Saturday, June 21, 2014

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Shawl." Part 1 of 2


THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
THE SUBPOEM ...................-          A SHAWL: NUMBER 54
WORD COUNT......................-           104
STANZA(S)............................-           6
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.....................................-           MELLIFLUOUS BUT STICKY

“Is this a prayer shawl or a fashion statement that masquerades as hat, undercoat and belt as well as other things?” Karren Alenier

“What interests me about a shawl is that it is a semi-permeable membrane, full of holes, like lace.” Mary Armour


A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talk.

A shawl is a wedding, a piece of wax a little build. A shawl.

Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows. There is hollow hollow belt, a belt is a shawl.

A plate that has a little bobble, all of them, any so.

Please a round it is ticket.

It was a mistake to state that a laugh and a lip and a laid climb and a depot and a cultivator and little choosing is a point it.

Surely Miss Stein is up to something significant with all the subpoems in Section 1 “Objects” that pertain to things worn on the body or the body itself:

“A Method Of A Cloak.”
“A Long Dress.”
“A Red Hat.”
“A Blue Coat.”
“A Purse.”
“Eye Glasses.”
“A Petticoat.”
“A Waist.”
“A Handkerchief.”
“Colored Hats.”
“A Feather.”
“A Shawl.”
“This Is This Dress, Aider.”

and this is not to bypass:

A Substance In A Cushion.” which has such words and phrases as costume, tassel, wear it, suit, trimming, sewing, sash

A Piece Of Coffee.” Talks about silk, cotton, ribbon and something that may be strangely flattering

Nothing Elegant.” which seems to have a sensitive leaning toward charm (does this point to fashion?) and things sewn

Mildred’s Umbrella.” specifically mentioning a small sac (possibly a purse) and ribbon

A Piano.” mentions button holder

Chair.” which elicited extended commentary on what Civil War widows wore

A Cloth.”, ample cloth seems to hint at Stein’s ample body

Malachite.”, a stone used in jewelry

Suppose An Eyes.” that features a white dress, worn lace, and leather.

A Little Called Pauline.” sports such words as dressing, soles, spats, bow, sleeve, feather

The Steiny Road Poet conjectures that more than half of the 58 subpoems of “Objects” contain some touchstone to clothing, shoes, wearable accessories, or the body. Because Tender Buttons is a coded love poem from one woman to another, what covers the body is a logical and important theme for this work.  Clothing, particularly in Gertrude Stein’s time, represented constriction. Stein came out of the nineteenth century where women’s fashion was largely about sleeves, collars with lace, corsets, long skirts and dresses with layers of petticoats as well as hats, boots, and shawls.

One of the first things that Gertrude did with her brother Leo after she left her highly regimented life in the United States was set a new standard for dressing. She and Leo decided they would have clothes made from brown corduroy fabric, which was soft but durable. Gertrude wore a corduroy robe held together by a broach. The sister brother team also decided that sandals were preferable over shoes or boots. Releasing the body allowed for releasing the mind. Their Harvard teacher William James taught that to be a genius, one must break the constriction of habit. Within the study of “A Shaw.”, Steiny saw the connection of restrictive clothing, especially the uniforms (habits) of women college students (long skirts, long-sleeved blouses with ties at the neck—mimicking the shirts and ties worn by the male students,), as a way to hold women back from achieving creative potential. Those long skirts got in the way. Corsets sapped a woman’s breath and energy.

Among the topics elicited from the discussion of “A Shaw.” by the members of The Buttons Collective were:  fashion; wedding, birth and death traditions; shawl-as-stand-in-for-a-woman; cawl-caul-cowl; card/magic trick; and grammar, phrase construction, musicality. Here are some highlights from the discussion:


Tamboura Gaskins:

“From what I understand, shawls were in fashion in the late 19th century--

The period of the 19th century up to the 1870s, when the fashion silhouette changed, was known as the "shawl period" because women in Europe and America wore shawls with almost all their clothing. At the beginning of that century, shawls were a necessity in a fashionable woman's wardrobe because dresses were thin and décolleté; it was a sign of gentility to wear a shawl gracefully.

“In light of this, I see hat as old hat, or old-fashioned.  So, could hat and hurt mean old-fashioned and insulting?”


“A shawl is mostly associated with a woman's garment, although men in the east do wear shawls. A shawl could be a stand-in for a woman. And a woman is hurt. In the next line, I am reminded of weddings in many cultures where the bride and groom are hidden under a shawl as part of the wedding ritual that culminates the binding or tying of the knot.
Wax is used to build stuff. Perhaps the shawl is this wedding wax that builds a marriage. But if the woman is hurt, does giving her a red balloon, as one would a child, pacify her? The under coat is like petticoat—again a word that was used as a substitute for female! And women are always sized up—whether it is their physical appearance, their talk, their accent, their whatever.


