Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Petticoat.” & “A Waist.”


THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
THE SUBPOEM ...................-           A PETTICOAT: NUMBER 35
WORD COUNT......................-           11
THE SUBPOEM ...................-           A WAIST: NUMBER 36
WORD COUNT......................-           76
STANZAS..............................-           1 & 4 RESPECTIVELY
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.....................................-           SHAKING OFF DISGRACE

Petticoat. Not underwear, exactly, but an undergarment meant to be shown, light white—lacy. It is subservient to outer garments but still peeking out. All about creating a shape. An image.” Randy Parker

“I'm exploring a new way of looking at ‘A Waist.’—as a grammatical artifact/object rather than a poem with meaning.” Eleanor Smagarinsky


A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.


A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.

Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom.

A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there is no reason to say that there was a time.

A wooden object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace, a couple of practices any of them in order is so left.

In the forthcoming Corrected Centennial Edition of Tender Buttons as edited by Seth Perlow, “A Waist.” has a significant correction. The second word of the fourth stanza is wooden not woolen as in A wooden object gilded. Since both of these subpoems refer in some degree to what is worn on the body and specifically around the waist, the correction removes a word with stronger connection to petticoat and waist. It might be a mistake that was first made by Alice B. Toklas when she typed what Gertrude Stein hand wrote in her notebook.

As the Steiny Road Poet noted when she opened the discussion among the Button Collective, both of these subpoems use the word disgrace and initially Steiny had thought both dealt with clothing but with the correction that seemed less significant.

Among the associations and approaches ascribed to these subpoems were: blouses called waists, undergarments both as ladies wear and for military purposes, the Stein-Toklas walk in the Tuscan hills when GS proposed to ABT, women being held to higher standards of physical appearance than men, the break up of sister Gertrude and brother Leo Stein, time, female parts and menstruation, violin waist, the lead up to World War I, and the strange grammar of Gertrude Stein. Besides the metapoetic play, there were a couple of attempts to echo Stein creatively by writing a new poem and other attempts to read these subpoems through art and though poems by other authors. Steiny has sifted through the many comments and provided highlights only.


Allan Keeton:
“Late Middle English: from petty coat, literally ‘small coat.’

“This one is not small & it seems
to be worn to cover exactly
the opposite half of the body
that coats typically cover.”

Dave Green:

“Imagine Gertrude in a petticoat. A petticoat suggests light whiteness and a rosy female charm. But some might see Gertrude as a disgrace because of her sexuality and ink-stained as a writer, which was a typically male profession at the time. So there's a clash between the external garment (the two ends of the poem) and the person wearing and enclosed by the garment (the middle of the poem). So maybe Stein is imagining this image and making an ironical observation about it.”
Peter Treanor:
“The disgrace that is associated with the stain on the petticoat, what can this be? I guess there would be some possible disgrace associated with having an ink stain on a petticoat. But disgrace seems such a strong word, I feel more that a bloodstain (looking like an ink spot) may convey more of a feeling of disgrace. And blood is suggested a little with rosy charm. Rose, red or pink.
“And spot has a suggestion of blood. And the bloodstain being from possible start of a period (full stop....) or from the blood associated with a woman loosing her virginity. The disgrace being that it was obvious that the petticoat wearer had been having sex. It made me think of all the rituals that were abundant in Europe about displaying the wedding sheets in public post wedding night to prove the bride was a virgin and that the marriage had been consummated. 
Or maybe the " disgrace" was associated with dots of menstrual blood on the petticoat.

Both these seem more likely to me to be described or perceived in society as disgraceful, more so than an ink spot.
And maybe that is why the poem and petticoat is so short and the commas make it so breathless, the wearer has been having sex for the first time. What a rosy charming thing.”
Peter also pointed “Petticoat.” back to “Nothing Elegant.”

A charm a single charm is doubtful. If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright. It is earnest.

“Look at the similarities, in ‘Petticoat’: it (charm) is a disgrace. [in ‘Nothing Elegant’] it’s doubtful. 

“In petticoat it’s a rosy charm, [in ‘Nothing Elegant’] it’s followed by red is rose , both symbols of love/ romance.

