Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Plate.”


THE BOOK ............       ......-           TENDER BUTTONS

THE SUBBOOK ..................-           OBJECTS

THE SUBPOEM ..................-           A PLATE: NUMBER 12

STANZAS.............           .....-           7

WORD COUNT.............   .....-           257

THE LEADER..........      . .....-           THE STEINY ROAD POET


GENRE.............                ....-           VIRTUAL OPERA

LOCATION............           .....-           USA, England, Australia, Philippines, South Africa..

TIME...............                    ...-           ALL HOURS OF EARTH’S CLOCK

TONE..............                   ....-           ARDENT


If Tender Buttons is a box of objects, food, and rooms,

if Tender Buttons is a catalogue—a list, a register, a count, accounting of objects, food, rooms,

if Tender Buttons is carafe that is a blind glass brimming with an elixir blended from objects, food, rooms,

then the entirety of Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons— objects, food, rooms—must also be served up on a plate. But what kind?

The Steiny Road Poet will now cut to the chase—printing and photographic plates.

From several days of the Button Collective seeing—

hints of picnics, household moving, wedding activities, judicial action against stolen art, Stein and Toklas visiting the comfortably cool churches in the hot town of Avila Spain, home plates of baseball, constipation, femme body fluid—what flow-ers!—

Tracy Sonafelt’s “Big Idea” of printing and photographic plates rose above the others as the plate of Stein’s deep interest. She wanted to see publication of Tender Buttons, and so the printing and photographic plate stands out for its snug fit against these stanzas.

Here are the highlights of the discussion going stanza by stanza, but please know, Dear Reader, that the discussion was not an orderly affair. Steiny points to what Mary Armour related about Jewish mothers-in-law-to-be ceremoniously breaking ceramic plates at their children’s engagement party. This was serious sign of commitment between the two families. In this explication, it means the discussion did not begin with stanza 1. Like the actions of the mothers of the engaged children, which look like hand-to-hand combat but replays the Jewish creation myth of the Shattering of the Vessels (shevirat ha-kelim) and its implications for raising up primordial sparks once contained in these vessels in an effort for repairing the world (tikkun olam), the chaotic, anything-goes approaches to Tender Buttons by the Button Collective invariably gathers enough divine flame for a roaring bonfire. And let it be known, especially to Al Filreis, our intrepid founder and leader of the Coursera MOOC Modern Poetry, that The Button Collective is, in the words of Jackson Mac Low’s unnamed friend, merely creating a “sensation of meaning.”


[1] An occasion for a plate, an occasional resource is in buying and how soon does washing enable a selection of the same thing neater. If the party is small a clever song is in order.

Eleanor Smagarinsky led the discussion on stanza 1 seeing two possible interpretations: reference to the stolen artwork from the Louvre that Pablo Picasso purchased from Guilliame Apollinaire’s secretary and a wedding photo of Gertrude and Alice taken during their private celebration party.

In the scenario of the stolen art, Eleanor saw the words A PLATE transmogrifying by letters doubling to APPELLATE (relating in the world of law as in having jurisdiction to review cases or reverse decisions of inferior courts). The story goes that Picasso loved Iberian art and so a secretary of Picasso’s friend Apollinaire stole some Iberian sculptures from the Louvre and sold them to Picasso. Later the secretary went to the Paris Journal with another Iberian statuette to expose how easy it was to steal from the Louvre. Picasso and Apollinaire fearing that they would be implicated in an art theft ring thought at first that they would ditch what Picasso had in the Seine River. They packed the art in a suitcase and tried to execute the plan but feared even in the dead of night too many eyes were watching, so Apollinaire went to same newspaper, turned over the stolen artworks and got arrested. Eleanor saw "party" as a reference to the legal "party for the defense." The theft happened in 1911; in 1912 while on vacation in Spain, Stein began writing what would become Tender Buttons.

On the subject of the wedding photo, Eleanor said,

“A photograph taken on a special occasion. It is bought, and made - it is made by washing it in different solutions in a darkroom, and this does "enable a selection of the same thing neater" - i.e. a photograph. And if it's a party of two (G&A) then it's special, and therefore deserving of a celebratory poem/song, written by G especially for the occasion, but in riddle form so as to be clever in keeping their feelings private.

