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Roy Scranton's journalism, essays, and reviews have been published in Rolling Stone,, the New York TimesBoston Review, Los Angeles Review of BooksContemporary LiteratureThe Appendix, and elsewhere. He is one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is forthcoming from City Lights in the fall of 2015.

10 October 2011

Tendering Buttons


To speak of Stein is not the same as to read Stein. We speak of Stein speaking unspeakably always speaking or talking rather or we mean writing. We speak unspeakably always speaking. We speak of Stein unspeakably. Unspeakably we speak not the same as having to read because reading isn’t speaking unless reading is writing and writing is speaking and then reading is speaking. Or if reading is reading as speaking but then the speaking isn’t reading at all.

Even Marjorie Perloff seems stymied by Stein, or at least remains unconvincing in her readings, which make me feel the same deflated sadness I feel when I look at a Braque and find the bottle, the table, and the guitar. For example in her very sophisticated and enlightening reading of “A Waist,” from Tender Buttons, which draws out the musical and semantic dynamics in

A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.

Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom.

A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there is no reason to say that there was a time.

A woolen object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace, a couple of practices any of them in order is so left.

so that it presents an object—some res extensa—in motion. As Perloff puts it:  “What is ‘so left,’ then, is finally an image of tiny waists so delicately moving, not wasting any motion, of an artist’s carving, whether in glass or in wood, that creates a definite change” (Perloff, “Six Stein Styles in Search of a Reader,” A Gertrude Stein Companion (1988), 106).


Always objects. Always things. Roast beef and eyeglasses. But what about “Careless Water”? “A Frightful Release”? “More”? “In Between”? “A Leave”? “Suppose an Eyes”? Even “A Piece of Coffee”?

To return again to cubism, recall the way words get used:

Picasso in his early cubist pictures used printed letters as did Juan Gris to force the painted surface to measure up to something rigid, and the rigid thing was the printed letter. Gradually instead of using the printed thing they painted the letters and all was lost, it was only Juan Gris who could paint with such intensity a printed letter that it still made the rigid contrast. And so cubism came little by little but it came (Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 101).
The word on the canvas, half-painted out, maybe it’s a label, maybe a sign of an absent object, in any case something rigid, a line against the paint. And that, it seems, is the way into thinking about Tender Buttons. Always the language on the page, never the thing behind it, even when the SIGNS on the STREET clearly tell us


Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.

Which is to say to not read the titles as any kind of titles, or even related, but merely more words. The text continues below and beyond. So what then? To resist Joshua Schuster’s very helpful and interesting article on the textual history of Tender Buttons, first we must read the thing in front of us. As scholars, of course, building the cultural imaginary behind the artifactual detritus of the archive, we want to think about Stein’s intentions, and the editors interventions, and the whole sordid process that makes art from “a pile of refuse, the sweepings of a street,” but as naïve readers we have enough on our plate just trying to understand the thing in our hands and the strange dark magic it works on us.

I for one feel something going on in reading Tender Buttons, something complex and maybe not quite fixable, but I want to explain what that is which is why I’m here. And the backstory ought to inform my reading, certainly, but only insofar as it doesn’t warp it. What happens at the end of “Objects,” in the shift from “Book” to “Peeled Pencil, Choke,” to “It Was Black, Black Took,” to the concussive violence of “This Is This Dress, Aider”? Why are there no titles in “Rooms”? What’s with all the sex? How does that even work?


One interesting thing about Tender Buttons among many interesting things about Tender Buttons is the interesting thing of what happens when the mind wanders because the mind wanders as the mind wanders and does the mind wander and when the mind wanders and and the mind wanders and how the mind wanders you don’t know. Whereas normally, when my willful monkey mind goes (like a donkey) scrambling off to think about food or women or generals or what I’m doing over winter break, I awaken to the narrative or argumentative flow I’ve been reading past and recognize that while I have been reading, indeed, the words have been slipping right under my consciousness. With Tender Buttons (as with similar works, I imagine, but I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it quite this strongly), there’s a weird meld of mind and text: I startle up and look back over the text and my thought, and realize that I had been thinking the words, and that my thoughts had been made strange, so that neither the text nor my thought were what they normally were, but both had become transformed into a cubist dreamscape of warped grammar.

In any case, there is thing happening in the text, deep and deeply personal, musical, philosophical, wonderful, and never quite cohering, except as it coheres. So it goes. I wish I had more time to keep speaking and writing and reading.

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