Saturday, October 19, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “Nothing Elegant.”

This post on “Nothing Elegant.” counts number seven of “Objects,” the first section of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

What comes to mind as the Steiny Road Poet makes her way, now in the company of the Button Collective (more on the Collective soon), through this remarkable long poem is the emphasis on containers. Tender Buttons opens with “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass. Segment 3 offers A Substance in a Cushion.”, granted an unusual object to hold anything except some kind of soft stuffing and what about that closet under the bed? Segment four is A Box.”.

What are vessels of such sort if not objects that hold things, that hold other objects?

The Button Collective, as Eleanor Smagarinsky has named the MOOC Modern Poetry Tender Buttons study group (see "Dirt and Not Copper.”), could hardly contain itself in exploring “Nothing Elegant.”. While the Steiny Poet attended to other matters of her own daily living, the Collective (participating in this riot of study were: Eleanor Smagarinsky, Tracy Sonafelt, Tamboura Gaskins,  Mark Snyder, Nicola Quinn, Claudia Schumann, Allan Keeton, Dave Green) went way outside the box of ordinary reason finding frameworks (could we call these containers?) that included value of plain-versus-ornate, Dorothy Parker’s debunking of the rose as romantic symbol, female sexuality, a vacuum cleaner, metapoetics, fashion as enhanced by sewing and young female models, charm bracelets, love relationships, and Ernest Hemingway (a blind alley since Hemmie met his Buddha Gertrude in 1923 and Tender Buttons was published in 1914).

Here is the poem segment:


A charm a single charm is doubtful. If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright. It is earnest.


Tracy Sonafelt’s first thoughts about “charm” and “rose” in the first bit of “Nothing Elegant.” sent her to Dorothy Parker debunking the traditional romantic emblem in "One Perfect Rose."

Dear Reader, if you took the time to view the Dorothy Parker “One Perfect Rose” animation, you will experience the level of hilarity that was experienced by the Button Collective in exploring “Nothing Elegant.” Now, Parker wrote this poem in 1923, so of course, if any influence happened, it was Stein on Parker and not vice-versa. Same anachronistic musing of those in the Collective who drew Ernest Hemingway and Woody Allen’s charming film Midnight in Paris into the study group discussion. Stein’s work has a way of reaching forward and backward while she stays anchored in the present moment.

However, Tracy only used Parker as a launching pad for specific and serious thoughts about “Nothing Elegant.” She said, “

·      In Stein, “a charm a single charm is doubtful,” because there is no one perfect, “elegant” charm or emblem that is love’s “amulet,” no single conventional romantic symbol we should privilege over all others. She divests the charm, here the archetypal red rose, of its protective magic, one meaning of charm, and its persuasive delight, another sense of charm. “A rose is a rose is a rose,” because things are what they are, nothing more; she is making new the “language of the floweret.”

·      If “the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it” takes my thoughts to gated communities of privilege, isolation, and detachment where residents attempt to wall out the world and themselves in. They are controlled, artificial, cinematic-set-like places divested of vitality and energy just as the gated hothouse rose, the cultivated, the artificial rose is bred out of its wild natural state to have uniform, engineered color and scent. In Parker, “My fragile leaves ... his heart enclose,” like the gate (thorns, outer petals, leaves) that surrounds (a circular gate?) the red heart of the red rose in Stein.

·      Just as she turns the conventional symbol of the rose on its head, Stein flips the conventional expression of opening a door or a window (here a gate) to let the outside in, replacing it with the idea of letting the inside in. When “inside is let in,” we penetrate the core, getting to the essence of objects, past the external baggage with which “outside” has laden those objects.

·      The problem with this idea of outside and inside changing places is that it depends on an understanding that their places change, but Stein writes “there places change.” Perhaps I can read it in the sense that right then and there, their places change. There is a moment in time and space when the exchange occurs. Imagining it this way heightens the sense that this change is deliberate, intentional, the result of a transformative act.

·      I also go to female sexuality whenever there is “red” and “rose” in the mix. Is there something about abandoning oneself to sexual freedom, opening oneself to sexual expressiveness, in opening the gate and letting the inside in? Can someone take this further?

·      Something is upright” and “It is earnest” seem pretty straightforwardly and directly to say what they mean and mean what they say. Once we supplant artificiality with genuineness and external trappings with internal essence, we/it/the world stands upright. It is earnest. It is genuine. It is what it is. A rose is a rose is a rose.

