Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Chair.” Part 1 of 6


THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
THE SUBPOEM ...................-           A CHAIR: NUMBER 18
STANZAS..............................-           9
WORD COUNT......................-           256
THE LEADER........................-           THE STEINY ROAD POET
GENRE..................................-           VIRTUAL OPERA
LOCATION............................-           USA, UK, Australia, Philippines, S. Africa, Canada.
TIME......................................-           ALL HOURS OF EARTH’S CLOCK
TONE.....................................-           CLANDESTINE & MOURNFUL

“Stein doesn't privilege the widow over the veil. The veil knows what it knows.” Mary Armour

“Sex is never that far away in this poem, even as Gtrude evokes the widow weeds with those high-necked collars & long sleeves, we are in between the sheets having 'cows' with GS & ABT.” The Steiny Road Poet


A widow in a wise veil and more garments shows that shadows are even. It addresses no more, it shadows the stage and learning. A regular arrangement, the severest and the most preserved is that which has the arrangement not more than always authorised.

A suitable establishment, well housed, practical, patient and staring, a suitable bedding, very suitable and not more particularly than complaining, anything suitable is so necessary.

A fact is that when the direction is just like that, no more, longer, sudden and at the same time not any sofa, the main action is that without a blaming there is no custody.

Practice measurement, practice the sign that means that really means a necessary betrayal, in showing that there is wearing.

Hope, what is a spectacle, a spectacle is the resemblance between the circular side place and nothing else, nothing else.

To choose it is ended, it is actual and more than that it has it certainly has the same treat, and a seat all that is practiced and more easily much more easily ordinarily.

Pick a barn, a whole barn, and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.

Actually not aching, actually not aching, a stubborn bloom is so artificial and even more than that, it is a spectacle, it is a binding accident, it is animosity and accentuation.

If the chance to dirty diminishing is necessary, if it is why is there no complexion, why is there no rubbing, why is there no special protection.

Dear Reader, come in and take a chair. The Button Collective gathered together quite a collection during this study session. For starters, here is a chair “in mourning” with a black skirt.

Because this subpoem is so evocative, the discussion was extensive and therefore will be presented in six posts.

Three categories of themes immerged from the nine stanzas of this poem: civil war, death and flesh as well as lots of ludic metapoetics. Dominating the war theme is the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just as the American Civil War had ended.

Given that this epiphany by Allan Keeton occurred without attachment to a specific stanza, it shall lead the discussion:

 “All the mourning of mortal flesh,
of widows, & of hospitals, reminds
me that

means flesh in French.

Principal Translations

chair nf
(tissus musculaire)
flesh n

La plaie laisse voir la chair.

The wound revealed the flesh.

chair nf
(partie comestible des végétaux) fruit
flesh n

La chair de cette pêche est juteuse.

The flesh of this peach is juicy.

chair nf
meat n

Nous préférons la chair blanche à la chair rouge.

We prefer white meat to red meat.

chair nf
(appétits physiques)
flesh n

body n

La morale réprouve les abus de la chair.

Morality condemns abuses of the flesh.”

Allan continued with:
“We have a spectacle, a mourning widow, a theatrical stage,
the main action, the circular side place, & a stubborn bloom.

Is this the bloom of blood on Abraham Lincoln while he sat on a chair in a private box at the Ford Theater?”

So Allan, with of course the benefit Mary Armour’s breakthrough of seeing the high fashion of Civil War widows in stanza 1, manages to discover how Gertrude Stein neatly tied together “A Chair.” with flesh in all its iterations—birth, death, sex as represented in subpoem 18.


Just as Dave Green stepped forward to lead the discussion on stanza 1, Mary made a breakthrough revelation about this subpoem conjuring up images from the American Civil War. However, first she exhorted us Buttons to fully experience A widow in a wise veil. She said, the “haunting image” comes with “hypnotic alliteration and assonance.”

Mary pointed to what Gertrude Stein said, “There will never be anything more interesting in America than that Civil War.” The Steiny Road Poet backed this up by finding this from penultimate Stein scholar Ulla Dydo in her book The Language that Rises: 1923-1934, "Stein saw herself as a representative American, aligned with major figures from history." She put American Civil War generals in her 1946 opera The Mother of Us All and she wrote about Ulysses Grant in her 1933 book Four in America. Here is a quote from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

I did not realise then how completely and entirely american was Gertrude Stein. Later I often teased her, calling her a general, a civil war general of either or both sides. She had a series of photographs of the civil war, rather wonderful photographs and she and Picasso used to pore over them.

