Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “Dirt and Not Copper.”

Remember what the Steiny Road Poet said in her discussion of “A Substance in a Cushion.—that she felt as if she was entering deep and dark disorienting woods? Things have changed for exploring “Dirt and Not Copper.”—the Steiny Poet is not alone on this journey, which threatened to be a battle with the elements of Gertrude Stein’s amazing mind.

Joining in on this journey through Tender Buttons with varying degrees of talking and listening contributions are MOOC Modern Poetry students Eleanor Smagarinsky, Mark Snyder, Judy Melbach, Tracy Sonafelt, Nicola Quinn, T. De Los Reyes, Susan Scheid, and Tamboura Gaskins.

Here is the poem segment:


Dirt and not copper makes a color darker. It makes the shape so heavy and makes no melody harder.

It makes mercy and relaxation and even a strength to spread a table fuller. There are more places not empty. They see cover.

To start the conversation with the ModPo students, the Steiny Poet suggested picking out several words and working from these first. Wanting to avoid prejudicing the others, the Steiny Poet kept her selection of color, table, and cover to herself. She figured these words had been used by Stein in earlier poem segments and seemed important. However, she had not worked out how the other words in “Dirt and Not Copper.” interacted with this trio of words.

What broke lose after the Steiny Poet went to bed for the night (her night on the East Coast of the United States) was a monologue from Mark (he too lives on the East Coast of the United States) egged on by Judy (what, for Pete’s sake, is her time zone?) telling Mark, “Stein would have not wanted you to get some sleep—wake up!” We all know, Dear Reader, that Stein did her work at night, yes? Rachel Blau DuPlessis said in a live ModPo webcast October 2, 2013, that Stein worked in a hypnogogic state—that period just prior to sleep. Maybe some would call this lucid dreaming. DuPlessis stressed Stein did not do automatic writing. Her writing was controlled.

In Mark’s monologue as cheered on by Judy, he had connected dirt, copper, alchemy and the relationship of these things to gender. Mark said, “The alchemic symbol for copper is the symbol for Venus (and a common symbol for female or femininity), according to Wikipedia.” Then Eleanor, having a clear case of FOMO (fear of missing out) burst on the scene with a eureka outcry, “Reading your comments right now I suddenly saw it - THE TABLE, Mark, Judy, Karren - the table is THE PERIODIC TABLE.”

From Mark’s monologue on dirt and copper:

Dirt and not copper makes a color darker

The previous paragraph (the last in “A Piece of Coffee.”) makes several references to cleaning and maybe laundry (silk, cotton).  Dirt, therefore, connects this passage to the previous passage.  Dirt, depending on where you are, is dark, maybe black with rich fertile soils (around here in North Carolina it's red clay), so if you get your silk or cotton dirty it will indeed get darker.

Copper, on the other hand, is metallic, and shiny, and bright.  When copper gets dirty (tarnished), it doesn't get darker, it turns a dull green:

The question is raised for me:  what was copper used for back in the time Tender Buttons was written.  Coins, sure.  Pipes?  I don't know.  I think most decorative or household metal objects would more likely be brass or bronze (alloys that included copper), silver, gold than copper since it tarnishes so easy (though I'm no metallurgist).  

From Mark’s monologue on alchemy and gender:

This is interesting, but as yet unconnected to anything—I'll throw it out there.  No idea if Stein was aware of this.  The alchemic symbol for copper is the symbol for Venus (and a common symbol for female or femininity), according to Wikipedia anyway.

Could Stein have been aware of an association between femininity/female gender, Venus, and copper?  I have no idea but if she did, it can certainly be no accident that she chose copper and not iron, which is associated with Mars and therefore tied to male gender.  

Just playing with this idea—Copper (womanhood) doesn't make the color darker, dirt does.  With gender in mind, dirt (with associations to dirty boys out playing in the mud, dirty old men, iron works and industry being both filthy places and places in her time dominated by males) makes the color darker.  Maleness makes the color darker, but femaleness doesn't.  

Okay, I am riffing on alchemy and Wikipedia surfing, so I may be getting farther and farther from Stein, but take a look at this:

Alchemists were trying to create or find what they called the philosopher's stone (an idea borrowed by J. K. Rowling for the Harry Potter book).  

