Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Stepping Up Tender Buttons Objects: “A substance in a cushion.”

THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           OBJECTS
THE SUBPOEM ...................-          A substance in a cushion: NUMBER 3
WORD COUNT......................-           475
STANZA(S)............................-           10
Other TBO Study Links…….-               Link 1, Link 2     
THE LEADER........................-           THE STEINY ROAD POET

Is [there] a callousness that overlooks individuality?” Pramila Venkateswaran

“what is reason? what is reasonable? what is her reason? am I being unreasonable? for sugar is not a vegetable, and would it not by any other name b as sweet?” Anthony Watkins


The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.

Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.

A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.

A circle of fine card board and a chance to see a tassel.

What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. The question does not come before there is a quotation. In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude.

Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that.

A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.

A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming and a red thing not a round thing but a white thing, a red thing and a white thing.

The disgrace is not in carelessness nor even in sewing it comes out out of the way.

What is the sash like. The sash is not like anything mustard it is not like a same thing that has stripes, it is not even more hurt than that, it has a little top.

A substance in a cushion.” exhibits evidence (based on selected words) of these major themes: existence, appearance, gender, sexuality, morality, and union.  The Steiny Road Poet believes the first five subpoems of Tender Buttons, establish what the major themes of section 1 “Objects” are. In addition some of the subpoems of “Objects” also address printing and writing as well as gaming. Only a handful of subpoems in “Objects” address the six major themes but only three address the six major and two auxiliary themes (printing-writing & gaming): “A piece of coffee.”, “A plate.”, and “A seltzer bottle.”. In close consideration “A substance in a cushion.” might exhibit hints of gaming and writerly elements. In any case, this subpoem is highly significant to the over all work of Tender Buttons.

The 2014 Buttons Collective discussion of “A substance in a cushion.” includes highlights of comments on: language from a lab report, intoxicants, kosher versus trayfe, periodic elements, gossip, sewing, folk myths of ivy, connection to Shakespeare’s As You Like It.


To review the thematic path into section 1 “Objects,”: “A carafe, that is a blind glass.” seems to tackle existence (possibly Stein’s birth) and “Glazed glitter.” complements with a version of Stein’s adult existence, that is, her subsistence (her means for maintaining her life)—what her career path looked like (the abandoned medical studies) and the anticipation of change. A substance in a cushion.” picks up the theme of change in daily living (existence) and subsistence (the failed medical career) and meditates deeply on appearance (what is seen, what is not). “A substance in a cushion.” plays with sweetness (sugar) and color as life changers, such that we, as readers, suspect the presence of a beloved who will come joyfully to Stein’s table, if not her bed.

From historic background, we know the unnamed lover is Alice B. Toklas but Stein has her way of inserting signs of Toklas beginning with the article “a” which is used 40 times among the 470 words of  A substance in a cushion.”


Peter Treanor pointed out that substance is “the essence of something, a particular kind of matter, an intoxicating drug, the most important part of something, the subject matter of a text/piece of work, having a solid base in reality, being dependable, quality of being important, wealth and possession.” Steiny interrupts to say substance could be Stein characterizing Alice’s importance to herself (Stein). This is Stein saying Alice is essential as a partner. Stein’s love for Alice is like an intoxicating drug. Alice is her subject matter for Tender Buttons. Nothing else in Stein’s life at this time is more important.

Peter said, 
”One or all of these could be employed as meaning here, I like the intoxicating drug one, especially in relation to the absinthe thread of thought [see the 2014 discussion of “A carafe, that is a blind glass.”]. Absinthe could be seen as cushioning the harsh realities of the world. Alcohol as a cushion to the troubles of life.” Steiny interrupts here to say that alcohol would not be Stein’s drug of choice.


In a 2013 discussion of Tender Buttons, Peter said Stein inserts instructions in her text. So taking that approach, Peter asked, “Is there a substance in the word cushion or in [the phrase] a cushion?” At first, he was stymied, but then he saw “h is hydrogen, o is oxygen, c carbon, n nitrogen, ni nickel, au gold, all substances ‘occurring’ in ‘cushion’ or ‘a cushion.’

MS Boase added copper, copper sulphate, tin and bronze to this discussion:

“Just focusing on the title... ‘A substance in a cushion.’ I loved Pete's idea that the word cushion could encode chemical symbols, the most obvious though is copper (Cu). A change in colour suggests copper sulphate (CuSO4), which a kind of (inedible) salt that has a very drastic colour change between blue and white depending on the presence of water. Also copper sulphate is IONic because it's a compound of a metal and a non-metal.
“But there's another interesting and important substance that springs to mind and that is bronze, an alloy of two metals, copper (Cu) and tin (Sn). They don't react but blend to form a very hard substance that was very important to mankind, it's discovery marked by the beginning of what we call the Bronze Age. Given this is the third poem, we should wonder if there is a bronze quality to it. If so, then we should expect to find gold (Au) in Tender Buttons one (I don't see it) and silver (Ag) Tender Buttons 2. I think I do see the latter... Ag or silver is very representative of the Alice-Gertrude partnership, A and G. I wonder if these ideas will recur later.”

