Friday, October 25, 2013
Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Red Stamp.”
The Steiny Road Poet has once again invited a guest blogger into Gertrude Stein’s button box, though why Tracy Sonafelt, sister member of ModPo, would want to follow in the brilliant footsteps of either guest-blogger Eleanor Smagarinsky or the Steiny Road Poet herself defies comprehension and should make you seriously question Tracy’s sanity. You have been forewarned.
After Steiny wrote her previous post, ModPo Teaching Assistant and wordsmith extraordinaire Jason Zuzga, in his first visit to the “Button Collective,” suggested a gustatory approach to Tender Buttons.
It might be nice to have a word-tasting party—like a wine-tasting ... to try to describe after a sip and swirling (saying, hearing, writing, looking, and if only one knew sign and Braille–the tactility) … describe a word: the scent and mouth feel, the notes high and low, from initial inhalings to those that linger at the back of the tongue and memory. OH—you guys are having a word-tasting party RIGHT HERE!!!!! I’m in.
The Button Collective hopes you’re in too. From a bottomless carafe that is a blind glass, they are pouring words both earthy and ethereal, both robust and mild, both weighty and light-hearted. Plus the hors d’oeuvres are to die for. As Ignatius J. Reilly likes to say, “When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip” (Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces). Welcome to the word-tasting party!
A RED STAMP.
If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this they need a catalogue.
Tracy has arrived early to help the Steiny Road Poet with the party set-up and is getting the mouth feel of those delicious title words:
A red stamp: I am in the post office buying red stamps to match my Valentine’s Day cards. A red stamp: I submit an application and someone marks it “Rejected” with a big red stamp. A red stamp: I stamp out a red-hot ember. A red stamp: I stamp my feet to shake the lily white snow off my bright red boots. A red stamp: Red is a homophone for read ∴ a red stamp = a read stamp. A postage stamp, a trading stamp, a seal, a tool that presses or cuts, a trait (stamp of genius), a judgment (stamp of approval, stamp of excellence). Gertrude Stein is the seal; she is the tool that presses or cuts language into bits and reassembles it new. My trusty dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary 2011) gives me this etymology: “Middle English stampen, possibly alteration of Old English stempan, to pound in a mortar.” GS pounds words in a mortar and looks at their essence. She makes new compounds from the essential elements.
“Niiiice, Tracy!” says Steiny. “I like the system of pointing you are drawing. I hear it.”
THE LILY AND THE BODY POLITIC
Mark Snyder, Renaissance Man, is the first party guest to arrive. Tonight he is thoughtful, serious. He has something on his mind, namely this: “White lilies (according to Wikipedia, anyway) are said to be racist emblems here in the South (presumably here in rural North Carolina, but I’ve never seen or heard of this). (This makes this look a lot less innocuous.)” Mark isn’t entirely comfortable with this association, preferring to pursue the idea of lilies as a symbol of purity, but the idea gnaws at him.
The Steiny Road Poet takes time to greet each of her party guests with extreme grace, and after listening thoughtfully, she responds, “I know if a person is lily white that person is pure, but I keep hearing that as some kind of political taunt. Maybe the racist emblem falls in that category. Would this be ascribed to a person who could cross white-black race lines and be questioned about being lily white?”
Mark explains that according to Wikipedia, “The white lily was used as an indicator of slavery in the 1850’s; supposedly one slave owner branded his slaves with white lilies to mark them as his in the event they ever escaped. In the 1880’s those opposed to the end of slavery would put white lilies over their doors. There was a group called the ‘Stem of the White Lily’ that rebelled against the Georgia government and was responsible for some 200 lynchings.” Mark doesn’t “know if Stein was aware of the association of white lilies with racism,” but “really doubt[s] it’s what she had in mind.”
Tracy, who has been passing the cheese dip among the partygoers, interjects, “In Christian iconography, lilies represent rebirth and resurrection, … and I wonder whether that symbolism is in any way intertwined with the racist associations. So often slave-owners and/or members of organizations like the KKK twisted scriptural ideas to accommodate and promote racist beliefs and actions, and that’s still common today.” Mark is surprised that he has never encountered these lily associations in the South, especially since “The Civil War ain’t over here.”
Up until now, Claudia Schumann has been quietly sipping and savoring while paging through the books in the hostess’s amazing library, but here she looks up, nods, and adds, “As I was growing up in Virginia, our family (who were white but opposed to racism) would call white people who pushed the agenda that everything should be for whites only – we called them lily whites. But I don’t know what GS thought or was thinking about racism. Something can be construed from lily white as not as pure in heart as it should be due to the referencing of exhaust, noise, dust, etc., all dirty things. As you can see, I haven’t quite figured it out. Also the Red Stamp might have something to do with the rise of communism in Europe. I have to do some more research on this to make sure the historical part would fit when Tender Buttons was written.”