According to the page cited here (for what it's worth), in alchemy darkening (nigredo) is decay or putrefaction—returning to a state of becoming dirt!  Hence, maleness is associated with decay and putrefaction, while femaleness is not.  (I note that she didn't say that copper made the color lighter, only that dirt made it darker).  But in alchemy, nigredo is a necessary first step toward creating the philosopher's stone.  You have to degrade, burn to ashes before you can create.  Nigredo leads to albedo (whiteness, lightening)—neatly dovetailing with copper's association to Venus (the morning star, the bringer of light), femininity, and illumination.  

Putting these together, using alchemy ideas as symbols (which I do only tentatively, since I have no idea whether Stein knew anything of alchemy), she must first embrace her own maleness (whatever that means) before reaching a higher state of embracing her own femaleness, and with it enlightenment.  

The next big breakthrough came from Tracy who said, “Dirt and copper are both used to create paint pigments, dirt or clay as a base, copper silicates to make brighter colors ranging from blue to green to purple.”

The next line: It makes the shape so heavy and makes no melody harder stumped Tracy as it did Mark and Eleanor. Tracy questioned, “A darker (“dirt”ier, more grounded, more natural?) shape appears heavier, more solidified, but I’m not sure about melody. I know we’ve used metaphors from both painting and music to describe the rhythm and repetition in Stein’s verse, so I feel that association here, but I don't know what to do with it.”

Here the Steiny Poet jumped in:

One of its meanings of melody is "a poem suitable for setting to music or singing." 

So, if dirt added to color makes the shape of a painting heavy, then maybe dirt is also gossip (Stein tends to double up on meanings) and that's how Stein jumps to "makes no melody harder" -- meaning gossip has no effect on the lyricism of a poem that is suited for singing, meaning Stein’s art of writing trumps the dirt of gossip. What this brings to mind for the Steiny Poet is composer Virgil Thomson telling Stein when he was first introduced to her how much Tender Buttons affected him. Probably, he, as a gay man, was not only tuned into the musical qualities of her work but also to the eroticism (which unfortunately was fodder for gossip).

One other framing idea put forward (by Eleanor) dealt with death. In particular, the words mercy and empty in combination with the word dirt and the phrase makes a color darker conjured the possibility of a graveyard while pointing to the Jewish custom of not listening to music in the mourning period. However, Eleanor could not find a way to relate this framework to more places not empty.

Here are some of Eleanor’s thoughts:

But if people have died why are there "MORE places NOT EMPTY" at the table, there should be more places empty as the people are missing. Maybe we are in a GRAVEYARD? And in that case, the dead don't "see cover" because they no longer see, now is their time to SEEK cover - under the ground - in the dirt, which is darker, but then it turns - like copper when it's out in the elements - into the colour of not-copper - green. Grass? Plant life, LIFE, which the survivors then eat at their table, which is, in turn, spread fuller.

It's life at its most fundamental - back to the ELEMENTS - back to the original table of living.

It makes mercy and relaxation and even a strength to spread a table fuller.

About the third sentence (there are only five in “Dirt and Not Copper.”), Tracy said, “I think of spreading a feast on a banquet table (a version of what Stein does in hosting her famous salons). It (whatever “it” is–groundedness? Rootedness?) makes mercy to put aside petty differences and welcome everyone to the table. It makes an atmosphere of unhurried relaxation and leisure for conversation to thrive. It makes strength to spread that table fuller and further and welcome all ideas.”

The Steiny Poet thinks the it in, "It makes mercy and relaxation and even a strength to spread a table fuller," is the melody -- music is mercifully relaxing and allows those at the table to continue taking in nourishment.

There are more places not empty. They see cover

Tracy concludes, “So more places are full than empty. The table is near capacity. The painting is almost complete. The ideology is almost fully formed.”

The Steiny Poet finds what Tracy said about the last lines of “Dirt and Not Copper.” economical and poignant. To this the Steiny Poet adds, “The nourishment then flips back to the creation of the painting but because of the nourishment, more color has filled in, covering the canvas.” In the live ModPo webcast October 2, 2013, Bob Perelman provided an example of Stein pointing to Cezanne applying small patches of color on a canvas where all of the patches were equal, drawing attention neither to foreground nor background and saying this was also Stein’s approach with words.

Who knew this leg of the journey through Tender Buttons would reap so many riches? The Steiny Road Poet thanks everyone who came to the ModPo study group and lent his or her support. Talking and listening is highly recommended.

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