” is negated:

A religion, almost a religion, any religion, a quintal in religion, a relying and a surface and a service in indecision and a creature and a question and a syllable in answer and more counting and no quarrel and a single scientific statement and no darkness and no question and an earned administration and a single set of sisters and an outline and no blisters and the section seeing yellow and the centre having spelling and no solitude and no quaintness and yet solid quite so solid and the single surface centred and the question in the placard and the singularity, is there a singularity why is the surface outrageous, why is it beautiful why is it not when there is no doubt, why is anything vacant, why is not disturbing a centre no virtue, why is it when it is and why is it when it is and there is no doubt, there is not doubt that the singularity shows.

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

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.”

Tender Buttons — tender (soft) butter, tender (offer) her butter, delicate buds (butons, French), tender buttons, tend her butt, stretch and pull (tendre, a verb in French); soft, delicate, loving, fresh, young (tendre, adjective, French); stretcher, tightener (tendeur, noun, French); layer (tendeur, noun, French) — these associations are only part of the scintillation of the title. The semantic overload is very flouncy.  

Tender Buttons is bright with simple words that almost signal something but don’t quite. Stein creates a pulsing signifying process to “suppose” varieties of partially semantic statements composed of just about any language manipulation that can be postulated. There are visual impressions abstractly described, sound associations, trans-lingual puns (“roast potatoes for” — four is “oven” in French), writing from prior writing (nursery rhymes like “pease porridge hot”), slid phonemes, homophonic evocations, expanded or contracted words. The work reads as if translated from English to English, sometimes passing through French and maybe other languages. Yet no tactic is patterned, nothing can be gotten used to, nothing “organically” recurs. Stein challenges many normative assumptions about verbal artworks: generic associations, mimetic claims, lexical certainties, and thematic recurrence. She rejects virtually any creation of reading context. Everything is new at every moment. It is X-treme modernism.

Tender Buttons concerns polymirthful desires and bliss-in-language. It is a fond appropriation of the rhetorical cadences of women’s fashion and advice magazine. Dresses and accessories, umbrellas, materials (feathers, cotton, “eyelet” lace), the pleasures of appreciating and adorning — all recur. The work evokes bodily patterns: orality (food and sound), anality (containing and releasing, mainly in sentence rhythm), and sexuality (in verbal allusions, codes, and puns). “Please butter all the beef-steak” is just one of many images combining vulval and culinary interests (from “Salad dressing and an artichoke”).

Yet if Tender Buttons appears to be a feminine or femme text, still some sentence tones use syntactic cues that mimic other rhythms of conviction — postulates and definitions, masculine in cultural stereotype. I mean categorical statements such as “it is so rudimentary to be analysed” (“A box”); “This is not tardy” (“A time to eat”); “It is surely cohesive” (“A feather”); and sometimes rhetorical condescension: “A table means does it not my dear it means” (“A table”). Stein deploys forensic rhythms of argument: “Why should that which is” or “If there could be that which is contained” (“Roastbeef”) or “If the persecution is so outrageous that nothing is solemn is there any occasion for persuasion” (“Breakfast”).

Adding these gender-evocative rhetorical modes together, let’s conclude that this is an androgynous or queer text, by virtue of the charming instability and incessant looping between masculine and feminine styles, although the feminine predominates and is lovingly valued. Stein wants to make gender and sexuality float unfixed, beyond rigid assignments of male/female, masculine/feminine. Tender Buttons emerges from a “third” place: it is écriture polysexuelle.

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

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.

The myth of impenetrability widely ascribed to Tender Buttons is undone by the text’s clever earnestness. Description in Tender Buttons is direct, user-friendly. The game’s logic revolves around the question of who gets it (who gets how). We play Stein and make moves forward.

Kate Huh, “Portrait of Gertrude Stein and Joe Dallesandro,” 2014.

In “Roastbeef,” Stein informs, “it is so easy to exchange meaning, it is so easy to see the difference” (35). Stein’s proclamation may act as ethos for contemporary artist and activist Kate Huh’s collage work drawn from Tender Buttons. In this piece, Huh trick-steers those who “don’t get it” into the supposedly perverse lure of Steinian grammar. What a relief to look at beef, as beef.

