Monday, October 7, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “Glazed Glitter.”

Upon initiating the second leg of the Steiny Road Poet’s journey through Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons, the Steiny Poet already knows that what worked for actively reading “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.”—that is, going word by word—is not going to work for “Glazed Glitter.” Have a look at second poem and see what you think.


Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.

There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.


After reading “Glazed Glitter.” Several times, the Steiny Poet has a few thoughts. Stein is talking about money, specifically the American coin called the nickel and possibly the chemical element which used to make up the American nickel. She is also talking about one’s livelihood and specifically her own, which formerly had been predicated on her study of medicine. The last stanza which begins “There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine” makes it clear she is talking about her own career path, that “[t]he change has come” in stanza one is less about the nickel (more about this soon) and more about her decision to quit medical school despite being so close to graduation.

So abandoning the strategy of going word by word, the Steiny Poet decided to look at the last poem of Tender Buttons’ section one, “Objects” not so much to illuminate “Glazed Glitter.” but to see if the last entry of the section talks to “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.” Over the years, the Steiny Poet has learned if she gets stuck writing and thinking that her best strategy is to read something that might be a little out of the neighborhood of interest. Also during the ModPo live web session on Tender Buttons, Rachel Blau DuPlessis suggested that while approaching Stein’s work with a cubist method of looking at all sides might work for a while, something instead of going around, in, and under, the reader has to go out and away from the work being read.

Did it help to read the very short “This Is This Dress, Aider.”?  Not at all. However, the break from thinking about “Glazed Glitter.” made the Steiny Poet wonder in what year Stein wrote Tender Buttons. And might that timeframe when Stein was writing Tender Buttons illuminate why she chose to write about nickel and nickels. In searching the Internet, the Steiny Poet found “The Making of ‘Tender Buttons’: Gertrude Stein's subjects, objects, and the illegible” by Joshua Schuster. The article appears in the journal Jacket 2 founded by ModPo professor Al Filreis.


Stein began writing Tender Buttons in 1912. Schuster’s article recounts how the work came to be and, interestingly, that section one “Objects” was written last but Schuster is unsure whether section two "Food" or section three “Rooms” was written first. Abandoning Schuster’s essay at that fact, the Steiny Poet picked up her paper copy of Tender Buttons to read the entirety of “Rooms”. Here the Steiny Poet purposefully puts the period in the last sentence outside the quotation mark because the Tender Buttons section titles, unlike the interior poems of sections one and two, do not include periods.

Now that “Rooms” has taken off the top of the Steiny Poet’s head and freed her thinking, she has a bigger framework to look at “Glazed Glitter.” and the poems that make up “Objects” and “Food”. Why? Because “Rooms” is the roadmap for the entire work. In reading “Rooms” the Steiny Poet is convinced that Stein is conveying meaning and that the meaning is closely associated with her life. In fact, the Steiny Poet believes Tender Buttons is Stein working out her decision to quit medical school, to become a writer of consequence, to declare her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, to openly disagree with her brother Leo, and to embrace the progress of the Twentieth Century (e.g. electric lights). For now, Dear Reader, you’ll have to trust that the Steiny Poet will back up what she says about “Rooms” when she sequentially gets to that part of the journey through Tender Buttons.


According to Wikipedia, the Liberty Head nickel circulated as the American five-cent coin from 1883 to 1912. Made of copper and nickel, the coin, which had longstanding production problems, was designed to meet commercial need, particularly as coin-operated machines became popular. By 1911, the United States Mint worked on designing the Buffalo nickel which went into production in 1913. The Steiny Poet can imagine that Stein took delight in thinking about the change in change such as the nickel.

As a chemical element, nickel presents a silvery-white shine but may oxidize (turning a rusty red) when exposed to air or water. Maybe Stein considers this oxidation glazed glitter and is suggesting the oxidation is a temporal condition in the phrase red weakens an hour. In nature, nickel is often found in combination with the chemical element iron. Maybe Stein was referring to this condition of existing with iron in the opening line,  Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover where cover stands for iron.

What flips the poem into a different plane of meaning is the word sinecure. Sinecure means a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit. Surely working as a doctor is hard work and not a cushy job (or maybe it was in Stein’s time) but looking at the historical genesis of the Latin words sine cūrā  meaning without cure (of souls) might be what Stein was toying with. Certainly there were no cures for female diseases like the ovarian cancer that struck down her mother and which possibly motivated Stein in part to enroll in the medical school of Johns Hopkins.

Like “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.”, the last stanza of “Glazed Glitter.” is heavy on negatives—no gratitude, no programme [sic], no color chosen, no obligation, and borrowing is not natural. But then again, nickel is a chemical element made up of positive (28 protons) and negative (18-20 electrons) subatomic particles. Countervailing the negatives, Stein uses the linking verb is (without not) 13 times  and to be with modal verbs twice (i.e. will be and can be).

For now, the Steiny Poet parks “There can be breakages in Japanese” without significant comment. A search through Tender Buttons for the word Japan yielded, “No cup is broken in more places and mended, that is to say a plate is broken and mending does do that it shows that culture is Japanese.” (from “Careless Water.” in “Objects”.) Perhaps what is being talked about is some sort of metallic vessel (nickel plated?) made in Japan and is just a way Stein is linking back to “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.” or maybe the vessel is a spittoon—“It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing.” Possibly Stein is doing double duty here because it was chosen yesterday might also be her medical career which she is disdainfully casting aside like so much spit.

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