Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Frightful Release.”, “A Purse.”, “A Mounted Umbrella.”


THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
SUBPOEM: ……...................-           A FRIGHTFUL RELEASE: NUMBER 19
SUBPOEM: ……...................-           A PURSE: NUMBER 20
SUBPOEM: ……...................-           A MOUNTED UMBRELLA: NUMBER 21
STANZAS..............................-           1 per subpoem
WORD COUNTS...................-           45, 46, 86
CO-LEADER.........................-           THE STEINY ROAD POET
CO-LEADER.........................-           ELEANOR SMAGARINSKY
GENRE..................................-           VIRTUAL OPERA
LOCATION............................-           USA, UK, Australia, Philippines, S. Africa, Canada.
TIME......................................-           ALL HOURS OF EARTH’S CLOCK
TONE.....................................-           SHATTERINGLY COURAGEOUS


A bag which was left and not only taken but turned away was not found. The place was shown to be very like the last time. A piece was not exchanged, not a bit of it, a piece was left over. The rest was mismanaged.


A purse was not green, it was not straw color, it was hardly seen and it had a use a long use and the chain, the chain was never missing, it was not misplaced, it showed that it was open, that is all that it showed.


What was the use of not leaving it there where it would hang what was the use if there was no chance of ever seeing it come there and show that it was handsome and right in the way it showed it. The lesson is to learn that it does show it, that it shows it and that nothing, that there is nothing, that there is no more to do about it and just so much more is there plenty of reason for making an exchange.

Hello Dear Reader,

Eleanor Smagarinsky here, and today I am humbly taking on the role of co-leader, beside the inimitable Steiny Road Poet. I shall attempt to portray the quite shatteringly brave work of the Buttons as we analyzed these three poems and proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, our true ownership of the Buttons Box.

It all started with the Steiny’s decision to encourage the group to view the three poems as an interconnected trio. 


Nicola Quinn began the proceedings by announcing her delight at the deliciously orgasmic nature of the phrase “A Frightful Release.” Steiny encouraged her to also appreciate the sexual connotation found in “A Mounted Umbrella.”–there was no chance of ever seeing it come. Allan Keeton grabbed this idea gleefully and wrote a poem in celebration of the opening of pursed lips and mounted umbrellas, and Claudia shared her belief that Stein “enjoys teasing the reader…putting these sexual innuendoes in her poems for us to discover.” Steiny then returned to the forum, quoting critic Ulla Dydo, “Stein likens the creative act to the sexual act.”


This conversation became a pivotal moment in the growth of our beloved study group, as several participants boldly remarked on the confronting nature of Stein’s sexual imagery in these poems. At one point, Eleanor (full disclosure, that’s me, your intrepid writer of this post) questioned her own temptation to concentrate only on the sexual interpretation of “A Frightful Release.” Was she being as open-minded as the poetry demanded? Or was she taking the risk of missing out on many other interpretations—just as valid and interesting?


I'm sorry, but I just can't stop laughing. You see... after the "Chair" thread I sat down and had a serious conversation with myself. I asked myself if I'm reading eroticism into Tender Buttons unnecessarily, I mean... seriously... could I just give the sexual interpretation a break for a thread or two? You know, actually make space for some other ways of understanding the poems? Wasn't it a bit ... I don't know ... self-indulgent to be going on and on, endlessly (honestly, about the lesbian rubbings and that stuff with the chairs, I mean for goodness sake, is this the climax of my ModPo experience?

“Describing the varieties of metaphors used by Stein to discuss orgasm, the clitoris, masturbation and the general erotic fun-and-games of a couple in love? NO. I decided. NO NO NO. I shall turn the page, start the new thread, turn over a new leaf, shift my attention to more worthy subjects.

And here I am.

 A frightful release, a purse, and a mounted umbrella. Mounted. I mean, truly, honestly, is this a joke? It's like Gertrude is looking down at me right now and laughing her head off, slapping her thighs with delight and saying ‘All right, Eleanor, I dare you, I dare you to interpret these poems without reference to sex.
’ And I say, ‘Game on, Gertrude, game on!!!’” 