In just a few words, Tamboura Gaskins provided a sober synopsis and close read as follows:

Only plain, unadorned things are important.  Forget frivolity. Make it simple to show you're serious.

Close read:
A charm a single charm is doubtful. -- Don't trust fanciful things.
If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it -- Treasure faded, well-worn things.
if inside is let in and there places change  -- if you down-size and give away (throw away) things that no longer fit,
then certainly something is upright -- this is just; it is the right thing to do.
It is earnest -- you will show the depth of your character, the seriousness of your actions.


From serious to surreal, Eleanor Smagarinsky equated this poem object as vacuum cleaner. To wit:

NOTHING - the opposite of something, i.e. A VACUUM.
ELEGANT? - I'm going out on a limb here and saying that the object in question is a VACUUM CLEANER.

I'll pause to allow the laughter to quiet down. OK.

Rose... rise.... dust rises, goes through the gate, inside and the places change - i.e. the house is cleaned, and of course - the vacuum is upright. Earnest is a synonym of upright, from a certain angle, so it's a joke.

Is this a joke about domestic work? If you look at ads from around 1914, there is always a very elegant woman vacuuming! And why yes, now that you ask, I did look it up to make sure they were around at that time:

I'm still not sure how to interpret the first bit about the charm and the rose, but Tracy - the poem - the rose and the limousine!! Do you think that GS could be making a really funny statement about getting a vacuum cleaner as a present for Alice? It would have been the equivalent of a limousine in a way, new-fangled machinery, and definitely much cooler than that doubtful rose. Oh. Wait. Is there a connection here between Alice and the vacuum cleaner and eroticism?

Psst, said the Steiny Poet back to Eleanor, “charm equals attractiveness! What does a vacuum do if not attract?


So Eleanor all hopped up on discovery, could not sleep and provided another close reading invested in metapoetics:

Nothing Elegant.
There is elegance (simplicity?/art?) to be found in a vacuum, but we don't live in a vacuum - we live in the real world, a world made up of very real letters - language - so there's really NOTHING truly elegant in our world.

A charm a single charm is doubtful.
Each letter, on its own, does not have a distinct meaning.

If the red is rose
If the read is (in) rows. If we put the letters together into words...

and there is a gate surrounding it,
And the words are corralled into a regular structure - with grammatical rules / punctuation?

if inside is let in
If you concentrate all your efforts on penetrating the deepest meaning of this language

and there places change
And their places change - and if you change the placing of the letters, the syntax

then certainly something is upright.
Then you can be sure that the "something" you arrive at (that innermost meaning) is upright - i.e. standing up - i.e. not lying down - i.e. NOT A LIE.

It is earnest.
It is the most of "earn" - i.e. it earns you the most - i.e. You will be rich beyond your wildest imagination.


Running to keep up with the velocity of this discussion, the Steiny Poet added her two cents by acknowledging that her first impulse was seeing “Nothing Elegant.” as coded sex—Gertrude speaking to her rose Alice.

The Steiny Poet’s second impulse, which seemed minor compared to the close reads before hers, dealt with fashion and sewing. She thinks she was influenced by what Ron Silliman said in a live ModPo webcast October 2, 2013, about Project Runway and having seen Insight and Identity: Contemporary Artists and Gertrude Stein, an art exhibition mounted at the Stanford (University) in Washington (DC) art gallery where there were standing artful dresses: including a rose is a rose dress and "A Long Dress." dress.

The Steiny Poet was thinking charm school and the kind of trinkets hanging off a bracelet. She was thinking those luscious young women (roses all) on the fashion runway who need to be protected by gates. She was thinking how the behind the scenes (seams) seamstresses take in and let out the dresses to make them fit the models.

But who can deny the vacuum cleaner or language frameworks? Shall the Steiny Poet wear out WOW some more, Eleanor? Shall we cow tip, Tracy, that palindrome WOW making it MOM? You gals you de best! do wop do wop, snap snap bop.

Then Tamboura sneaked in some explicit language: “If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it -- since my pussy has a gate, and my Pussy [Gertrude affectionately called Alice Pussy] is the gatekeeper.”

And, oh my! there was more talk like that from Allan Keeton and nostalgic tracts on charm bracelets from Eleanor and Tracy and and no one could sleep for two days across the whole world, because we were laughing and carrying on, breaking open vessels like this. Who knew Gertrude Stein could be so entertaining?

No comments: