Monday, October 21, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “Mildred's Umbrella.”

Dear Reader,

The Steiny Poet kindly invited me to write a guest post on her blog. That sentence probably confused the regular readers among you, seeing as the Steiny Poet usually writes about herself in third person, and here am I (who am I? who do I think I am, pretending to be the inimitable Steiny Poet?) also writing about her in the third person.

My name is Eleanor Smagarinsky, and Steiny and I met on October 12, 2013 (o happy day!) at ModPo, click here for the glorious background. Right, so now that you’ve caught up, you realise that I use the word “met” in the virtual sense. While I have never had the pleasure of smiling directly at Steiny, nor of giving her an appreciative hug for all her hard work as a ModPo community TA, we have already developed a close bond thanks to the ModPo study group which she leads (I like to call it The Button Collective). The collective is comprised of many different people from around the globe, united by their passion for Tender Buttons. If you read the previous post “Nothing Elegant.” then you already met some of the key players in the drama and, by virtue of sharing our experiences, you (yes, you, I’m looking at You!), are part of our collaborative exploration and celebration of Tender Buttons.

“Nothing Elegant.” was number 7 in the volume Objects.
But now…
We are 8:

A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.

The Steiny Poet..............-              torchbearer
Nicola Quinn..................-              brave leader
Tracy Sonafelt................-              navigator
Eleanor Smagarinsky......-              backup/supplies
Allan Keeton..................-              poet
Dave Green....................-              biological welfare
Mark Snyder..................-              healer

Steiny held her torch high, pointing it towards an umbrella… an umbrella with no remarkable features other than a small label affixed to its handle which read “MILDRED.”  All seven of us (it’s a lucky number) peered at the umbrella, Tracy shrugged and then giggled “Any of you know a Mildred?” none of us did, “I see her as a proper, serious, buttoned-up, Oxford-shoed sort of person,” she said. Eleanor snorted appreciatively, which only encouraged Tracy to continue, “On a cloudy day, by gum, you aren’t gonna catch Mildred out without her umbrella, Mildred’s all business.” Tracy and Eleanor were behaving inappropriately, they knew this but couldn’t help themselves, so Steiny had to step in. Steiny, looking as serious as the situation necessitated, pointed towards Nicola and proclaimed, “You, dear Nicola, must open Mildred’s Umbrella and start us on our journey.”

Nicola tried to summon her courage by walking around and around the umbrella and taking in its every fold. “I’m not sure I can do this. All I see are thorny dead ends,” she said. But Eleanor held her hand and said, “On the contrary, remember the words of our wise and beloved ModPo teacher – Jason Zuzga – ‘Those are not thorns at what seems like a dead end -- they block secret places - secret gardens and playgrounds, secret gathering places, gatherings of cloth, of illicit liaisons –‘” Nicola nodded, smiled, and then grabbed the umbrella in both hands and opened it in one magnificent swoop, with loud enough and extra a loud clash, which all at once revealed an established color and cunning within.

“Well, I hesitate to say this,” Nicola said, “and this is without a proper reading, but… it brings to mind Mildred’s … VAGINA.” At which point all three men turned towards a different path, and began to pay great attention to the general state of the weather. “Was there a Mildred we know of?” Nicola turned towards Steiny, but Steiny had disappeared as well; only her torch was left still burning on its stand.

Left alone with only Mildred’s umbrella, Nicola, Tracy and Eleanor surveyed its cause and no curve, noticing a sign of extra within it, a sac, a small sac. “It reminds me of something organic, not just any old bag or pouch,” said Nicola. “Yes,” replied Tracy, “sac always suggests scrotum to me. With sack I can go in other directions, but with sac I arrive at scrotum for sure, for sure.” The giggling session which ensued… well…let’s just say that one of the women may well have peed her pants, just a bit.  “Stop, I can’t take this any more, my stomach muscles are aching from laughing so much,” Eleanor pleaded.

But then Nicola stopped laughing, and we all stopped, and she asked a question:

“Is this about abortion?”

A question which changed everything.


Tracy and Eleanor turned towards Nicola. They nodded. Of course. Yes.

More silence.

And then Nicola spoke again --

“If you just look at the words overall it feels like that. Then loss, loss, though with restitution, a life won back?”

Steiny’s torch glowed ever-stronger. A line was drawn around the three women as they sat in a circle around the umbrella.

N -“I just got shivers down my spine”

E – “We will need to tread softly as we go. People’s feelings are at stake.”

T – “The path beyond the thorns, I think it might lead to the birth of a political or artistic movement and its abortion, miscarriage, or suppression.”

Nicola squeezed Tracy’s hand “Please continue, how would that work?”

Tracy explained: “I’m thinking of cause in the sense of “a goal or principle served with dedication and zeal” or “the interests of a person or group engaged in a struggle” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2011). Stein’s poetic or artistic mission perhaps? The cause of gender equality? It is not a cause supported lightly or casually or half-heartedly. There is no curve, no deviation from straightness. This cause is pursued at full bore and in full voice with extra clamor and clash and protest, and with the attendant publicity (Extra Extra, Read All About It!).

N – “And an extra wagon?”

T - “I’m thinking of an extra paddy wagon brought in to collect protesters, a sign of the extra numbers involved in this cause. “Sign” reinforces the idea of picketing and placarding that accompanies defending a cause.”