How was that? Did I sound convincing?

Such a questioning (although couched in humor) proved to be a very powerful force within the study group in two vital ways. Firstly, it led to a new, thrilling way of looking at the three poems; secondly, it led to Mary Armour’s astonishing discussion of what Stein’s experience of the “private intensity and ‘togetherness’ [of being gay in 1914] might mean for language and being-in-language.”



“Thinking about word inventories, Karren [a.k.a, Steiny], there is a word I keep looking for and can't find, a word I associate with Gertrude Stein's novel QED that I read several years ago and gave me a way into reading more of Stein. The missing word is 'May' or 'may' and it is a loaded and taboo word between Gertrude and Alice because it is taken to refer to May Bookstaver, Stein's earlier lover. Both Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas have had lovers before, hidden away in 'particular friendships' and both are looking for something other than a 'Boston marriage.' This is the most ambitious and coded undertaking imaginable, as incendiary as the writing of Tender Buttons itself.

“When I was thinking in 5-Close Reading [the study thread on “A Chair.”] about the widow chair and that hint of bereavement, it came to me that along with writing as a deep source of erotic pleasure, there is also pain and I wonder if GS is not working out the pleasure-pain dynamic of love between women. A certain possibility—the word 'may,' that subjunctive opening—is closed and so Gertrude is framing pleasure between women through Alice, the bliss of sexual reciprocity with Alice.

“But she is also looking at what lesbianism, the private intensity and 'togetherness' might mean for language and being-in-language.
We (the exploratory bloodhound readers) know from hindsight that Gertrude and Alice would become a fixture, that they were 'impregnable' as a couple, that they would stay together until Gertrude's death, we know about Alice's long lonely widowhood. But Gertrude and Alice didn't know this in 1912, it was all so precarious and new and what Gertrude is doing here seems to me at once flagrant and delectable, but also terrifying. To explore something in code that was so core to her evolving the identity of not just Gertrude Stein, writer, but the shared hybrid identity that would become The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. To inscribe female sexuality anew. I can't imagine anything more ambitious.”

Dave Green responded, and the following conversation ensued:

“Nice post Mary. 

So maybe there's a connection between Stein's unconventional use of words and her unconventional sexual identity. Maybe the normal use of words represents ‘straight’ language but she's showing that is just one possibility, there are alternatives. Sexual identity (who do I relate to?) and language identity (how do words relate to other words and to concepts?) can take on more forms than convention suggests, and these alternatives are just as valid.”


“Dave, this is so crucial in summoning up the courage to follow Stein into Tender Buttons. It is more than unconventional, it is radical and saying what has not been said or expressed before.

There are rhythms and repetitions that are for me the only indication of what is going on under the surface, a woman remaking herself, overflowing, coming, spilling out beyond accepted boundaries.

“There are so many 'leading' or 'misleading' metaphors (Eleanor has been pointing to these in many ways). Stein, for example uses 'baby talk' for intimacy, as in the 'baby Woojums' references we'll find in the correspondence with Carl van Vechten but also elsewhere in Tender Buttons. There are sideways references to the games played in bed: the 'obedience' and 'pleasing the Master' rituals. The teasing game around household objects and clothing semi-fetishized in sexual play.

“Then there is the often quoted comment by Stein that she learned to write listening to her dog Basket lapping water. Academics often fight shy of this one—in a seminar once I noted that this is a sensual slipping in of cunnilingus and thirsty lapping and the tutor blushed! But that is what Stein was doing in her anarchic disruptive way—she was playing with the erotic as foundational, as a way to recreate language in the image of women in bed together.”


Towards the end of the discussion, Mary delved even further into the Freudian links in these poems, and Steiny pointed out that the book Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein indeed confirms that the Steins were well acquainted with Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.”


“The ambiguity of these images, a kind of sexual panic, perhaps? I woke up and found myself thinking about the scene described by Freud in his 1905 case study of Dora (Ida Bauer) in which the young Dora is in a session with him and begins to play with her reticule (purse) at her waist, slipping her finger in and out of it, opening and closing it. This confirms for Freud (not for Dora) that she masturbated as a child.

