Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Method of a Cloak.”

Had the Steiny Road Poet known how exhilarating sharing her blog with another writer would be, see “Mildred’s Umbrella.”, she would have issued invitations long ago.  Because the Stepping on Tender Buttons project is long term, adding writers to recount the proceedings of the Coursera MOOC Modern Poetry studygroup makes sense. But these posts are not merely an account of what was discussed by the Button Collective, as we are calling ourselves, these essays, which are close-reading the short poems making up Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons, are an examination of writing in English not only by Stein but also by the individuals of the Button Collective.

Opera curtain going up on the 9th segment of Tender Buttons:

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.

The Talking & Listening Cast (Writers all):

The Steiny Road Poet..... -              torchbearer
Tracy Sonafelt...................-              wordsmithy
Tamboura Gaskins...........-              silversmithy
Eleanor Smagarinsky......-              bridgeman
Nicola Quinn.....................-              costume master
Allan Keeton.....................-              Buttons coach
Dave Green......................-              word alchemist
Mark Snyder.................... -              bassist
Claudia Schumann.........-              flautist
Mary Armour................  ..-              dancer
T. De Los Reyes.............-              prodigal loiterer
Julie Hanson Scherrer...-              ingénue loiterer


While Tracy held back on spilling/spelling out her thoughts about “A Method of a Cloak.”, Tamboura got right to the point. “My first thought on reading ‘A Method of a Cloak.’ was about its wonderful alliteration which suits the enjambment-like quality of the passage.  Then, I settled on the words ‘attractive black silver,’ to close read this part of the passage:

attractive -- alluring, arousing, pleasing, delightful, engaging
black silver -- silver black is a combination of hydrochloric acid and tellurium and is used to oxidize metal, often metallic jewelry.  The result of this oxidation process is to create a patina or antique look on a metal surface.

“Close read:  ...all makes an attractive black silver.
Everything described here--before this phrase--is what gives a person a delightful, pleasing tarnish or patina that should be valued.”

Steiny, just igniting her torch, asked if Stein inverted the terminology and normally it reads silver black? Tamboura, replied, “Yes, perhaps Stein intentionally inverted "silver black" to help the alliterative quality of this final phrase.  I read the passage both ways, and the alliteration and the assonance work better with the inversion.


Segue to Tracy’s close read:

“Since ‘method of a cloak’ suggests a sewing pattern and a set of instructions, I took my cue from Jackson Mac Low to look at this piece in terms of pattern ... engaging repetition, syntax, sound, and image. If what GS is stitching together is a seam of language in a “single climb to a line”—a line that forms the stroke of a letter or a line of verse—then what we have here is a linguistic primer, a kind of Steinian ekphrasis ... right?
“I hear and see the first pattern in the alliterative “cl” in cloak, climb, and clock, mirrored by the hard “c” in cane and courage and the corresponding consonance of ‘k’ in cloak and clock, two manufactured objects that are near homophones. I hear ‘s’ in the alliteration/consonance of single, straight, system, success, silver. Both the clackety ‘c/k’ and sibilant ‘s’ sounds mimic machine noise (to my ear). I see and hear parallel lines in the consonance and parallel prepositional phrasing: to a line // to a cane. Syntactic placement sets up a series of equivalent steps, so that the sum of the primary nouns in successive parallel phrases create a system: method + climb + exchange + adventure + courage + clock = all this = a system. These patterns together, I’d say, are analogous to ‘an arrangement in a system to pointing,’ a new way of viewing the language of objects where the way words sound, the way words look, and the way words are arranged are more important than what they mean. 
“Moving on, we find a new equivalency: the system = feeling + resignation + success = an attractive black silver. In Stein, things often seem to come together in terms of color, which is perceived more than known, experienced more than comprehended or meant. Within color is a reconciliation of polar opposites, a bright silver and a dark black.”
At this point, Tracy got scared.

OK, so now where do I go with this? Do I try to attach meaning to these patterns? Or is seeing the patterns and the overall design here the point? If I try to attach meaning to, say, this string—method + climb + exchange + adventure + courage + clock = all this = a system—I could arrive at something like, the method is to climb to the top of the word and look down at it objectively from a distance, exchanging new meanings with old, a process that is a linguistic adventure, takes courage, and involves the intricacy and finesse and fine tuning of a clock. But if I do that, am I just playing the old meaning game with new words? Does old logic get at the heart of what is new here? Help!!!”
Responding to Tracy’s cry for help, Eleanor jumped in but far ahead citing Tender Buttons segment 32 “Cold Climate.”. It seems Eleanor was “cutting her teeth” on “Cold Climate.” the week before Steiny began the Close Reading all of Tender Buttons study group.

A season in yellow sold extra strings makes lying places.

In “Cold Climate.” we are taught/warned that "strings makes lying places"—if you follow the string you will find a safe place to rest (lie down) BUT you will also find a place full of lies. I think that might be what you're feeling right now, a comfortable place to rest but an overwhelming feeling of unease that something isn't quite right. Of course, the extra ‘S’ making strings the plural in that phrase "strings makes lying places"... well.... that in itself messes with us, and to me it looks like an extra cheeky warning—even the so-called helpful advice concerning the strings is itself just little bit off, making us doubt everything once again.


“All of that now makes me think of the title ‘METHOD OF A CLOAK.’. A cloak covers/hides what is underneath, you can't make a cloak while also fully knowing what it hides. Hmmm.... let me try to put it another way .... studying the method makes us understand the method more than what it hides.”