Karren Alenier (a.k.a. Steiny) responded:

“MS, I agree that Pete's deconstruction of cushion into various chemical symbols is a cause for looking deeper into the "Objects" section and what it offers in a more overt way relative to elements like gold and silver.

“In the Buttons initial look at "A method of a cloak." (in 2013), Eleanor Smagarinsky saw that playful connection  of silver Ag as the Alice-Gertrude connection. Subsequently in my study of ‘Objects’ as a whole this summer (while I was working on my chapter for a forthcoming book called Forbidden Loves in the Jewish Tradition—lead editor is Corinne Blackmer), I came to believe that overall, silver stands for Alice and lead (also known as liquid silver) stands for Gertrude. [Silver and lead come up in ‘A seltzer bottle.’] Gold doesn't seem to be in ‘Objects.’ [Steiny inserts here that gold does appear once in section 2 ‘Food.’)

“Your discussion of copper, however, is quite interesting. In nature, silver can be found in lead and copper as well as gold and zinc. Another aspect of Gertrude is water. We see her aligning with water but not fire. Typically the male symbol is fire, the female symbol is water. In Jewish lore, there is male aspect to water that is involved with the Hebrew words for heaven shamayim שָׁמַ֫יִם and water mayim מָ֫יִם.  Eventually we will get to this in ‘Water raining.’ and ‘Careless water.’.”

MS answered, “The water ideas support the copper sulphate connection…Maybe the s is the substance IN cushion.”

That MS saw copper (cu) in cushion sent Peter researching copper with marked enthusiasm: “Oh my heavens MS, copper (cu) that is brilliant! Copper from Wikipedia , has so many associations with TBs…”

Because Stein employs lots of specific colors in the subpoems of “Objects” (this subpoem mentions blue, red, purple, pink, and green as well as black and white but it also hints a yellow with the word mustard), the Wikipedia copper citation, which details color and color changes, is highly relevant.

Particularly interest was the Wikipedia information about the s-orbital electron:

Copper, silver and gold are in group 11 of the periodic table, and they share certain attributes: they have one s-orbital electron on top of a filled d-electron shell and are characterized by high ductility and electrical conductivity.

In “Glazed glitter.” (the Corrected TB edition), this sentence features an “s”:

But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any s is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing.

MS added: “…the S which is unwelcome is black sulfide (Ag_2 S) which tarnishes silver over time (and has application in photography, not sure if relevant, or since when), the polishing and cleansing referenced in the previous poem could then mean to keep silver sparkling...”

Karren responded to MS relative to his uncertainty whether photography figures into Tender Buttons, “The word silver comes up three times in the ‘Objects’ section of TB: ‘A seltzer bottle.’, ‘A method of a cloak.’, and subpoem 11 ‘A box.’. Hints at photography (and printing) surface in many of the subpoems, including subpoems 11 ‘A box.’, ‘A plate.’, and ‘A seltzer bottle.’.


While Peter and MS had many more things to say about copper, for now Steiny puts that information on hold to move into stanzas 1 and 2 about which Pramila Venkateswaran said, “The first two statements sound like what one would read in a lab experiment: ‘The change of color...’ and ‘Callous...’ ‘Sugar is not a vegetable’ sounds tongue in cheek—something a parent would tell a child. Callous—the hardening seems to mark this piece.  Do we harden because of our prescribed gender roles? ‘Soft’ ‘pink’ ‘tassel’ suggest women. ‘Feathers’ reminds me of feathers in hats; also feathers in pillows and in mattresses. All these are prescribed rituals of society--dining together, writing according to rules, vacationing during ‘the season,’ which makes her [Stein] wonder if there is a callousness that overlooks individuality.

Karren Alenier agreed saying, “It fits Stein's experience as a scientist investigating objects, the life of objects, the activities of said objects.

“And to see callous in relation to gender roles and overlooked individuality captures the more veiled details from ‘A carafe.’ like a kind in glass and a cousin (something like finger pointing and accusatory—that type that I can see through and really? related to me?), a spectacle (that kind of person standing out and not conforming), nothing strange (oh, but not conforming demotes the strange person to nothingness), not ordinary (why isn't that person like everyone else?), not resembling (really that person couldn't possibly be my cousin!), the difference spreading.

“Intriguing to hear sugar is not a vegetable as a parental rebuke. Or at least to me it sounds disapproving which fits with what is callous.

“In ‘modern’ times—once people could do more than struggle to survive, that is, find food, shelter, a way to procreate—folks sought diversions, a way to reduce the stress of daily living. Then came these substances, like sugar, like absinthe.”