“I saw this as a celebratory moment - G & A are having a portrait taken, it's just the two of them, and this is cause for G to write a fabulous poem (the one we are reading right now, right now!!!), but it's "clever" – i.e. dense, difficult, locked - because their relationship is precious and private.”

[2] Plates and a dinner set of colored china. Pack together a string and enough with it to protect the centre, cause a considerable haste and gather more as it is cooling, collect more trembling and not any even trembling, cause a whole thing to be a church.

In stanza 2, Mary Armour, drawing details from Lindsay Wagner-Martin’s Favored Strangers, led with Xciting historical background about where Stein was when she began writing Tender Buttons.

“Stein begins writing Tender Buttons while she is in Spain on honeymoon with Alice. It is hot and they go to cities,  bullfights,  nightclubs to see gipsy dancers, to  cool off in churches.

“They go together to Avila, the hometown of Spain's greatest Catholic saint, Teresa of Avila who was from a Marrano family (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism). In her corduroy robes, Gertrude is taken for a monk. She reads up everything she can find on Teresa of Avila. The honeymooners walk the hills around Avila together and eat roast partridge.”

Steiny offered, “I have been thinking picnic. I bet Alice packed a wicker box that was tied with string to safeguard those heavy plates, that dinner set.”

However, Mary already had these thoughts, “What ever comes back to protecting the centre, that trembling melting tender core, is deeply sexual. A string of saliva. Wetting. A mark on the sheet. Kindness-redness-rudeness-rapid. A rosy stain. Stringing syllables together.”

Mary said Stein, like Djuna Barnes, was writing a Book of Repulsive Women. “In her comments on The Book of Repulsive Women, Quebec writer Nicole Brossard recognizes the productive contradictions of Barnes's strategy of subversive repetition: Are the women repulsive in their resignation to their role as "still-lives," she asks along with Barnes, or are they repulsive because they carry on their lips truths that confront the patriarchal lie at work in their faces and in their flesh?” 

Steiny offers that this stanza intimates the processing of photographic plates which is a delicate set of steps, requiring timing, chemical bath, darkness (like the soft light in a church). Maybe the plates arrive in the darkroom packed together with string.

[3] A sad size a size that is not sad is blue as every bit of blue is precocious. A kind of green a game in green and nothing flat nothing quite flat and more round, nothing a particular color strangely, nothing breaking the losing of no little piece.

Allan Keeton leading the way on stanza 3 associated a “game in green” with baseball and in baseball comes the home plate. What’s more Gertrude and Alice loved baseball.

Allan pointed out that the line from stanza 2: Pack together a string and enough with it to protect the centre describes how a baseball is made. Another line from stanza 2: cause a considerable haste and gather more as it is cooling, collect more trembling and not any even trembling describes running to catch a ball while cause a whole thing to be a church is the communal stadium experience.

A lamp is not the only sign of glass from stanza 6 respectively note stadium lights and binoculars. In stanza 4 A splendid address refers to what the announcer says.

Allan, stepping far outside the baseball box, offered what The Buttons know as elephant sandwich and when Steiny, waking up one morning having missed a night of reveling by The Buttons, said huh? Allan drew a cosmic diagram.

After consulting with her resident Subject Matter Expert on photographic printing and color theory, Steiny believes this stanza with it reference to color, hints at the contradictions of how light is perceived and the problems in achieving color photographs which was being worked on during the time Stein was writing Tender Buttons.

[4] A splendid address a really splendid address is not shown by giving a flower freely, it is not shown by a mark or by wetting.

Barbara Crary, a new contributor to the TB MOOSG, led the way on stanza 4 seeing that the word flower could be flow-er related to the line not shown by a mark or by wetting, as in something that flows. She also offered this interpretation:

I keep hearing an association between "address"/"dress" and "wetting"/"wedding." I've also been thinking about the possible reference in Stanza 2 to packing the plates for a move to another location.  Could this stanza be a reference to the household that Alice and Gertrude set up when they first moved in together?  These was no bouquet, no marriage license (mark) and no wedding, but to them it was still a splendid address.”

