Saturday, March 5, 2016

Cooking with Tender Buttons Food: Cranberries.

THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           FOOD
THE SUBPOEM ...................-           Cranberries
WORD COUNT (Total)……...-          154
STANZA(S)............................-             6
THE LEADER........................-          THE STEINY ROAD POET

“Cranberries.” is the fifth subpoem of Tender Buttons section 2 Food. Dominating the conversation among the Buttons Collective was how sonic these stanzas are. Major themes explored in this discussion were: the American holiday of Thanksgiving, settlers coming to America, racial issues, the seasonal transformation of fall (fall colors), visual art, song (sea shanties, nursery rhymes), and word play. This discussion is followed by some meaty afterthoughts.


Could there not be a sudden date, could there not be in the present settlement of old age pensions, could there not be by a witness, could there be.

Count the chain, cut the grass, silence the noon and murder flies. See the basting, undip the chart, see the way the kinds are best seen from the rest, from that and untidy.

Cut the whole space into twenty four spaces and then and then is there a yellow color, there is but it is smelled, it is then put where it is and nothing stolen.

A remarkable degree of red means that, a remarkable exchange is made.

Climbing all together in when there is a solid chance of soiling no more than a dirty thing, coloring all of it in steadying is jelly.

Just as it is suffering, just as it is succeeded, just as it is moist so is there no countering.

When I hear GS read aloud or read her lines or phrases or words aloud, they make sense without making sense. The rhythms make sense. Sound is important in Stein as is an inherent musicality.” Mary Armour


Teri Rife began the discussion by seeing the word chain as a connection between “Sugar.” and “Cranberries.”.

Isn't it interesting to see that nice old chain from ‘Sugar.widening right into ‘Cranberries.’?  A nice link from one subpoem to the next.  And, after all, the nice old chain in ‘Sugar.’ was absent, laid by—because it was in ‘Cranberries.’?

A nice old chain is widening, it is absent, it is laid by. [stanza 18, “Sugar.”]

Karren Alenier thought this was an excellent point and asked if Rife saw there is sauce in ‘Sugar.’.

A separation is not tightly in worsted and sauce, it is so kept well and sectionally. [stanza 5, “Sugar.”]

Rife answered:

Oh, yes...sauce there and jelly here.  And we're basting, too.  Very Thanksgiving-y.”


Based on stanza 1, the conversation turned to the American food holiday with Alenier responding:

Could there not be a sudden date, could there not be in the present settlement of old age pensions, could there not be by a witness, could there be.

“That sudden date could be the creation of Thanksgiving, a real thanks giving because they were starving in the cold weather in that settlement, maybe hoping to just make it to old age, no? Maybe hoping to be a witness in history. At which point we change from could there not be to could there be—affirming life.”

Then Alenier asked:

Did you know cranberries, blueberries, and concord grapes are the only native fruits to America?”


Rife said she didn’t know and Mary Armour launched into a meditation “that essential ‘Americanness’” in Gertrude Stein:

A remarkable degree of red leaps out at me. Cranberries vivid in jelly or sauce?

“Thinking of the sea, I feel as if reiterations and assonance are how Stein lets herself down into a poem, as if looking around her domesticity and enumerating, echoing, sliding from one syllable to the next.

“Karren and Teri, we've talked before about that essential 'Americanness' in Gertrude Stein, her awareness of all that is good, bad, patriarchal, wholesome, restrictive about being American, about writing America down in Paris.

“And it isn't a stretch then to think of the 'remarkable exchange' that is Thanksgiving, the gift of a turkey, the celebrating of not family but Gertrude's own kin (not her brother, not American Fathers) but Gertrude and Alice as Americans abroad.”


Alenier remarked:

“Mary, maybe her stream of vocalization is akin to singing sea chanteys. The red akin to the sailor's ruddiness.”

Alenier then saw a big topic forming relative to cranberries evoking things American:

“It occurs to me after thinking about the cranberry connection to America and the emphasis that Mary gives to that essential 'Americanness' in Gertrude Stein that the entire set of stanzas points to European settlement of the United States. I’m going to post these stanza explications separately to see if anyone wants to add to what I am saying.

“I already discussed Stanza 1 with its pointing to history (date, old age, witness) but also grounded in the here and now (present settlement).”

In stanza 2, Alenier sees settlers sailing to America.

“Stanza 2 opens with what sounds like a sea chantey (shanty) a song— Count the chain, cut the grass, silence the noon and murder flies. Words like chain, undip, chart make me think of the sea—anchor chain, dip—referring maybe to a wave in the sea, chart—the way of navigating either by the sea markers or the stars.

“I see this stanza as the way the settlers get to America. They take inventory of the chain (both the anchor’s chain and the things that chain them to Europe) so then they must baste (wet the path) undip the chart (get things stable without waves). But it is hard trip and there is an onslaught of vermin like flies that assail them. In the brightest light (noon) they must quiet (silence) those who would stop them and cut ties with the land (cut the grass) where they hail from.”


Rife replied with an association to “Mutton.”:

“I can't help but think about sheep dip, too. The sheep cut the grass and the dip murders blow-flies. Back to ‘Mutton.’.