What interests me about the sexual symbolism linked to everyday objects is that it was common currency Freud simply explicated—and that what Freud shows for us reading in hindsight is the sexual hypocrisy of his time.

“In his Interpretation of Dreams (bearing in mind that Gertrude Stein may not have been aware of Freud's work at this time), Freud looks at 'male' vs 'female' imagery connected to genitalia. A necktie is a penis; a jewel box is a vagina. An umbrella when opened and pointed outward, protruding, is a penis. To walk through a series of rooms in a dream is symbolically to visit a brothel, rooms signifying vaginas. A handbag or purse is the vagina. A gun, fountain pen or bottle is a penis. The reductiveness is quite painful to read, but Freud was drawing on double-entendres and men's jokes current at the time in fin-de-siècle Vienna and Europe generally. 

“What's wrong with this 'essentialist' duality of male/female symbols is that it leaves little space for a woman who is androgynous in her self-understanding, both male and female, who is virile and masculine in defiance of her society, who is a mannish seductive lesbian, who is unashamed of masturbation, who is less interested in protrusion than flowing and wetness and the orgasmic body beyond genitalia, who is creating the continuous present from the plentitude of lesbian pleasure. An umbrella unfurled and open might mean something quite unphallic to Gertrude Stein. And the 'bits and pieces' (Eleanor) are the difference that is spreading, pleasure in dispersal and concentric circles in a pool or ocean, not constricted and channeled for ejaculation.


“The metaphors can be read so Otherly...
In one way I think Gertrude Stein was like Walt Whitman in being omnisexual, pansexual, able to eroticize all kinds of objects and states of being, multiorgasmic, sensual in all her appetites and non-specific. But she was also fiercely emotionally and sexually drawn to women, vulnerable to women she loved. And Alice will become the gatekeeper, she will in her protective possessive jealousy and specific focus, not allow Gertrude to flirt with Hemingway or Mabel Dodge, she will guard their marriage so that 'hubby dear' and 'pussy' are seen always as a monogamous couple.”

Please take note that, in this last paragraph, Mary remarkably links Gertrude Stein to Walt Whitman. This link will later be further explored, separately, by Steiny as she re-reads and documents the study group’s analysis of “A Chair.” (we were not to know that yet).

But returning now to the second result of Eleanor’s questioning of the purely sexual interpretation of these three poems, it is fascinating to note how the space for other interpretations (other than purely erotic) immediately opened up, and how the poems blossomed anew. This was in no small part due to the thoughtful insistence of Barbara Crary, who instinctively felt that “if we stop at that and don’t look further, I feel so very strongly that we’ll miss something, maybe even something that others haven’t thought about before.”


So Eleanor returned to the “A Frightful Release.” and tentatively began to explore the idea that the poem is about money:

“We are talking about coming into money, and the relief it brings to the speaker in the poem. Oh, but no, I mean... it looks like the money was misused by someone, mismanaged. There are missing funds, and it's happened before in this same place, perhaps done by the same person. The speaker is accusing an unknown party of embezzling funds, perhaps... funds which belonged to the speaker.

“I'll have to leave it here. It makes sense, more or less, as most Stein poems more or less make some sense. It's a poem about Stein's precarious financial situation... not the most exciting topic, not even the most poetic, but it works, I mean... I haven't had to force the puzzle pieces together. It's a wholesome poem about money. You see, I could totally do this. No problem.

*walks off with a new bounce in her step, painstakingly stepping over those pesky sexual metaphors which try to trip her up along the way.*”

Steiny further bolstered this interpretation by discussing Gertrude’s biographical details of that time:

“Gtrude wrote a lot about money throughout her work. I can imagine after she & Leo split & she had to manage the Xpenses alone she was stressed but she didn't want Alice to know. Alice had no money herself. When you think about how many love poems GS wrote to-for Alice, money was no object compared to the love for ABT.