In our histories, looking is queer action. Cruising animates desirable objects to the unfolding possibilities of queer futures. Homo echo: Stein’s way of seeing in Tender Buttons animates desirable objects into unfolding possibilities. Cruising is queer seeing, all means and no end: a way to get lost, a game without a goal.

In Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz describes his methodology as “a kind of politicized cruising” that approaches the queer “from a renewed and reanimated sense of the social.”[1] It’s my sense that Stein, Muñoz, readers — all of us over time playing this game Tender Buttons — are “carefully cruising for varied potentialities that may abound.” When we play Stein, we find new strategies for seeing over the horizon.

 Myriam Gurba, "Chilaquiles." Excerpt from Tender Birria.

Stein’s queer way of looking in Tender Buttons is an observational strategy that deflects not just center, but self. As she looks over the still lifes of Tender Buttons, she cruises, investing and losing interest in real objects through flat affect. Disinterested interest. Like Warhol, a heartfelt ambivalence underlies this queer obsession with looking. When the artist flattens what is being seen (cubism, dada, pop), the art of looking means to look without being seen. Where are we?

Tender Buttons is the catalyzing force for queer lines of sight in the twentieth century.


Andy Warhol, “Gertrude Stein,” 1980.

One legacy is hope. Queers inherit a twisted revolutionary poetics from Tender Buttons. The game gets replayed again, again in lesbian adaptations because Tender Buttons helps us look the way we already look, see the way we already see. We “see the way the kinds are best seen from the rest.” We see the same in futures: “Hope, what is a spectacle, a spectacle is the resemblance” (20).

Muñoz saw it: “[I]f queerness is to have any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon” (11). At 100, Tender Buttons tilts forward, futuristically, and we get it. We still get to get it privately, in public.

Eve Fowler, from the “it is so, so it is” series, Manifest Destiny Billboard Project presented by LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division), 2014.

 


 

1. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 18.

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

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.

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”?

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition

Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition

Gertrude Stein, ed. Seth Perlow

City Lights 2014, 134 pages, 9.95, ISBN 978-0-87286-635-5

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.”

Mia You

Not everything Gertrude Stein wrote is worth calling poetry. Stein says so herself in “Poetry and Grammar,” because “for me the problem of poetry was and it began with Tender Buttons to constantly realize the thing anything so that I could recreate that thing.”[1] This pronouncement on Tender Buttons directly contrasts with her account of The Making of Americans in the same lecture and, we presume, to the present participle-filled portraits consuming Stein’s attention pre-1912 — these she would call prose.

Karen Volkman

In his book on Kafka, Gilles Deleuze writes of the difficulty of both eating and speaking — one must choose, it seems, whether to ingest or express. Gertrude Stein, whose soundplay is so tongue-quickening that it always seems pronounced aloud, makes reading both speaking and eating. The “Food” poems of Tender Buttons are full of glorious, sensual mouthfeel.

Joshua Schuster

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”: 

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

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.

Sarah Posman

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.

Bob Perelman

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.

Sawako Nakayasu

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.

Tracie Morris

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.

Dee Morris

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.

Jason Mitchell

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.

Astrid Lorange

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]

Star-light and 'Rooms'
Sueyeun Juliette Lee

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.

erica kaufman

In the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein describes a shift in the character of her writing from “[having] been interested only in the insides of people, their character and what went on inside them” to “a desire to express the rhythm of the visible world.” After hearing that Donald Evans was interested in publishing Tender Buttons, Stein via Toklas again describes this work as “the beginning of mixing the outside with the inside … she began to describe the inside as seen from the outside.”

Rachel Galvin

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.

'Tender Buttons' and noise poetics
Seth J. Forrest

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.

Michael Farrell

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 …

Marcella Durand

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.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

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.”

EC Maxe Crandall

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.

A tender reading from 'Tender Buttons'
Angela Carr

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.

Laynie Browne

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.”

Charles Bernstein

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).[1] 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.