Mary Armour:

This shawl reminds me of the Celtic cawl—babies born wrapped in a cawl.

Karren Alenier [a.k.a. The Steiny Road Poet]:

“OMG, Mary, yes but caul in American English. And look at this: A caul (Latin: Caput galeatum, literally, helmeted head) is a piece of membrane that can cover a newborn's head and face.”

 Eleanor Smagarinsky:

I googled ‘Gertrude Stein caul’ and Karren's blog popped up!!!”

Perhaps the word spectacle refers to the wonder of birth, something Stein had hands-on experience with during her four years of medical training at Johns Hopkins University. While a spectacle is something extraordinary and might be deemed ‘a strange or interesting object or phenomenon,’ the process of giving birth is a natural occurrence among living entities. Therefore Stein adds that the spectacle is nothing strange but merely a single hurt color. The Steiny Poet now thinks that ‘A kind in glass’ could also refer to the transparent amniotic sac in which a fetus develops and parts of which may coat the baby in a bloody caul as it enters the world. [from Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.”]


The caul can be associated with the amniotic sac and voilà the red balloon!”


“My cawl is I think a Welsh or Scottish  spelling variant.  From Wikipedia:

A caul or cowl (Latin: Caput galeatum, literally, "helmeted head") is a piece of membrane that can cover a newborn's head and face.[1] Birth with a caul is rare, occurring in fewer than 1 in 80,000 births. The caul is harmless and is immediately removed by the physician or midwife upon delivery of the child.
“The en-caul birth, not to be confused with the caul birth, occurs when the infant is born inside the entire amniotic sac. The sac balloons out at birth, with the amniotic fluid and child remaining inside the unbroken or partially broken membrane.”

“Look at that—A caul or cowl—here comes the cow again!!
so helmeted head—hat and hurt.”


“Red balloons, afterbirth, red flags, a psychic cloak, a helmet. A caul bearer is a person who is born with the caul.”

“In the Middle Ages, being born with a caul was considered good luck and a sign of greatness. From the Internet, I’ve drawn this list of some historic and fictional caulbearers:”

Historical Figures
    Lord Byron "George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron, was born with a caul and a club-foot on January 22, 1788, in London."
    Alexander the Great
    Sigmund Freud
    Queen Christina of Sweden I was born with a caul and only had the face, arms and legs free. My entire body was hairy and I had a coarse, strong voice. For this reason the midwives who received me initially believed that I was a boy. They filled the castle with their false shouts of joy, which for a moment deceived even the king himself . . . but a profound embarrassment spread among the women when they realized that they had been mistaken."
    Kahlil Gibran "The year was 1922, and in the crowded Syrian-Lebanese immigrant community of Boston's South End, a boy was born who family and neighbors knew would be remarkable. He had been born with a caul--that is, with part of the fetal membrane over his head.”

Fictional Characters:
    David Copperfield
    Shakespeare's Hamlet


“The caul is also known as the veil, the hood, or the veil/vale of tears (this last from the Hail Holy Queen prayer).” 
There are two types of cauls.  One type, which appears to be the more common of the two, is the thin, transparent amniotic lining which becomes tightly formed to the infant's head during the birthing process and is easily removed.  The other type, less common, is the thick, skin-like covering that is looped around the ears.  This one must be carefully removed, as it literally has attachment points on the scalp and face, and is a second skin.  It is said to have the DNA of the child imprinted.
 The caul can appear in one of two ways:
~Covering the head and face, and/or looping behind the ears. (This is the most common, or well-known appearance of caul.)
~Draping over the head and partly down the torso, as illustrated below.  In Germany, this would be called a helmet [Galea] for boys, and in Italy, for girls, a fillet [vitta] or shirt [indusium, camisia].  (This is the lesser-known type of caul.)

“The newborn child with ears and nostrils plugged with wax, the  umbilical cord as a belt, the red afterbirth, the lacy head shawl imprinted with DNA, a helmet, a shirt, a shawl concealing and protecting the newborn. The hurt of leaving the womb, that too.”


“Hamlet being born with a caul over his face, reminds me that this character is famous for his to be or not to be soliloquy. Stein throughout her work is concerned with whether she would have been born because she and Leo were replacement children after two of her parents' children died in infancy.”



 “Gertrude as a young medical student would have witnessed women in labour and giving birth—I read somewhere that the studies in midwifery or dealing with women giving birth distressed her ( as happens with many  people exposed to this very primal and  demanding experience). Most adult women (certainly the practical Alice) would have been present when sisters-in-law and female family members were giving birth at home.