“One other thing, Leo was also financially strapped. Part of the reason was he was in analysis for years.”

Claudia added:

“The money part is very interesting because Gertrude and Alice did have to watch their money at times. Even after Gertrude passed away—Alice was destitute at times. This problem occurs today with homosexual couples having trouble inheriting money, caring for their loved one in the hospital, etc. With legal marriage, they now have their rights.”

Which then prompted Steiny to give an even more detailed and fascinating account of Gertrude and Leo’s relationship with money:

“I find the money issue interesting as well because it was always an issue for Gertrude & Leo and that's partly why they were together for Paris for a reasonably long period. They pooled their allowances from their father's trust fund and that's how they bought the art that made them famous for their salons.

“Just to set the record straight: Gertrude died 27 July 1946. Leo died 29 July 1947. Alice died 7 March 1967.

“Gertrude provided for Alice in her will but made her nephew Allan Stein (Gertrude's oldest brother Michael's son) her heir. According Janet Malcolm, Gertrude disliked Allan but felt she had to pass along her assets to close family and Allan was it.”

Mary was then able to summarize what Barbara so aptly described as “the sexual, the historical and the etymological”:



“But right now I want to say something that came to me about women and sexuality and money, the hairy purse snapping shut, the exchange, the chain and the price paid for that exchange. I'm hearing something about prostitution here and how women exchange sex for money, what still remains unspoken, the prevalence and duplicity around sex working and women on the streets of Paris.

“I'm following Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank in which she looks at women in 1900s Paris supporting or keeping their lovers (Natalie Barney in particular), women as courtesans (Liane de Pougy) while living as lesbian in their private lives. Colette's Cheri is 'straight' with her much younger toyboy, but Colette herself worked in the music halls and was kept by both men and women for many years (the 'music halls' like 'actresses' is code for sex working).

“Paris in the early 1900s had what we might now call a prostitution culture trafficking in young women from the provinces and an underground economy of women on the streets. Artists' models are viewed as prostitutes. All kinds of boundaries are being crossed and transgressed in the bohemian and artistic communities—Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan are lesbian/bisexual and dancers who rely on being subsidized by wealthy male patrons or women of independent means.

“And there is Gertrude both tantalized by and distancing from this kind of sexual exchange, the lesbian polyamory or promiscuity. She's not unlike Henry James here, in her fastidiousness and Puritan American background (paradox I know). She knows what she doesn't want. She wants monogamy and Alice all for herself. 

"She wants a new kind of marriage. But she watches and sees what is all around her in the artists' studios, the transactions between men and women, between women and women. The connection between sex exchanged for money, the purse snapping open and closed, the men opening and closing umbrellas on the street as a signal to girls standing under lamp posts (this we find in Proust too). What is offered for a price, what is withheld, the jacket opened to reveal the watch chain, the time calculated for women who charge by the hour, the rooms rented off Rue Pigalle by the hour for casual assignments. The timing of sexual encounters, the cost of pleasure.”


Peter Treanor returned to the fray with a word-by-word analysis of “A Frightful Release.”:

“Firstly I see right in frightful and then left in the first line (A bag which was left), right and left, this followed by a feeling of being lost, stolen, taken and turned away. All directional/ spacial orientation words, all negative in feel . Followed by a line about time, the forth orientating (or disorientating) dimension, The place was shown to be very like the last time. Then, but turned away was not found. Makes me feel like the word being written around but not stated here directly is lost (i.e. was not found). Lost, lost in left and right, direction, and in time. She is lost? or something is lost?

“And also the rest was mismanaged is intriguing, miss-man-aged, what to make of this? Women, men and time. A statement about heterosexual relationships perhaps?, the other type of relationship to hers and Alice's, are old (aged) and mismanaged? Or not managed?
Lost, disorientated and mismanaged, this truly is a frightful release, makes me feel like somebody has just been released onto the streets after years of incarceration in prison and is stood outside the prison gates in fear and panic, wondering which direction to go, where to find sanctuary, perhaps the same dizzy vertigo you might feel from being locked outside of the relationship norms and sexual rules of society, excluded, barred, frightened but free. .
I feel a little panic attack coming on.”


