Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stepping on Tender Buttons: "A Cloth.", "More."


THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
SUBPOEM: ……...................-           A CLOTH: NUMBER 22
STANZAS..............................-           1
WORD COUNT.....................-           33
SUBPOEM: ……...................-           MORE: NUMBER 23
STANZA................................-           2
WORD COUNT.....................-           52
CO-LEADER.........................-           THE STEINY ROAD POET
CO-LEADER.........................-           DAVE GREEN
GENRE..................................-           VIRTUAL OPERA
LOCATION............................-USA, UK, Australia, Philippines, S. Africa, Canada.
TIME......................................-           ALL HOURS OF EARTH’S CLOCK
TONE.....................................-           EXPECTANT & FESTIVE


Enough cloth is plenty and more, more is almost enough for that and besides if there is no more spreading is there plenty of room for it. Any occasion shows the best way.


An elegant use of foliage and grace and a little piece of white cloth and oil.

Wondering so winningly in several kinds of oceans is the reason that makes red so regular and enthusiastic. The reason that there is more snips are the same shining very colored rid of no round color.

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the latest installment of our close readings of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons poems. We are an amateur group of Stein aficionados known affectionately as the Buttons. We enjoy reading and analyzing poetry as a group and having fun in the process. And we do have a lot of fun in the process, even approaching or entering party mode at times, but we work hard at understanding the poems as well. I am Dave Green, your guest blogger for this set of poems.


Buttons member Barbara Crary kicked off the discussion by saying that she saw the cloth in "A Cloth." as a tablecloth covering the table where Gertrude set her objects when writing about them. She added that the first stanza of "More." suggests a centerpiece for a festive occasion. Delving more deeply into the text, she said she liked the alliteration and sound of Wondering so winningly. Judy Meibach agreed. Finally, Barbara mentioned that occasion in the first poem perhaps morphs into or is somehow connected to oceans in the second.

Given this sketch of a possible mise-en-scene, Claudia Schumann promptly produced images of occasional tables that could have be found in a home at the turn of the century. She imagined such a table with a doily and a centerpiece object sitting on it. The Buttons suddenly felt themselves transported to the time in question.


The Steiny Road Poet then offered the view that both poems could be related to painting. Enough cloth could be a drape around an artist's model. And foliage could be a fig leaf for a nude subject. Then, in a self-described fit of going "bonkers", she posited that "More." could be a reference to Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, citing as support the word oceans and Venus' red hair that she uses as a fig leaf to hide her nakedness. Steiny said she was certain that Gertrude and Alice had seen that painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 

Allan Keeton nodded his head at Steiny's painterly ruminations and noted that Venus is clearly wondering so winningly in several kinds of oceans. As a bonus, he went on to explain some of the mythology behind the painting, including the fascinating point that Venus was generated out of the foam of blood and semen from Uranus' severed genitals. Intrigued, Peter Treanor inspected the painting closely for said genitals but came up empty.


Meanwhile, the Botticellian cloths billowing in the wind reminded Eleanor Smagarinksy of sails on a sailboat. So perhaps the issue in "A Cloth." is: how do you decide on the size of your sail? By the strength of the wind? By your direction? Destination? Size of the boat? Number of passengers? Any occasion [ocean] shows the best way - does the sea show you the best direction and determine how you should set the sails? Finally, the seafaring Eleanor noted that the wind has no color, which ties nicely with the phrase Of no round color.


Dave (your author) made his entrance at this point, taking up the painterly line of attack again and wondering if the reference to red in several kinds of oceans could be pointing to paintings by different artists, e.g., red in Matisse, red in Picasso. Is Gertrude looking at her paintings on the wall above a covered table in her apartment? The cloth decorates the table and the paintings decorate the wall? Could snips refer to brushstrokes? Eleanor replied that canvas is indeed a type of cloth. Peter added that the oil could be paint and perhaps foliage is greenery included in the painting.


Dave added that snips also reminded him of ships, given the prior mention of oceans. This ties in with Eleanor's sailboat. Eleanor delightedly noted that the only difference between snips and "ships" is the tiny snip that makes an "h" into an "n". Whereupon Peter exclaimed, it's had its topsail cut off! Or lowered. Too windy perhaps. This caused Eleanor to laugh so loudly that she woke up her entire neighborhood. Recovering her composure, a thought occurred to her--oil floats on water. More possible evidence for a flotation theme.