Adding to the splendid address being 27 rue de Fleurus, Steiny and based on the definition of splendid (Brilliant with light or color), Steiny said Stein is referring to the color of her paintings hanging on the walls there.

Finally, Barbara concluded that “I'm now seeing the references to "mark" and "wetting" as flaws in the process of printing, or perhaps photography, that might mar the splendor of what's being reproduced.”

[5] Cut cut in white, cut in white so lately. Cut more than any other and show it. Show it in the stem and in starting and in evening coming complication.

Tracy led the discussion on stanza 5 beginning with notes on the repetitive triadic structure using the word cut.

The first sentence: [1] Cut [2] cut in white, [3] cut in white so lately.

“The entire stanza: [1] Cut cut in white, cut in white so lately. [2] Cut more than any other and show it. [3] Show it in the stem and in starting and in evening coming complication.”

Other possible associations Tracy noted included: human surgery, plant pruning, fertility and human procreation. Then she presented the BIG IDEA.

“And now for the BIG IDEA. Etching printing/photographic plates. This is my favorite because of the personal connection. Between college and graduate school, I worked in a print ship that used both Linotype and offset methods. I was hired as proofreader, but since I was really fast—most proofreaders are not English degree-holders—my boss told me to “wander back to Camera and see what Buddy can do with you” whenever I finished my work and there was some day left. Anyway, what we did in Camera was called photoengraving and there was a lot of glass and metal and etching and chemicals, and the process of creating the printing master, the surface to which the ink will adhere on the press, was called both cutting (and burning) a plate.

Offset printing or offset lithography has been around since 1875. And there are implications for Stanza 6 as well. “The word ‘lithograph’ historically means ‘An image from stone’ or ‘Print from stone,’” and the giant camera used has a large lamp, and the negatives are touched up on light tables, and the spots in the negatives that are not to be cut into the plate are covered.

“Also this from our friend Wikipedia about photographic glass plates: “Photographic plates preceded photographic film as a target medium in photography. A light-sensitive emulsion of silver [GS loves silver] salts was applied to a glass plate. This form of photographic material largely faded from the consumer market in the early years of the 20th century, as more convenient and less fragile films were introduced. However, photographic plates were still in use by some photography businesses until the 1970s.” Since we know from Joshua Schuster’s Jacket 2 piece that Objects was actually the last section of TB written, I have to believe that Stein is thinking about publication—and printing—at this point in her composition.”

[6] A lamp is not the only sign of glass. The lamp and the cake are not the only sign of stone. The lamp and the cake and the cover are not the only necessity altogether.

Mark Snyder led stanza 6 with wedding associations, “Lamp, glass, cake, stone- I'm thinking wedding again.  I have the mental image of a candle (lamp) used in wedding ceremonies where the couple lights the candle together, symbolizing their union.  Cake is obvious as a potential wedding reference.  Stone (diamond) only slightly less so.  Often wedding presents are made of crystal (glass).  For cover I get the mental image of tablecloths at a wedding reception, or a cloth covering an altar?  The Torah itself if covered, is it not?”

Tracy connected stanza 6 with “A Box.” She outlined as follows:

A BOX.: “The one, one is the same length as is shown by the cover being longer. The other is different there is more cover that shows it.”
A PLATE.: “The lamp and the cake and the cover are not the only necessity altogether.”

A BOX.: “The one is on the table. The two are on the table. The three are on the table.”
A PLATE.: “The lamp and the cake and the cover” are all things on a table. Whether this is the wedding table or the dining room table or the examining room table or simply the metaphorical table where we sort our buttons and unpack our ideas and gather as our Button Collective ... well, all of these perspectives are worth examining.

[Triadic, additive structure: 1. 1 + 2. 1 + 2 + 3.]
A BOX.: “[1] The one is on the table. [1 + 2] The two are on the table. [1 + 2 + 3] The three are on the table.”
A PLATE. ‘[1] A lamp is not the only sign of glass. [1 + 2] The lamp and the cake are not the only sign of stone. [1 + 2 + 3] The lamp and the cake and the cover are not the only necessity altogether.’”