Peter’s comments then flowed seamlessly into a moving discussion of “A Mounted Umbrella.” Steiny reminded us of the importance of the umbrella as a symbol in Stein’s work:

“She uses two anecdotes in The Making of Americans dealing with umbrellas and one involves a man beating a woman with one…From that scene, Gtrude decided she must have a proper education and then went to college. No man would ever hold an umbrella over her head…. The other MOA umbrella anecdote deals with her main character (Martha but really Gtrude) as a young child (I’m thinking no older than 5) trying to keep up with the older kids (maybe some of them her siblings) on the way to school. It’s a messy day and she is dragging along her umbrella and finally gives out, can’t keep up and starts shouting that she is going to throw her umbrella in the mud and then she does.”

This captured Peter’s imagination, and in true Peterish style he ran with the image in a most exciting manner:

“Karren, that’s interesting, the umbrella as a weapon used against women and thought of as a symbol of dominance. Something used for protection (against the elements) becomes an item of subjugation, ‘no man will hold an umbrella over my head".’ There is something very controlling about having someone hold an umbrella for you (even more so if they take to battering you with it) You have to walk in step and in line with the holder otherwise you get soaked, it’s like being on an invisible leash, hate it and usually get so sick of it I'd rather get wet. 

“And I am thinking of the gender identity of umbrellas, the male and female versions of them the color and lesser size of a ‘lady's’ umbrella compared to the robust thick sturdiness of a gentleman's one. And then of course there is the parasol which is uniquely female, don’t think there was a masculine version of it, and no requirement for men to protect their delicate skins from the ravages of the sun. Strange how inanimate objects become such powerfully ladened totems of sexual /gender/power identity.

“Makes me think that the choice and style of umbrella GS or anyone at that time would have chosen would be a very strong and instantly visible statement of gender politics and identity. I can’t see her trotting around happily with a frilly parasol somehow, but how ‘masculine’ an umbrella would she be prepared to walk the public streets with? How much of her real self would she be prepared to risk public display of? How taboo would it be to carry the totem of the opposite sex in public in the 20's?

“How compromised did she feel everyday choosing between her public self and private self? Did she engage in a major political decision every time she left the house? Do  feel strong enough today to challenge the gender norms of society or should  take a less conspicuous brolly, and then have  let my inner truth down if do? Is this something of the exchange she alludes to in the piece, gender change, sex change, power change?

“Now I’m guessing the Girls from Mars [inside joke referring to current day swing band that Steiny loves to dance to] would be carrying what ever type of umbrella they damn well pleased, but think that the boys from Venus would still be a bit reticent to trot down main street with a parasol, indeed we are all still under the tyranny of gender appropriate umbrellas when you think about it. Protection as subjugation. The revolution will start with stripped tights and parasols. 
Umbrellas are of great concern to me, living in Manchester which has the reputation for being the wettest place on earth, nearly.”


Peter’s comments, in turn, inspired Sarah Maitland Parks to share her own instinctive understanding of the poem, by offering a compelling personal anecdote which Dave described as being “a superb enactment of the poem”:


“For some reason “A Frightful Release.” makes me think of left luggage offices at railway stations. I had a huge row in public at one once, not something I am known for. I wanted to leave a bag full of my textbooks from university for my mother to collect soon and the man refused, due to security concerns. I dumped the bag on the ground and simply left it there in a total strop! My mother arrived later and collected it.”


Dave, following closely on Sarah’s heels, then shared his own view of the three poems, describing them as showing “a progression…from insecurity to security, and from the public to the private and then back to the public”:

“Could this represent 3 stages in Stein's life? 
Stage 1 was before she met Alice. Maybe the bag was a lover she lost?
Stage 2 was when her relationship with Alice was developing in private. They wanted to keep it that way. 
Stage 3 was when their relationship was mature and they felt comfortable being public about it. Is Alice Gertrude's umbrella and vice versa?

