Saturday, June 21, 2014

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

“Stein is a talker of size.” Eleanor Smagarinsky

“…when we talk we torque objects in space.” Eleanor Smagarinsky


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.

While Stepping on Tender Buttons: “AShawl." Part 1 of 2 attended to items of Stein’s strategy for “A Shawl.”, the comments presented focused on concrete associations dealing with fashion, wedding traditions, birth, death, and tickets. Part 2 of 2 captures the commentary about grammar, lyricism, science with a dash of Walt Whitman.


Eleanor Smagarinsky:

“This is a tough one, so I decided to start by concentrating only on the first two lines.
“I'm going to try to apply what I learnt in the grammar workshop, but I'm learning as I go.
“How is Stein attempting to define the concrete noun SHAWL? It is a generic shawl, it's not the shawl, but a. This already allows my imagination to run riot, I'm looking up the styles of shawls worn in the early 1900s, while I'm also aware of the prayer shawl, and the idea that any piece of material wrapped around one's shoulders may well be called a shawl. I could, of course, go abstract/metaphorical with the idea of shawl, but I'll leave that for later (too confusing).
“The good news is that what we have here is the expected grammatical structure for a definition this is this, i.e. NOUN, VERB, NOUN ----- SUBJECT, VERB, OBJECT.
SUBJECT = shawl
VERB = is
OBJECT = hat
A shawl is a hat
“Both a shawl and a hat are concrete nouns, as well as items of clothing. I can imagine putting a shawl over my head and it does, indeed, become a type of hat.
“Stein continues this definition by using the coordinating conjunction AND. And (like but, or, for) is used to link things of roughly equal weight and of simple relationship; it is, therefore, very disconcerting to read:
‘A shawl is a hat and hurt
“HURT is an abstract noun (think of this example: ‘Her sympathy eased the hurt he felt after his dog's death.’). HURT is an open noun, which means it can shift into a verb (to hurt), an adjective (the hurt man) or adverb (hurtfully). Open words make up the dynamic part of our language, this is how new words are created, and this is usually the part of language which is most frustrating to many people. During the Olympics (at least in Australian English) the noun medal began to be used as a verb, e.g. ‘She medalled in the swimming.’ Word usage, when undergoing this type of change/evolution depends on acceptance by the community - just look at how easily we transformed "Google" into a verb.

“Now...even though we have this very odd coupling of a concrete noun HAT with an abstract noun HURT, it's still not *that* disconcerting, after's poetry...we could try to imagine how a shawl could function as a metaphor for a hat and a hurt. But wait, Stein deletes the article a, and immediately puts us on edge. Imagine how much more pleasant it would feel to read:

‘A shawl is a hat and a hurt’

“Why is that? Well... A shawl is a hat and a hurt functions as a COMPLEX SENTENCE - i.e. there is a simple sentence (it could, if you wanted, stand on its own) ‘A shawl is a hat’; and a fragment (in incomplete clause) attached to it ‘and a hurt.’ Pop a period on at the end, and you have a nicely flowing sentence (albeit a poetic one).

“But let's go back to the clause as written:
A shawl is a hat and hurt
We still have the simple sentence ‘A shawl is a hat,’ but the fragment ‘and hurt’ nudges us towards reading HURT as an ADJECTIVE. Is it describing the shawl? Can a shawl hurt?

“Everything is suddenly just a bit ‘off,’ and this is further emphasised by the alliteration (hat & hurt) and the fact that the next clause and a red balloon brings us back to the realm of concrete nouns.

“If Stein had written:
‘A shawl is a hat and a red balloon’
I would have no feeling of unease at all. I'd simply adjust my imagination to see how a red shawl, wrapped around a slim woman's shoulders, might very well remind one of a red balloon.

“But Stein doesn't let the reader relax, and it's all due to that phrase ‘and hurt.’

“On the other hand, could Stein be inventing a new phrase? A hat and hurt, like.....let's see...a ball and chain. Marriage is a ball and chain....A shawl is a hat and hurt?”

Karren Alenier:

I have never heard the term open noun but am so glad to have a name for those nouns that slide into verbs! 

“Of course grammar became an obsession with Stein but it's how to break the lock the literary establishment had on the rules that interested her. Some how breaking the rules of grammar are intimately connected with breaking the rules of standard marriage. It seems whenever she writes about grammar she draws attention to weddings, marriage, maybe a dash of romance as she does in the essay ‘Saving the Sentence’ (in How to Write).

“I think knot tying is important as is the fashion statement made by shawls in the 19th century.”



Reading these comments has sparked my imagination!

“I'm taking that phrase construct, and finding:
which leads me to --
which matches the ‘h’ alliteration of a hat and hurt.
‘A hearth and home’ wants to evolve (in my mind) into ‘a heart and hope,’ this is like a ghost of the phrase which Stein subverts by writing the negatively charged ‘a hat and hurt.’ I'm also reminded of the soldier in the previous poem [“Suppose An Eyes.”], as soldiers were fighting for ‘hearth and home.’