Steiny validated Tracy’s thought: These patterns together, I’d say, are analogous to ‘an arrangement in a system to pointing,’ a new way of viewing the language of objects where the way words sound, the way words look, and the way words are arranged are more important than what they mean. Steiny elaborated, “Stein operates on more than one plane at a time.” Then addressing all The Buttons, Steiny said,

“In Al Filreis' ModPo video discussion (part II at the very end) of John Ashbery's poem "Some Trees," Al says we need to attend the words and listen better for a poem like this.

“Then Al says, ‘what Ashbery seems to be saying is Stay with me. We have left the world and we are now in the poem. If I detain you, you will understand what I mean.’

“Since Ashbery's creative spark comes from Gertrude Stein, we Buttons can apply this to Tender Buttons. Stein wanted to slow down the process so we could experience words anew.

“Anyway I think this cloak isn't just some ordinary vestment. This cloak is an amazing cover for more encoding. Discovering the algorithms of Stein's language without attachment to meaning has it value. It's like taking inventory.”

Here Nicola quipped, “I definitely read cloak as in cloaking device, á la Klingons...” and Tracy added, “after all that lovely stuff Tamboura wrote about ‘an attractive black silver,’ I’m visualizing the cloak of invisibility from Harry Potter.” We Buttons like to free associate with contemporary imagery. Claudia, however, returned us to a more neutral timeframe, “That's what a cloak does, hide one from being observed or represent the keeping of secrets. It also has a cocoon like quality that makes one feel secure inside.”
Tamboura, referring to ModPo studies of Jack Kerouac’s Babble Flow, waxed poetic, “as we've discovered with babble-flow, it's not absolutely necessary to extract meaning from a poem--feeling, yes, but meaning, not so much.  However, I like trying, and I think you were on to something when you mentioned that a part of the poem may be about a ‘climb to the top.’  There are so many layers of meaning in this tiny passage--one of which could be that it is about a formulaic way of achieving success.  You may have to resign yourself to some things, like punching a clock or toe-ing the line.  But put on your cloak and mask your true feelings, and you will reach the top.” Getting Xcited, Tracy rejoined, “that reading works well with the mechanization I hear behind some of the sounds of the poem. I was imagining a sewing factory with time clock-punching workers making cloaks, the word ‘cloak’ serving as both literal garment and metaphor for masking or secrecy or protection or shielding.”

Eleanor, first quoting Tracy, "But if I do that, am I just playing the old meaning game with new words?" added this wisdom:
“It's all games, none are "better" or "worse" than others. Yours was an excellent game, I enjoyed it and I think you did too. Jason Zuzga [a ModPo Teaching Assistant] says that Tender Buttons is a place where words go for a holiday, it's their resort - where they can relax and take a breather from the usual work they do, day in, day out. If they play some games that are similar to their usual work, well then—that's their prerogative. After all, it's hard to just switch off when the holiday starts. Words are only human.

“That being said, you [Tracy] feel uneasy, and that means you might enjoy looking for another path to follow in/from this poem. I have no idea what that would be, though, because it's your unique path to follow. The words will show you things that they will never show me, and vice versa.”


After numerous exchanges among the Buttons including Tracy saying we should make “Tender Buttons is a place where words go for a holiday” our credo, Eleanor set forth a link that read, “Six years ago, physicists hid an object behind an invisibility cloak for the first time. Now they're cloaking actualevents.” Steiny used this stop-‘em-dead-on-the-water gasp to segue to:

“I believe what you are talking about, Eleanor, is in the real world realm of cloak and dagger, cloak and danger of being exposed.

“Here is another take on "A Method of a Cloak." operating in the real world of Gertrude Stein. Just a possibility, not a fact.

“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."

“Of course, GS & ABT had to cover up this declaration of love to the rest of the world. Keep everyone in the dark, put a patina of black on their silver lining.”

Tamboura saying, “I love this love story” wondered “if the clock represents how pressed for time Stein might've felt as the summer would inevitably come to an end and everyone would be on their way.  Or perhaps, she feels that it's been a long time since she's felt such feelings for someone.”


And then the earth cracked open with this epiphany from Eleanor:

“Suddenly it came to me that there are so many occurrences of the letter 'A' in this poem. Maybe GS is using it as a method, a type of starting from the beginning with the first letter of the alphabet?

“Then I read Karren's (a.k.a. Steiny) biographical info again and it hit me:

“The A, each and every A, is for ALICE.

“This is the most incredible love poem to Alice, as if GS is speaking directly to her "Hey A, remember the climb? Hey A, and the cane? The adventure? etc." And then— at the end— they are together—Ag [Alice Gertrude]—silver.

“And it's all in code, because when you're gay in 1914 you don't have freedom of speech, no less anything else really.”

Now, Steiny, who was puzzled why “A Method of a Cloak.” had two A’s in its title, understands why Alice got so mad with Gtrude when she learned about May Bookstaver and how Stanzas in Meditation was heavy with the word may.

So declaring Eleanor’s epiphany, a great bridge between Tracy's language dilemma and Karren's account of how Gtrude proposed to Alice in the hot Tuscan hills as a sufficient close read of “A Method of a Cloak.”, the Steiny Poet doused her torch and receded into the Steinian woods but not without hearing Nicola, Eleanor, and Dave whispering things like, “Black silver reminds me of hematite, which bleeds when it's cut” and “it’s about a masked cat burglar who makes off with the (black) silver.”


Eleanor Smagarinsky said...

Oh K, it's wonderful, isn't it? So very wonderful to see this poetic evidence of our collaboration.

Karren Alenier said...

The Steiny Road to Operadom, Chapter 3

Dear E,

I have written about the importance and difficulties of poetic collaboration but say to all who will listen, take your tribe with you, don't go into the woods alone.