Repetition:

Stein's TENDER BUTTON

"Once is as good as never."

-Walter Benjamin (Selected Writings Vol. I p. 739)


I. Introduction

What are we to make of this strange collage of half thoughts, this collection of ordinary things made anything but ordinary by their descriptions, this display of stinted still-lifes, of calcified abstractions? Who is this disembodied guide who points, probes, and ponders? Where is she leading-or leaving us? How does she expect us to respond to all of this "no since"? Questions such as these have led critics in widely divergent directions, some girdling the text with attempts at definition; others lighting upon it long enough to sense its plasmatic danger. Critics such as Quartermain, Kaufmann, and Mitrano have explored the ways in which Stein "Re-Visions" or "deintellectualizes" language, demanding that her readers reexamine their own means of communication as something alien and separate, asking us not to make sense but "how to make sense" (Quartermain 29). These and others such as Murphy have focused on the subversive nature of TENDER BUTTONS, arguing that, through her nontraditional approach to syntax, Stein criticizes and undermines the extant social discourses that surround her. Still others have theorized about the connections between the text and Stein's life: is TENDER BUTTONS a lesbian cryptogram? A response to Cubism? A textual rendering of Dada art? Or, as Hoffman puts forth, a psychological experiment in memory and repetition reticent of her days with William James? All of these critics have rendered visible the multifarious nature of TENDER BUTTONS investing the manifold layers of her text with various ascribed "meanings." However, other critics, Cooper and Stewart in particular, have attempted to endow Stein's work with a more spiritual significance, calling her a visionary for her deployment of writing as meditation or for creating what Cooper calls, "a horizontal visionary mode." Both critics acknowledge Stein's use of the fundamental principles of Eastern philosophy without referring to them directly as such. Gertrude Stein's TENDER BUTTONS, like many Eastern texts, considers three distinct modes in which nouns can function: words are examined as objects, food, and rooms--separate from the manner in which they have been conventionally defined. In addition to Stein's larger concerns with linguistic experiment expressed through the overall structure of her project, TENDER BUTTONS also demonstrates a desire to create a narrative that bears with it the urgency of the present tense; a concern with the seductive play of opposites against each other; a focus on the ordinary in everyday life; and, finally, an interest in the "bottom nature" of things. Through this text's devotion to repeatedly reenacting the process involved in the construction of meaning, a process that becomes visible in a ritualistic practice that plays itself out as a game--between Stein and her readers--of repeated imaginative, associative, and linguistic experiments, TENDER BUTTONS mirrors and multiplies the slippery nature of its own rules as well as those external rules to which any game involving language is always already connected. In TENDER BUTTONS, much as in her and Alice's apartment at 27 rue de Fleurs in Paris, Stein invites her readers to occupy a space where they may sustain a series of chance encounters with the thought objects she has arranged and collected. Here all are free to assemble and disassemble her text, making connections, creating anchor points and bridges, networks and nodes of significance, keeping the door between reader, writer, text, and venue open by way of free play. The constellations of meaning these new connections engender so destabilize what was traditionally thought to be the relationship between reader, writer, venue and text that entirely new mythologies (and of course the many interconnected questions such mythologies raise) become possible and necessarily multiplicitous as "meaning" emerges as an ever elusive by-product of our repeated encounters with the text. Thus TENDER BUTTONS exists as a veritable abyss through which its readers might steer themselves without end, a text that functions much like hypertext, with only the impending doom and inevitability of death to force us to make an end of it all so we might close the cover tight and return to the world of the living.

Before examining the organizational system used by Stein in the creation of her "Objects," "Food," and "Rooms," one must first consider why she chose to connect these three divergent sections beneath such a title as "TENDER BUTTONS."

Before ensnaring ourselves in Stein's luxurious conceptual web or delving into and closely reading passages from the text itself, it seems that a discussion of the work's title is in order as in it can be found a key to Stein's architectural method underlying the subsequent poems and prose sections. One might consider the title, TENDER BUTTONS, to function as a kind of primer for those new to the task of reading.

No action takes place in the title. No history is referenced. No companion text is recalled. No protagonist is identified. No universal "Truth" or religious ideal is evoked. No myth is revised. In fact, the title seems rather inconsequential at first glance--but then again, so do many combinations of words, n'est pas?

