Monday, December 16, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Piano.”


THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
THE SUBPOEM ...................-           A PIANO: NUMBER 17
STANZAS..............................-           2
WORD COUNT......................-           105
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.....................................-           BUZZING & HUMMING

Piano for 4 hands— a close reading of how to have a close relationship. Eleanor Smagarinsky

The piano is Stein's way of writing poetry. Allan Keeton


If the speed is open, if the color is careless, if the selection of a strong scent is not awkward, if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color, not any color. If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing.

This is no dark custom and it even is not acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread. That is spread, it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing.

The Steiny Road Poet begins with this caveat: while proceedings of this study session seemed like close friends at an elegant year-end holiday gathering, all standing around the grand piano with mulled cider and eggnog, allowing one thought politely to lead to another, the reality is that many subjects erupted simultaneously and the Steiny Road Poet can barely account for which thoughts came first, let alone complete discourse on one aspect of what was said without mixing subject matter. Such is the wondrous plight of working with the dimensionality of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

The How and What said in this Massive Open Online Study Group contributes to the appreciation and understanding of the subpoem, but just to help you, Dear Reader, enter these offerings, here are subjects associated with “A Piano.”: piano, camera, Lesbian love, metapoetics, word roots, anagrams, composition, bicameral mind, bees, recreational drugs, eyes, cars, flowers. Steiny does not promise to represent everything discussed and perversely, she will set the stage for her assembly of the discussion with a quote from Gertrude’s brother Leo who did not appreciate Tender Buttons, though in fact much of what he wrote in his 1947 book Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose makes sense in discussing the very poem that contributed to their estrangement:

…what one man sees and another does not, makes intercourse difficult when it has to do with the kinds of things that are not really capable of explanation. The qualities of art are perceived, as it were, by a multitude of senses, and he who hasn’t them operative, is not in communication with him who has.


The sound of this piano is more like a click of a camera than fingers on a keyboard says the Steiny Road Poet. Here are some of the words that tuned up Steiny’s ear to the cameras of Stein’s time:

speed is open: shutter speed.
color is careless: black & white cameras.
strong scent: flash powder was used with early photography.
button: What the photographer pushes to take a picture.
no color: The early cameras took images in black and white.
dark custom: The procedure of darkroom development.
it shuts: a camera lens opens and shuts.

Allan Keeton said, “The no dark custom sounds obscure & reminds me of a camera obscura.”

The camera obscura (Latin; camera for "vaulted chamber/room", obscura for "dark", together "darkened chamber/room"; plural: camera obscuras or camerae obscurae) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. The projection is through a pinhole and the image is projected upside down. Up to a point, the smaller the pinhole, the sharper the image.

Now, back to what Stein wrote: If there is no dirt in a pin [pinhole] and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing [upside down].

Almost an aside after Eleanor Smagarinsky exclaimed Allan’s comments were “an exciting new path,” Allan said, “This inversion is a classic Steinian move.
She inverts gender roles.”

Allan also said that he loved the inversions produced by negations, that these were also [here, Steiny is interpreting and possibly embellishing] examples of camera obscura. [e.g. two instances of complete inversions/negations: “if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color, not any color,” “awkwardly not awkwardly”]

Then Allan offered a more detailed explanation about camera:

“The speed on a camera might be the shutter speed that is left open for a long exposure. The button is then the shutter release button that is held down but the restraint is not quickly released so as to capture all the waving color and movement on the black & white film, which has no color, not any color.

“Then the restraint on the shutter button is lifted, the shutter spreads & shuts.
The view from the center of the lens is now inside the camera on the film.  It has the standing to represent the moment.
It stands for the moment.
Time standing still.

“The view from the center of the lens is restrained on the film and is standing for reality. Just like the view from the eye's lens stands for reality in the memory of the bi-cameral mind.”

Peter Treanor reflected:

“I like the Camera Obscura as a way of describing how we receive GS’ Tender Buttons, all that inversion, slow development, (photo)sensitivity, projection and framing. The way that hours in the dark are needed for the small thread of light to produce an image by reacting slowly with the sensitive receptive material that acts as the film.  I wonder do we under- or over-expose the image at times, does the image get clearer the longer it is left in the light and how do we know when it is fully developed?”


Allan replied,

“We definitely overexpose some of the images & underexpose others. I like how if an image is standing, then it is standing upside down in the camera & in the brain.”

awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing. 

“This is an awkward way to stand. 
So we don't head toward awk in response,
the brain does a computational inversion.
The image is now not awkwardly standing.”