CODED LOVE POEM
When Mark continues, “I find myself still trying to shoehorn the lilies into the idea of this being a coded love poem – so I don’t see the racist association fitting that purpose,” Eleanor’s ears perk up on the opposite side of the room where she has been shimmying in “attractive black silver” sequins. She is the life of the party, so she doesn’t usually leave the dance floor, but as she’s thirsty, she picks up her glass and heads over for a conversational refill.
Eleanor wonders, “lilies lies lies that are lily white ... white lies?” and in another associative thought: “Dust as punctuation?” The others consider this, sipping bubbly ellipses and nose-tickling colons as they do, while Eleanor ruminates, “Definitely meta things are happening here - catalogue. Points to an order, even alphabetical? Or societal order? Tracy... are you there? Need you ....” Tracy, who had turned away to refill her “little bit of a tumbler,” recalls her earlier conversation with Steiny and offers, “I’m thinking catalogue ... system ... arrangement in a system to pointing ... exclamation point!”
Eleanor’s words begin to effervesce. “OK. Fasten your seat belts. Gay people having sex – it’s not necessary (i.e. not ‘useful’ for reproduction of the species).” She pauses, visibly shaken. “I’m very emotional now. Wow, there’s that switch GS does so well. Giggling into extreme emotion. Gay people need a new system of order. They don’t fit in. My god. I’m shaking with the unfairness of it all.” Tracy and Claudia sit, they put their glasses down, they listen. “Wow. This is powerful stuff,” says Tracy.
“This is that exact moment when I have an actual physical reaction to Stein. How did GS COPE??” Pause. “Poetry. She coped with poetry,” Eleanor concludes. “With this. With the extreme grace of this,” Tracy agrees.
EXHAUSTING THE TOPIC
Tracy goes to the kitchen to replenish the dessert tray (cake, custard, cream), pondering her conversations with Mark, Eleanor, Claudia, and Steiny. Soon Eleanor joins her, and Tracy shares some thoughts:
If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust
No color could stand in starker contrast to red than white, lily white at that. But despite their association with purity, lilies are sensual and sexual in appearance. So my first thoughts go to the red stamp of blood on pure white linen through menstruation or virginity lost, but not in the sense of virginity despoiled because lilies are symbols of rebirth, fertility. Is something new being born here? (Eleanor nods. This ties in with the reading that is unfolding for Eleanor. Nicola Quinn is looking for something in the cupboard. She agrees.) The syntax is interesting—and word order is one of the things that intrigues me the most about Tender Buttons—because the logic seems to work better backward in if ... then causality: “if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust,” then “lilies are lily white,” but they’re not inherently lily white.
So lilies are lily white if they exhaust (purge? breathe out? expel? wear down? use up?) noise, etc. Should we explore the most lingual sense of exhaust as in exhausting a topic, covering it so completely that there is no more to say? Is that what Stein is doing in Tender Buttons, re-mapping and re-plotting and re-coding the language of reference so exhaustively that there is no more to say? So that there is no more noise (distracting talk and chatter that extends the code of language referentiality)? So that there is no distance (no impossible separation between word and object because word-object relationships are replaced by word-word relationships)? So that there is no dust (detritus, minutiae, other distractions)?
[Allan Keeton walks through looking for the bathroom. “Using up, exhausting distance means that there is no more distance, no separation. We are one. To exhaust noise is to fall silent. Lilies can only be lily-white if they exhaust dust.”]
if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace
Surface sometimes implies a disparity between superficial appearance and the essence that lies beneath, the truth at the core of a thing or an idea. If the surface of something is dusty or dirty, is it truly marred in its essence? No. But this is “a surface that has no extreme grace.” Relying again on my trusty AHD, I find dozens of definitions for grace—definitions commonplace, aesthetic, mythic, religious—but I stop at the first: “Seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement, form, or proportion.” Nothing has the grace, the effortless beauty, of a lily. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (NRSV, Matthew 6:28b-29). So obviously you can’t ungild a lily with a little dust, and even if a surface “has no extreme grace,” does dust and dirt mar its essence?
if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this
Stein tells us, “it is repeating that gives to them always a solid feeling of being” (from The Making of Americans), and here, we gain that sense of solidity and finality through repetition. What we don’t get is a clear sense of agency because of floating and ambiguous pronouns. We’re not going to figure out who or what “they” is, I don’t think. The easy antecedent is “lilies,” but it has to be more open than that. What is “this”? “it”? Or is it “agency-less as the ‘it’ in ‘It is raining’?” (quoting ModPo instructor Al Filreis from another context). I like the sense of conviction here if I again imply if ... then causality (which, admittedly, I could be forcing): “If they do this and it is not necessary [then] it is not at all necessary if [or that] they do this.”