Dave then took a bead on "A Cloth." and, feeling ambitious, attempted a complete paraphrase: To have the right amount of cloth for a table, you need to have plenty of cloth and actually more than you need. On second thought, the rule could almost be reduced to just having a little bit more than you need. You just need an appropriate margin. Because if the table is small, how could you have plenty of cloth and still have it look right? The best way to figure out the appropriate size of the cloth is just to try it out. You'll zero in on the solution quickly. Could this poem be referring metaphorically to finding the appropriate fit in a lifestyle sense?


Dave's mention of "margin" got Peter thinking about paper and writing. Perhaps cloth refers to paper and Stein is making some comment about writing or ideas. But the poem seems contradictory, like a koan, with enough being plenty and more, but more being only almost enough. Is she saying that less is more when it comes to writing? That concision and focus are what's important? And maybe the spreading is the spreading of ideas through writing and reading. 


Barbara then thought of another idea: what about cloth referring to the material for the clothing that Alice used to make for herself and Gertrude? Gertrude was also known to make fun of her own ample girth, which gives some resonance to the words enough and plenty. Perhaps a nice outfit is being made for a special occasion.


Something was still bothering Peter, however. Just what are snips? His first thought was parsnips. Is she talking about parsnips with foliage, cooked with oil, covered with a white cloth? They are sometimes called colorless carrots, carrots being red and regular; they are round if cut into sections; they could even be shiny if glazed with honey. I love roast parsnips and am starving at the moment and so can't get them out of my head, Peter exclaimed. But he expressed less confidence that Gertrude had the same obsession. 

Struggling to keep his hunger pangs under control, Peter ventured a few more thoughts. Could snips be cuts of something, cuts of fabric and paper? Snippets of information, cutting from a newspaper or magazine? Snippets of thought? Thoughts can be very colorful but have no real physical color. Or could snips be an anagram of "pins"? Pins holding together the arrangement on the table or holding the cloth together in some way? And the word oceans seems so strange and out of context here. Could Gertrude be using oceans in the sense of a large expanse, meaning the wondering and thinking is being done in an expansive way that makes what is red [read] so regular and enthusiastic?

Continuing his dogged pursuit of the mysterious snips, Peter added: Could snips be scissors, metal ones which would be shiny, with round finger holes that have no color? Scissors are used to arrange flowers and foliage, you would wipe and clean and lubricate them with an oiled cloth. And cutting through different materials (paper, cloth, card, etc.) can look like a ship sailing through the ocean. Maybe the different materials are the different oceans. At which point Peter collapsed, exclaiming: scissors or parsnips, what a muddle!


Barbara responded that pins and scissors do sound like the making of clothes. Eleanor agreed, saying there is a strong sense of craft here. There's sewing going on, making clothes. 

Sarah Maitland Parks then dropped by. She said the discussion reminded her of her French grandmother in London who would make her own clothes, laying out the cut-out patterns on the floor so they would fit in the shortest possible fabric length, then going out and spending the little money she had on the best fabric she could find. 


This triggered Eleanor to relate how she goes to a "Craft Camp" every year where her friends sew their own clothes, leaving snips of fabric all over the floor by the end of each day. She said it was her job to sweep them up in the evening, which makes her feel useful and she just loves the different colors of the snips in one giant pile. Very much shining very colored rid of no round color.

All this talk of snips as scissors caused Peter to suddenly revive. He excitedly said that scissors with the cut cloth in a "wake" behind it really does look like a ship sailing through the sea with its wake behind it. And don't we say we are sailing through something if we are cutting it easily? Eleanor praised this scissors as boat metaphor, saying it was a very strong image that would stay with her forever. 

Musing on possible generalizations, Dave murmured: Scissors cutting through cloth; a paintbrush stroking through the oil on a cloth canvas; a pen gliding across a piece of paper, leaving words in its wake; a Big Bang making a universe out of whole cloth

Channeling the "Craft Camp" spirit, Allan opined that the Tender Buttons Objects, the poems, are on the table, and the words that have been snipped out of them are gotten rid of under the table. We find the snips to remake the poems. 

