Friday, October 11, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Box.”

The whole thing is not understood and this is not strange considering that there is no education… Gertrude Stein

Bewildered with “A Box.”, only the fourth poem part of Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons, the Steiny Road Poet’s journey plays like an endless rollercoaster ride. Full disclosure is that the Steiny Poet quoted the opening words of this poem in her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. More on that shortly. Here’s Stein’s fourth poem from section one “Objects”.


Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

From the moment the Steiny Poet decided to quote in her opera libretto Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, she believed that this passage refers to the relationship Gertrude had with her brother Leo after she quit medical school and came to Paris to live with him. However, the Steiny Poet never spent the time to think deeply about the rest of this difficult-to-understand stanza. What came to mind in writing the opera libretto was that Gertrude felt embarrassed and grateful for her brother Leo’s support after she left medical school in her fourth year of studies, just shy of a degree. Such a decision would raise lots of questions and perhaps Gertrude was not willing to say or could not yet formulate why she had taken such a drastic step away from all the work she had done in those four years.

At least a few words from “A Box.” seem reasonably connected to what has already been established. The words research, analysed [analyse is the British spelling of analyze], and disappointing supports the theory that this passage might be connected to her college and medical studies that should have concluded in a lucrative career. In her undergraduate studies, Stein participated in psychological research and experiments. While the word cattle seems unconnected, one of the definitions—“Humans, specially when viewed contemptuously or as a mob”—makes painful cattle line up with the failed medical career as in those people who judged her for her failure to finish.  The phrase a fine substance echoes “A Substance in a Cushion.” Before the Steiny Poet comments on that fine substance, she wants to continue unfolding her process for navigating this stanza of 78 words.

So feeling not particularly connected to most of the words in this poem, the Steiny Poet decided to dip into “Rooms,” the last section of Tender Buttons, which she feels provides a roadmap to the entire book. Searching “Rooms” for the word question yielded fourteen hits. Including this stanza:

A climate, a single climate, all the time there is a single climate, any time there is a doubt, any time there is music that is to question more and more and there is no politeness, there is hardly any ordeal and certainly there is no tablecloth.

The tenor of this stanza from “Rooms” indicates a crisis of doubt causing the narrator to question herself without gentle behavior (politeness) though whatever the situation is is not deemed so difficult (ordeal). Is the narrator trying to talk herself down, that whatever the crisis is cannot be so bad? Probably.  As stated in the first post on Tender Buttons, noted Steinian scholar Ulla Dydo maintains that behind all Stein’s writing are the questions What am I? Who am I? So while questions concerning the narrator’s behavior might be coming from her brother Leo in “A Box.”, they also might to be coming from the narrator, which sheds light on the obsessively long last sentence made up of 53 words out of the total 78.

While the Steiny Poet is not going to do justice to the last sentence, she will attempt to talk through it in small sound bytes.

So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin …

From the beginning of Tender Buttons, color is prominently discussed. In “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.”: a single hurt color. In Glazed Glitter.”: no color chosen. In A Substance in a Cushion.”: The change of color is likely. A search of “Objects” (section 1 of Tender Buttons) yields 31 hits on the word color. While the Steiny Poet wondered if Stein thought white was colorless, a search through Tender Buttons, indicates that Stein considers white a bone fide color. Another thought is whether the word white is a stand-in for right, as in the right way of being round.

Is pin the kind of tool used in sewing (there are many passages in Tender Buttons depicting sewing) or is it an adornment pinned on one’s dress or jacket lapel? The Steiny Poet’s great grandmother Pearl had a headshot of the Steiny Poet’s great grandfather Isaac that was inserted in a small round frame with a pin on the back so she could wear it to show everyone the young man she loved. Pearl and Isaac courted in Baltimore in the early 1900’s. Maybe Stein who lived in Baltimore when the Steiny Poet’s great grandparents were courting saw these kinds of love tokens if she did not have one herself.

… and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely …

By proximity, it is referring to pin. Is pin a stand-in for Alice Toklas? At the time Stein met Toklas, Stein was analyzing everyone she encountered to determine what she called his or her Bottom Nature. Stein’s initial analysis of Toklas (written into one of her notebooks) was not favorable. Stein’s Bottom Nature evaluation contained such words as crooked, lazy, stupid. Brenda Wineapple in her Stein biography Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein said that while Stein was attracted, she was wary of Alice’s capacity for deceit and manipulation which Stein interpreted as crookedness. With a scientist’s eye, her research sees the fine substance strangely. The fine substance established in “A Substance in a Cushion.” is sugar and sugar equates to kisses, love, and the love object Alice Toklas or so the Steiny Poet thinks.

… it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

In this case, it refers to fine substance.  But here, the substance seems like it is in a petri dish reacting with some other substance and shifting color possibly from the white way to green? The green is not becoming red as in the opening reaction out of kindness comes redness. The green is indicating or pointing to some other reaction or perhaps it belongs to that system to pointing which includes the hurt color and which seems to be a reaction or difference that is spreading as described in “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.”

Has the Steiny Poet therefore talked herself out of her belief that the opening lines of “A Box.” does not refer to Gertrude’s relationship with Leo? Has the Steiny Poet just revealed to herself that  “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.” is about Stein’s relationship with Toklas and thereby negated the possibility that the first poem segment is about Stein’s own birth? Absolutely not. What the Steiny Poet has discovered is how Stein can talk about multiple experiences at the same time. Therefore, Stein makes cousins out of the carafe that is a blind glass and a box. And by the way “Objects” contains two poem segments titled “A Box.” Hang on for the endless rollercoaster ride.

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