Saturday, November 16, 2013


In the third pairing of the Ten Buts thru Ten Comms Project reading “A Substance in A Cushion.” through “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain,” The Button Collective came together to weigh in on this particular rich pairing. Here is the entire subpoem, which has ten stanzas:


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

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. 

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.


Steiny led the discussion saying this:

“To abstain from taking G-d’s name in vain as in swearing, as in meaningless calling out to G-d (think, G-d bless you!), as in using His name to gain unwarranted advantage (Trust me, God wants you to give me your…) is about preserving reputation—both G-d’s and the believer’s. It also establishes a sacred trust between G-d and the believer.

“In ‘A Substance in A Cushion.’ Gertrude summons forth Alice in the first word of the title—‘A’ stands for Alice just as we [The Buttons] agreed, per Eleanor’s [Smagarinsky] prompting, about ‘A Method of A Cloak.’. She is Gertrude’s substance—her tangible matter of which a thing consists (think, their relationship), her essence, her meaning. Alice is also Gertrude’s cushion against the world.

“Because reputation is at stake in this relationship between two women loving each other, Gertrude cannot take Alice’s name in vain. Thus, A cushion has that cover. And not taking Alice’s name in vain is a sacred trust in the loving relationship Gertrude establishes with Alice.

“Now, something else related to the Ten Commandments is going on in A SUBSTANCE, that is rather unusual. The implements of prayer that men use seem to be mentioned.

A cushion has that cover could very well be the way Jewish men bring their prayer shawl (tallis) to synagogue. The tallis stored inside a square pillowcase cover looks like a cushion.

A circle of fine cardboard and a chance to see a tassel could be a medieval tefillin, a container used in prayer that originally contained certain teachings of the Jewish faith including the Ten Commandments. More modern tefillin are square, made out of leather, and do not contain the Ten Commandments. I am not sure about the box being made out of cardboard but I gather these prayer boxes were not always made of leather.

a chance to see a tassel might refer to tzitzis, the prayer strings worn with Jewish men's clothing. One of the strings of the tzitzis was often blue but they lost the formula for that blue dye and quit making the blue string. However they put blue stripes into the prayer shawl (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.)

“Deuteronomy, Chapter 22, verse 12 refers to tzitzis:
Mark yourself bound tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.

Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change.
Back to the tefillin, I found this quote: 'The straps [of the tefillin] were made of the same material as the boxes, but could be of any color except blood-red; they were sometimes blue or of a reddish purple.'

“I don't know why there is a green string in the stanza that begins A closet, a closet does not connect but this passage could very well be chanting the prayers—that sweet singing.”

Then, Steiny called out to Eleanor, “I'm not sure if I have been totally coherent about the prayer details I see in ‘A Substance in A Cushion.”.  Maybe Eleanor can serve as SME [Subject Matter Expert] here?” Steiny, also added this:

“One more thing, a bit off topic but related to Jewish practice, concerns this on dirt is clean when there is a volume. 'Knives can be kashered (made kosher) through hag'alah, as with other flatware, but they also can be kashered in another way, byne'itzah, under certain conditions. Literally, ne'itzah means "thrusting." You thrust the knife in question into the ground 10 times, in 10 dif­ferent spots (next to each other is okay). If you live in an apartment, a plant pot packed with dirt is acceptable too. The thought is that the dirt will effectively clean the knife, and hag'alah will not be necessary.'”


Eleanor began by summarizing what she could address:

“1. G equates her relationship with A to the relationship between the Jewish people and their God: This might sound extreme or weird to us moderns, but it really isn't— probably all religious texts do this sort of comparison/metaphor a lot of the time. There are person-to-person relationships, and person to God relationships --- and they reflect each other.

“2. G equates A to a 'cushion', cushioning the harsh effect of the world. G worships A, A protects and cares for her: The use of names in any religion is not to be underestimated (e.g. the 'unpronounceable' vowel combinations in the Old Testament yhwe / Jesus known as Christ). The same applies to G & A.

“3. The tallit and its cushion-like bag +  tefillin + tzitzis.
These items are governed by rabbinical laws that refer only to men. Women are (in Orthodox circles) forbidden from wearing these 3 items.”

Eleanor then addressed what cushion might point to:

“1. Can a body be seen as a cushion, with ‘substance’ in it? Or might ‘substance’ be a baby, in a womb, in a body?

“2. Cushion has a similar sound to ‘kushiot’ meaning ‘questions.’ Here is a website I stumbled upon, in which the Rabbi is giving examples of the types of questions Bible readers might ask -- they are similar to what we are asking of GS's TB subpoems. But kushiot are really reminiscent of something much more specific—the 4 questions that the youngest member of the family asks at the Passover Seder table. Odd that number 3 [TB subpoem] mentions 'vegetables', when we have 'vegetable' in the second line of our poem.  (Sugar is not a vegetable.)”

Here, Steiny asks you to pause because the process of kushiot should not be rushed by in this discussion. Kushiot is a close reading of sacred text that involves the kinds of obstacles present in close reading Tender Buttons. Aspects of kushiot involve repetition (things told twice); missing information (very common in sacred texts); key words repeated 3, 7, or 10 times in one passage or story; seemingly unnecessary information; repeating comparisons and contrasts with small differences; difficult words and grammar; ambiguity; contradiction; metaphor; echoes from story to story; issues of moral behavior; juxtaposition; symmetry (words or verses in a symmetrical pattern) and out-of-order sequencing. Eureka, Steiny has to shout. Kushiot is a catalog for how to approach Tender Buttons.