After noting that Stein uses awkward(ly) three times, Peter T set out the root derivation of awkward:

late Middle English (in the sense 'the wrong way round, upside down'): from dialect awk 'backwards, perverse, clumsy' (from Old Norse afugr 'turned the wrong way') + -ward

”I got a bit excited by the origin of the word  (in the sense 'the wrong way round, upside down'). 

But why is there so much awkward? What is awkward or potentially what makes awkward difficult, embarrassing, ungainly, abnormal, or the wrong way round here?? What is the thing that can cause this?”

Matter-of-factly Allan replied to Peter T:

“One of the awkward situations that has already been mentioned is for
a woman to have sex with a woman rather than a man.

“Awkward in its social implications & expectations.
They are doing things "the wrong way round."
All romantic approaches have the possibility to be awkward,
but going against norms can be doubly so.

“If the selection of a strong scent (a woman) is not awkward.

“Then they can enjoy their button holding,
& as Eleanor suggested, they can climax.”

Hardly had Steiny had the opportunity to recover from the unabashed exchange between two men discussing the sex lives of two Lesbian women (Has reading Tender Buttons changed the members of The Button Collective?) when Eleanor made this insightful set of comments:

“I've been thinking about the ending -ward, as it usually signifies a direction of some sort:

“Is it possible that this poem lacks a traditional direction? Or, perhaps, that all of the Buttons [sub]poems lack that left to right direction (as I think was already pointed out).

“The direction is not forward, backward, or any other, it is actually awkward - so GS is using the word as a direction, not an adjective. She's moving in a direction, which is so new it requires a new word.”

Here, Steiny will go out on a limb to interpret—because Gertrude Stein is picking her words so carefully, it is not enough to know the standard definitions of a word. For a more complete reading, bordering on understanding what Stein is writing, the reader needs to stop and find the origins of certain words. Stein gives ample clues that something is up with particular words, as in the case of using awkward three times in “A Piano.”. It may also be the case that she uses anagrams to extend what she has written. Indeed this speaks to what Eleanor is saying about direction. We Buttons, thanks to Peter T, saw that subpoem 15 “A Red Hat.” anagrammatically translates as head art.


Sometimes idle chatter among The Buttons produces new paths into Stein’s thorniest thickets. While Barbara Crary and Nicola Quinn commiserated about their lack of understanding regarding waving color and no color, Peter T burst forth with:

“Barbara, How can there be no color? I know, this is strange. But if there is white or black only maybe, then there is no color. Sometimes I get little glimpses of a church, all upstanding, and then there's the wavings and the color, seem like a celebration of some sort, and the no color seems like it could be white (or black), and it makes me think of weddings, a little, sometimes. All that white at the centre, the white dress, the standing at the alter, the "all be up standing for the bride.

“Also the centre is in standing.  Does she mean this literally? ding is in standing, the sound of bells at a wedding, or church or celebration. And is in standing, and joins words like "this and that," it links, or weds them. A piano could be an organ, a church organ. And there's the button holder, or button hole, those flowers in the lapels and their perfume or smell, or strong scent, or incense or innocence.”

This led to Eleanor seeing something else coded into Stein’s language:

“Yes, it is strange. Let's see:

“There is both color and no color.                    check
A celebration of some sort.                                check
(the place is the same as) upstanding.            check
Ding ding ding                                                  check
A (sexual) organ                                               check
Button holder                                                    duh
A strong scent                                                  check

“Strange to finally read a description of a female orgasm, after centuries of celebrating the male's moment over and over and over again. And again, just in case any of us missed it. Strange days indeed.”

Here, Steiny pauses to say that the unabashed conversation by two men of the TB MOOSG about two women having sex came after Eleanor’s candid remarks here. The dynamics of an online discussion group where its members live inconveniently far apart avoids many instances of red-faced reactions, except where a member happens to mention them. Because The Buttons are now growing use to fact that Tender Buttons is about the private life of a Lesbian couple, it has become easier to discuss such things. Therefore, Allan can get away with saying to Peter T and Eleanor:

“You two are amazing.

“Here is more about not spreading restraint,
but spreading & shutting & lifting awkwardly &
not awkwardly.

“The central clitoris is standing,
ding, ding, ding!”

This is no dark custom and it even is not acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread. That is spread, it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing. 