E – And "a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning?”

T - “A critique of masculinity (sac as scrotum)? Does this have to do with small-mindedness, establishment, inside-the-box thinking, painting all causes and their champions with the same broad brush-strokes (in the same established color)? Cunning takes me immediately to cunnilingus, which works better with a sexualised reading than it does here, or perhaps there is something distinctly feminine in this sac (sac as amniotic sac), which makes me think of the birth of a movement, small and fragile at the outset.”

The three women shuffled ever closer to each other, warming their hands by Steiny’s glowing torch.

E – And "the slender grey and no ribbon?”

T - “The umbilical cord? The birth of a movement is vitality and life. Sending it out into the world (or destroying it before it is fully formed) amounts to much more than the cutting of a ceremonial ribbon, a sham moment for cameras and onlookers. This is a cause that is real, a cause that breathes. Cutting the slender grey cord is not a going-through-the-motions formality.”

N – “this means a loss a great loss a restitution.

“Indeed,” replied Tracy in a whisper, “Attempts to squash the movement, to kill or suppress it in infancy, come at tremendous cost. Any loss is a great loss. There will, there must, be compensation, restoration, restitution for the loss.”

N – “The cause could itself be for legal abortions.”

T – “Absolutely, I was leaving it open, but seeing the cause as support for legal abortion marries our readings.”

All three women wept together for quite some time. Between breaths and sighs they whispered words to each other which sounded a bit like curette, curve, Death’s sickle, a sac, a small sac. But I doubt you would have heard the words if you had found yourself passing by their circle on that night, for the soft breeze took those words away as soon as they appeared.

Then dearest Steiny returned, reclaiming her place in the circle. “Now you are ready,” she said, and thus she began:

“Milly is a nickname for Mildred. Gertrude Stein’s mother was nicknamed Milly despite her first name being Amelia. Milly Stein died of a female cancer. I don’t know if anyone has proof it was uterine cancer (a type of cancer which  may be genetically linked from one generation to the next) but Gertrude’s cause of death was uterine cancer and NOT stomach cancer as many academics have said. I have a copy of her death certificate and it reads, “carcinoma of uterus according to doctor’s statement.” I believe neither Gertrude nor Alice wanted people to know.

"I also believe Stein was studying medicine, and specifically female disorders, but she wasn't happy at Johns Hopkins. My understanding is that the male faculty did not treat her well. Her friend Dr. Claribel Cone pleaded with her to stay and finish the degree. This was also the time of her affair with May Bookstaver who ended their relationship and broke GS's heart.

"A possible reason / cause  for GS studying medicine might have been Milly’s illness, but it seems to devolve into something else like an argument (clash) with Leo in the time of writing TB. Then I think it moves to the period after Milly died when GS and Leo Stein took a wagon loaded with books into the Oakland Hills. No one seemed to be monitoring their behavior after Milly died and although GS claims her mother was not very important to  her (Milly had been sick in bed for a couple of years), the loss was deep.

"In Jewish practice, a rabbi rents (tears) an article of clothing worn by the mourner as a sign of mourning. Today one wears a cut piece of black ribbon. I don't know when the cut ribbon practice started so that needs some researching. Of course this poem says "no ribbon" but maybe the Stein family was too disconnected from practice to rent clothing or ribbon.

"When Stein was a teenager going to a singing lesson, she saw a man beat a woman with an umbrella. I believe she vowed after that experience, she would go to college and get a proper education so she would not be dependent on any man. There is a scene like this in The Making of Americans.”

As Steiny finished and silence descended, Dave stood and spoke softly to the group:

“Poetry, in its scrambling of conventional word arrangements, is like the literary equivalent of recombinant DNA, jumping genes, and genetic mutations. Many times those genetic changes result in nonsense, but sometimes they result in useful, novel features. That is what drives evolution forward. It is why we are here. So Stein is imitating life, at the molecular level!”

Eleanor then stood and took her place beside Dave:

“Do you think that ‘no ribbon’ might be connected to ribbons of DNA?! But wait, there’s no possible way that Stein could have known about the composition of DNA in 1914.”

Now it was Allan’s turn to join the speakers:
“Historical accuracy is useful only so far as it is useful. Eleanor, I’m sure that you would be able to use the scientific knowledge we have now so as to inform the text.”

Eleanor meditated on the word RIBBON until it levitated and became RIB ON. She then conjured up the Garden of Eden, a woman made from a man’s rib, the cunning of a serpent and an expulsion – a loss a great loss a restitution.

Allan clapped his hands:

“Dave! This is the DNA recombination you described, only in words. Such science yet to be revealed. What a revelation!”

Mark then stood up and cleared his throat.

He held up a canvas 24x20.

“I call it Dirt and Not Copper. I painted it for all of you, all of us, to remember today.”

The group of seven stood and took in the remarkable vision that was their conversation, painted there, before them, miraculously pulsating with life.

Then Steiny recited the poem once again:

A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.

And each person returned to his/her home, comforted by the sound of the words, which now meant so much more than words ever had.

“Good night, my dear Button Collective. This one was so very sad,” said the Steiny Poet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a tour de force, E, both delightful and insightful. Thank you for tenderizing this button so beautifully.