'Tender Buttons' at 100

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

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 is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talks.

A shawl is a wedding, a piece of wax a little build. A shawl.

Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows. There is hollow hollow belt, a belt is a shawl.

A plate that has a little bobble, all of them, any so.

Please a round it is ticket.

It was a mistake to state that a laugh and a lip and a laid climb and a depot and a cultivator and a little choosing is a point to it.

“A shawl is” is a proposition no more courted into metaphor than the carafe’s blind glass, despite the array of words following the declaration. Rather than a transformative comparison conjured when like or unlike words are drawn into relationship with each other, Stein eschews metaphor for an accumulation of words giving shape to, but not subsumed by, a shawl. Her defining “is” arranges and forms, rendering a shawl a linguistic composition of words. Moving along a range of resemblances from the sartorial similarities of hat and undercoat to the categorical differences of hurt and a piece of wax, the words assemble to describe a shawl. Meanings are made through Stein’s sonic wit and playful nominative invention as the piece shifts from definition to imperative, “Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows,” to a reversal from “a shawl is” to “a belt is a shawl.” In Tender Button’s final section, “Rooms,” the text states, “Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty.” This series of sentences that assert, inquire and preserve doubt resonate with the sly last line of “A SHAWL.”  It claims, “It was a mistake to state” that the accretion of beautiful words in front of the “is,” including laugh, lip, laid climb, depot, cultivator, and little choosing, fix any one semantic or spatial point in the composition. Instead, Stein’s words are defining matter, building and moving “a point” of position and perception as they are brought into correspondences with one another.

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'