The novelty emerges from the fact that we have two words placed next to one another that have quite possibly never before been seen together: TENDER BUTTONS. Like a urinal juxtaposed with a museum setting, this title at first takes on an alien quality. The phrase is static; it prevents the reader from progressing into the future writings by demanding contemplation and interpretation. We are held within a present that instigates constant reevaluation. One's expectations are undermined with these two little words; rationality is of little help in discerning this title's significance. The title promises nothing. It warns of nothing. To use Copeland's way of putting it, it is already evident on the first page of the text that Stein is attempting "to escape the tyranny of the conventional time-line because it is a spatial trap" (76). The title points to neither a future nor to a past, but to something that has never before existed in English. If any sense of linguistic familiarity is to be established, it is to be established through the French language, not English: TENDER BUTTONS, or "les boutons tendres," is the French slang for nipples. One must already be willing to exit the language in which the title is written and open oneself to other "foreign" ways of communicating--"foreign" ways of thinking--if one is to get the joke. This title is also phonetically similar to the French phrase but entendre or "goal/advice to listen to," a reading that might imply that the reader's goal in the text is to simply listen to the words as they come, to enjoy the words as sound "Objects." As Copeland argues, the work is going to be autotelic. Stein is going to use words as non-representational things-in-themselves. She is going to reinvent them by removing them from their old, outworn contexts and placing them in unlikely situations with other word objects. Stein herself claimed to "recognize words had lost their value in the Nineteenth Century." She is quoted as saying, "particularly towards the end, they had lost much of their variety, and I felt that I could not go on, that I had to recapture the value of the individual word, find out what it means and act within it" (quoted in Copeland 88). There is an implicit emphasis placed here on the "act" of reading or interpreting words, and the poet's distrust of words is readily apparent in this statement; but how does this distrust manifest itself in the title?

If we are to pull from the French language to understand the title, we can see that Stein begins her work by taking the image of two identical, commonplace things: two words, two syllables each, of equal importance to the average English speaker--or, more simply, two nipples. However, these everyday, ordinary things are normally cloaked and, on the female, imbued with a certain degree of mystery, depending on the context. The fact that nipples are normally concealed may explain Stein's repeated return to the concept of covering that manifests itself in the everyday items that appear throughout the poems. Are the TENDER BUTTONS or nipples referring to the meaning obscured by language? These TENDER BUTTONS are also plural. There is more than one, although there is no distinction between them. We must assume that they are all the same--all buttons and all tender--or all nipples, in which case there are only two. Stein has already, in this primary image, established as sense of equality between the words that she uses to construct her poems. Later, as we look at one of these poems more closely, we will see how this democratic approach to words as objects raises the article to the level of the noun, undermines hierarchies of syntax, and makes readers question the function of something as nondescript as the word, "it." From its title page, TENDER BUTTONS subverts the impotence words have taken on in the early twentieth century, an impotence that lay at the heart of Stein’s distrust of language and the very quality that instigated her investigative linguistic experiments, enabling her to create a text about language--that forces the reader to tease--or even arouse--flaccid words into potent signifiers, pregnant with meaning.

Consider the way Stein's title makes possible unlikely connections between hard things and soft things. She mixes mechanical ideas with emotionally charged adjectives. In this way, her distrust of words manifests itself in a reconciliation of opposing or contradictory meanings and interpretations that occurs throughout the text in various forms. If one thinks of nipples--les boutons tendres--then one must ask the question, “Why nipples?” The question lends way to contemplation and forces the reader to come up with various linguistic associations. What do we think of when someone uses the word “nipple” and, even more importantly, what does one think of when the concept of nipples is used as the title for a work of poetry? These nipples--like the poems that follow the title--take on an undeniably sensuous quality throughout the text. They are something to be teased--to be made untenderly erect or hard through tender touching--to be pressed and played with. Thus, the poems themselves are like nipples that can lay flat and tenderly upon a person’s chest until they are played with, engorged with blood, and made three-dimensional. Reader participation becomes essential for the poetry to take on a literary significance in the same way that nipples require lover participation to take on a sexual significance. While sex enables people to connect through their bodies, language enables people to connect through words. Stein makes sure that this language is ready to make the connection by insisting that both writer and reader participate in the linguistic events that take place on the pages of her book.

However, nipples do not always bear a sexual significance. Nipples are also traditionally associated with breasts and breasts with mothers and mothers with mother's milk and female power and thus the ability to nourish and create. Could the nipples of Stein's poem be on a mother’s breasts, instead of the aforementioned lover? If one is to think of mothers, one must think of his or her own beginning, the series of first impressions that are to haunt one’s use of language to her dying day. How significant is it that we are directed in this way toward our own origins, our own mothers--our own "bottom natures"? And by focusing directly on the breasts of the mother, we are drawn back semantically to our first source of food and comfort, as well as the very person who taught us how to speak. Stein has often been accused of "baby talk" by those who do not like her work. Is that so unintentional? Does that mean that readers have nothing to gain from reading her work? Or from listening to a child, for that matter? Why is she always taking us back to the source of our language? Is it at that point in life--our baby years--that language is most pure? Is she returning her readers to a distilled state of language, at which point words meant something specifically to us because their definitions were sot deeply rooted in our own experiences? Will the words that follow this title nourish their readers?

To be nourished by something, one must first ingest it. Active participation--such as sucking and swallowing--is required if the milk is to nourish the human; passive participation, such as digestion and assimilation is also necessary if the milk is to become part of him or her. For something to be nourishing, it must also hold some sort of nutritional value. Do Stein’s words nourish us? Are her words, like nipples, merely ornamental playthings until someone has drunk from them, taken their essences inside and allowed them to work their magic on the whole person? Perhaps the buttons that Stein pushes are tender because they are not normally touched--perhaps these buttons are in a deep protected or fortified place, held safe from harm and thereby made extremely sensitive. On the grammatical side of things, the title is actually a little misleading. We are at first confronted with a rather traditional grammatical configuration: adjective + noun. However, this configuration is only traditional if the adjective is intended to describe the noun--and if the adjective is, indeed, an adjective at all. What if there is something missing? What if there can be breakages in Stein’s art? We most certainly realize that this is possible when we begin reading the text itself. Is Stein being metonymic from the start? Are these "TENDER BUTTONS" intended to represent something else--namely words? Can the sort of teasing wordplay that her text provokes nourish the reader in some way, from the inside out?

