Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons came at the right time. Of course, it made no sense to me at first, as did the roller coaster of events in my life during the 3 times I read it. I went through some serious changes just trying to figure out how I felt about Stein, much less the book. One minute, I enjoyed her experimentalism, an obvious reflection of her larger-than-life persona. The next, she irritated me, like an itchy eyeball or a throat tortured by the skin of a popcorn kernel.
It took a while to break through the frustration that mirrors that one literary reading you attend where no one wants to admit they’re clueless about what the guest speaker is saying. Still, there’s a cacophony of ‘mmm’s’ at the conclusion of all his poems. Head nods from the audience give him confidence to admit he wrote the final piece on the bus ride over as he holds the paper at an angle where the room’s lighting spills over typed words. But, everyone smiles and over-compliments him at intermission over refreshments, and mocks the boorish girl who tells him that he has a chunk of salami stuck between his front teeth.
I didn’t want to be that audience, and I wanted to believe that Stein was the random chick who said the obvious, even when it was hard to digest or accept. That’s when I decided to give the text another go (this time, from a different angle) and found the absurdity of Stein’s words surprisingly satisfying as I started reading them aloud. I drew the shades one day, lit candles in my tiny apartment, and settled on the futon, paperback in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. The Stein-like shawl I’d draped over my shoulders and pinned with a broach threw me into character and suddenly, I was reading the way I’d seen several of my favorite writers read. With passion and rhythm and a glowing grace. I stopped thinking and felt everything. My tongue was on fire as the words fell out effortlessly.
The spell didn’t wear off easily. There was this new heightened sensitivity that wouldn’t turn off. Forget about your worst brain freeze or fingernails on a blackboard; that same night, I dreamed in 3D and bounced out of bed the next morning like springs were in my thighs. My cereal had feelings, and I all but cried after realizing I’d poured way too much milk in the bowl, leaving the corn flakes soggy and sulky.
But, sometimes that kind of “nonsense” is good and useful. And, if you do a little digging, you find and begin to appreciate Stein’s genius at staying true to the ideals of Cubist thinking. In her world, abstract is God. Objects easily and hastily die before being resurrected. The reader takes to heart Stein’s insistence on recalling a simple experience by sitting with how it sounds, smells, and feels, rather than merely how it looks.
“What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious. Drink is likely to stir a certain respect for an egg cup and more water melon than was ever eaten yesterday. Beer is neglected and cocoanut is famous. Coffee all coffee and sample of soup all soup these are the choice of a baker. A white cup means a wedding. A wet cup means a vacation. A strong cup means an especial regulation. A single cup means a capital arrangement between the drawer and the place that is open.”
Being someone who’s mostly dabbled in fiction, the text in Tender Buttons gradually became a seed that helped build my confidence in understanding poetry’s many sides. I’d imagine it was an acid trip in literary form. It took apart my memory and gave me back remixed images. Reading aloud, I could hear my brain being reconditioned and feel it checkering a new familiarity with images and personifying colors like a Picasso classic.
A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with not drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus and also a fountain.
Underneath the convoluted structure of words, Stein still adds epiphanies that bring things back into perspective, particularly in the world of art and literature. I liked her tendency to sprinkle revelatory statements throughout the book which not only enlighten the reader, but allows space to take a mental breather:
An imitation, more imitation, imitations succeed imitations.
It goes without saying that Stein is a pioneering figure of experimental writing, and that’s putting it rather lightly. Tender Buttons is for those who wink at defying convention and don’t shy away from exploring new grounds. The modernist classic aims to stretch the mental capacity, as well as challenge the senses. And, the newly released Centennial Edition should earn more yay points from Stein’s admirers since it features over 100 of the literary heroine’s revisions. It’s peculiar art meant for peculiar times – those times where, like me, you stumble upon your own voice and finally start liking it.
Lyndsey Ellis lives and writes in Oakland, CA.