Sunday, October 6, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.”

The Steiny Road Poet chose to sign up for a second time for the Coursera MOOC Modern Poetry taught by Al Filreis who teaches a similar version of this course to University of Pennsylvania students for significant tuition cost. ModPo as the Coursera course is known by those who participate in it is free and anyone anywhere in the world with Internet access can sign up at any time during the period the course is being taught and until it closes.

This year the Steiny Poet is a ModPo Community Teaching Assistant. This means she has been invited to respond to ModPo students in the discussion forums to ease their way in the world of contemporary American poetry by asking questions and making sure everyone is getting attention for the papers written and the difficulties presented. The CTA position also means this time around she doesn’t write papers or take the tests even if she wanted to. So she has decided, based on an exhilarating live ModPo session on Stein’s seminal poem Tender Buttons held October 2, 2013, where Filreis invited three Steinians to his table—Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, that she Steiny Poet would embark on a systematic journey through the three sections of this enigmatic long prose poem using the edition published by Sun & Moon Press.


The three sections of Tender Buttons are “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms.” “Objects” contains 58 short poems and is laid out in the Sun & Moon edition on 20 pages. “Food” which has some longer pieces contains 40 poems and takes up 26 pages. “Rooms ” is one long piece taking 15 pages. Tender Buttons can also be seen at


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

“Objects” begins with “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.” (period included in the title.) While the Steiny Poet could follow Stein’s “rose is a rose is a rose” dictum and discuss this poem strictly as objects that are containers—carafe and glass, the Steiny Poet chooses to kick the close read of this poem into a cubist perspective that involves people and not things.


Because Stein focused on beginnings, beginnings that initiate something new like a birth, like her birth which she felt might not have happened because she found out she and her brother Leo were replacement children for two others who had died in infancy, the Steiny Poet sees the carafe/blind glass as a vessel like the womb. A quick aside on the long poem’s title: a tender button could be where the umbilical chord attaches to the stomach and therefore gives credence to seeing the opening poem of the long poem referring to where people come from (i.e. the womb).

According to Wikipedia a carafe is a handleless container for serving wine or other drinks. Unlike its cousin the decanter, it has no stopper. In French, if one orders a carafe d’eau (a carafe of water), one will get tap water rather than bottled water which costs extra.

During the ModPo live web session on Tender Buttons, Bob Perlman counseled that every word in this poem should be treated as a separate event. So far, the Steiny Poet feels more comfortable sticking for the most part in her discussion to the nouns, adjectives, and verb forms such as they are (a variety of the –ing forms).

Perhaps the word cousin is why the Steiny Poet saw the carafe and blind (maybe opaque, as you cannot see through this particular glass) as womb. In looking into the word cousin the Steiny Poet sees not only the definitions related to descendants of a common ancestor (close up and personal: the child of one’s aunt or uncle) but also “a member of a kindred group. “ Stein opens this poem “A kind in glass and a cousin.” Kind and kindred point to similar things and one of the definitions of kind “A group of individuals or instances sharing common traits” also includes people, as in “a class or group of animals, people, objects.”

Also cousin to the English word kind is the homographic German word Kind, which  means child. Because Stein’s writing is deeply rooted in her autobiography and what she saw happening in the present moment of her living, reference to German words is organic to Stein’s life. As a young child just approaching her first birthday, Gertrude and her family moved to Vienna, Austria. According to Brenda Wineapple in her Stein biography Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, Daniel Stein (Gertrude’s father) had several reasons for taking the family to Europe. One of those reasons was to get a better quality of education for his five children. Furthermore, when the Stein family returned to America, Daniel often hired governesses to teach the Stein children German and French. Therefore, “A kind in glass” suggests the possibility of a child in the womb.

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.


“In a system to pointing” suggests to the Steiny Poet the accrual of generations of family and the elation of achieving a live baby, as in the father and mother exclaiming, Look what I have produced, a new human being! Origins mattered to Stein who traced her ancestry in her long novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress. Gertrude’s father was born in Germany; her mother Amelia Keyser was born in Baltimore, MD.  Similarly, Amelia’s father had been born in Germany and her mother in Baltimore. On both sides of Gertrude’s family the ancestry was German. Here the Steiny Poet will park discussion of the word pointing and its root word point in favor of more thoughts on family.