What if the title has nothing to do with nipples at all? Really, unless the reader knows the French expression, the whole world of significance explicated above might be unattainable. He or she would have to get to the idea of nipples without the help of dirty-minded French people, which is not impossible at all, but which is less likely. What if we just look at the words themselves--first separately and then together. These are ordinary words that we encounter almost daily, but they have been taken out of their day-to-day context and placed on the title page of a book. This action forces us to reconsider the meanings of two words that seem to have very little impact in the real world. What is tender? Well, if it is an adjective, the word can have several connotations. We’ve already discussed breasts and nipples, so there is no need to repeat all of that. Meat can be tender—roast beef, for example--if it is not overcooked and easily chewed. Words can be tender if they are condolences or confessions of love or friendship. Someone might treat a person tenderly, especially if he or she is wounded in some way. Tender can be a texture--a yielding texture. It can indicate a fragile nature. The word can signify the kind of weakness one might find in the petals of a flower; or tender may refer to one’s inability to endure hardship or trauma, as in the idea of a tender youth. The body can be tender if it is ticklish. A person can be tender if he is overly sensitive to criticism. The word can indicate affection, softness, or emotion, as in a tender gesture. A mother can be tender to her child. Someone can be of a tender age, which means they are easily impressionable and vulnerable to negative influences. Music can be tender if it is mild and non-abrasive. If we consider the word as a noun, tender can indicate something offered as payment for something else--a type of money, which has absolutely no emotional quality, but which is valued, at times, above human life. Someone who tends to or takes care of something can be a tender. Tender can also be a verb, meaning to make tender, to soften or weaken, or to make an offer of some kind. Is Stein implying that words can be tender? That they can take care of us, or be easily manipulated by our own private set of semantics? Are words fragile? Can they be easily broken? Are they sensitive to criticism? Easily chewed? Are they comforting or comfortable? Are they an offering of some kind? A form of payment? A means of exchange?

Now that we have considered some of the meanings of tender, we can move on to the concept of buttons. Where do we find buttons, first of all? Well, nowadays, we find them just about everywhere--whether they be on our telephones, our computer keypads, in elevators, on car seats, kitchen appliances, alarm clocks, doorbells, or ATM machines; but these things did not necessarily exist or, at least, did not necessarily have buttons in Stein's day, so we must think a little differently--or must we? We can assume that buttons are traditionally associated with machines--with inorganic forms: they are something to be pressed. When a finger makes contact with a button, something happens. If there is no finger, there is no function. Buttons are waiting to be pressed. It is not until they are pressed that they serve a purpose of any kind. Is Stein telling us that words are like buttons--that as long as they remain on the page, distanced from the reader by overuse or under-use, they are not fulfilling their various functions? Certainly, one can read TENDER BUTTONS, and walk away with the assumption that Stein was absolutely insane--that all she has provided us with is a world of nonsense. But the effect is different if we stretch the text--as the meaning of the French word tendre implies that we do. We find meaning where originally there was none--meaning in the English language. The text could appear to a disengaged or unimaginative reader in much the same way a recording studio resembles an alien spacecraft to a non-technical person. Imagine walking into a room that is literally filled with buttons. The sound board has a couple hundred for starters--then there are the mixing boards, the samplers, the midi units, the pianos, the trumpets, the computer keyboards, the other devices that have not been around long enough to acquire names but blink in anticipation, nonetheless, with model numbers printed on their faces. One might look around in fear, anticipating nuclear holocaust were one button turned or pressed or slid or punched without an understanding of the elaborate labyrinth of cords and cables and light-pipes, circuit-boards, microchips, and magnetic storage devices. The function of these buttons can only be known through the experience of pressing them. Words, in Stein’s view, seem to be the same way. One might flip through the Oxford English Dictionary and become totally overwhelmed by the archaic, medical, or technical words; however, upon close examination, one can become familiar with their innumerable definitions. But if Stein's TENDER BUTTONS is to be compared to a dictionary, one might notice rather quickly, that what is missing are the definitions. This is because these words are not archaic or technical; to return to the recording studio analogy, this is no alien spacecraft that Stein is flying us around in; no, this is a bed, a living room, a kitchen table, a sofa, a closet, a cupboard, a coffee tin. These are the kinds of things that we know all too well through daily experience. The text is filled with colors and foods and pillows and clothing and wine glasses and spare change and cutlery--things of equal significance because they are of no consequence. Not until we get in there and start pressing these buttons--stretching the meaning of the words and the associations--looking within our own life experience for a personalized significance--that these words take on any sort of meaning. In this way, Stein does away with the old, watered-down, unmeanings of the dead words and breathes a life into them--the life of the reader. This life breath also keeps her text in the present because it does not matter where we start reading or whether we read forwards or backwards. After a few vignettes, TENDER BUTTONS starts to feel like an exercise book--like a collection of Zen koans--subverting rationality, and forcing self-contemplation. Even if this contemplation is rooted in language, the text causes the reader to become self-reflexive as a result of all the word play that it incites. It is in this way that Stein gets us to look at the “bottom nature” of things--to examine origins of words, of thoughts, and of ourselves. By using as her title two words, which seem to represent opposite concepts--the emotional and the mechanical--Stein helps us to realize that, even the mechanical constructs of language have been invested with human emotion and human experience. It is only by letting the word-buttons lay unpressed, unexplored, unexamined, that Stein’s language feels impotent to render human experience. Language is not unimpressionable, and words mean nothing without a human experience attached to them.