“Then in ‘Waist’ ( following ‘Petticoat’) we’ve got single again (as above), there's change too. And there's a strong feeling of sex here,  red, rose/rise (erection), if inside is let in, something being upright.

“All three titles could refer to clothes or fashion or things being worn (or taken off) Petticoat, Waist and Nothing Elegant.”

Eleanor Smagarinsky:
"Pleats and ruffles—The vulva and the vagina feature a variety of textures. Most of the vulva is smooth, but some women's labia minora have a ruffled appearance...As for the texture inside the vagina, it's full of bumpy ridges called rugae." (From here.)
“We've seen a "charm" before, here

“Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo! 
We all fall down.

“Is Stein experimenting with a new way to describe the female body? A new language for a new experience?
“There's a 3rd disgrace in this book, it's in ‘A Substance in a Cushion.’ -- "The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way." [The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.] Which is strange, because we have ‘so’ in ‘A Waist.—‘any of them in order is so left.’ Is she repairing something? Repairing a broken language? A broken sexuality?”

Karren Alenier [a.k.a. Steiny]:
“Gertrude didn't like wearing such frilly things. They got in her way. The fact of an ink spot, maybe looking like a rose, seems to be Gertrude's, the writer's, plight.  Alice discarded such garments when she got overheated.
“I think these two subpoems relate to ‘A Method of Cloak.’:

A single climb to a line, a straight exchange to a cane, a desperate adventure and courage and a clock, all this which is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success, all makes an attractive black silver.

“Petticoat is a method of cloaking—covering.

A single climb to a line seems a lot like A wooden object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace,

Gilded wooden object

“I'm thinking the gilded wooden object could be a pencil (which could make a line) or it could be a picnic basket. 

“Anyway I'm reminded of the hike into the hills with Alice where Alice discarded undergarments and Stein proposed to Alice. Here I'm quoting myself:

When GS first met ABT in 1907 getting time alone with her was difficult because ABT had a traveling companion, Harriet Levy. In the summer of 1908, GS and family members were vacationing in Fiesole, a suburb of Florence and GS had suggested that ABT and HL take up a villa nearby to the Stein villa. During that summer, GS had many private walks with ABT through the Tuscan hills. Stein usually walked with a walking stick (cane, shall we say?). During one of these very hot up-in-the-hills walks (Stein rose late after writing all night and Toklas typically resorted to removing articles of underclothing that made her insufferably hot on these walks), Stein proposed to Alice. For Stein, who had suffered a failed love relationship with May Bookstaver during Med school, establishing a love relationship with Alice was a desperate adventure taking courage. I suspect she felt time was running out for finding love. The whole experience of establishing a love relationship was for Stein "a system, which has feeling but also resignation and (hopefully) success.”


Tamboura Gaskins:

“A Petticoat. ==> a coat of pettiness ==> a natural integument of small-mindedness.

“I think she means the brother, because initially petticoats were worn by men under armor.  The last phrase of ‘A Waist.’ calls forth the estranged brother as well. 
A wooden object gilded.

wooden ==> awkward or clumsy; obstinately unyielding.
gilded ==> (archaic) to make red, as with blood.

“For me, this describes an unyielding blood relative.  In context of her life story and the other lines of the poem, it seems that this relative is GS's brother, Leo.”


Claudia Schumann:

“The first thing that comes to mind is when I was young my dad always referred to blouses as waists.

We had "waist" before in "A Long Dress.":
“(From the summary in Karren's blog) Peter and Allan added the idea of a ‘necessary waist’ suggesting an hourglass, which makes connections to references to time and pointing to time all the way back to ‘A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.’”