Now back to the problem of no color with this practical comment from Peter Rant, “There are no colors in the dark. The color comes from the frequency of light reflected from a surface.”
However, Peter Rant then transitioned from the issue of no color to a vision of this poem actually representing a piano:
“Also, no color in an actual piano, usually black with black and white keys. The color with no color is the music itself, which comes from the piano. Just saying... There is the obvious, literal translation to consider.
“Of course, Eleanor's read is more fun, but maybe they do tie together in the playing of the piano. The button holder could be the pianist, the player pressing the keys down, then they come up. How else does the interaction work? Pedals are pressed with the feet. Petals of a flower. Pianos have keys. Keys to what?
“The hammers in the piano could also be called pins. There can be no dirt or the music, the color is obscured. So, there can be nothing between the player and the string that is played. Yes, this does work for the sexual metaphor. I don't know. Just playing with it. Anybody wanna riff some more on this?”
Here Steiny stops the action just briefly—inside the piano, there are tuning pins, not to be confused with hammers that strike the strings.

Allan replied to Peter Rant:
“O yes Peter,

“The piano is definitely there.

“I don't know enough about pianos to know what a speed might be.
Unless it is the lid of a grand piano.
Those are opened.
Is this an eyelid?

“The piano lid reminds me of the hood of an automobile.
The speed clenches it,
& we have opened the clitoral hood.
If this is open...

self movement

“Piano was originally called pianoforte
a soft-strong, quiet-loud instrument.
(Claudia [Schumann] mentioned the softness below.)
Piano (soft) & then forte (strong) & then with speed.

“The terms soft & strong refer both to the finger pressure
on the keys, on the buttons, & the emitted sounds.
If the speed is open one can hear the pianoforte.”

Loving Peter Rants piano interpretation, Eleanor said:

“I think it's vital for the understanding of the poem!! I was excited about the sexual metaphor, but that would never exist if not for the upper layer which is so detailed about the playing of the musical instrument.

“And there has to be nothing in-between or the music is muffled. Skin on skin contact, I suppose, so as to play the most beautiful music. Pedals and petals - swoon. And it is all in the play of words and the sexual play, all mixed up in the poem, so lovely.

“Now I see that I don't need to forego the word by word close reading, that it actually enhances everything. It's a close reading of how to have a close relationship!! Between writer and reader, and between two lovers, I suppose. It's almost a duet? Piano for 4 hands?

“Maybe it even reads like a Primer for Reaching Simultaneous Orgasm.
Too much? *blushing*!”


Of course, says Steiny, there is desire and all those Ifs connect “A Piano.” to “A Red Stamp.”. To this, Eleanor said:

“This means that there are 6 conditions which lead towards an important result.
I think these might be the 5 senses as there is touch, smell and sight (from the first 3 'if' clauses, possibly), not sure about the others. Plus one extra (the 6th sense).

“If you read this to yourself, alone, in a perfectly silent room, with no distractions, then it seems to describe, in some extra-sensory way, a female orgasm. The second paragraph immediately zooms in (like those fractals in the video), we're now way past the conditions, conditions are go, and it's all a rush to the finish.

“This is the first time that I don't feel the need to close read each word. I see ‘button holder’ as the focal point, and everything else branches out and around. For example, I cannot explain what ‘no dirt in a pin’ means, but I feel beyond a shadow of a doubt that it exactly enacts a stage of or leading to orgasm, and I know it's illogical, but there you have it. Poetry.”

Then stepping outside herself, Eleanor asked if she could do a meta reading of the subpoem:

“So as to write the perfect poem you need a beginning and a middle and a totally satisfying ending, with perfect timing, death-defying descriptions, movement, tone, blurring of lines, not too many words, and not too few, and each and every letter standing at perfect attention and intention,


“and only then,

“will the difference spread
and shut
and lift.


From this reading, Eleanor whirled into Sufi trance to construct an APIAN O anagram from A Piano conjuring Queen Bees born of discussions related to “A Red Stamp,” bicameral minds, and a lion’s skull wherein bees had built a hive (Steiny did not include that part of the discussion because it was too rarefied for her to explicate adequately). However, the poetic beauty of Eleanor’s vision must be known:

Bees are buzzing at open speed
Color is everywhere, flowers abundant
The scent of the flowers is heady
And what is a flower if not a button holder?
Look at all that waving color
And what of that pesky stigma?
And think of all that pollen on the tips of the stamen - which is the dirt in a pin of the men
So what shall we do with all of this, my darling A, who says "NO"?
Let me change your mind,
Let me show you an apian world - APIAN, O!!!
Let it spread, I say,
Let it spread and shut and lift and centre and

At this point, Steiny will just give a run of quotations to finish this amazing study session:


“Bees have an intricate way of communicating that
involves vibrating (like piano strings) & dancing.
The other bees tune into this language to find out where the
pollen drenched flower buttons are.
“We are doing the same vibrating & dancing to
describe tender buttons.”
Dave Green:
If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing. 