This concept tickled Eleanor's fancy and she immediately elaborated on it in the following compelling "treatment": 

"Gertrude has cut out brand new patterns, never created before (nor since), and she's placed the pattern templates over the cloth (i.e., the letters of the alphabet/language) and then she has cut the words out. Then the snips - the bits that are left after the pattern has been cut out - all fall to the floor and get kicked under the table. Now... because the patterns are so unusual, Gertrude's fellow craft campers gather around the table, bemused. Gertrude shows them what she is making... she takes the pieces (the words) and sews them together to make an outfit, something for a thought/feeling to "wear". This item of clothing (perhaps a dress? a cloak? a hat? a purse? an umbrella?) is the strangest thing any of them have ever seen, but they're polite because they respect the creative urge of all crafters, this is in fact the Craft Camp motto - "Embrace the wonk". So they smile and retire to the main cottage for dinner. 

"But late that night, while all the craft campers are fast asleep, a group of intrepid pattern seekers enter the craft studio to search for the meaning hidden behind Gertrude's strange poetic items. Each of them bends down and grabs a handful of snips and starts to sort through them, some by color, some by shape, some by texture, etc. That's us!!! And what we discover, just before dawn is this - in the process of sorting through the snips, we have unwittingly created an extraordinary artwork of our own. It's a thing of beauty, a communal joy, and yet - it's a coded secret which few people can appreciate. But then.... those sorts of artworks are always the very best kind." 

Dave bowed to Eleanor's screenwriting skills and humbly offered the following variation for consideration by the Buttons: Perhaps the snips are actually Stein's poems, not the left-over remains from the making of the poems. Maybe she is using regular patterns, which represent the conventional, but then throwing out the cut-outs and keeping the remains, the snips, which would be the unconventional thing to do. As Eleanor says, the snips have a beauty of their own. They echo the cut-outs in strange, inverted ways. They are ships on their own journey, and sips from a special wine. 


The Buttons were then joined by Mary Armour, who began pondering the phrase and besides if there is no more spreading is there plenty of room for it. The word spreading caught her eye. The difference is spreading [a famous line from another Tender Buttons poem, "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass."], the table is spread out, the cloth abundant and spread out. Stein likes spaciousness, she likes plenitude. Spread out for our delight, language games that invite participation and pleasure, cloth that may be a synonym for flesh, for skin, for what is able to spread and keep spreading, that will cover the world with difference, a showing that is also a giving. Is there a question in here? There is no interrogation mark but it sounds like a question.

Peter agreed that the poet is "Plenitude Stein" (subsequently rephrased by Mary to "The Gertrude of Plenitude"). He wondered if she was referring to the spreading of ideas and change.


Mary felt that Stein is communicating something to do with what a cloth looks like and what it does. Why do we cover tables? Why do we cover beds? Why do we cover bodies? What is being concealed, what is being revealed, what is being covered for the occasion, what may be round and white and full to perfection? Peter replied, yes, why do we cover all these things? Decoration, coordination, cleanliness, warmth, fashion, decorum, to add emphasis? To communicate information about the thing covered perhaps? And maybe more importantly, about the person who is doing the covering? 

Sarah nodded and said that the person who decides which tablecloth to put out, or what the curtains are to be made of, puts their stamp on a space. It's a way of marking your territory. A very female version of it. If a woman moves into a house she'll change the furnishings immediately to get rid of the previous partner's presence. 


Allan, who is known to have an interest in astronomy, offered another take on spreading: The fabric of space-time is spreading. This can be measured by the redshift of the cosmic background radiation. However, it's true that Stein wouldn't have known about this in 1912. Peter then presented an image of the cosmic background radiation, suggesting that this may actually be an image of Stein's table that is somehow traveling to us through time, written large on the sky, and shifted in color by the universe's expansion. The Buttons could not deny a certain sense of awe at the majesty of this vision.


After fruitfully connecting the scientific and humanistic worlds with his astronomical interpretation, Allan began to consider the meaning of the phrase Red so regular & enthusiastic. Sounds like blood, he said. The regular heartbeat. A regular period. An ocean of colored red that is gotten rid of in shining flows. Colored rid. This love [of Gertrude and Alice] produces no babies. There is no round color. The flow of blood does not stop. Their love is regular & throbs steadily.