In stanza 3, Alenier simultaneously sees a connection to a painting under construction and the King of England dividing up land in America.

“Stanza 3 Cut the whole space into twenty four spaces and then and then is there a yellow color, there is but it is smelled, it is then put where it is and nothing stolen refers to the land of America. I’m not sure why she specifically points to 24 spaces but I see it as painting of the land divided into pieces, something like what the King of England did in parceling out acreage to his loyal followers. The people receiving the land smelled it out, scoped it out, and then legally took possession (nothing stolen).”

Here, Rife got excited, referring both to stanzas 2 and 3:

“Whoa—check out another song to go along with that sea shanty.  From Wikipedia”:

The rhyme's origins are uncertain. References have been inferred in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (c. 1602), (Act II, Scene iii), where Sir Toby Belch tells a clown: "Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song" and in Beaumont and Fletcher's Bonduca(1614), which contains the line "Whoa, here's a stir now! Sing a song o' sixpence![1]

“A common modern version is”:
Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn't that a dainty dish, To set before the king? The king was in his counting house, Counting out his money; The queen was in the parlour, Eating bread and honey. The maid was in the garden, Hanging out the clothes, When down came a blackbird And pecked off her nose.[1]

“Related to the final stanza, too?
Just as it is suffering, just as it is succeeded, just as it is moist so is there no countering. 
That pie is successful (entertaining) but those poor birds are no doubt, suffering.”


Armour jumped in to reinforce the aural nature of these stanzas:

“Teri, Karren, this opens up such a 'fruitful' line of thought!

“When I hear GS read aloud or read her lines or phrases or words aloud, they make sense without making sense. The rhythms make sense. Sound is important in Stein as is an inherent musicality. I was thinking last night about how she composed her piece on Picasso/Napoleon while walking on a beach listening to the waves breaking on the shore. And how she was fascinated with her dog Basket lapping water from his bowl. This again is that self-soothing hypnagogic side of GS—the same way she enters an altered state through murmuring words or words as sounds, or that insistent repetitive mimicking of lovemaking, just following the sensual sounds and rhythms into sleep or ecstasy.

“I hear at times not just those elemental reiterations (a cow slowly having an orgasm) but echoes of song (sea shanties) and nursery rhymes, the daily sounds she would have heard in her domestic household, cranberries simmering in a pot, the fires of the wood burning stove, men and boys whistling or singing snatches of popular songs in the street as they passed her window, the cries of sellers, the hymns in Parisian Catholic processions, echoes of chanted Kaddish prayers recalled at a subliminal level, the sing-song choruses of the Latin Mass, prayers,  slogans shouted, people saying grace before meals, a neighbour calling for a lost cat. And for someone from more Protestant America, it is worth recalling that the Wesleyan hymns are adapted sea shanties, jolly burlesque and indecent popular pub songs turned into religious ditties. And Shakespeare was as well known as proverbs from the Bible or certain ballads and fireside poems.”

Alenier rejoined:

“Mary, I love your description of the daily rhythmic sounds Stein might have heard and add this one—Baltimore streets had those sounds from vendors of fruit & veggies and services like scissor sharpening. Even as a child living in Baltimore, I heard a man calling rhythmically watermelon. He was riding a horse-drawn wagon. Last summer at the Smithsonian Folk Festival, I was brought back in touch with that because they had some family members of those street members at the festival.


Returning to the subject of Thanksgiving, Rife said stanza 3 spoke also to the Thanksgiving holiday:

“The whole space of a Thanksgiving day is cut into twenty four spaces (hours), no more, no less.  Time is what and where it is and can't be stolen.  Now, this is stretching it, but during some of those hours, the yellow (bird) will be smelled and when done, cooking will be put where it is (at noon, when everyone will fall silent for a moment to admire it?)”

Praising Rife, Alenier added:

“Good point again, Teri! Yes, to the 24 hours for that special day which is covered so much by the food of the celebration, that the settlers would not go hungry at last!”


Moving along to stanza 4, Alenier suggested that Stein is pointing to American Indians with use of the word red.

“Stanza 4 A remarkable degree of red means that, a remarkable exchange is made may involve racism here. Red referring both to the cranberries brought to the settlers by the native American but also to the color of their skin.”

Armour reacted as follows:

“That sour unsweetened red of cranberries may be what GS had in mind, just that deep strong colour (remember her love for a red hat?) —for some reason I don't feel led to pursue that conventional white American myth around 'Red Indian' and Thanksgiving, in part because GS was writing at such a different time and for all we know she might have had more liberative and insightful views than many around her. Or not.

“It's a little like our contemporary thinking that Woolf should have known better when it came to attitudes towards servants or Jewish people, when at the same time those of us who are more privileged or buffered from oppression often fail to notice our own blind spots and unquestioningly share the social attitudes of those around us. This is always a challenge isn't it? How to think back with historical insight and we see that with Ezra Pound and others.”

Alenier answered:

“Stein was and was not a product of her time. Some of her family members supported the Civil War, others, including her nuclear family, did not. She has much to say about how to talk about the African American. She thought the word Negro was a perfectly fine word. At times she was walking on the edge of racism as we define it.