“If a woman has her lesbian lover pinned down in the bedroom, and there is nothing "dirty" or wrong about that--and that can scarcely not be the case--then the situation is just as "right" as two women standing side by side in public.”

“Now we are getting to the real GS. Most of my 'religious' friends don't read GS because they say she is erotic. They're right! However, believe it or not I didn't notice this when I first started reading GS (I was really naive then). Now it's jumping out at me (especially from all these posts).”

Mary Armour (some random thoughts):
“Gertrude would compose what she called “sonatinas” for piano, played on the white keys only. (this I think from John Herbert Gill 1983)

“The eye as a camera. Shutter speed.

“Alice B Toklas trained as a concert pianist.

“The piano lid raised, the buttonhole posy/posies scented with clove pinks. Buttonholes and  corsages. Bouquets for buttons.”

Peter T:
“All of the readings we have done since I joined the MOOSC seem to have had such a sexual or relationship component to them, makes me wonder about Tender Buttons as a whole, what was she doing? It’s in 3 parts: Food, Object and Rooms, a trilogy, a triptych, a trinity. Is it a sort of Mappa Mundi of human experience? Other trinity's she could be referring to, the holy trinity ( god-(wo)man- spirit, or mind- body- spirit  or head-body-abdomen.

Your previous work seems to point to the Ten Commandments for the first section of TB. This section seems to be referring to body parts relationships and creativity. Is the content of the piece as a whole human life and is there a significance to the ordering of it into 3 sections?”

T. De Los Reyes:
“Perhaps a waving colour means the way the colours of the piano keys look: like a wave of black keys and white keys. Perhaps it could also mean waving a flag?”

Carol A. Stephen:
“…the grand piano, when open has its lid propped open by an arm, essentially at the piano's centre line, the centre is in standing.  And perhaps the restraint refers to the pedals and whether they are being pressed (a restraint), preventing the damper, which has been lifted by the keys, from muting the strings.”

“If the restraints are not spread across all the strings,
then the dampers must have been lifted up by pressing
on the sustain pedal. This lets the sympathetic strings
ring out longer.

“So we have have
sustain = lack of restraint = sympathy

“All good qualities in love & lovemaking.
Notice the V-shape of the sympathetic strings.”


“Music is a language, in and of itself, and my gut feeling is that GS is playing around with that here. But wait, ‘a strong scent’ = ACCENT.”

Look at the movement of this piece as set by its punctuation. I think this is what Eleanor is getting at.  And one whole sentence without anything but the période sans virgule (comma).

If the speed is open,
if the color is careless,
if the selection of a strong scent is not awkward,
if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color,
not any color.
If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely,
if there is not then the place is the same as up standing.
This is no dark custom and it even is not acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread.
That is spread,
it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing.
“It sounds a bit like a piece being played on the piano. The first three lines are short opening phrases. Then a long virtuoso phrase, followed by the echo of "not any color". Then a couple of moderately-long phrases, followed by another virtuoso phrase going across the length of the keyboard, with the echo of "that is spread". And then the final phrase, it goes up and down, awkward and not awkward, then reaches the final resolution and rest of "the centre is in standing". I'm turning my button baton over now, thankful I did not fall off the podium.”

Peter Rant:
"Is the piano entirely a metaphor for Alice B. Toklas, or some other unknown lover?"

Sarah Maitland Parks:
“…the word 'speed' made me think of driving along fast in an open-topped car. The fold back roof is a bit like a piano lid when it is unfolded and clipped back in place. 

“'open' the open road.

“'color is careless' coloured fabrics of clothing flapping wildly in the wind.

“'strong scent/awkward' no problem with strong perfumes with the fresh air rushing past.

“Being in a car driving with someone is intimate, fast, going somewhere, yet staying in the same place...”

Peter T:
“Sarah, I love  going somewhere, yet staying in the same place..., that is so much what seems to happen with these verses, they are the same verse  but they travel all over the place, at high speed and in every direction., And the speed and the colors and the smells do transport you to a feeling of whizzing through the countryside in an open top sports car. I’ve got a picture of Audrey Hepburn in mind , though this isn’t quite the one it’s near enough.”

And so it was that all The Buttons clung to “A Piano.” for all its waving or no color as if standing upright in a convertible along a parade route blowing kisses, the bystanders all snapping photos to aid memory…

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

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