What most of us Buttons didn’t know was Civil War widows had an elaborate way of dressing and this clothing was called widow weeds. Mary provided this information:

Wartime convention decreed that a woman mourn her child’s death for one year, a brother’s death for six months, and a husband’s death for two and a half years. She progressed through prescribed stages of heavy, full, and half mourning, with gradually loosening requirements of dress and behavior. Mary Todd Lincoln remained in deep mourning for more than a year after her son Willie’s death, dressing in black veils, black crepe and black jewelry. Flora Stuart, the widow of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, remained in heavy mourning for 59 years after the 1864 death of her husband, wearing black until she died in 1923. By contrast, a widower was expected to mourn for only three months, simply by displaying black crepe on his hat or armband.

Women’s mourning attire, as Mary pointed out, is called widow’s weeds (from waed, Old English, meaning garment). “The veil was often a double layer of tulle. That veil -- you could see something of the widow's face through folds and layers of semi-transparent dark tulle. She might raise her veil—a veiled gaze.”

Allan offered this poetic riff:
A   veiled      widow.
A curtained window.
A curtained   stage.
A stage of mourning.
A staged   mourning.

Barbara Crary responded, “Re: your ‘veiled window’ and ‘curtained stage,’ Allan, this is the presidential box at Ford's Theater where Lincoln was assassinated:”

Then Barbara found this passage on Mary Todd Lincoln:
"After Lincoln's assassination, his widow buried herself in mourning garb for the rest of her life. Although many Victorians observed long, ritualized mourning periods, Mrs. Lincoln's more than seventeen years in black far exceeded the two-and-a-half-year custom for widows. She would not let herself, or the public, forget her status or that of her husband. In the words of historian Jean H. Baker, 'She was not just any widow; she was Abraham Lincoln's survivor.' Her grief was no doubt sincere, but she took it to such extremes that others found it difficult to empathize with her. Her letters melodramatically and repeatedly recalled her great loss and pain. For example, Mrs. Lincoln implied that she suffered more severely than the numerous other widows and orphans of the Civil War era, writing, 'As you may suppose, no family ever felt their bereavement, more than we do. My heart is indeed broken, and without my beloved husband, I do not wish to live. Life, is indeed a heavy burden, & I do not care how soon, I am called hence.' Nearly five years later, she wrote to a female friend, 'Your life [is] so filled with love and happiness, whilst I alas am but a weary exile. Without my beloved husband's presence, the world is filled with gloom and dreariness for me.' Clearly, Mrs. Lincoln found it difficult to lift the shroud of memory and move on with her life, and she almost seemed to resent that other people could move on with theirs. She continually reminded others of the great man whom she and the world had lost."

Pictorially to Allan, the stanzas of “A Chair.” looked like a chaise longue. “The stripy stanzas remind me of the slats of an outdoor chaise lounge.” Dave, who had thoroughly analyzed stanza 1 in terms of a mourning chair, saw the longish first stanza as a headrest and Eleanor Smagarinsky agreed saw the connection within the stanza through veil to the head.

Then Eleanor weighed in on stanza 1 with these thoughts,

A very strong feeling of death, suddenly - I see a dead body. Perhaps because of the association I made subconsciously between the headrest and the resting of the body in the earth (the last stanza has dirt, and no special protection, which is suddenly jumping out at me). It addresses no more....the severest and the most preservedpreserved makes me think of embalming, and of course the dead person will never address us again with his/her voice, but also has no address on this physical earth any more.

“I think a coffin is a type of chaise lounge. This explains the disturbing, dark tone which I felt upon first reading this poem, long before even one word of it was making any sense.”

Echoing off Dave’s chair analysis, Mary mused,

“The shadows thrown by a chair are symmetrical and even. And the design of a chair is transparent and empty in its regularity, severity of form.

“Thinking of Philippe Starck's Louis XVI Ghost chair -- a friend of mine has these and  sitting in them is the strangest feeling, as if nothing is there, invisibility, fragility and a perilous undertaking.

“When Stein looked at a chair she saw design, shape, entirety, separateness, silence and a widow. Starck saw a ghost and a monarch.”