But buttons can, in fact, exist in organic forms--there are button or baby mushrooms, which are actually quite tender and quite alive. We have belly buttons--another point of connection to the mother. In fact, buttons are not always pressed, turned, pulled, slid, or punched to achieve an effect. Sometimes buttons are merely points of connection--as is the case with shirt buttons. Buttons can also be ornamental--as on pillows or furniture or, as we pointed out before, breasts. So, if we go back to the earlier precept that buttons must be either teased or activated in some way if they are to fulfill their purposes and live, we have completely ignored the button for button's sake possibility. Sometimes, it's just nice to see a button there--even if it isn't really doing anything. It's an interruption, a disturbance, an indentation, or a protrusion. We could continue still with our reading of the work's title, if we chose, but there is far too much ground left to cover. While all of this wordplay consists merely of the suggested associations of one reader, because the word objects used for contemplation are so basic, one is prompted to bring to the text a wealth of personal experiences. I certainly won’t indulge myself here with a discussion of the various memories that have been evoked by the above analysis, but it is worth pointing out that memories--personal experiences--were indeed brought to the forefront of my consciousness while I performed this exercise. I do not think that this "side-effect" of reading TENDER BUTTONS is extraneous to Stein's purpose in writing the text. The initial absurdity of the work's title begs this kind of reader participation; it is an invitation to readers to bring to this work their own personal experience--a demand which functions as a blueprint for the work as a whole. However, before exploring the way this leitmotif manifests itself in an actual poem, we should spare a bit of time for a discussion of Stein's organizational process.


III. OBJECTS, FOOD & ROOMS

Stein breaks her larger work into three smaller sections or chapters: "OBJECTS," "FOOD," and "ROOMS." The titles of the sections are certainly significant and merit, if nothing else, a brief explication. Obviously, Stein had some sort of rationale in mind when choosing these chapter headings. In the same way that her title sets up the system by which readers are supposed to grasp the significance of this poetry, her method of organization suggests a "system to pointing"--an opportunity for us to construct an explanation. Because these words appear as chapter headings, astute readers must question how these words connect--to the title, to the poems and prose sections that follow, and to the reader as well. Just in the way we are forced to ask why Stein decided to juxtapose the words tender and buttons in her title in order to make the two words mean and mean with respect to each other, here we are also being asked to determine the nature of a relationship between three relatively commonplace things: objects, food, and rooms. What have they to do with one another?

Mitrano has dealt with this aspect of TENDER BUTTONS at great length in her essay, "Linguistic Exoticism and Literary Alienation: Gertrude Stein's TENDER BUTTONS." In it, she argues that Stein's first section, entitled "OBJECTS," is comprised mainly of a Freudian treatment of Stein's lack of a subject. In it, Mitrano argues, the three sections of TENDER BUTTONS tell this story. "OBJECTS" tells the story of "a subject that emerges only reluctantly from [a] rupture with the object" (Mitrano 92), engaging a "disembodied" or "fragmented" authorial persona that "regresses back and inside the estranging descriptions of objects." "FOOD" and "ROOMS" indicate "the text's promise to feed and shelter the deferred positing of a subject that stays, and even wanes, before the thetic" (Mitrano 92). Mitrano ends her analysis by comparing the three parts of TENDER BUTTONS to the three acts of a play. In "OBJECTS," Stein "sings the 'hurt color' of the language of the American writer" (Mitrano 99); in "FOOD," she demonstrates her alienation by making claims that writing has no meaning—no "social or communicative function" (Mitrano 99); in "Rooms," she tries to formulate a strategy for fighting off the influences of a literary tradition. While this reading of Stein's method of organization is helpful, and relates rather well, in the Freudian sense, to a reading of the title as the nipples of a mother's breast, it actually seems to overcomplicate what is really a nice, simple, relationship between everyday words. In a way, she seems to be undermining Stein's whole purpose in creating the work, keeping the words at a safe distance so as to fit them into a prescribed way of thinking--to continue to think in terms of other people's definitions. Of course, to a critic steeped in theory and psychoanalysis, it only makes sense that the meaning rendered by this reader's experience with the text would be theoretical and psychoanalytical, but those theoretical ties seem to be the very things Stein's text is working to debunk. I do not think one must have a background in these ways of thinking to appreciate the significance of these three words, for they are all things that we encounter every day.

