Monday, October 14, 2013

Stepping on Tender Buttons: “A Piece of Coffee.”

The first thought the Steiny Road Poet has in her journey through Tender Buttons is why isn’t “A Piece of Coffee.” in “Food,” the second section of Tender Buttons? Mention of coffee appears in two of the “Food” poems, “Breakfast.” and “Lunch.”

The second thought is Stein has changed strategy and moved to a much more abstract environment for her words than the poems segments that precede this one. Even so, the Steiny Poet thinks that this poem, which is focused on Stein’s theory of writing (giving meaning back to overused words), might take place in her study, complete with table and typewriter. Stein did not use a typewriter. After her night of writing in her notebooks, Stein would turn over her handwritten work the next morning to her partner Alice B. Toklas who would decipher Stein’s scrawling cursive and type it up.

The third thought is that “A Piece of Coffee.” is Stein studying comparison both through the use of more and the er suffix. She also looks at how adding er to verbs makes nouns and then for grins she tosses in some words that end in er, or homophonic er sound but have nothing to do with comparison or verbs becoming nouns. Here are examples:

Use of more: more of double, sign of more, never more coal, more than any other, more certain, more likely.

Er Suffix related to comparison: dirtier, distincter, whiter, slighter, simpler, sounder, cheaper, fewer, later

Adding er to verbs to make nouns: detainer, scatter

Other words with er or an er sound: splendor, never, number, pleasure, altogether, answer, other, shatter

Now to the specific discussion of the stanzas with this NEWS FLASH: the Steiny Poet is going to add some thoughts by Eleanor Smagarinsky. ES as she will be referred to forthwith is a student of Al Filreis’ online MOOC Modern Poetry which was the catalyst moving the Steiny Poet to start this Tender Buttons Project. In writing this post on “A Piece of Coffee.”, the Steiny Poet decided she had accrued enough momentum on the project to start a ModPo study group within the ModPo discussion forums. So far, ES joined the study group and responded to the first two stanzas of “A Piece of Coffee.”


More of double.


Could Stein be literally looking at the word coffee which is spelled c - o - double f - double e? Could she be looking at a coffee bean that seems to be divided into two parts? Could she be setting up her study of comparison that requires two items? Sure. How about all the above?


Coffee can be a plant, bean, a tiny granule, a bag of tiny granules, a liquid, a liquid in a mug (that's a nod to Al [Filreis], I like to think of him whenever I used the word mug ;-), a liquid I drank, drink, will drink. In fact, it's 9am here in Sydney and I'm sipping my coffee from my KWH mug as I write this. But you canNOT have a PIECE of coffee, that's kind of funny. You can have a piece of cake WITH your coffee or you can WRITE a piece ABOUT coffee. But there are certainly other things of which we take pieces which make less sense than "a piece of coffee" and yet we use the phrase all the time. When my daughter went to preschool for the first time she took "a piece of home" with her - her "tiny blanket" - security blanket. When my Mum mailed me a box of her cookies when I was at camp - she wrote, "Here's a piece of home", and I never thought that was odd, and that was FOOD, like coffee. Does it make a difference that the food is solid? Can a liquid be called a piece? Or does it need a container?

SRP in direct response to ES:

I agree the written English language doesn't accommodate a PIECE of coffee. I was thinking that when we talk out loud, colloquial speech allows for a lot more. It's that colloquial talking where our language changes from those slips in language, those jokes of language, those puns. For example, a PEACE of coffee.

Now, a PEACE of coffee seems a little odd also to me because, full disclosure, I don't drink coffee. In fact I don't do caffeine. I think of coffee as something that speeds you up and doesn't calm you down but my understanding is that those who are habituated to drinking coffee, need it. So in that sense, there is a peace in drinking coffee. 

Before I leave this thought, I use the word habituated because Stein was a student of William James who had a lot to say about habit. For GS, she learned from him that in order to be a genius, one had to break from habit. Maybe that's what brought to GS's mind all this business about dirty and needing to clean to remove that PIECE/PEACE of coffee.


Moving on to "More of double." Double could mean a pair, two of the same - so a reference to a gay pair? But "more" of double? Is this GS's NEXT relationship, not necessarily her first? Or.... if the title used "piece" in the sense of "a piece of writing" then it could be this:

TITLE - My poem about you&me (rhyming with coffee, and coffee is used today more as a euphemism for getting together (or is euphemism the wrong word?) (was it so in GS's time and place?)