From Wikipedia, Karren found this: Most sugar comes from sugarcane, which is a tropical grass. The leavings from cane juice become the powder that makes sugar.

Sugarcane belongs to the grass family (Poaceae), an economically important seed plant family that includes maize, wheat, rice, and sorghum and many forage crops. 

In India, between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, the Persians, followed by the Greeks, discovered the famous “reeds that produce honey without bees.”

Karren concluded: “Of course sugar has a long history tied up with slavery and wealth.”

Peter picked up the on sugarcane being vegetable and Therese Pope offered that you can chew on the cane but not eat it because it is tough and fibrous. Karren was doubtful about its byproduct, sugar, being labeled vegetable. Peter said, “The flower top of sugar in the picture does look like a feather and the link between sugar plantations and cotton plantations make me wonder about Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton..

Karren answered, “yes that line Come to seasonseems very socio-political.”

Breaching the conversation, Steiny jumps in here to remind the reader that this subpoem opens talk about the change of color, which might be associated with the emancipation of slaves from the cotton fields of the American South. Now back to what Karren said in the ModPo forum, “The combo of cushion and feather always makes me think this is Stein's pillow talk. As with any late night talk comes the ecstasy and agony.”

Surfacing after a long absence, Claudia Schumann said, “I was just mulling over ‘come to season’ and thinking that it sounded like…the expression ‘coming into heat’ when animals are becoming fertile for reproduction. So I … thought ‘come to season’ may refer to a woman arriving at that time of the month. Then I also thought about ‘extreme use’—sometimes having sex during this time may be considered ‘extreme use.’ In reference to pillow talk, pillows are made of feather & cotton ticking—hence ‘feather and cotton.’”

Come to seasonbrought up the issue of Jewish woman and their cycle of menses and ritual bathing. The issue of making something kosher after it has become unclean (trayfe) plays in Stein’s phrase dirt is clean when there is volume. Karren commented, “Stein might be commenting obliquely about the unkosher same-sex marriage which must be kept under cover despite these ‘girls’ who have come to season (there being present as many girls as men). This gives a new spin on oyster (a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange), which is trayfe, unkosher, forbidden food.

Randy Parker associated cushion with a pincushion, preferably a red one and found all the surrounding associations fraught with sexual innuendo, especially the needle’s penetration of the cushion.


One of the most difficult lines of this subpoem is this list that is merely a fragment but not a sentence:

A seal and matches and a swan and ivy and a suit.

For seal, Claudia ruled out the animal and suggested it was that mark of authority put on documents.

Peter offered this set of associations:

“I don’t know how it would shoe horn in but a Google search of the terms popped up with a picture of Anna Pavlova with her favourite pet swan, called Jack, taken at Ivy House where she lived. There are various photos of them but some are early 1900s and pre TBs time , so the images would have been available to GS. Jack is the name of a playing card, [Jacks, as are other cards] are ordered into suits, (bit tenuous I know).  Pavlova , Swan Lake, lovers suits , love matches? All the mythology around Swans, Zeus as a swan, swan maidens,  swan songs?”

Declaring she loved both interpretations, Karren said,

The seal of approval for example might be a reference to certain unattainable certificates like Stein's medical diploma or their (GS & ABT) marriage license.

“The next Q is what are those matches? Oh! It's GS & ABT uniting in marriage. ABT is swan. The plant ivy has the ability to bind things together. Think About how it grows up the sides of buildings & trees. Ok just found something interesting about ivy and Bacchus on a site about Druids:”

--Ivy was associated with Bacchus because it grew all over his “fabled homeland, Nyssa.” Ivy grown outside the home was believed to be a guardian and protector.
--it formed the poet’s crown and the wreath of Bacchus. Putting Ivy on the brow was supposed to guard against intoxication.
--Ivy was regarded as an emblem of fidelity and given to newly weds by Greek priests. Brides often had it in their wedding bouquets to bring them luck, affection, friendship.

“What I love about this line is how the three and's balance the sentence and put the swan (Alice) in the center of it. Gertrude is the suit of course. 

“Seal and suit have equal weight, no?

“Suit also marries up well to match. Stein is a suitable match for the swan.”

Then another idea occurred to Karren. She directed this question to Peter: “When did I.V.'s come into the medical landscape? ivy makes me think of i.V.”

Quickly Allan Keeton answered, “Ivy kinda sounds like/I thee./I vee wed.”

Peter rejoined, “,IVI  thee wed (fantastic Allan) were used (pretty disastrously) from 1600's. But they were getting better at it by the turn of the C20th.”

However Peter moved on to literary stories about swans including the ugly duckling and those coming from Latin American literature. Boiled down, he said, “Swans are often a symbol of love or fidelity because of their long-lasting, apparently monogamous relationships.” Also Peter told us that the female swan is called a pen. Finally Peter pointed out the over abundant use of the conjunction and. The emphasis seemed to reinforce Stein’s marriage to Toklas.