“Then,” said Steiny, quoting Dave, “[the Chair is] part of the background for the living and learning that is happening at Stein's house. It is a silent witness to history.” 

T. De Los Reys commented:

“My understanding of A CHAIR as a whole is that this is about grief, or that an important thread that goes through all of these stanzas has something to do with that.

    “I am thinking of the practice of shiva. To quote from here: ‘After a funeral, mourners of a parent, sibling, spouse or child (more than 30 days old) stay at home until the morning of the seventh day. The word shiva means seven in Hebrew. The seven-day period of mourning gives the person in mourning time to adjust to the loss suffered...Jewish law demands mourners sit on low chairs to symbolize the mourner's awareness that life has changed and desire to be close to the earth in which the loved was buried. In Jewish tradition, mirrors in the home are covered and a memorial candle is lit during Shiva. Orthodox Jews in mourning will refrain from wearing leather shoes, bathing, cutting their hair, shaving or changing clothes. Shiva practices are paused during Shabbat and resumed again after Shabbat. Some mourners will end the Shiva period with a visit to the grave.’

    “Was Gertrude then imagining a time in which her love is no longer with her? Was she thinking of the grief that would follow, how it must be perhaps beyond aching (actually not aching [stanza 8])? How she would sit on a chair and mourn?

    “Speaking of mourning chairs, what about this so-called devil's chair? The term devil’s chair (or haunted chair) in folklore is frequently attached to a class of funerary or memorial sculpture common in the United States during the nineteenth century...the object was known as a mourning chair, and cemeteries have since provided benches for similar purposes.

    “And what of an empty chair? A chair where once your lover sat, who is not here anymore. That empty chair would always remind you of your loss. You would have to live with that empty chair for the rest of your life. It will be ever painful, especially on important days, like birthdays or special occasion when there's a feast.”

Eleanor reacted to this quote from T.:

Was Gertrude then imagining a time in which her love is no longer with her? Was she thinking of the grief that would follow, how it must be perhaps beyond aching (actually not aching)? How she would sit on a chair and mourn?

“This resonates with me, and I think you're onto something here, T.,” Eleanor said and then continued:

“I have been reluctant to bring this up, in the hope that someone else would notice it first and be brave enough to write it up... but this is what I've been thinking, and it's directly connected to your thoughts. There is a sexual undertone in this poem, and I think GS may be talking about masturbation, how that might be a confronting, heartbreaking, necessary act once your beloved has died. ‘Actually not aching’ [from stanza 8] sums it up so very beautifully, as does the idea of a stubborn artificial bloom [stanza 8]. In your stanza, I read ‘the main action’ in the modern sense of ‘getting some action,’ but of course I realise that's a very modern reading. What you wrote about them having ‘custody over each other's bodies’ really sums it up, for they have that custody in life (sexually) and it's then expected in death.

“And then there's the rub. Yep. That poor little last stanza [9], not yet picked by anybody, waiting in the cold to be noticed and appreciated. ‘Why is there no rubbing.’ When a woman sits on a chair, her genital area is in direct contact with the seat (more or less). Just think of how erotic dancers so often use a chair as a prop, and it's obvious.

“And the connection between death and sex has always been there, I think you and I actually had a discussion about La petite mort for one of the earlier poems, no?

“And because I can never resist a link to a scene from a film. Here's the answer to the question ‘Why do men chase women?’ as expressed in Moonstruck. (Answer: They fear death.) That scene always stuck with me because I initially saw Moonstruck when I was quite young, and I had no idea what this answer meant. Now I understand. I also find it very helpful to occasionally read the Tender Buttons poems as if they were written by a man, simply because I think that if we always read GS as being biographically lesbian, then we may well miss some nuances which are biographically universal. Also, I reckon GS would like that.”

So, Dear Reader, what do we have here in the introductory comments and the discussion of stanza 1? We have a reverence for chair, chair-ness, and the flesh of the human body. Rolled into Stein's opening stanza is establishment of structure—A regular arrangement as well as a sense of history—(as seen in shadows and what is preserved). Dominating this opening is the veil from a woman in mourning. The image Steiny will leave you with is this famous portrait of Alice and Gertrude in the prime of their relationship but notice how Alice sits in a chair that is very low to the floor. 

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