“A Frightful Release. 
A bag was lost. The place (a public place) was insecure. There were no words of apology ("a piece was not exchanged") from the management. The episode was mismanaged by them.

The purse, a more private type of bag, by contrast, was safe. It was not very visible, it was discreet, and it had a chain that showed, as a warning, when it was open.

An umbrella is a public form of protection--it protects you from a rainy day. It does not need to be kept secret. In fact, it is worthy of being displayed and talked about (‘making an exchange’).”

In this way, Dave brought us back (full circle) to Steiny’s initial reason for presenting these three poems to the Study Group as “a triplet of subpoems.”

Then Steiny took stock of the words, leading into a full-blown analysis:

“Word Inventory:

it—used once in “A Frightful Release.” (twice if you count b-it—bit of it)

it—used 7 times in “A Purse.”.

it--used 11 times in “A Mounted Umbrella.”.

“was--used 6 times in Frightful Release

was--used 6 times in Purse

was--used 4 times in Umbrella

“not--used 4 times in Frightful Release

not--used 3 times in Purse

not nor nothing--used 3 times in Umbrella

“place in Frightful Release

misplaced in Purse

“I think there is a crescendo from Frightful Release to Umbrella regarding lesson. All of these phrases pass judgment:
shown to be very like the last time. The rest was mismanaged.

it was hardly seen.

if there was no chance of ever seeing it comeno more to do about it.

“Starting backwards then with Umbrella: The lesson is to learn that it does show it...that there is nothing, that there is no more to do about it and just so much more is there plenty of reason for making an exchange.

This is where we are clued into something learned. Presumably 'it' is umbrella but what umbrella stands for is up for grabs (and we have discussed the sexual possibilities if not here then in "Mildred's Umbrella.").

“In Purse Stein writes: it was hardly seen and it had a use a long use and the chain, the chain was never missing, it was not misplaced, it showed that it was open, that is all that it showed.

In Purse certain things are shown, noticed, observed. While presumably it is purse, it could also be umbrella with a long chain. This thing is intact with nothing missing, nothing misplaced and it is open and nothing more showed. Now recall that in Umbrella, Stein writes the lesson is to learn that it does show it. See the building tension?

“In Frightful Release Stein writes: A bag which was left and not only taken but turned away was not found. The place was shown to be very like the last time. A piece was not exchanged, not a bit of it, a piece was left over. The rest was mismanaged.

The crescendo begins with The place was shown to be very like the last time. Now I realize that a learning crescendo is created with the word 'show.' However, notice the use of the word exchangedA piece was not exchanged and then notice that Umbrella ends with the word 'exchange.' So the lesson learned involves seeing and being shown but also rests in exchange.

AND there is something interesting going on with verb tense from Frightful Release to Umbrella. By the middle of Umbrella the past tense moves to present. Both Frightful Release and Purse are past tense.”

And now, Dear Reader, before I bid you adieu and allow you to wander the fascinating terrain of these three poems on your own, I have only one more wish. I wish to bring to your attention (while I still have it, oh dear, I hope I haven’t lost you along the way) my chosen title for this post:


What did I mean by that? Well you may ask!

Well… a quite marvellous change occurred in our study group at this time. At a certain point in the proceedings, each one of us realised that while we enjoyed (and are indebted to) outside sources and critics, our own original work is of equal, if not higher, quality. This was a truly empowering moment, seeing as we are motley crew of amateur Stein enthusiasts, gathering from all corners of the globe for the pure pleasure of Stein’s poetry. Here is a small sampling of some of the comments made to that effect:

“Great surge of ideas and connections here.”

“Three cheers for the freedom we are giving ourselves here to explore and express ourselves openly around this text, without the usual fears and boundaries that formal study involves.”

“I just love being me in this discussion. And I love reading others being themselves in words too.”

And the final word goes to our beloved leader, the adored and adorable Steiny Road Poet:

“Collaborative learning in a MOOC seems to be breaking the academic mold! Hurray!”

1 comment:

Eleanor said...

I keep coming back to this video of Alice talking about Gertrude's voice and laughter. It's sublime. What a find.