FIRST LINE - "More" in the sense of, "It's actually a piece that's more about two women falling in love than about coffee, wink, wink".

SRP in direct response to ES:

I find your thoughts on "More of double," delicious, especially the part about "my poem about you&me rhyming with coffee," that coffee is a way of getting together. My first thought in writing about "A Piece of Coffee." is why isn't this poem part in the section called "Food"? Good idea, Eleanor, to think "A Piece of Coffee." might be coded language for Stein and Toklas getting together.

Further thoughts from SRP:

In many ways, Toklas has been seen by Steinians as Stein’s alter ego (shall we say double?) There are those who believe Toklas wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Scholars know that Toklas in a fit of jealous rage made Stein remove the word may as much as possible from Stanzas in Meditation and some suspect Toklas who always did Stein’s transcriptions from handwriting to typed manuscript, may have edited as she typed Stein’s work. While the two works mentioned here were written by Stein years after Tender Buttons was written, Stein’s first assessment of Toklas was that she was a manipulator (more on this soon) and so it is not a far stretch to think Toklas operated as editor on Tender Buttons in a shadow role.

A place in no new table.

Could it be that coffee is best served at old tables because if you spill the dark liquid, it will stain the table? The Steiny Poet wonders why these six words occupy a whole stanza and so she suspects she is missing something here.


SECOND LINE [second stanza of Tender Buttons]- "no new" perhaps is "know knew" - "I know now what I may have, or may not have, known then. If I knew then what I know now?" Let's put our cards on the new table, shall we? Or is this table one you draw up, like a table you use in lab-work? With headings "past" and "present" GS writing up a pros/cons table (I do that when I need to make a difficult decision) about the new relationship? Comparing past to present?

SRP in direct response to ES:

Your discussion about "A place in no new table." has just expanded my world! I have been trying to think, without much success since I kept losing focus on this object, what is that table? Now, I'm seeing with your help table is a coming-together place. Table is also an inventory, as a know-knew list or as a pros-cons list. So that Stein who might have been analyzing her experience of knowing Toklas might be thinking: at first I [Stein] thought Alice was "crooked," (a manipulator, a liar), but now I'm thinking how sweet she is, how attentive she is to my needs. [See the discussion about Stein’s initial reaction to Toklas in the post on “A Box.”] 

Further thoughts from SRP:

Table as a coming-together place might also be Stein working at her writing table—Stein meeting with herself nightly to write. Stein definitely working to open up the present moment but unable to entirely escape her own experience of know-knew (often what we know now is based on what has happened before).

A single image is not splendor. Dirty is yellow. A sign of more in not mentioned. A piece of coffee is not a detainer. The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter. The clean mixture is whiter and not coal color, never more coal color than altogether.

To address this stanza, the Steiny Poet will begin by pointing out there is a heavy emphasis on incomplete comparison and then she will jump around in the text though she will start with the first sentence.

Surely a single image refers back to more of double. An image is a double of something else and makes the Steiny Poet think photograph and painting. Because Stein’s writing in Tender Buttons is responding to cubism, maybe what she is saying is that one image is not enough to create something exceptional or to have the quality of splendor.

The fourth sentence, “A piece of coffee is not a detainer” catches attention because detainer not only is a verb made into a noun by adding the er suffix, but it is a legal term that concerns withholding property lawfully belonging to a person, restraining a person’s freedom (as in detention), or delaying of release of someone already imprisoned. The word detainer sounds like container and to detain deals with containment. Therefore detainer makes the Steiny Poet think of a carafe that is a blind glass. But, Dear Reader, you say, hang on, that sentence clearly says, “A piece of coffee is NOT a detainer.” True, but is this an example of what Rachel Blau DuPlessis alludes to in the October 2, 2013, ModPo webcast when DuPlessis asserts that Stein is semi-narrative while working on erasing memory and history. (More on this during the discussion of the next stanza.)