Steiny breaks into Eleanor’s treatise to say that Gertrude Stein was always looking at time. Part of her quest was to achieve in writing the present moment. She wanted to hold open that window of now, which her Harvard professor William James said was almost impossible to do. But also in reading Tender Buttons, the Buttons Collective has become aware of Stein’s biological clock and how finding Alice has also helped her slow the hands of time.  Now back to Eleanor:
“This was the key to my imagination opening up—CLOCK—TIME. The poem can be read as an exploration of the many different facets of time (thanks Peter & Allan!):
“What is a waste of time?
“Stars point to the possibility of infinity.
“The arms of a clock glide.
“Time is measured in single units (seconds, minutes, hours).
“Emotions are frantic, but can feel frozen in time.
“Time is money, time is precious.
“Time as object—a clock made of wood. You carve out time for yourself. Also ‘in’ wood—the rings in the tree show how old it is. Pine is a tree, dark makes me think of ‘bark.’
“Try to hold on to time - sometimes you do this because you are pining for a missing person, you are in a dark place, and time seems to be rushing or perhaps it is your thoughts/emotions, hold onto yourself in the rush, don't lose yourself. Make it to the bottom - the end, the beginning, the deepest part of what you are experiencing - you make of it what you will.
“Look into the crystal ball, can you see your future? Will something/someone change? Will you find peace? You can never see a crystal in its entirety, only facets of it - much like time.
“O, the difference an ‘A’ makes. Time vs. ‘a time.’ Can we really look back at our past and divide time into a specific time? We use this language, but do we really understand it? And if we don't understand the language we use to describe it, can we really understand time? ‘It's time for a change,’ ‘I had a good time,’ ‘Times are changing.’ ‘I don't have time now,’ ‘What's the time,’ ‘time after time,’ ‘There is a time and a place for everything,’ etc.
“Do we always need to look back at our past, look for reasons?
“‘So now (with the version you mention, Karren) it's a ‘wooden [not woollen] object gilded’—is this the gilded clock which is the object inspiring this poem? We call a period of time a ‘Golden Age’—we gild time, in retrospect. Here we have ‘a wooden object,’ before we had ‘object that is in wood’—a woods is made up of trees, which are made of wood. What strange language we have. An object in wood, an object in time, trees grow and change with time, time (by definition) changes... or does it? Parallel timelines like parallel trees standing in the woods? Lost in the woods? Lost in time?
“A country—a nation—rises and falls with time, all is change. Is there a shared time as compared to personal time? The age of a nation as compared to one's personal age?
“Climb sounds like time; do we view time as something we climb? Like a ladder? Beginning, middle, end? Is it really that simple? Or do we try to (disg)race against time? 
“What is a practice? A habitual way of doing something, over time. It also means an application of a method—time is a human invention, an imposed rhythm/method, like language. We try to impose order on a world, but that order (time) means/shows us that we are finite creatures, we are left and we leave. A couple of people—I was thinking of lovers (but Tamboura—I think your brother/sister interpretation fits perfectly) will not remain together forever. Even the wedding ceremony mentions death and parting. any of them in order is so left."


What Steiny loves about working with members of the Buttons Collective is their unabashed honestly, earnestness, and willingness to go in a new direction without direction from anyone. Here Tamboura tackles a historical read through, something that might give academics serious heartburn but makes complete sense to Steiny.

“While others of our group are exploring the meaning of grammar, or lack thereof, in these buttons, I think I’ll take another look at the possibility of other cloaked meanings herein—
“Since my knowledge of world history is sorely lacking and wholly incomplete, I’m going to attempt feebly a reading of A Waist from a viewpoint of the political climate at the time.  One of my first impressions of A Waist, aside from seeing a hypercritical portrait of Leo, was a condemnation of pre-Nazi Germany—the imperialistic, power-hungry Germany of the World War I era.
“From what I understand, 1914 to 1918 marked the end of the German Empire which had begun its ascent to power around 1871.  From the mid to late 19th century, Germany glided into prominence by building strong transportation networks, industrial complexes and military units.  Early in the 20th century, the German Empire set its sights on France.  After failed attempts to capture Paris and secure the Western Front, the Germans found military success on the Eastern Front, thus was the beginning of the Great World War.  Anti-Semitism and pro-Germany propaganda were prominent in the rise of the German Empire. 
“From this very shallow knowledge of pre-Nazi Germany, I see political commentary in A Waist
A WAIST. ==> The scientific and technological prominence of the German Empire is wasted by its imperialistic hunger.
A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness. ==> The rising star feels an unmatched desperate hostility and financial hunger.
Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom. ==> The stubborn empire’s shady policies show their yearning and haste to be on top of the world.
A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there is no reason to say that there was a time. ==> The empire is fragile; political climates are shifting in such a way as to nullify everything that has come before.
A wooden object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace, a couple of practices any of them in order is so left. ==> The rise of the golden German Empire is at best shameful.  The US and Britain, out of the West (left), have entered the war, each in its own time, and this will radically change things.”

