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.
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.
Its entries are intensive, archival, objectless (despite being entirely to do with objects), and itinerant. One reads an entry and asks: what kind of paratext is a poem? Tender Buttons indexes a set of texts: dinners, smalltalks, treats, abstractions, trinkets, interiors. Its entries are paratextually complex — no mere companion but frenemy, on the move, having left the party. The index is a record of a set of concepts as-yet-unnamed. The unchattable as pure chat, left out like a snack cake for visitors. What kind of home is this? One in which the shopping list is a catastrophe — dissociative and sublime.
Stein’s index entries point — not to an object but as a gesture of pointing. A sentence points to itself, says, here, this thing right here. Pet oyster, small sac, slender grey, ink spot, carpet steak, surely rhubarb. A proposition self-points, or yokes to the performance of its little logic. Use values are best when spread everywhere, uncollectable. Some people write like a menu, but not Stein, she writes like a rogue index, all syntax and no background, all proof and no evidence.
If an index, in part, guides reading in its networked, affectionate modes, then Tender Buttons is a lesson on how reading is possible as a way of writing. Reading as writing is a mode of composing wriggled out from superstition: rhythm and assemblage, collection and list, figuration and simple machine, couplet and grouplet. How is writing written? By arranging words like things.
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.
Published nearly half a century before Gaston Bachelard’s study of inhabited space, Stein rendered a vigorous statement on spatial poetics through Tender Buttons. In it, she reminds us that to dwell in a place requires and engages our intelligence: to live in and occupy a space is already a kind of knowing. And, delightfully, though Stein’s knowing occurs on site, it both accomplishes and trespasses against what the space may contain. A space is an occasion is an activity, not merely nouns. It invites our authorship as we convene.
In “Rooms,” she announces her foray into this spatiality: “Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width.” These abstractions indicate her philosophical examination of what constitutes “rooms” to us. They emerge as a broad sparkling array. Her attention alights seamlessly from content to commentary to metacommentary. And with such delight.
Her reorientations may prove disorienting for those expecting or desirous of more traditional mappings rendered in what we otherwise call “description.” But by inviting us to imagine rooms as an intelligent activity, and by modeling this engagement for us, Stein transforms them into intimate ecologies — populated, vertiginious, arcing presences that speak with her and in their own names.
My favorite moment in “Rooms” is nested in her discussion of windows. She wonders at them, and we can track how her attention moves from the window itself to the curtain clothing it, to the voices and street sounds and light that pour through.
Star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of the time.
This particular sentence resonates quite strongly with me from a personal standpoint, since I have been increasingly invested in trying to accomplish a solar intelligence within my body. Starlight and sunlight are of the same, and yet we forget this because of its dark inhabitance. Starlight is indeed mixed up with the sun the rest of the time. It is always speaking into us, and yet we rarely note — or make mention of — this fact. The distinction between starlight and sunlight is a question of time and perception, which she renders so beautifully: “Why is the name changed. The name is changed because in the little space there is a tree, in some space there are no trees, in every space there is a hint of more, all this causes the decision.”
If I open myself to the light that is constant while noting the inconstancy and fleetness of my perception, I believe I may begin to sharpen and see the world anew. It perhaps requires me to relinquish some commonplace assumptions. I must “act so that there is no use in a centre”?
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.”
I begin with these moments from the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because much of my love of this text stems from my experience working with it in the context of the required first-year college composition course, a course that asks (or should ask) students to rethink their modes of writing academically. Appropriately, for Stein herself, Tender Buttons represents this kind of risk — an intentional movement from the portraiture of people, of the “inside,” to a wholly different kind of painting — one that orbits around the “outside” — literally, “objects, food, rooms.” In “How to Read How to Write: Bothering with Gertrude Stein,” Sharon J. Kirsch looks at the “compositional concepts” Stein explores in How to Write, positing that Stein’s work asks readers to rethink composition and reading her compositions as “taking risks, playing on syntactic and semantic levels, bothering with her poetic mischief, and finding pleasure in words, their arrangements, their demands, their omissions, their serious suppositions, their gnomic pronouncements, and their prepositional virtuosity.”
Tender Buttons is, in my experience, the gateway to engaging students in the potential that writing holds — seeing and seeking “pleasure in words” as their own entities, and straying from the formulaic models of what might constitute acceptable prose. I often use Stein, and excerpts from Tender Buttons, as invitations for students to write.
What follows are two of these moments, from very different classrooms, with my accompanying teaching notes:
“A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass” (Scenario: Composition II class, paper 2 revision workshop)
— Hear the piece read out loud two times — first, with one person reading the entire thing, then, alternating readers at each punctuation mark.
— Encourage students to annotate as they listen (marking moments they love and moments they feel puzzled by).
— Focused free write: First thoughts. What do you notice?
— Copy into your notebook: “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”
— Focused free write: Imagine this is the comment left on your rough draft. What would you now do to revise your paper and why?
— Share in small writing groups.
“A Long Dress”
(Scenario: Writing to Learn Professional Development day with interdisciplinary high school faculty)
— Handout “A Long Dress” — just the text with no author and no bibliographic information.
— Read the piece out loud four times — once straight through with one reader, once alternating readers by punctuation mark, once backwards, and finally, again straight through with one reader.
— Focused free write one: What is this piece about? Or, what is this piece?
— Focused free write two: What do you feel like you’d need to know in order to come to a reading of this text? Why?
— Share only focused free write two.
— Focused free write three: Perform a close reading of the text via a line-by-line translation of it. In other words, focus on the text at a sentence level and translate it in whatever way you see fit. Write yourself into the text.
— Process write: Reveal the bibliographic information (with no context). What did you need to do in order to translate “A Long Dress”? Where is your thinking now about how to work with students to find their way into a text they might initially feel outside of? Do you still want/need contextual information?
— Share. Discuss classroom applications.
A brief note on rationale: I chose to share these two particular moments because they are moments when Tender Buttons was used as a vehicle to work with students to get towards a specific goal — to work towards a final draft of a paper and to work towards thinking about how to engage students when they “shut down” as a result of being handed a “difficult” text. And, I chose to share these two particular moments because I think they demonstrate that Stein’s writing is always and ever useful in any scenario.
1. Sharon J. Kirsch, “How to Read How to Write: Bothering with Gertrude Stein,” in Primary Stein: Returning to the Writing of Gertrude Stein, ed. Janet Boyd and Sharon J. Kirsch (Plymouth, United Kingdom: Lexington Books, 2014), 109–24.
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. Did you say all that time there was breadth or did you say all that time there was breath. I like them both I like them all. Gertrude you have mothered more than you knew but oh well you knew really didn’t you you always knew and you were knowing because you knew who you were and what you were going to do and then you did it and you went on doing it. Gertrude. My student said that reading your buttons was like reading a story that was put in a blender. Another said that reading your tender buttons is like flailing. And she underlined it like that. What if you felt free to do anything I said. What if you were a woman when you were a woman and you felt that way. What if you felt free to follow the voice inside the one you heard. Reading you peels my eyes open peels my fibrous soul open peels it all open. Reading you is the right thing to do it is a write thing. It begets writing and with wax wood and string wings it launches me off a bluff like Leonardo’s flying machines. Your book of buttons is an ornithopter. But you were never bluffing because you really had it in you you knew how to fly. The book she has muscular calves. All of this makes an uttermost, which is a charming occasion today. In the midst of a flourish you lift your wrist. You say Giving it away, not giving it away, is there any difference. Giving it away. Not giving it away. I would like to give you a bouquet of alphabets for your book’s birthday, Gertrude. Here.