Because Stein has already hinted at the system underlying her work in her ambiguous title, it seems safe to assume that the three-part format of the work should speak to this system as well. First, note that the chapters’ headings are all written out in capital letters. This may be to obscure their syntactical or grammatical functions. The letters themselves are equalized and we do not know what is a complete thought and what is merely fragmentary. In the first chapter, we are expected to read in reference to the concept of "OBJECTS." "What is an object?" we ask. As I mentioned earlier, the section titled “OBJECTS” may in fact signal an objective approach to the words themselves. Whether these words should function as sound objects, visual objects, or objects for contemplation, it feels safe (at least initially) to assume that the vignettes that make up this first section of the collection are not subjects. They do not do anything. It is important to recognize that little-if anything-happens in this work. We are given the evidence of action without a whole lot of action verbs. One begins with the concept of a material thing--something that can be touched, tasted, held, kissed, gnawed on, flushed down the toilet. It might be measured, studied, observed, referenced, submitted, or even analyzed. But something can also be an object if it is desired or loved, as in "the object of my affection." In this case, the object could be a living creature, or even the work of an artist, a piece of music, any thing or concept in the world that might incite an emotion. An object might also refer to a purpose--as in "the object of a game." To use a more grammatical definition, an object can be "a noun or noun equivalent (as a pronoun, gerund, or clause) denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb . . . a noun or noun equivalent in a prepositional phrase" <www.webster.com>. In other words, an object can be a type of word. So, is this first section providing the reader with a purpose? Is Stein voicing once again her distrust in the grammatical functions of words? Are the poems that follow this one-word title merely subjugated compilations of word objects that do not cohere simply because they are ill-defined or misunderstood? It is here, in this first chapter, that we are first introduced to the concept of word objects. Words are things--vacuous in themselves. Just as Stein claimed a need to "act within" the "individual word," the reader is asked, from the get-go, to act within this store of word-objects. No longer should we be passive observers and accidental users of language. We must re-visit the words that we use and question what exactly those words mean to us when we see them. Stein makes us do this by upsetting conventional grammar; we can no longer be certain of a word's meaning or even its function simply by its placement within a complete sentence. Words are only meaningful because we invest them with meaning, just as symbols are only as meaningful as the legends that surround them. By drawing connections between word objects and grappling with the questions they demand we ask, we question not only language but our experience with language as well.

The section entitled "FOOD" underscores this point. Returning to the earlier notion that these "TENDER BUTTONS" are reservoirs of nourishment, I'd like to point out the fact that the section entitled "FOOD" is the only one that begins with a kind of table of contents or list of sections--a kind of menu, in a way, except that not all of the items in the table of contents are related directly to food or the act of eating: "SINGLE," "END OF SUMMER," and "A CENTER IN A TABLE," for example. In doing this, Stein makes it clear that she is not merely speaking of that which is literally edible--but that which is literarily edible as well--the sorts of experiences which can serve as food for thought in future years. It is through phrases such as those listed above that Stein abandons word objects--object being that which is acted upon from a distance--and makes a plea for her readers to internalize the words themselves--to let the words work on those long-neglected repositories of experience and stir something within us. By titling this section "FOOD," Stein implies that, not only do her words have nutritional value, they are also necessary for survival. We cannot live without language. Without being able to connect with other people, we will starve.

If, in "OBJECTS," Stein focuses on words as things-in-themselves that require subjects and if, in "FOOD," she underscores the ability of words to have a nourishing effect on their users, one is left to question why Stein would finish her collection with a chapter entitled "ROOMS." Already, we have seen the word as something to be signified--to be acted upon--to be ingested and assimilated. Now, in the context of "ROOMS," the significance of all the empty vessels that have cluttered TENDER BUTTONS is brought to light. What is a room but a space to fill--a measurable, definable void--a container. By the end of this work, one might feel that the words that make up the text have swelled in significance. They have grown from the smaller items that have made up the text so far to the size of a room that can be filled with various things, people, foods, etc. In a way, by hollowing out the words to such an extent, Stein has created a vacuum to be filled with a rush of human experience. Instead of letting society or the dictionary or academia or the medical profession or politicians or anybody else define words for us, we are forced to define them ourselves and in thereby doing, empower them with our own individual experience.

IV. GLAZED GLITTER

Now that we have taken the time to look briefly at the work's overall structure, we can move on to a close reading of one of Stein's vignettes. The one I have chosen to focus on here is entitled "GLAZED GLITTER," which is a lovely exercise in discovering our origins. The argument here is that this vignette has a similar effect on the reader as both the title of the work and the organizing principle behind the "OBJECTS," "FOOD," and "ROOMS" sections. "GLAZED GLITTER" is the second poem in the collection, immediately following "A CARAFFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS," in the section entitled "OBJECTS." Because it is placed in the first section, we are going to be looking at words as objects. Stein is going to try to break our habitual way of interpreting words by undermining our linguistic expectations. We are going to be questioning them, examining them, juxtaposing them. We are not going to be eating them yet, but we will anticipate their later significance--formulate guesses--play with the words the way a child plays with blocks, trying to relate them to our previous knowledge and experience.

