Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

I’ve been very, very sick this week, and decided it was the perfect state of mind to read Tender Buttons, one of those classics I’ve kept on my shelf for years and flipped through without ever sitting down and really reading. As poets.org says of it: “the book is perhaps more often written about than actually read.” Perhaps. And I’m not sure I can add anything significant to the extraordinary body of scholarship, translations, and creative responses to it. So here are some of the things that my sick-mind noticed while reading through it.

It’s an excess of meaning, so much meaning that it destroys mere signification, reconstructs it in multiplicity. It’s dense, but there are a lot of filler phrases, rhythmic but essentially uninteresting auxiliary phrasings like “it is not that” and “there is” and “it shows that.” A lot of prose-connecting, though of course they’re completely upturned from doing what they would in normative prose. It seems to me to have something to do with more than the construction of sound and rhythm, but not entirely sure what. A critique perhaps of utilitarian language.

The color red comes up a lot. I’d love to map it out. Along with the idea of cutting. Perhaps someone has already done these readings…in which case I’d like to find and read them. And bones, there are so many bones in “Food.”

Stein uses a seemingly normative syntax, and vocabulary, but they don’t function within the syntax to create normative meaning. It’s instinctual. And not repetitive but insistant.

Rooms is populated with people defined by their actions, the repetitive -er suffix: disturber, circular diminisher, bather…  This seems related to the idea of use and meaning, which are nouns that come up often enough to demand attention. Things have a use, she insists, or they don’t, or the use is shifted and repurposed. Meaning is insisted upon and simultaneously subverted.

That lovely note of joy and almost triumph at the end of Rooms, a kind of uplifting and resolutory gesture.

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