One thing that immediately occurred to Steiny was the reference to pine (Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark) might be coffins. In the Jewish orthodox tradition one buries the dead in plain pine boxes.

Eleanor took another set of runs against interpreting “A Waist.”

Run #1
Here she is hijacking the first letter of the title and the ensuing four stanzas:


A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.

Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom.

A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there is no reason to say that there was a time.

A wooden object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace, a couple of practices any of them in order is so left.



“or, perhaps:

“AH! AH! OH! AH! AH!

“And, ahem, that first line contains 5 "G"s and 10 "S"s.”
A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.

Run #2
Steiny calls this one, Eleanor’s Metaphor Read-through.

Metaphor 1
“I start with an assumption from seeing 3 phrases starting with ‘a’ that this will be a list of metaphors for the waist in the title. Hmm...
“First problem—there should be an 's' after glide, if it is the action of the star. So is 'glide' a noun? If it is, it should be starred, I can star be an adjective? So maybe ‘star glide’ is a new type of noun? But then...why the space? Why not ‘starglide’?”

Metaphor 2
“Here is that missing 's,' but it is the start of the adjective 'single.' And then we get a 2nd adjective 'frantic,' which makes me look forward to getting a noun. 'Sullenness' is a noun, but confusing, ugh, it's the name of an emotional state, so how can that possibly be described as being single, or frantic, ‘sullenness’ is almost the opposite of ‘frantic.’ And anyhow, how can you describe one emotion as being another, or maybe you can??!!

Metaphor 3
"A single is repeated, and we get another adjective starting with 'f' [financial]. Reminds me of that game kids play, where you repeat a sentence and add a word each time...but those make sense...sigh. This does not. Grass is a noun, but it can never be described as being single, that is a blade of grass. Grass, tricky word, because it does take singular adjectives, but it is NOT single. Grass is also not financial, it is a plant, grumble. But it gets much worse, because we now have another noun, the name of a feeling 'greediness,' which can also NOT be single ... but CAN be financial. So that's heartening. But still, I must pause to take a deep, meditative breath....”

And did Eleanor stop with this? No! She went on to further develop her general thesis about Stein’s grammar:

“Lots of modern poems are impenetrable, but it's usually not because they are ungrammatical. Stein is ungrammatical, she is ‘wrong’ in her use of English. I think this may well be at the heart of the confusion, and I think she's purposely (duh) bringing this to our attention, but it's so annoying that we tend not to want to really analyse it. It's just so.....wrong.

“In the case of this first sentence, I'm concentrating now on the words grass, sullenness & greediness, because in correct grammar, they would each be classified as non-countable nouns. They cannot be described as single, this is wrong. I've even tortured myself by watching this video, because I think it says a lot about Stein's fixation with using ‘a’ and ‘s’ so much (and in odd ways)—she's changing the rules of grammar. She's playing with our minds!!

“This reminds me of ‘A Piece of Coffee.’ What was my first and strongest neck-itching moment when I read this title? Not the symbolism/meaning of coffee, not the impenetrability of meaning, nope, my problem was that, grammatically, you cannot have a piece of coffee. Like the woman in the video, I was itching to take my marker and cross out a piece of and then say in a definitive voice: ‘You cannot write this, this is wrong.’

“Grammatical rules are so ingrained in us, that it isn't any wonder that most readers hate Stein. But if we call her on it, if we label what it is she's doing (e.g. she's counting the uncountable nouns) then I think it helps to ease the pain. It helps us to understand the logic of Stein's grammar, and shines a light on how illogical our proper grammar might be. I'm exploring a new way of looking at ‘A Waist.’—as a grammatical artifact/object rather than a poem with meaning. Not sure where this will take us...”