Let's begin again with the title of the work. "GLAZED GLITTER," like the title TENDER BUTTONS, faces its reader with a rather conventional sequencing of adjective and noun--at least at first glance--unless one or both of them are verbs. Here we go. The reader is going to have to make some choices here, and in thereby doing, assist Stein in making the text mean something. It seems logical to start our discussion with the word, "GLAZED.” “GLAZED,” functioning as an adjective, might mean that something has been coated with a transparent substance--oftentimes glass--the way one glazes pottery. Isn’t it interesting that we have moved from the GLASS in the first vignette to GLAZED in the second? The glass is definitely becoming much more malleable, much more superficial now in “GLAZED” than it was in “A BLIND GLASS.” Glazes are protective coatings that protect works of art, or enable an earthen vessel to hold water. We have already been introduced to some vessels in TENDER BUTTONS with the wine glass and the carafe. “GLAZED” could also imply sweets. Perhaps Stein is sugar-coating her glitter like a glazed doughnut, as Chessman points out in her close reading of this passage? (Chessman 95). Perhaps she is trying to provide us with the gustatory sensibility we will be needing for the foods she will present us with later. “GLAZED” can also be associated with stillness, as with water. Glazed things cannot be pulled or bent, but tend to be very rigid. Such a glaze could make something very fragile. We do not usually think of glazed things as being full of life or movement. The word can also be associated with the eyes--as in a glazed-over look. Glazes are not always transparent. They can obscure realities; they can brighten or dull them. In the same vein, an artist can glaze something to achieve this dulling, brightening, hardening, or obscuring effect. She can create a glaze and apply it. This glaze can fill up holes, correct flaws, protect surfaces, or change an object’s appearance. Thus this word can also function as a verb. If “GLAZED” is a verb, then we are missing a subject. We are forced to ask ourselves, “Who has glazed what?” Are we the artist in this case? Are we giving these flexible words their rigidity? Correcting their flaws? Coloring them with our own consciousness? Are we--the reader--the artisan here? If so, it is important to note that we have literally just glazed the word GLAZED with meaning, instead of letting the extant social discourses do that process for us. We have made the word our own. Now we can move on to "GLITTER." As a noun, the word implies something that sparkles and shines, something multi-faceted, something in pieces, something made of metal or some other sort of light-reflecting substance. Chessman speculates that "This glittering involves both the igniting of traditional representation and the luster of a new, gleaming form of (non)representation" (Chessman 95). If it is a verb, it is performing this function. Regardless, this shining sparkling substance has been coated--perhaps with meaning--when it is engaged with the word GLAZED. That which is lustrous and beautiful has been preserved by a protective coating. Its multifaceted nature has been somehow made whole, perhaps by the reader's submission to Stein's demand to make that very connection. Its shine has been preserved by its placement within the pages of a book and amplified by the reader's imagination.