Although Gertrude Stein was not religious, she was an assimilated Jew coming from grandparents on both sides who took their families to worship at the same Baltimore synagogue. Perhaps an arrangement in a system to pointing has some currency with the old world practice of arranged marriages. The idea of the arranged marriage was to ensure the birth of the next generation. One of the meanings of pointing is “the insertion of marks to indicate the chanting of a psalm or the vowels in a Hebrew text.”  Another meaning is “the act or process of repairing or finishing joints in brickwork, masonry, etc., with mortar.” Both meanings deal with the concept of joining two things together and from this one can extrapolate the sexual union of a man and a woman with the possible outcome of human conception, pregnancy, birth.

The musical meaning of pointing adds a delicious avenue for discussion about Stein’s subtext of metapoetry (writings that comment on writing while seemingly attending to another subject). Perhaps, Dear Reader, you are throwing up your hands and quoting Stein’s rose mantra. Gently the Steiny Poet whispers Stein was contradictory and complex for all her repetition, grounding to the here-and-now, insistence that she was speaking to everyone to ensure for us the title (not known to Stein but assigned postmortem) of the “People’s Modernist.”

Maybe a discussion of the cornucopia of meanings for the word point ( lists 36 meanings for the noun form of point) pales in light of what was just said about the meanings of pointing but for the sake of additional discovery, the Steiny Poet will offer a few thoughts. Point can suggest the tapered end of a knife as in the obstetrician or midwife’s instrument that cuts the umbilical chord when a baby is born. Point can suggest “A mark or dot used in printing or writing for punctuation, especially a period,” which supports the possible meaning of  jubilant parental outcry, We had a baby. Point can suggest “The major idea or essential part of a concept or narrative,” which fits neatly with another avenue for discussing Stein’s metapoetry, particularly around birth or conception.


To achieve balance, the Steiny Poet believes, as in electrical balance, Stein moves from the positive to the negative by declaring, All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. She repeats the word not using that sometimes problematic part of speech which is an adverb but sometimes seems to act as an adjective as in not ordinary (translate as unordinary, abnormal, extraordinary, singular, uncommon, unique, etc.) though, in fact and in this case, not modifies the missing verb is. Later in her writing career, she explained her views on adverbs as they relate to verbs in “A Grammarian” (written in 1930):

"Verbs and adverbs are more interesting. In the first place they have one very nice quality and that is that they can be so mistaken. It is wonderful the number of mistakes a verb can make and that is equally true of its adverb.[…] Beside being able to be mistaken and to make mistakes verbs can change to look like themselves or to look like something else, they are, so to speak on the move and adverbs move with them and each of them find themselves not at all annoying but very often very much mistaken. That is the reason any one can like what verbs do"

The Steiny Poet sees Stein’s use of not ordinary reverberating with spectacle, nothing strange, and the difference that is spreading. As a double negative not unordered indicates order and reverberates with an arrangement in a system to pointing. [N]ot resembling has clear ties to not ordinary because if the object in question is not imitating and not similar than it is unique and possibly extraordinary.

What is particularly interesting about the last two sentences of “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.” is the assumed or actual use of the word is. As Stein expert Ulla Dydo writes about “A Grammarian” in her book Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises (1923-1934), “Behind ‘A Grammarian’ lies the question that dominated all of Stein’s writing: What am I? Who am I? In work after work she struggled not for an answer or to revise or reject earlier answers but to show that there were many answers.” (p. 401) The Steiny Poet believes the emphasis on the word is is Stein asserting that this opening poem is where the life of this book starts. It is also where her emphasis in writing and on writing hinges, that is, the present moment embraced by existence. For Stein, existence is embodied in the words all this and that existence is unique to the object it is and more so as it becomes mature— The difference is spreading.

While the Steiny Road Poet has been randomly absorbing commentary from the ModPo discussions, she doesn’t remember anyone specifically taking the approach made here where “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass.” might be a discussion of human birth so now she will go back and see what has been said knowing there are many ways to read Gertrude Stein.

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