“And many of us retain birth memories in some way—that first red journey, the wrenching experience of leaving the womb, the pain and lights and noise, the crying, the hurt of entering the world. Having the caul torn from our heads.

“Just as every new born is sized as parents boast of size—to be weighed, a healthy infant at so many pounds and ounces or kg.”

(and a sizer a sizer of talk) I can't help but notice that Stein is creating something sculptural here. Garments that cover body parts, a balloon that covers a gas, and a coat that is worn under something else. Outside and inside, over and under. Later, Stein writes a piece of wax a little build, and that phrase in conjunction with these spatial elements reminds me of how bronze sculptures are made. The original sculpture is transferred into a rubber mold, which is filled with wax so as to produce an exact positive replica of the original, which is then covered with a ceramic shell and then melted off, and the resulting shell is then filled with molten bronze:


 Tender Buttons is a sizer of talk—it keeps measuring and sorting the standard patter, the socially acceptable line of thinking.”

Dave Green:
It was a mistake to state that a laugh and a lip and a laid climb and a depot and a cultivator and little choosing is a point it.

“A couple got carried away and the woman ended up pregnant?

“And when you have a child, that's a ticket to a different way of life.”




“We all end up, eventually, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ (1662 Book of Common Prayer).

“I do think there's a dark undercurrent to this poem. Birth and death entwined. The ghosts of unborn babies. A sense of the poet's own mortality.”


Jewish men are buried with their prayer shawls.


“Oh!! And Jewish baby boys are often wrapped in a prayer shawl for their circumcision. Birth and death.”

Jewish Burials
In the Diaspora, Jews are buried in a plain, wooden casket. The corpse is collected from the place of death (home, hospital, etc.) by the chevra kadisha (burial committee). After a ritual washing of the body, the body of men is dressed in a kittel [shroud] and then a tallit [prayer shawl]. One of the tzitzit is then cut off. In the Land of Israel, burial is without a casket, and the kittel and tallit are the only coverings for the corpse. Women are buried in white shrouds only.



“I find it hard to imagine Gertrude wearing a shawl, I find it easier to visualise Gertrude watching Alice crochet or  embroider a Spanish shawl or Alice wearing a shawl given to her by Gertrude.”

Claudia Schumann:

“I agree Mary. Gertrude liked vests. A shawl would have been too feminine or cumbersome to wear.”


“Claudia, Mary,
Stein is known for wearing vests. That she appears in a shawl and with Carl Van Vechten makes me think:

“1) the photo happened during her lecture tour 1934-1935. Van Vechten was seen with them a lot and even escorted them on the plane trip to Chicago in maybe December.

“2) the shawl doesn't belong to Gertrude. She just borrowed because she was cold.”



What interests me too about a shawl is that it is a semi-permeable membrane, full of holes, like lace. Fringed and with bobbles perhaps but also like a net revealing bare shoulders underneath or hair, something airy and open to the elements.


“Language opens us up to possibilities. It is also limited.  I'm also thinking of the semi-permeable membrane in which the baby is held so it can absorb the nutrients of the mother.”


“I can almost feel that semi-permeable membrane now.

“Language as semi-permeable membrane. All the ‘L’ sounds, the lalala, it reminds me suddenly of babies' first babbling (‘bobble’) - my daughter went through a ‘lalalala’ stage (as an infant) and she'd really work herself up into a frenzy of sound, very loud. Almost like pushing through a sound barrier, a language barrier, from sound into meaning...perhaps? From sound into chant into song (which is poem)?

“We all use language every day, much like putting on clothes. Language can cover the surface of our feelings/thoughts, like a hat, or it can expand and grow with us—from birth to death, like a balloon. Language can be that in-between layer, protecting us from the harsh elements of life, like an under coat, and all the time it allows us to quantify all that surrounds us via our speech—a sizer a sizer of talk.

“But it's really a shawl - "something airy and open to the elements." Semi-permeable membrane. A biological phenomenon, miraculous, observable under a microscope, awaiting discovery and yet all around us, comforting.”


bob·ble  (bŏb′əl)
v. bob·bledbob·blingbob·bles
To bob up and down.
To lose one's grip on (a ball, for example) momentarily.
A mistake or blunder.
[From bob.]

bobble (ˈbɒbəl)
1. a short jerky motion, as of a cork floating on disturbed water; bobbing movement
2. (Clothing & Fashion) a tufted ball, usually for ornament, as on a knitted hat
3. any small dangling ball or bundle

“Doesn't that last sentence of “A Shaw.” bobble?”

It was a mistake to state that a laugh and a lip and a laid climb and a depot and a cultivator and little choosing is a point it.



Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows. There is hollow hollow belt, a belt is a shawl.
A plate that has a little bobble, all of them, any so.
“Now that I am looking again at these lines, I visualize used tickets people drop on the station steps that are uneven/worn. These used tickets are punched with hollows and have bobbles on them. Just as a belt has holes/hollows.  Ceramic plates have bobbles on them depending on how they came out from the kiln.

“And one can tie a shawl around one's waist if it's too warm to wrap it around your shoulders.

“All of these objects point in positive and negative directions--ticket can suggest adventure, or it can be useless if it is a used one; a belt is useful but at the same time it can be used to oppress; a shawl is lovely on a woman, but it becomes oppressive if a woman is expected to wear it; a plate with a bobble can be seen as imperfect by some and be admired for its authenticity of craftsmanship by others.”


“Oh, I do love that image of the tickets dropped on the station steps. How marvelous.

“And the objects pointing ‘in positive and negative directions’—aha! big lightbulb moment for me here...thanks Pramila! There is a back-and-forth movement about these words with their double associations, and it put me on edge. I couldn't quite identify why.

“Oh, and when I just copied your phrase positive and negative, I was reminded of the sculpture idea again—making a negative cast, then a positive mold. Back and forth. And perhaps the final sculpture is one made of blood and tissue and bone—a baby—new life.

“You know, this is the second time the idea of the admired imperfection in a plate has come up...just a minute and I'll find the other reference....OK, got it, it was in ‘Careless Water.’—
‘No cup is broken in more places and mended, that is to say a plate is broken and mending does do that it shows that culture is Japanese......’


“I am offering these two thoughts given how Stein's strategy for the subpoems has moved more to the abstract side though wrapped in physical items like the shawl.

"A poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Each thing is related to every other thing, an arrangement that, in Stein’s lexicon, is called grammar.

“The roots of grammar points to letters.” 

[Middle English gramere, from Old French gramaire, alteration of Latin grammatica, from Greekgrammatikē, from feminine of grammatikos, of letters, from gramma, grammat-, letter; see gerbh-in Indo-European roots.]

“Eleanor, Pramila, and Dave have commented on ticket in various ways. I am thinking ticket also connotes a judgment, another instance of morality that Stein is examining and it is also tied to grammar that implies what is acceptable.

“Here is the def of ticket:”

a. A paper slip or card indicating that its holder has paid for or is entitled to a specified service, right, or consideration: a theater ticket; an airline ticket.
b. An e-ticket.
2. A certifying document, especially a captain's or pilot's license.
3. An identifying or descriptive tag attached to merchandise; a label.
4. A list of candidates proposed or endorsed by a political party; a slate.
5. A legal summons, especially for a traffic violation.
6. The proper or desirable thing: A change of scene would be just the ticket for us.
7. Informal A means to an end: "He went to Washington ... to become press secretary ... it was his ticket out of the Delta" (Nicholas Lamann).
tr.v. tick·et·edtick·et·ingtick·ets
1. To provide with a ticket for passage or admission: ticket all passengers through to Amsterdam.
2. To attach a ticket to; tag. See Synonyms at mark1.
3. To designate for a specified use or end; destine: funds that have been ticketed for medical research.
4. To serve (an offender) with a legal summons: ticket a speeding motorist.

“If Stein is refusing to punch the White Hunter's grammatical ticket and creating her own plate of tickets punched up with a patchwork of hollows that don't size up talk in a conventional way, it's no wonder the White Hunter is crazy.”


“Karren, following on this, it's then doubly interesting ticket is used in two different ways in this poem:”

Pick a ticket, pick it

Please a round it is a ticket.

“In that first segment, it feels like an imperative. Is Stein enacting the way language works? Every time you are choosing a word (or reading a word), you have to pick a ticket, there's no choice. There is also an urgency here, and a surprising clarity in the connection between ticket and it. It also feels like it might be part of a dialogue, with one person (the writer?) commanding another (the reader?) to pick a side. And this hint of dialogue/speech is even stronger in the next segment, as Please a round sounds like a fragment of someone's request for something round. But the Please a used here is so soft, in comparison to the strict commanding tone of Pick a. I suppose that's often the choice we make in our use of language, should we persuade forcefully or gently? Women have been 'languaged' to be people-pleasers (huge generalisation, I know, I'm just exploring) so their language is different from male language.”


“I've been hanging out with people reading papers on Tender Buttons at the American Language Association Conference [In Washington, DC, May 2014]. One interesting tidbit came from Michael Weinstein as follows:”

Tender Buttons deals with stripping away the habitual, that is, removing the cover from the visible object but Stein uses language to recover the item. Lots of layers like the clothing worn in Stein's growing up period—petticoats & corsets, long skirts & dresses, shirtwaists.

“However, Michael said the process above all was what mattered to Stein because nothing can be nailed down. Things keep evolving or transitioning, it's all part of its currency, its nowness.”

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