The first line of the "vignette" that follows this title seems to be shooting off of this previous image of "GLAZED GLITTER." The line is made up of three parts that are separated by indeterminate pauses or commas. The first part is the subject of the line: "Nickel," but it is also an "object" in the material sense and as it functions as a part of the section entitled, "OBJECTS"; however, this subject is not particularized by an article of any kind. It is merely a solitary word with various connotations. It might be the element itself or an inexpensive coin or the metal as it is found in nature or the substance as it is fashioned into products by industry. As a noun, it is indefinite, ambiguous: it could be as large as a mountain or smaller than the eye can see. It could be used for many different things: as a cover (as in nickel-plating), as a form of currency--something to be exchanged for something else, as a strengthening or diluting alloy . . . etc. The word could also be used as a way of describing a thing--an adjective. If that is the case, we must then figure out what aspect of nickel is being attributed as an adjective: its ductility? its color? its roundness? its texture? its smell? its taste? its shine? its usefulness as a catalyst? its value? its weight? . . . etc? The word's function, both as a part of speech and as a thing or way of describing something, is never determined. Thus, in the first word, this section already reveals a great deal of ambiguity, as Stein calls into question the validity of the words that are used to represent material objects or the words that are used to render accurate descriptions of the material world. In this way, Stein emphasizes the incapability of isolated words to define or capture anything in particular as she points to the importance of context and the necessity of reader involvement in the co-construction of an ambiguous text. If we are to read this work in the context of the section's title, then we might assume that the "GLAZED GLITTER" we have been asked to consider is actually Stein's portrayal of "Nickel"--a substance prone to "GLITTER" that has been "GLAZED" or refined and made fragile or permanent through the act of its being rendered into a work of art. By exploding the words in this way, Stein awakes in us a question, which helps to lead us to the discovery of that knowledge, which is too great for language--those qualities, objects, feelings, and ideas that are so poorly represented by mere words. This question is the second part of this three-part line. It is joined to (or separated from) the first "Nickel" by a rather silent comma: ", what is nickel,"; but the question is not stopped with a question mark. So, we are unsure as to whether or not this phrase is really intended to be a question; and, if it is, whether or not there is any end to this question--or the questioning process in general, for that matter. If we were astute enough to question the word, "Nickel," from the beginning upon our first reading, then this new question draws us back to reevaluate those earlier musings. However, it is very likely that we were not quite so clever--for it is this sort of self-reflexivity that Stein aims to teach us--so Stein uses this "question" to point us back to the origin of the line, instigating simultaneously the first act of repetition within "GLAZED GLITTER" as well as the first query. The third part of the first line, which is also joined to the previous section by a non-specific means of punctuation, is what at first appears to be an answer to the "question" posed in the second part; however, instead of telling us what nickel is--doing so would have made our own questions concerning the nature of the first "Nickel," impossible and irrelevant--we are told something rather cryptic about its origin: "it is originally rid of a cover." Now we have been served another ambiguous word: "it." Normally, one would assume that "it" refers back to at least one of the two nickels, but because Stein has already broken some grammatical rules at this point in the text--failing to put a punctuation mark at the end of the question--we cannot allow grammar to govern our interpretation of anything after the point of this first transgression. In other words, we have no conclusive idea of what "it" means in the line. The word could be signaling back to the beginning of the sentence, to the word, "Nickel," but it could also be referring to the question that makes up the second part. Since we know that Stein is playing with words, it is possible that she could be casting words as characters; in this case, "it" could simply represent the word "it"; or "it" could be referring to TENDER BUTTONS as a whole. Now that we have read the entire first "sentence," we can start to examine the way that Stein plays with time and duration in this text. Note how the passage begins in the present tense: "Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover." Yet, although the primary verbs in this line are technically in the present tense, Stein's use of the phrase "originally rid of a cover" harkens back, not just to a past (through her use of the past participle "rid"), but to a point of origin: nickel's first entrance into the world, the context of TENDER BUTTONS, and the reader's mind as an object of study. This entrance is made at the starting point--the origin--of the passage itself. In this line, Stein points not only to the origin of "Nickel,"--possibly a substance that has been a part of our planet for as long as we can tell, possibly an atomic particle, possibly a coin or even a color--but to the origin of the concept or quality of "Nickel," as well. The reader is held within the confines of the text at the same time that she is prompted to examine the external world of matter, the subatomic world of elements, and the internal world of language. The fact that nickel is "originally rid of a cover" implies--if one is to make the assumption, as many critics have, that "covers" are words or names for things in TENDER BUTTONS--that the nickel that she is speaking of did not, at one point, have a name, and that a name is something that should be gotten "rid" of, once attained. This idea takes us back to linguistic origins as well and calls into question the validity of names or words in general. It also makes us question the validity of our own origins and functions, since humans are the only species with a written language. By forcing us to question the validity and usefulness of names, Stein gets us to question the validity and usefulness of the written language, a question that leads to more questions about the pertinence of everything from our beloved author to the text before us to our own role as readers of texts such as these. Yet, one cannot stop here either, for the word "originally" also has another meaning--that of uniqueness. By substituting "uniquely" for "originally," one could guess that Stein is commenting on her own unique ability to dis-"cover" "Nickel,"--to strip it of its name--or to strip our own minds of the linguistic barriers that have led us to make uni-faceted assumptions about meaning. This reading of the line would keep the primary action of the sequence in the present tense--but then, it is only through contemplation that these layers become apparent. This contemplation requires us to reflect on the past, whether it is a previous word in the text or a previous way of viewing a word in our minds.

The next section of the vignette reads as follows:

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.

Chessman does a very interesting biographical reading of this section in "The Caressing of Nouns." Apparently "The change [that] has come" in this poem, according to Chessman, is the addition of Alice to the Stein household; however, as interesting as this may be in understanding Stein's source for her poetry, I am much more focused here on what the text itself has to say. Bringing outside interpretations to this text in many ways undermines its fundamental purpose. Such a reading obstructs the play and, in such a way, prevents the text from happening in the way that best illustrates its message. Immediately following the previous passage which is concerned with origins and meaning, we are faced, literally, with a "change." Here it appears that we have changed subjects, moving from the "Nickel" of the first line to the concept of a color--one letter away from the word cover which ends the previous section. This color--whatever color it is, we are told, has the power to "weaken an hour," a phrase that reemphasizes Stein's adherence to the present tense and insistence on a non-conventional representation of time; in this line it becomes apparent that time can be manipulated by language--that our traditional notions of how long "an hour" should last might be upset by the experience of reading. How long, for example have we spent thinking about merely twenty or so words in this essay? In this passage, we are also confronted by a specific color, "red" and all of its inferred significance. Just as words can stretch or flatten time, red can "weaken" it. Emotions and the feelings that are invested in certain words--especially powerful words that provoke bright images like red--can strain something as normally quantifiable as time, so why can't words have other effects on our experience of the world? "The change has come," Stein tells us. Here we are faced with our first traditionally ordered sentence in this section. Why has it come at this very instant? Is it because she has returned syntactically to the traditional way of ordering words? Is this the change that has come? Now, the reader is examining a normal sentence with the same level of scrutiny she examined the disjointed linguistic constructs that have made up the text until now? Has the change come because her text has had some time to work on our insides, to change the way we read? The "difference" in the first vignette--a passive observation--has been converted into something much more active. Not only are we noticing difference, our whole perception of language--and of this text--is changing. We are now aware that words and feelings and time are all in some strange way related. "There is no search," she tells us. Here, we are told that the change that we are experiencing is not one that comes through searching or detective work. Deductive reasoning and active looking will not reveal any clues to the readers. This is not a cryptogram to be deciphered. The meaning of this text does not find its origins in a dictionary or any other prescribed set of definitions; the meaning is the connections the text makes within the reader. The fact that there is "no search" implies a sense of randomness, and so the reader begins to wonder if all of these associations are merely meaningless, random thoughts. "But there is, there is," we read on. A repetition once again and a focus on the word "is" being "there" contrasts the nullity inherent in the lack of a search; this return to the thereness of is brings us back once again to Stein's ever-present present-tenseness and the sense that there is something in the void. But what is it? What is there? "[T]hat hope and that interpretation" is what Stein has given us by taking away the "search" and instigating the "change." She has given us a feeling of hope--that perhaps our interpretations are worth something with regard to this text. Perhaps the hope is in feeling that we can't really be wrong as long as we are participating; and if "that hope and that interpretation" are not enough to sooth us as our linguistic world falls to pieces, we can be sure that there is "sometime."