“So if I take Pramila's interpretation:
"A shawl could be a stand-in for a woman." [see Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Shawl." Part 1 of 2]

And combine it with Tamboura's interpretation: [see Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Shawl." Part 1 of 2]
In light of this, I see hat as old hat, or old-fashioned.  So, could hat and hurt mean old-fashioned and insulting?’

“Then you could read the phrase ‘A shawl is a hat and hurt’ as—
‘A woman is NOT the old-fashioned and insulting term hearth and home.’

“Taking it a step further and embracing the symbolism of the shawl as the binding of a man and woman in marriage, you could read the phrase in the following way—

“A marriage doesn't lead to a hearth and home, nor does it lead to a union of two equals - of a man and a woman. Marriage is defined by the phrase a husband and wife which is the equivalent (grammatically/poetically) of 'a hat and hurt.’ The husband is 'a hat'—an independent clause—the object of the phrase ‘A shawl is a hat.’ The wife is ‘and hurt’—a dependent clause, containing a grammatically ambiguous word hurt—is it an abstract noun? Is it a verb? An adjective? The woman's desperate, helpless and painful situation has been very carefully constructed, both by society and by language. Stein brings this to our attention.

“Moving on to and a red balloon and an under coat

“These two clauses are still defining the original subject ‘A Shawl.’.

“The grammatical clarity of a red balloon is such a relief; it feels like Stein is giving me a little treat, to placate me. Of course, it's odd to come across a red balloon at this point of the poem, but you know makes grammatical sense, and I can deal with the metaphorical ambiguity. Maybe the red balloon symbolises the married woman's womb, which may soon expand like a red balloon, and will hurt when she's ready to pop. Maybe the actual shawl is red and looks like a red balloon, especially if the woman wearing it is very slim (like a ribbon). Maybe Stein is showing us that a shawl surrounding a married couple is the equivalent of a balloon that contains nothing but hot air? Who knows? 

“In comparison, and an under coat presents us with the strange space between under and coat, and we're immediately back to grammatical ambiguity. If we had the word undercoat or under-coat we would understand it to be a concrete noun, and it would make sense as ‘a coat you wear under another coat’ or the undercoat of an animal's fur, or of the painting of a wall or work of art. But what we have here is the word under, which can be an adverb (it modifies a verb, an adjective, an adverb or a clause), a preposition (it shows the relationship between an noun and another word), or an adjective. Grammatically, it looks like it's an adjective describing the type of coat, and perhaps this was accepted in 1914 as a way to describe a coat.

“In any case, Stein has chosen to bring the spatial position of the coat —and, in turn, the spatial position of the shawl—to the reader's attention. And it is this emphasis on space, which I think is at the heart of this first stanza.

“For something to cover an object, it must be larger than that object —size is important. Size was used twice in the previous poem [“Suppose An Eyes.”], as was sign (siNe, just twist the "z" around, hehe).

A device for measuring or sorting objects according to size.
A worker who judges or sorts objects according to size.

“But how do you measure or sort TALK? And even if you knew the answer to that would a SHAWL be A SIZER OF TALK?

“All of this talk about size reminds me of the 5 types of adjectives:
Stein is a TALKER OF SIZE— She is an important craftsperson/artisan of words. She uses many adjectives in these poems. And here she is, telling us explicitly, that even when she uses a proper noun such as ‘A SHAWL’ she is still giving us a SIZER—an adjective, i.e., a description of SOMETHING ELSE.

“But what is this 'something else’ that SHAWL describes? TALK— words, the words we use every day and take completely for granted....until we read Stein, and suddenly everything looks and sounds completely different.

“We can throw a shawl of linguistic grammar over our lives, and we hardly notice it. But even that grammar has its own hidden grammar (a sizer of a sizer), and when we TALK we TORQUE objects in space.”



I have been thinking more about the use of the h words and your translation of a hat and hurt to
‘A hearth and home’ Xcites me because it also lines up with what I read before I retired for my night. I was looking at Stein's essay ‘A Grammarian’ (from How to Write).

“At the beginning of  ‘A Grammarian’ she has these sentences, each as their own paragraphs: 
   ‘These have a cousin she is a nun.
   ‘Their cousin these have several one of them is a nun.
   ‘I love my love with a b because she is precious. I love her with a c because she is all mine.
   "This is very simple grammar. …’

“What relates (cousin) associatively matters to Stein but you see in the above quote that the relation mentioned is a woman married to a god (nuns are married to Christ) but nuns are celibate in the real world and live in communities of women. ‘A Shawl.’ while talking of wedding doesn't open much to the masculine gender.


“How interesting.