“Also the way she talks about the Chinese shows an inherent prevailing prejudice but nothing more than cliché.

“So she doesn't come out and say anything but it hovers in the background because it is and was part of American attitudes.”


Moving on to a new topic and referring to the last two stanzas of “Cranberries.”, Armour said:

“Just staying with cranberries for the moment. German settlers named the fruit kranbeere because the settlers thought the flower of the blooming cranberry resembled the head and bill of a crane, or because the fruit gets its name because when the flowers first bloom, they bend toward the ground like a crane. Was this a word she could play with? Sour into sweet, a remarkable change and made edible by sugar. Is this process of transforming fruit into jelly a process of suffering, akin to suffering a sea change into something rich and strange?”

Alenier answered enthusiastically,

“I have been reading a lot about the history of cranberry and just love the craneberry connection to the bird!”


Going back to the color aspect of stanza 4, Rife added:

A remarkable degree of red and a yellow color make a mixed orange from back in ‘Sugar.’.  Red, yellow and orange are the colors of autumn and Thanksgiving.  A remarkable color change occurs when the production of chlorophyll declines and surging sugar concentrations cause increased production of anthocyanin pigments—voila!  Red, yellow and orange.

“And, as you've mentioned, there are changes effected by the process of cooking food.  We've seen references to the three states of matter (gas, liquid, solid) in the Sugar and Cranberries subpoems.  And lots of wet in the cranberry bog.”

Alenier responded:

“Love your ability to see what now seems obvious, Teri! The Thanksgiving colors! This is exactly the kind of thing Stein expects her readers/viewers to experience from her writing!


Wrapping up with comments on both stanzas 5 and 6, Alenier continued her close reading through European settlers coming to America:

“In stanza 5, Climbing all together in when there is a solid chance of soiling no more than a dirty thing, coloring all of it in steadying is jelly, altogether makes me think of the settlers as a community, first coming by ships to this new opportunity (solid chance) of land where the cranberry grows.

“Stanza 6— Just as it is suffering, just as it is succeeded, just as it is moist so is there no countering—the new land is harsh (I’m thinking Massachusetts where one of the early settlements was and where cranberries grew in the wild. So the settlers suffer but they also begin to prosper in slow ways and they cannot go back to Europe (no countering). The land is rich in resources like rain and snow.

“So what does my European-exodus-to-America interpretation mean in terms of Gertrude and Alice?

“I think this is Gertrude exploring new territory (union with Alice). It's a sweet and sour (cranberry) kind of affair but there is no turning back.”


Moving on to another item of Americana, Alenier continued:

“Here's another bit of Americana—Walt Whitman (whom we all know Gertrude Stein revered) lived on Cranberry Street in Brooklyn NY. 

“He also liked to make coffee cakes and give them as gifts. Here's where I found this info at a blog by Nicole Villeneuve.”

Armour commented:

“And I do wonder how Whitman's expansive outletting of breath might have encouraged GS, to bring more song and repetition, endlessly rocking?

“I also find that it is as if GS wants to celebrate something American and homegrown in these lines, herself originally from the East Coast, Alice from California, their bringing something of an American feast to Paris, into that hot kitchen where flies had to be swatted and attention paid to the process of turning raw red fruit into jams or preserves, the setting and transformation of liquid into jelly.”

The final comment for this discussion came from Alenier, who said,

“Indeed I believe GS was inspired to sing from the example set by Walt Whitman! The flies make an active ‘seen’ bringing us presently into that jelly-making moment.”


“There is something philosophic going on as this subpoem opens with the repetition of could there not be.” Karren Alenier

After pouring through the comments by the Buttons and the initial thought that Alenier used to kick off the discussion but was not yet mentioned, the Steiny Road Poet pauses here to reflect.

First there does seems to be a philosophic approach established in stanza one followed by a call to action in stanzas 2 and 3 and then commentary that ties things up in stanzas 4 through 6. Steiny thinks the philosophic discourse is tied up with what Mary Armour calls the “that essential Americanness in Gertrude Stein.” In “Cranberries.”, while Stein gives little hints of Moby Dick (a discovery not made before the Buttons discussed “Cranberries.”) with such echoes of sea shanties and such words associated with whaling as chain, cut, smelled, the main thematic thrust of this subpoem is the Thanksgiving story. This story is about European settlers in America getting help from the native Americans—the red man.

Steiny thinks Stein is talking about herself and the situation she and Toklas are choosing to live as a same-sex couple. Like American Indians, they are outsiders to the European settlement.
Stein and Toklas create the sudden date in time that they plan to extend into their old age with or without witness. It’s untidy in the eyes of the society in which they live but they choose to live this way despite any suffering and without going back (countering).

One additional thought, which is cumulative after reading the first five subpoems of Food, is Stein’s intention for Food, if not the entire collection of Tender Buttons, is that she is writing the ultimate American novel. It’s a novel in verse but definitely a novel that breaks all the conventions and stands apart from everything that has come before.

Participants: Karren Alenier, Mary Armour, Judy Meibach, Teri Rife 

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