And Eleanor kept on going with this:

I'm back...hogging the thread while you all sleep... [The Buttons are international with Eleanor based in Australia!] Thinking about ‘counting the uncountable nouns’ suddenly reminded me of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sonnet ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways?’ In that poem, she's counting the uncountable (love), but she's using proper grammar, so we don't question her meaning. We nod and smile and think, ‘Ah, yes, a love poem!’ And yet, ‘A Waist.’ is also a love poem which counts the uncountable, it just does so by subverting ‘proper’ grammar. But isn't proper grammar (i.e. writing ‘Let me count the ways I love you’) just as ridiculous? How can you count love? It's uncountable.”

And in a very Steinian persistent way, Eleanor added this:

“You've gotta keep your sense of humour when looking at these phrases, and it is quite entertaining. This is what I'm getting from Stein's odd grammar here:

“1/ You can use ‘THAT’ as a way of describing something, it's the ‘waist’ that connects ‘OBJECT’ (the noun) with ‘IN WOOD’ (the that right...would you call that a type of adjectival phrase?). So instead of saying ‘wooden object’ (as she actually does say in the last stanza!), she's writing it in a different way. Why? Well... this is what I'm thinking.... to show us that by doing this, she's opening up the adjective to more meanings. ‘A WOODEN OBJECT’ is an object that is made out of wood, that's it. But ‘OBJECT THAT IS IN WOOD’ could also mean that the object is embedded in wood, or it might be enclosed in wood (like a coffin, for example). And because there's no ‘A’ or ‘THE’ in front of object, we tend to accept the idea that ‘wood’ might also be missing ‘A’ or ‘THE,’ and Stein may therefore be referring to a forest.

“2/ Stein then uses ‘THAT’ as a connecting word (‘waist’) between the noun ‘CHANGE’ and ‘REMARKABLE’ (its adjective), and again this adds more meanings (when compared to the more common phrase ‘a remarkable change’). By adding ‘THAT’ and reversing the expected word order, Stein confuses us. It's not clear whether she means that the change is remarkable, or whether ‘THAT’ refers to something else which is remarkable during the change (in this case, this might still be ‘the change,’ as it's mentioned in the phrase prior:
‘A change, in a change THAT is remarkable.’

“Which is ridiculous and silly and incredibly confusing while making weird sense—i.e. she's saying that the remarkable thing about a change is not the outcome, but the actual change itself).

“Is it any wonder we can't just ‘read’ the poem?!!

“3/ Next, she introduces ‘THERE,’ using it by itself and then coupled with ‘THAT.’ It makes me laugh. THAT and THERE can mean ‘that thing’ & ‘over there’—an object in space. But they can also serve as something else, indicators of some sort that are not about objects and their locations at all. Hence ‘that there’ doesn't refer to a thing which is found somewhere, or maybe it does.... is it possible to think of ‘A TIME’ as being an object in space (that there)?

“’A TIME’ brings to mind the missing ‘THEN’!!”

Tamboura offered this:

“Eleanor, I think that and there are important because they are repeated in the same line.  I'll attempt a reading that may bring sense to the nonsensical--

thAT ==> th AT ==> the Alice Toklas
tHERE ==> t Here ==> here

“For me, this brings us back to the early living arrangement among GS, Alice and Leo.  They were living together in the apartment on the Left Bank until Leo and GS have a falling out, then there was a change--

a change that is remarkable ==> a remarkable change
that is remarkable ==> the Alice Toklas is remarkable
that there was a time ==> What a time, the Alice Toklas here!

“The way I see it, GS chooses the words, their order and the surrounding punctuation to be expansive, not restrictive.  Stein's intent was not to confuse, but rather to expand the possibility of meaning and interpretation. She was dwelling in a house of possibilities. 

“I think it is remarkable that GS was able to free herself of the many restrictive conventions that grammar imposes on us. This is the genius of Tender Buttons for me.”

And so on, the conversation continued around the globe concerning Gertrude Stein’s intention relative to confusion and enigmatic strategies…

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