“This immediately reminds me of Jason Zuzga's [ModPo Teaching Assistant] examples of ‘queer coding’ of language. So instead of saying ‘my boyfriend/girlfriend’ you'd say ‘my client’ or some such.”


“Back to h words—hat, hurt and hollow.

“In linguistics, h is an aspirated consonant which means it is voiced with a puff of air. AND there we have balloon!  And there we have hot air (it comes from the throat), which Eleanor mentioned as follows:” 

Maybe Stein is showing us that a shawl surrounding a married couple is the equivalent of a balloon that contains nothing but hot air? [Eleanor Smagarinsky]

“The air in any case made me think of the wind in ‘A Long Dress.’.”

What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.

What is the wind, what is it.

“In LONG DRESS we have a necessary waist and in SHAWL we have under coat (suggesting petticoat) and belt. Should we be thinking about the female sexual organs under the petticoat and maybe chastity belt?

“I seem to be digressing but with Stein while there may be long lines, the lines aren't straight.

“One of the points made in the discussion of "A Long Dress." was the use of a comma was where the speaker takes a breath. Stein disdains commas but uses them fairly regularly in Tender Buttons, which we have noted as heavy breathing (as in the sexual act).  In SHAWL, we find only four commas but we have ten and's. There are four and's in the first sentence and five in the last sentence. (Also one in the third stanza.) While it seems like a breathless way to talk (it is also a form of aspiration—to voice and requires a burst of air), the and in terms of meaning (and grammar as conjunction) is a connector. 

“So there we have a shawl as a connector (A shawl is a wedding). 

“So I'm thinking again that Stein's grammar and her marriage to Toklas are intimately related.

“Oh, my, one more thing:”


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. 

“What have we have in the opening subpoem?-- a single hurt color

I enjoyed your playful twisting-torquing of N to Z turning sign to size. It occurs to me that sizer (as well as sign) points sound-wise toanother form of hot air.

“Yup, so the shawl as the wrap of propriety, that grammar that covers up the imperfections of communicating. The shawl as a sizer, a measure, and maybe a sorter of what we say to each other.”


“Belts bind just as weddings/shawls. A ticket could promise freedom but not necessarily. A ticket is ambiguous. It has no guarantees.
Please a round it is ticket.
It sounds like ‘Plea surrounded is ticket’ or ‘Pleas around it (shawl) is ticket.’
The plea goes with hurt, the person in shawl/wedding/belt may have a ticket out of any such constriction.”


“Oh, yes, Pramila, constriction. What is allowed?

“In order to be a genius once must break the constriction of habit— is not habit a type of clothing?”

habit (ˈhæbɪt)
1. a tendency or disposition to act in a particular way
2. established custom, usual practice, etc.
3. (Psychology) psychol a learned behavioral response that has become associated with a particular situation, esp. one frequently repeated
4. mental disposition or attitude: a good working habit of mind.
a. a practice or substance to which a person is addicted: drink has become a habit with him.
b. the state of being dependent on something, esp. a drug
6. (Biology) botany zoology the method of growth, type of existence, behavior, or general appearance of a plant or animal: a climbing habit; a burrowing habit.
7. (Clothing & Fashion) the customary apparel of a particular occupation, rank, etc., now esp. the costume of a nun or monk
8. (Clothing & Fashion) Also called: riding habit a woman's riding dress
9. (Chemistry) crystallog short for crystal habit
vb (tr)
10. (Clothing & Fashion) to clothe
11. an archaic word for inhabit, habituate



Pick a ticket
Sounds like picking a card for a magic trick—element of chance— who gets to be created/born.
A ticket to enter something - life.

Please a round it is ticket
It's a round-trip ticket - you enter life and leave life - birth and death.

Strange steps and with hollows
The blastula (from Greek βλαστός (blastos), meaning "sprout") is a hollow sphere of cells, referred to as blastomeres, surrounding an inner fluid-filled cavity called the blastocoele formed during an early stage of embryonic development in animals.

“I remember Jason Zuzga telling me that Stein had studied embryology, and here she is—in a photo with her classmates at the Marine Biological Laboratory:”

T. De Los Reyes:

“I like this image so much. Of the shawl existing inside the body. The womb is a shawl is a hat is a hurt is a red balloon.

“I also can't help but think of how, after birth, the baby is swaddle in cloth—is covered with a shawl.”


Plate, womb, ticket [as in round-trip ticket]—all are round, signifying woman as womb (essentializing her through biology—as you put it, Eleanor, the ‘outer trappings of the body’/shawl.

“Still working on the last line. a point it sounds like appointed, which works grammatically.

“A laugh, a lip and a laid—point to sexual drama—followed by the verb climb. I'm noticing all the [nouns acting as] verbs—climb, point, choosing, create a tension with the nouns—depot, cultivator.

