'Tender Buttons' and noise poetics
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.
Stein scholars swear that there is more — much more — to the text than what we find on its surface. For Michael Hoffman,Tender Buttons is the turn to abstraction, driven by an engagement with the pictorial revolt of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Gris, and Braque. For Marjorie Perloff, Tender Buttons is the poetic precursor of the poststructural turn and of Wittgensteinian play, hiding meditations on sexuality among the slippages of syntax and signification.
But for conservative critics, Tender Buttons is charlatanry, little more than elitist intellectual dabbling in nonsense. And for my students, there is often absolutely nothing in Tender Buttons. Lines like “Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers,” produce few more profound questions than, “WTF?!”
WTF, indeed. Even Stein’s most patient critic, Richard Bridgman repeatedly refers to Tender Buttons as a “resistant” text. And even now, one hundred years later, Tender Buttons resists being read.
The quotidian simplicity of its organization — a series of prose-poem still lifes, objects, food, rooms — keeps us on the surface. In this way, Stein is clearly responding to the Cubist project, which similarly keeps its revolution on the surface using objects, food, and interiors as primary subject matter. But to say that the pieces in Tender Buttons are Cubist poetry is to miss quite a bit of what this writing does. The Cubist poetry label is probably better applied to a more imagistic poet like Williams or Oppen in the 1930s, but I have a different proposal for describing what Stein is up to.
I want to argue that in Tender Buttons Stein establishes a noise poetics. By “noise poetics,” I mean a set of formal qualities and a conceptualism. As a concept, noise is the static that gets in the way of the desired signal, the glitchy pixilation of a television signal or the hiss and pop of analog audio playback. As a set of formal qualities, noise is loud, blurry, dissonant, and overly repetitive. Noise is simultaneous; it paradoxically resists, grating our nerves, and fades into the background, as we habituate. Noise is something we wish to abate, but it is also a mark of something that needs our attention.
In Tender Buttons, Stein luxuriates in the static and the glitches of anaphoric reference: “Any time there is a surface there is a surface and every time there is a suggestion there is a suggestion […] and every time that is languid there is that there then and not oftener.” Taking what are often the most transparent words in English, the highly deictic demonstrative pronouns, Stein courts our frustration by removing the deictic center. “There is no there there.” Like the old man shifting the antenna to clean up the reception, the reader of these lines looks in vain for something beyond the surface only to be left with a blend of glimpses and noise.
She offers up gorgeous arrangements of phonemic repetition: “Eel us eel us with no no pea no pea cool, no pea cool cooler, no pea cooler.” She doesn’t destroy syntax; rather, she uses enough normative syntax to keep the hint of communication alive, to keep us squelching in search of the real signal, but then she lets the noise bloom in lovely stretches of nearly endless anacoluthon. Stein keeps us right on the surface, in a Barthesian “text of pleasure.”
Stein, with Tender Buttons, creates the most productive, thoughtful, and enduring exploration of noise poetics of the very noisy modernist period, and in so doing, she establishes a set of conceptual and formal qualities that inform a poetic engagement with noise that extends to the Black Mountain and New York Schools of mid-century, to the Language writers of the 1970s and 80s, and to the conceptualists of the early twenty-first century.
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 …
Tender. The indented prose of “A Chair” suggesting verse. I imagine the sentences of Tender Buttons as just the kinds of lines that welcome the dead. This is thinking now, don’t worry. We use adverbs here. The American Divine Comedy for things. The humor returns in my reading as I think of Dante in hell, narrating why “A Cutlet” or “A Petticoat” deserves their place, not to mention “A Cold Climate” or “A Time To Eat”. Stein makes no irrevocable judgment. “A letter was nicely sent”; “there is no worry”. There is much more, of “me,” of food, of pleasantness. It could be read as conceptual Cantos or a major novel, ‘there is no excuse for the abuse of cheese’. No, cheese must be defended, in Europe at least. “Why is there more craving than in a mountain”: need Benjamin have taken his quotes from more than one source? “Why is there so much useless suffering? Why is there?”
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.
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.
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.” 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.