This discussion of color prompted Steiny to point out that Stein was trained as a doctor to always look at a patient's color--or lack of it. So while she tuned up her eye for color in art, her eye for color was first coming from Science. The Buttons marveled at science and art intersecting yet again in their close reading of Stein's poetry.


Science is indeed wonderful, but Sarah was feeling a specific social vibe from "More.". As a whole, she said, it makes me think of polite lunches or dinners, where the centerpiece on the table is made of some foliage and the people have to use all their skills to make conversation winningly, i.e., charmingly, carefully, wittily, emptily. Can you tell I can't stand this necessary art?

Dave replied, if we are talking about a dinner here, then maybe the red is red wine, which goes well with a lot of things. Round is also a descriptor that is used with wine: "Round : A wine that has a good sense of body that is not overly tannic." And maybe snips are really "sips". 

Peter liked this idea and excitedly noted that the difference between snips and sips is an "n"; turn it upside down and take it out, its a "u", a cup or a glass to drink from. And More then could be more as in social mores. Allan added: That cup is you. One has has social mores because there is not just a me. There is also a "u." Let's drink to that.

The Buttons immediately assented to Allan's call for liquid refreshment, as it had been a long day in the literary mines. And not long after that they drifted off to some well-deserved sleep. 


The first to wake was Mary, with a mug of Ethiopian coffee by her side. She was thinking about the first line of "More." and said, this makes me think of the moreness and rightness of a table setting with foliage gracefully arranged in glass and wood or silver cutlery polished with a little soft white cloth and some scented oil. Or an altar with ivy leaves entwined around a candle and a folded napkin and small jug of oil for anointing.

Dave, a few time zones away, ambled into the Buttons virtual kitchen and said, good morning, Mary. Seeing her previous words hanging in the air, he responded: Perhaps "A Cloth." and "More." are both about preparing a table for a dinner. "A Cloth." refers to the basic first step--covering the table with a cloth. Then in "More." the additional elements are added to the table, including the foliage centerpiece and something red. What is the red item? Wine? Roses? Napkins? Does snips refer to cut roses? Could shining refer to cutlery?

Mary, taking comfort in her coffee, replied: Some everyday and delightful ritual going on here Dave -- anointing and  snipping  roses, the red and the white, the foliage green, silver cutlery, the white cloth, the golden oil. The essence of hospitality, what is inviting, what is more than the individual actions and gestures, more than the objects of the table, how they belong together.

Continuing the quiet morning dialog, Dave said: When one sees a set table, there is a feeling of expectancy, of more to come, isn't there?

Mary concurred, saying: Yes, exactly Dave and what is that more? The company, the conversation, the togetherness and intimacy. Good food! More wine! Holding hands under the table, etc. Snippets of this and that.


Eleanor then appeared and was immediately taken by this dialog, saying in her lovely Australian accent: 

"Mary & Dave, your dialogue here is wonderful. It's as if the two of you are having a conversation while you're setting the table together, or perhaps you are already seated at the table and admiring the objects on it. Also admiring each other's words. 

"I am suddenly reminded of Anthony Hopkins' character—the butler—in Remains of the Day, carefully measuring each place setting. [Eleanor is famous for her vast storehouse of highly relevant film references.] There is a delightful interplay in this film between the formal ritual, the repressed sexuality, the abundant food and wine, the shine and decoration, the words and the silences. And a great deal of romance, of course."


The Buttons' discussion of "A Cloth." and "More." thus drew to a satisfying close on Eleanor's cinematic encapsulation, having yielded many sparkling insights and enjoyable moments. The Buttons' work felt a bit like being at an enjoyable dinner party, an intellectual salon, conversing with wonderfully interesting people, a mood which seemed to be pre-figured in the poems themselves, thus making for a delightful parallel between life and art. On behalf of the Buttons, dear Reader, I thank you for re-living our experience and joining us through these words. 

1 comment:

Eleanor said...

A wonderful discussion we had about these poems. But then again, each of our discussions is a gem. Thanks Karren, and special thanks to Dave for this great write-up. Onwards!!