they need a catalogue
They—the lilies or whoever or whatever the lilies represent or whoever or whatever else “they” may be—do not inherently “need a catalogue,” a list or a code or an “arrangement in a system to pointing.” They need a catalogue if the interlocking string of conditions that precedes this independent, stand-alone clause—the only one in this button—is met. It always comes back to Stein making language new for me, so the sense I get of it is this: If we can dust the lilies, purging the dirt and the dust that cling to language, that mar its surface but not its essence, if we can make language new and lily white, then we need a new system to replace it. Tender Buttons creates that system. It is the catalogue.
BIT BY BIT, PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Eleanor gets to the heart of how the Button Collective does what it does and what the collaborative close reading approach of ModPo models so well: “Here’s my reading, as I come to it through your reading (if that makes sense, which I think it does). What I mean is that what I’m about to say is what I thought of as I heard your thoughts. But I am not interpreting your thoughts, as they are yours and yours alone. These thoughts are mine (with thanks to you).”
Like you, the red stamp (for me) is menstruation (like the slang “red ninja” or “crimson wave”). It is also called a period. A period is also a type of punctuation, although in Australia we call it a “full stop” - which actually makes it even more poignant. Every woman of child-bearing age (as were GS & A) who wants to conceive views the arrival of her period with sadness. The dusting of your ellipsis is a dusting of eggs, in a way, one lost each time a woman has her period. GS & A, no matter how many times they “repeat” - i.e. make love, will never “repeat” - i.e. have a baby.
This so-called “impracticality” of lesbian sex is often used as an argument that lesbian sex is unnatural. The “if” clauses are backward because GS is saying here that the logic of that argument is backward. After all, what about the heterosexuals who are constantly having sex without the possibility of conceiving? A white lily – a white lie – about a man’s or a woman’s fertility? Or using some form of birth control? These are all considered “normal,” so why not lesbian sex? The argument is a “surface” argument, and therefore to be doubted.
The “if” clauses sound to me like a comparison between these two types of sex. But also the “What if” that every woman (and man as well) thinks of when imagining her/his future children.
So GS is establishing a new system here in TB, stamping it as such. We need to restructure our language because that’s how we can restructure our thought process. It’s actually hopeful, changing the disappointment of the period into a metaphor for making it new!!
By the time Eleanor and Tracy finish, the entire word-tasting party has moved into the kitchen. Isn’t that always what happens at the best parties? Tracy sums up their dialogue gratefully, “Just as with MILDRED’S UMBRELLA., our biological and linguistic approaches mesh nicely in your reading through my reading and my reading through your reading. And we needed hopeful, didn’t we?”
PULLING THE TITLE OVER TO THE LAST THREE WORDS
The party always kicks into high gear, both in laughter and profundity, after midnight, and that’s when Jason returns and T. De Los Reyes and Dave Green arrive and fill their glasses. “I never had a period, only commas and ellipses,” acknowledges Jason, “But ... if a red stamp among all the other things it is, is also the first spot of menstruation? Then a lily become a highly charged thing.” T., pensive, reflects quite poignantly, “The thing with it is—menstruation, that is—at a young age, or during the first time you’ve had it, without having any previous instruction whatsoever, it feels almost like the body—your body—has betrayed you. It is a betrayal, something beyond your control: how the body evolves and grows and matures without you noticing sometimes, how it is out of your hands, how unwanted it is even, at times.”
T. is reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe asking “What is my experience of the flower if not color?” and shows us her lilies and how she sees red. “I mentioned Georgia O’Keeffe because, well, all this talk about the female body reminded me of her. It is a common criticism of her work, that all her flowers are representations of the female genitalia. I don’t necessarily agree, but once you see it, it’s difficult to unsee it.”
T. adds these questions for the group to ponder, encapsulating many of the roads they have been traveling: “Does a red stamp dirt a surface?” Further, “Does getting a red stamp mean you are marked, like a red flag, or a red dot under surveillance, or a woman with a scarlet letter? And was it given to you, like some form of identification—like a pink triangle—Or do you claim it for yourself—your own stamp of approval, a stamp that means go, a stamp that means you are allowed, and so you are taking it, declaring yourself, as if saying, ‘I will fight’? Or is a red stamp a letter, a love letter?
The scarlet letter is used to shame women, yes? And perhaps at the time, Gertrude and Alice’s relationship was scorned by society. I also can’t help but think of this part [from Hawthorne’s novel]: “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
Allan takes a long draught and reflects, “One makes an impression to make a wax seal & a wax seal makes an impression. If someone grabs you by the arm. Holding you to keep you there so that they can make an impression upon you. So that they can impress you with something. It leaves a red stamp upon the arm. If they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary.”
