Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Substance in a Cushion.”

Feeling like the third trip into Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons is that deep dark disorienting woods that prefaces Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Steiny Road Poet is beginning to register doubts that she can sustain the gusto she had for “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass. and “Glazed Glitter.

Because “A Substance in a Cushion.” is comprised of ten stanzas, the discussion format will be a stanza and then commentary. The entire piece can be seen under “Objects” at

So, fearful of losing her way and what might be exclaimed upon, the Steiny Poet picks up her literary lantern and enters these Steinian woods.


The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.

Given that the Steiny Poet has skimmed “Rooms,” the last section of Tender Buttons and believes the work (begun in 1912) includes details of Stein’s relationship with Alice B. Toklas, the Steiny Poet ventures that cushion and food words like sugar and vegetable have something to do with the relationship Stein was developing with the woman who would become her life partner.  Stein met Alice September 8, 1907, when Alice came to Paris to escape the domestic life in which she was trapped with her widowed father and brother in her hometown San Francisco. Alice was talented in needlework and the culinary arts. The words change and difference could refer to the elation Stein felt in having Alice in her life. Also the word change links “A Substance in a Cushion.” to “Glazed Glitter.” Especially when the second poem in “Objects” states, The change has come. The phrase change of color might indicate the flush of feeling Stein had for Toklas and how that feeling made her blood course through her body. Clearly Toklas brought new color to Stein’s life.

Sugar affects blood chemistry more directly than vegetables. Since Stein’s training was scientific and medical and she and her brother Leo often discussed food since he had digestive problems, maybe Stein was noting the difference in how she was feeling eating Toklas’ cakes versus the other food Toklas prepared. By the summer of 1910, Gertrude had invited Alice to live with her and her brother Leo at 27 rue de Fleurus.

While the Steiny Poet can picture Toklas doing needlework for a cushion cover, it’s easy to think that Stein saw Toklas as her cushion against the world that would interfere Stein’s various appetites.

Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.

Here the Steiny Poet, like Dante entering those dark woods so fearful of the night and sleepy to boot, would like to abandon looking for the true way through Tender Buttons. OK, try this: perhaps Stein’s discussion of callous (by the way, Stein is using the adjective form of the noun callus) means she had been hardened against love, had become callous to the possibility of finding love. Stein had been keeping company with men—her brother Leo and all the male artists of Picasso’s circle. However when Toklas showed up with her friend Harriet Levy things began to change for Stein. Stein softened. For now, the Steiny Poet doesn’t know what to think about dirt being clean in quantity, except to say maybe dirt means gossip.

A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.

Notorious throughout her vast oeuvre, Stein uses coded language to talk about her relationship with Toklas. Cover is a word used with frequency through out Tender Buttons—eight times in “Objects,” nine times in “Rooms,” and once in “Food.” What cover story did Toklas (Stein’s cushion) have for the world? Toklas became Stein’s secretary. This paragraph sets a change in Stein’s life and pictures a happy domesticity filled with costume, oyster (a food known to be an aphrodisiac), feather, cotton, table and chairs.

A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.

In this stanza, maybe Stein raises the specter of her graduation from medical school with what seems to be a description of a mortarboard cap. The thought about her missed opportunity seems triggered by Stein’s reference to the joy described over a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.

What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.

Pure elation is the message of this stanza. Stein is so happy she describes it as a violent kind of delightfulness reveling in pleasure that she is not going to tire of. The statement about refusing to believe nonsense might refer to gossip about Stein. According to Brenda Wineapple in her Stein biography Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, around the time Gertrude was just getting to know Alice, there were rumors that Gertrude and Leo were having an incestuous relationship.

Now here the Steiny Poet takes a big risk—maybe what the last sentence of this stanza means that Stein has graduated, that what she suggests wearing is the mortarboard, and what she has graduated from is her life with Leo to her life with Alice. Even in Paris being open about a same sex relationship was reckless. Stein and Toklas were not open about their relationship. The cover was Toklas was Stein’s secretary.

Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.

In the catalog written by Wanda Corn and Tirza Latimer for the exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories appears a 1910 photo of Stein and Toklas in matching batik dresses. (Even for Stein, this outfit was out of the ordinary and as we say today over the top.) The narrative says that Toklas selected and bought the material and then designed and made the dresses. It was in huge change of wardrobe from the austere monkish clothes Gertrude and Leo wore and which provoked people to refer to them as the frères. Perhaps this stanza refers to the batik dress. Perhaps that change (increase) caused calamity in the 27 rue de Fleurus household of three (Leo, Gertrude and Alice).  Stein seems to enjoy that shake up of the calm and calls it a sweetness.

A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.

Because the last sentence of stanza 6 seems to be Steinian sexual code—think sweetness as sugar (a word used in stanza 1) as give me some sugar or gimme some suga, where sugar means kiss—maybe the seal and swan are stand-ins for Stein and Toklas. However, the Steiny Poet is stumped as to which partner is the fire (matches) wielding partner and which is the one associated with ivy and a suit. Both matches and suit are associated in the Steiny Poet’s mind with the male partner. Stein identified herself in later coded writings as the husband. Ivy is often associated with the Ivy League schools such as Harvard where Stein did her undergraduate work.

A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.

The etymology of the word closet is associated with a small enclosure, private room, a closed space, a bedroom. Could something racy be going on in the privacy of this small room that involves a little groan grinding and sweet singing? Perhaps it is only Toklas sewing a present for Stein.

The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.

Given the joy expressed in this poem, the word disgrace makes the Steiny Poet think that Stein is talking about something more than elicit sex, which is clearly an action that comes out of the way of acceptable behavior of Stein’s time. For lack of better light here, the Steiny Poet says she is stumped in the same way that the translation she is reading of the opening canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy introduces Divine Love: “The time was at the beginning of the morning, and the sun was mounting up with all those stars, that were with him when Divine Love first moved all delightful things, so that the hour of day, and the sweet season, gave me fair hopes of that creature with the bright pelt.”

What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.

Sashes are associated with waists of dresses as in a belt, a band worn over the shoulder to show rank as in an adornment worn with cap and gown, and a frame in which the panes of a window or door are set. Initially this sash seems to be about a dress, maybe a dress Alice made, one with a little top. Or could this sash be the one Gertrude did not wear at medical school graduation and that’s why the hurt appears in this stanza?

Could it be that the sewing referenced in stanza 9 refers to an activity a doctor/surgeon might do? Could the substance in this cushion be sugar? Could it be that the Steiny Road Poet has gone over the top and lost her way in this Steinian woods with her close read of “A Substance in a Cushion.”?

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