Picking up the tail end of this conversation Claudia asked, “Did anybody mention that sometimes lovers [usually the male as pointed out by Therese] are called suitors!”

Then Nathan Walker offered his fireworks analysis as finale. Steiny is going to make his run together remarks a bulleted list:

“--Ivy sometimes has heart-shaped leaves, and is itself a cover.
--Hearts in cards are a suit.
--Swans are portrayed as making hearts when they face each other in love.
--Matchbox says to close cover to strike.
--A callous is what covers the soft skin underneath, and cushions the hands or feet against repetitive motion or unpleasant surfaces. In order for skin to harden, to callous, it must literally leave behind its softness, which it then covers. A pearl is made in the same way—a callous is made by an irritation that is covered. A pearl is an internal callous inside the oyster.
--To set and make table, with cushioned chairs, is to open the house for visitation or to invite others to come dine with. the joy at the table is when people have come to eat along with. the cushions of chairs are typically round and soft, and feature a button at the center.
--One might change into a costume for dinner, and engage an extreme use of feathers and cotton for a formal dinner or social visit, even if one is typically not used to changing costume.
--A cushion has tassels sometimes.
--Sometimes fine cardboard might underlay where a cushion goes on a chair? the pre-cushion? the top to covering may be as mentioned, the cushion with button or tassel at center. Cushions may also be bed-cushions and may be stuffed with feathers or cotton. if someone has come to visit or come to live, one must change one's customs, and maybe interior decor and costume, but this is a worthy exchange. Both bed cushions and dining room cushions may get a lot more use if a domestic partner has arrived. there is a social season in which to receive visitors, and to go visiting.
--Oysters are known as an aphrodisiac, and which have rough exterior but a smooth and pearlescent interior.
--There is a recklessness involved in wearing precious objects or in changing costume to venture out. the return of gratitude is part of an exchange of gladnesses, of gift-giving and delayed reciprocity inherent in social activity. What has a little top at least sometimes also a cushion, but also a jar of mustard. an outfit has a sash and bands, but a cushion may also have bands, if not a sash.
--A difference between a little calm and a calamity might be the increase of very few people in a social setting. I love the ‘violent kind of delightfulness’, which is enjoyed best by being unable to get tired of it, and to revel in that. that is true delight! The kind of delight that constantly renews itself, over and over.

One final thought from Karren:

The set up with girls and men sounds right for an illicit card game in a gambling hall. Basically Stein was gambling with her life by uniting with Toklas. Stein is putting a seal on the match of swan and suit[or] with the blessing of ivy. She has to interpret what has been forbidden.”


The fifth stanza of “A substance in a cushion.” is rather puzzling with its opening phrase a violent kind of delightfulness. Karren thought it might smack of Shakespeare and looked into Hamlet’s to be or not to be speech, The Tempest because it deals with injustice and bargains struck, and Macbeth because it is so heavily involved with violence but she couldn’t  find anything that quite tracked with Stein's text. Peter suggested As You Like It:

What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in not getting tired of it. Pete: Is this the Court/city that Rosalind and Orlando flee from. It’s plush and delightful, but violent and oppressive. They tire of it and have to escape.

The question does not come before there is a quotation. Pete: The question could be about love/marriage/gender, there seems to be lots of characters in the play doing this. And there are many bits lifted from the play that are famous quotations

In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. Pete: Is the top in any place the sky? a roof? a lid? a forest canopy? Our skulls/hair?

It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer  Pete: A whole piece, maybe referring to a cod piece? Maybe alluding to Rosalind’s wholesale change of gender, she talks much of wearing her hose (trousers apparently according to the Shakespeare dictionary).

but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude. Pete: A bargain, many bargains in his plays, many in AYLI, but maybe a pact with Celia to be a man and escape, to change gender, and to leave (go away) and wear her male clothes and male gender, recklessly and be resolved on returning Orlando's gratitude to her, in the role of a man, who becomes his friend and gives him advice on how to love a woman.

Karren responded: As You Like It? Why not? I am also thinking that because she prefaces her out-in-the-open lesbian novel (Q.E.D., 1903) with a full page of AYLI, this play must play and replay in her thinking about Food, Rooms, Objects (before it was under the title Tender Buttons. After all, she did not get to show Q.E.D. for so many years after it was written (1932). [N.B. Steiny annotated the script of As You Like It showing possible Tender Buttons influences.]

Contributors to this discussion included: Karren Alenier, Mary Armour, M S Boase, Allan Keeton, Randy Parker, Therese Pope, Nicola Quinn, Claudia Schumann, Peter Treanor, Pramila Venkateswaran, Nathan Walker, Anthony Watkins

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