Jason is thinking about the title as well. “I just know that if this poem was a bendy thing I’d want to pull the title over to the last three words,” Jason tells the revelers. “The problem is that ok it is published 1914. In 1914 – what is catalogue’s potential meanings? I feel a greed to know when commercial catalogs became common – and when the pleasure of an inked stamp to stamp down began, was patented.” He darts out of the kitchen, and we watch him tapping eagerly on the keyboard where, he explains in a bit, he has found this book by Robin Cherry that charts the development of mail order shopping. “But TB is the magic catalogue or is it not one, as does it link out to organize, a system, or point to products or objects – it is objects already no pointing out. Is it? Or is it the anti-catalogue. That last phrase sounds so final and stomped. And is there a difference between the word catalog and catalogue?”
The party-goers get a little punchy at this time of night. Tipsy on words and punctuation, Eleanor quips, “Your question concerning the difference between catalog and catalogue is perfectly ridiculous. Catalogue is the correct spelling, and catalog is the incorrect spelling.” And then it happens, that perfect you-had-to-be-there moment everyone talks about later when they recall a party. As it turns out, dead clever Nicola has been following every moment of this conversation, not just poking around in the cupboard looking for more glasses, and she turns in all deadpan faux seriousness to say: “Oh my good God’ said the pilgrims after their long journey across the perilous seas, Now we can drop all those redundant letters ....’” The beloved Steiny Road Poet guffaws. Tracy laughs so hard that she spews words all over herself. “I’m sending you my dry cleaning bill, Nicola,” she cries. Nicola smiles.
THE FINAL WORD
Things grow quiet as they often do after a hearty laugh. When things settle down, the Steiny Road Poet has some thoughts about the catalogue and the poem as a whole.
First some definitions:
Catalog(ue) [Middle English cathaloge, list, register, from Old French catalogue, from Late Latin catalogus, from Greek katalogos, from katalegein, to list : kata-, down, off; see cata- + legein, to count; seeleg- in Indo-European roots.]
Then Steiny’s thoughts:
Sandwiched between “A Method of a Cloak.” that I interpret as GS proposing marriage to ABT and “A Box.” (Box #2) that has the phrase “a wedding journey,” “A Red Stamp.” brings flowers to the GS-ABT altar.
The flowers—lilies—representing rebirth (I’m going with Tracy’s explanation for now) are problematic because they dust everything with their pollen—they dirt a surface that has no extreme grace. I hear and revel in the word dirt used as a verb here. I interpret the surface as the sacramental altar. This surface or altar has no allowance for a sense of fitness or propriety (grace) that is extreme. That is, the marriage altar of the Twentieth Century (let’s go large here) did not allow same sex couples to marry legally.
So it does not matter how pure the lilies (ladies) are, how loudly they protest and what distance they go to do this--the morals of the time say same-sex marriage does not count, they aren’t going to get a red stamp of approval for that passport, for that marriage register, for that catalog of ordinary objects. Well, “A Red Stamp.” doesn’t put it the way I just stated it, that whole string of IF’s leads to the fact that a stamp of approval had to go in the proper book, be it register, passport, catalog. So YES YES I agree that Tender Buttons is the catalog, the passport, the marriage register.
And the “red stamp could be the wax encaustic seal of a wedding invitation,” Mark adds. “This is absolutely superb,” Eleanor affirms. Everyone nods vigorously.
No one wants to break up the party, but “I’m exhausted,” Tracy admits. As the tasters all drain their glasses, thoroughly sated, Eleanor remembers growing up with a poster of a painting by John Singer Sargent called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose on her bedroom wall. “I haven’t thought of it in years and years,” she muses. “Seeing it again was like meeting up with an old friend. In a happy coincidence, Google sent me to the Tate’s ‘poem of the month’ site. I like the juxtaposition between the painting and the Jennifer Wong poem and ‘A Red Stamp.’ They seem to give a kick to each other, moving each other into deeper meaning.” In Tender Buttons, as in Wong’s “Reimagined Garden”: Here roses don’t stop growing / And lilies last forever.
Dave Green has been quiet all evening, but he has drunk Stein to the lees: “If someone sends her flowers that are lily white pure, that have come a distance through the noise and dust of the city, that are capable of sustaining and regenerating themselves in earth that doesn’t even look that fertile, if this was done by the sender out of genuine emotion as opposed to a sense of obligation, then the flowers deserve a place in her catalog of Tender Buttons; they deserve to be immortalized in poetry, which marks Stein’s red stamp of approval.”