Now back to Eleanor who set out definitions of Passover and Seder:
PASSOVER = commemoration of Exodus from slavery in Egypt ==> Receiving the 10 Commandments at Mt Sinai.  

"SEDER = The traditional discussion & meal, literally the word means ‘ORDER.’"

More from Eleanor on cushion:
“3. Traditionally, we are meant to ‘lean/recline’ at the Seder table, to symbolise our freedom. The men usually have a cushion that they use when leaning.


T. De Los Reyes who comes from a Catholic family mused on her family’s church where the pews have kneelers attached to them and the kneelers have cushions. “I was just thinking of the poetic image of Alice being the cushion for Gertrude's knees, and vice versa. How kneeling is a sign of begging and perhaps supplication. Also worship and devotion.”

Because Gertrude and Alice were in Spain visiting a lot of Catholic churches at the time TB was being written, T.’s association works well, adding another religious dimension to the discussion.


“Now that Karren [a.k.a. Steiny] has opened this poem - I see references EVERYWHERE. I may pass out. Cannot. Believe. This. Shall try to remain focused, but will be able to only record a few here:

"’Callous is something that hardening leaves behind...’ ==> Exodus chapter 8:
Pharaoh's Heart Hardened
31 The LORD did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of insects from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people; not one remained. 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go.

"’a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men...’ ==> Exodus Ch 1 Pharaoh Orders Male Children Killed
21 Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, ‘Every son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive.’

“On Passover the house must be meticulously cleaned, this might be referenced in G's use of dirt and clean, although I actually think she might be saying something incredibly subversive (o joy) about the way women are treated in Judaism. But I have no proof, just a feeling, as the poem is still so so very dense.”


“I remembered the word tehelet, which many people translate to blue, but also perhaps turquoise or green.

“I found this post on a blog that discusses how we don't really know, for sure, which Hebrew word refers to which colour. It goes back to the Oral Tradition (interesting in the context of GS writing a new linguistic form now). Here it is.”


“'Taking the Lord's name in vain' --- I realise now, of course, that GS would completely and absolutely focus on the idea of NAMING. It's her thing. Her trademark.

“So now I see this poem as a crazy, fabulous, extravagant riff on what it means to give a god a name in the first place. What it means to describe a god. And how arbitrary this entire naming exercise is... which makes it all the more ridiculous that we are being chastised for not naming the god properly / correctly / politely / morally / authentically.

“So she looks at everything—
Rabbinical / Biblical quotes
Order of words
Social order
Domestic sphere
Adjectives (especially colours)
The esoteric (unmentionable name)
Gender play
Oral Law vs. Written Law

“When I go back and read the poem with all of this in mind, I find that I'm able to embrace the impenetrable syntax and word meaning (rather than fight it). She's enacting the confusion that already exists in the way we describe God, it's just that we have been conditioned (‘languaged’) from childhood (from our very first Seder, if we're Jewish, for example) to see our socially sanctioned way of describing God as being "normal," and hers as not.

“All of the above then points to the title as being a meta-poetic statement:
A name is merely a cushion for the substance—the meaning—which it covers/holds.”


Commenting on “A name is merely a cushion for the substance—the meaning—which it covers/holds,” Allan Keeton practically sings this:

“Right Eleanor!
Here name is noun and substance is noumenon which is a name & hence a noun.
It is not only difficult, it is impossible, to name.
One is stuck nouning instead.This nouning becomes a chant, a roll call, of names.
It is all we can do & it is sacred.”

To sum up Eleanor’s feelings on chanting is that after growing up constantly hearing Jewish men chant, she now realizes in reading Stein that prefers to hear women chant. However in Jewish orthodox practice, prayer, which is chanted and often associated with invoking G-d and His qualities, is done by a minyan (usually ten men). In this line from “A Substance in A Cushion.”: 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, Eleanor offers that maybe Stein is suggesting a change where the presence of females equal the presence of men.


Thus Mark Snyder rejoined, “Chanting rocks.  Chanting is a prominent part of Zen liturgy and practice.” Claudia Schumann spoke about the Lutheran practice of chanting as well as reciting chant lines which in Latin are known as Kyrie


noumenon [ˈnuːmɪnən ˈnaʊ-]
n pl -na [-nə]
1. (Philosophy) (in the philosophy of Kant) a thing as it is in itself, not perceived or interpreted, incapable of being known, but only inferred from the nature of experience Compare phenomenon [3] See also thing-in-itself (Ding an Sich).
2. (Philosophy) the object of a purely intellectual intuition
[via German from Greek: thing being thought of, from noein to think, perceive; related to nous mind]

So rather than leave this discussion as Allan suggests with The Buttons chanting or trading information, Steiny thinks the definition of noumenon  should be collectively contemplated. The object of a purely intellectual intuition is what we readers of Gertrude Stein are up against. No doubt about it, The Buttons will have to come back to “A Substance in A Cushion.”.

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