“The depot is a small enclosed place where things are received—I am thinking typically a milk depot or a ticket depot—especially during the time Stein was writing. A depot is the womb (here without the ticket to fertility/milk production, etc., all of which go with heterosexuality assuming the womb is fertile). It is a mistake to think that sex can result in reproduction. None of this is ‘appointed’ (a point it). Nouns point to things. But these things just because they exist together create the illusion of narrative in our minds. But these narratives may not be true. The narratives are subjective and of our choosing. The stories in which we ourselves are the players may not be of our choosing.”


Mary Armour:

“Also picking up on what Pramila said

“Still working on the last line. a point it sounds like appointed, which works grammatically.

“Stein is nothing if not musical and full of onomatopoeia and I find that if I sit down and chant my way through some of these phrasings, they make sense when I am saying them rather than reading them for  rational or irrational content. When I read Stein aloud in a bold singsong voice, I can lean right into the repetition and  nobody understood repetition as Stein did.

“If you pretend you're singing/talking/chanting Dr. Seuss, the musicality through repetition becomes clearer. Assonance and alliteration, Gertrude humming in the bath, singing out phrases over the rooftops of Paris:

I meant what I said 
And I said what I meant….
An elephant’s faithful
 One hundred per cent! [Dr. Seuss]

A shawl is a hat 
 A shawl is a HAt and HUrt  [heard/unheard]
and a red balloon [Chorus: and a red balloooon]
and an under coat [undercoat]
and a sizer
a sizer of talk. 

A shawl is a wedding,  [wedding and wax, wedding and wax]
a piece of wax [a piece of this]
a little build. [a piece of that, a little wax]
A shawl.

[Now the dance steps]

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. [Echo: any so -- all of them -- any so]

a round it is
 [Return to rapid chant]
It was a mistake to state
mistake to state, mistake to state
that a laugh and a lip and a laid  laugh and a lip and a laid lalala
climb [descant]
and a depot
and a cultivator and
little choosing is [choo choo choosing]
a point it. [point with  outstretched index finger]



Here's more on Gertrude and the marine biology embryology course she took at Woods Hole. She was in an advanced class that was 'more concerned with rules and mechanisms of classification than experimental procedure' (according Brenda Wineapple's bio Sister Brother: Gertrude & Leo Stein). She was studying the 'often transparent eggs of fish, the best type, it was said, for elucidating vertebrate embryology.'

“Stein was rather over weight. An independent investigator used by Clarence Darrow during the Scopes trial who was there at Woods Hole, complained that Gertrude was 'just a big, fat girl waddling around the laboratory and hoisting herself in and out of the row boats on collecting trips.'

“Also she had a bit of hard time getting in to the Woods Hole program because she had to have all her classes completed for her degree at Radcliff (she was originally part of the Harvard extension program) and she was struggling with Latin. [I think this is all significant to our study.]

“AND her brother Leo was also there that summer of 1897. He was in entry-level course on zoology.”


“Karren, I wonder if Gertrude was herself in any way conflicted about her 'bigness' and it is hard to answer. I seem to recall reading a piece  by Lillian Fadermann on lesbian history in America in which many college  photos of young women  were shown (intimate friendships and 'pashes' or crushes') and many of those women would be considered heavy or over-weight by our modern standards.

“For much of Gertrude's life women wore bustles and padding to simulate an hourglass figure and 'buxom' was a term of approval -- roundedness was seen as pleasing where to be thin and small was considered a possible symptom of tuberculosis (Henry James notes Minny Temple's  losing weight as frightening).

“I think it would be fair to say Gertrude did not conform to current ideals of femininity and she competed with men academically and creatively. She thought of herself as 'masculine' in non-essentialist ways for the times—opposing patriarchy but playing with gender roles in her relationship with Alice and others. In the friendship with Carl Van Vechten, for example, he was called Papa Woojums, Alice Mama Woojums and Gertrude herself, the happy childlike genius of the family, Baby Woojums.”


“In working on how to write up our proceedings of ‘A Leave.’ etc., I stopped to look at Whitman's Leaves of Grass and from one its poems "I sing the body electric" comes this:”

The sprawl and fullness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women,
the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street,
the contour of their shape downwards,

“I think Stein used Leaves of Grass in a bigger way than we have already noticed.

“Here in Stein's subpoem, sprawl has been tidied into shawl.
We keep asking Q's about how Stein saw her own girth.
In Whitman again from ‘I sing the body electric’:”

The love of the Body of man or woman balks account—
the body itself balks account;

That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.

The Steiny Road Poet closes with this note about clothing—Stein never mentions pants or skirts anywhere in Tender Buttons. These words are interesting omissions since in the Western world they have meanings beyond clothing and because in Stein’s day they were keenly gender associated—pants with the male, skirts with the female. Stein seemed to be more concerned with addressing and redressing how the male dominated world she lived in treated her daily choices for living and creating.

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