Eleanor saw the Jewish unveiling ceremony of a gravestone placed a year of death. “The stone is the gravestone, but also the traditional stones which are placed on the grave. The cover is the cloth that is then taken off, for the unveiling ceremony. The lamp could be the yahrzeit candle. The cake is odd, but might point to the gathering following the ceremony, where small pieces of cake and tiny cups of wine are handed out to guests.”

Tamboura Gaskins offered the following about the opening line.

 A lamp is not the only sign of glass. …

“A lamp = A for Alice

lamp = a source of intellect; a source of light

only = sole; having no sibling; superior

glass = Gertrude; device to compensate for defective vision

“Firstly, the assonance here works to connect intimately lamp and glass.  Here, Stein wants us to know that this line is very personal and hints at the intimate relationship between herself and Alice Toklas.  She is expressing a bit of frustration about the confines of being in a relationship with Alice; she is lamenting, “I am not only Alice’s mate; I am more than my connection to or association with Alice.” Stein’s discontent is palpable, and it makes me think that perhaps there was chronic tension in their relationship over Stein’s desire to explore intellect and intimacy outside of her relationship with Toklas.

“Next, I believe that Stein is saying, I am more than my intellectual prowess; I have feelings too. She seems to be expressing that her intellect is not the best part of her.  She wants to shine a light, a lamp, on the other aspects of herself that define who she is.

“Also, Stein is expressing a sense of loneliness.  She feels the sadness of being alone, or that her present circumstances are not fulfilling.

Lastly, Stein is making a socio-political statement about gay unions.  The glass, as a device for correcting defective vision, is she [and Alice] who stands as a symbol representing the lamp, the rightness or "alright-ness" of homosexuality.”

Steiny, based on Tracy’s Big Idea, offered “corrosion gets caked onto batteries.  I'm thinking: A layer or deposit of compacted matter as cake and doesn’t this apply to lithography?” Doing some research, she found a definition of India ink, “a black pigment, as of specially prepared lampblack, or carbon black, mixed with a gelatinous substance and dried into cakes or sticks.”

[7] A plan a hearty plan, a compressed disease and no coffee, not even a card or a change to incline each way, a plan that has that excess and that break is the one that shows filling.

Mary jumped back in for stanza 7 to say something was wrong, given all the negatives and that compressed disease (possibly constipation, possibly corseted innards not feeling so well). Steiny rejoined that the compressed disease could belong to Stein’s brother Leo who was not happy at the time of Stein writing Tender Buttons. He was annoyed about the household expenses increasing when Alice moved in and how he was bearing an unfair financial burden. He was also annoyed about Picasso’s cubism and that influence on his sister’s writing.

Steiny also thinks this stanza has that sensation of meaning related to the storage of photographic glass plates. Here’s an excerpt from Greta Bahnemann’s  Internet paper The Preservation of Glass Plate Negatives (last updated 21 March 2012).

“Many archivists believe it is better to use a larger quantity of smaller boxes than a fewer number of larger sized boxes in order to prevent strain on the boxes and any staff involved in the handling of the negatives. If a box cannot be filled, corrugated cardboard filler pieces should be cut to size and placed in the boxes to snug up plates and fill out any extra space in the container. These filler pieces will keep plates upright and prevent any front-to-back movement within the box.”

Bahnemann’s  report is a fascinating history of the photographic process and how it affected people of Stein’s time.

“In 1864 John Towler published The Silver Sunbeam and, in it he outlined the new photographic process in just ten easy steps… Towler's publication (and the many others like it) helped foster the growing interest in glass plate photography. This interest eventually spread to all reaches of the earth and to almost every walk of life.”

Of all the possible lens offered by The Buttons, Steiny says the one that consistently works through the seven stanzas is the printing/photographic plates. Certainly getting Tender Buttons published was a top priority for Stein and would also do honor to her bride.


Definition: TB MOOSG: Tender Buttons Massive Open Online Study Group

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