To sum up, detainer is an odd word. In this stanza, emphasis is on comparison— a sign of more, resemblance, dirtier, distincter, whiter, never more coal. This sets up reader expectation that er words in this stanza are likely to be comparative. However, detainer at first glance seems like a made-up word, because it does not belong to the everyday lexicon. It belongs to a special lexicon, one dealing with legal matters. Is this Stein looking at the rules/laws of language? Possibly. 

What sense can be made of a piece of coffee not being a detainer except that coffee in whatever form—bean, grounds, brewed drink, a tête-à-tête—is not a containment nor container.  Whatever the whiff of meaning the reader can offer, Stein seems to ward that off by saying, “The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter.”  Here Stein plays with comparison. Normally, the ear prefers to hear dirtier and more distinct.  Is this what she means by a sign of more in not mentioned?              

The sight of a reason, the same sight slighter, the sight of a simpler negative answer, the same sore sounder, the intention to wishing, the same splendor, the same furniture.

Here the ludic—playful—Stein uses alliteration and slight variations on words like sight slighter and sore sounder to build a crescendo of enthusiastic sound as she describes two homophonic words—know and nosight of reason (as in to see and know or the brain—cite—where knowing takes place), same sight slighter (not knowing), sight of a simpler negative answer (no), same sore sounder (no), intention to wishing (knowing).

Here splendor is associated with knowledge and makes the Steiny Poet think Stein is referring to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Typically furniture is made from wood derived from trees. Maybe her table where she constructs knowledge is what she means by the same furniture.

The time to show a message is when too late and later there is no hanging in a blight.

One definition of blight is “something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions, or impedes progress and prosperity.”  The first definition of hanging is “execution on a gallows” and the second is “something that might be hung such as a tapestry.”

Perhaps the stanza could be punctuated: The time to show a message is when? Too late and later there is no hanging in a blight. There were lots of communication problems between Gertrude and Leo Stein during the time she began drafting Tender Buttons.

A not torn rose-wood color. If it is not dangerous then a pleasure and more than any other if it is cheap is not cheaper. The amusing side is that the sooner there are no fewer the more certain is the necessity dwindled. Supposing that the case contained rose-wood and a color. Supposing that there was no reason for a distress and more likely for a number, supposing that there was no astonishment, is it not necessary to mingle astonishment.

Perhaps rose-wood refers to furniture. When Gertrude and Leo Stein split up in 1913, they divided their possessions. Perhaps this stanza reflects that troubled and troubling time.

The settling of stationing cleaning is one way not to shatter scatter and scattering. The one way to use custom is to use soap and silk for cleaning. The one way to see cotton is to have a design concentrating the illusion and the illustration. The perfect way is to accustom the thing to have a lining and the shape of a ribbon and to be solid, quite solid in standing and to use heaviness in morning. It is light enough in that. It has that shape nicely. Very nicely may not be exaggerating. Very strongly may be sincerely fainting. May be strangely flattering. May not be strange in everything. May not be strange to.

This stanza seems to transition from furniture to writing or the mechanics of writing such as writing done on a solid heavy typewriter, a machine with a ribbon, a machine where the lining is pieces of paper, a machine that is used in the morning after the night of handwriting is completed, the night where the writer writes for herself and strangers as Stein stated in her long novel The Making of Americans. This is the point in the poem where the piece of coffee has disappeared and things such as the stains coffee leaves needs to be cleaned up carefully with special implements of soap and silk. Then one can see the illustration, the design on the paper made of cotton rag.


Eleanor said...

What an honour it is to be included here! So much to think about, thank you!

Unknown said...

Ms Steiny! i am so surprised, coming for ModPo that there could be any other entry point to Gertrude than Tender Buttons. I do love it so much, though i probably have truly taken in 20-30 lines in three years. not only do i move very slowly on shaky ground, but i have many things less wonderful than tender buttons in my life. But i am moved to think this is not the pleasant cup of coffee i might have at either nice coffee shop or even in my cozy wingback with its somewhat distressed heavy wooden end table. this seems to me to be more of a truck stop in the middle of the night on a not too busy road sort of coffee. the coffee, the table, the whole set up rather dirty and shabby. you know, more than double could also mean past 11, as in am, late for morning coffee, or like in my case so long ago, after 11 pm drinking to stay awake and keep my rig between the ditches until sunrise. of course with any poet, and especially GS, i could be completely wrong, but she is amazing fun! Thank you for this spot of Stein on my journey!