Hope is a future-oriented word, but our text remains in a present where hope can never be lost, for the future never comes and thus hope can never be disappointed. Notice that there is not "some time" in this text, for Stein has already done away with that--but there is "sometime"--an unspecified moment in the future, unnamed and therefore unable to pass. "Sometime" enables a hopeful feeling that, in the future, there might be an answer--or an interpretation. We might get it. When she tells us "any is welcome," she might be talking about interpretations in general. If this is the case, she again reinforces our hope that we can at last be right about a poem we read because we--and all of our random associations--are part of its creation. This phrase could also mean that anyone is welcome to explore the world that she has created--that (as hard as this might be to convince your average reader) scholarly training and a high I.Q. are not necessary to successfully interpret the work because anything goes. "Sometime" is again repeated in the next phrase: "sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing." Notice that she does not say the more traditional "sometimes there is…" but "sometime there is breath." This grammatical anomaly reemphasizes the importance of that impending future that the poem never directly encounters. The fact that there is "breath" draws us back to our own actions as readers--as silent observers of a text. If there is breath, there is indeed life, and if we can be certain that there is breath in the future, then we have something to hope for. The "sinecure" here--a position that provides plenty of sustenance but which requires little work, or more specifically a church office that involves nothing sacred--could be the position of Stein or the reader. This text requires no outside reading--no knowledge of ancient histories or myths--no understanding of science--no linguistic training. All the reader must do is sit back and contemplate these everyday ordinary objects. All the poet must do is paint her word objects and pay attention to life as it happens around her. The "clean and cleansing" that is taking place in this part of Stein's text is the cleaning out of the reader's own personal language--a language made dirty my the meaninglessness of other people's semantic interpretations of words, by definitions forged in the absence of experience. The message is once again that language should express the person who is using it--not some written down memorized definition. Poetry should articulate the poet, not the literary conventions of its time. "Certainly glittering is handsome" here, in the poem, for this glittering multi-faceted, glazed work of art--her poem--most "certainly" holds a great amount of beauty--whether that beauty be visual, emotional, or auditory. And by all means, her argument for self-reflexivity is "convincing" for, by making the reader do this, he or she has been opened up to an internal world of beauty that may have, up until now, gone unexplored.

"GLAZED GLITTER" ends with the following passage:

There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.

"There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine": here Stein forces us to ask from whom we are to expect gratitude, or from whom Stein herself is to expect it. Is she speaking to unsympathetic readers? Or is she saying that one can't feel gratitude if one is helping others? Is her poem the prescribed medicine here? Is she healing a language that has been broken, like this mysteriously intrusive "Japanese"? This is the second and only other foreign language to be referenced in this work, and it is because of Stein's interest in Japanese art and her mysterious, koan-like subversion of rationality, concern with the present moment, and constant reconciliation of opposing forces that I began to wonder if Stein had not learned her tricks from someone else? Buddhists koan writers perhaps? However, regardless of whether or not this connection is valid, this foreign presence in the poem returns our attention to the fact that there are indeed other ways of naming things, other ways of thinking--and that those ways can have holes too, just like English, and that those holes, those "breakages" might actually be quite good, especially if they make room for subjectivity and interpretation. What Stein is doing here "is no programme"--it is not an attempt "to work out a sequence of operations to be performed by (a mechanism)" <www.webster.com>. These phrases and lines are not directed at a language machine, but at a person. And people have pasts--"yesterday[s]"--as she so carefully points out, and these pasts inform the choices we make concerning the meanings that we ascertain. "It was chosen yesterday," we are told. We are returned to our original question with this confession: "what is nickel" without a question mark. And obviously, if we are to return to our original interpretation of "it," Stein has "showed no obligation" to "it" as her poem has fanned out to include all sorts of things and ideas that are only loosely connected to this elemental first word. When she tells us that "borrowing" might not be "natural," she could be reminding us that all of these words that we use are "borrowed." We did not ourselves invent them, but we can most certainly find "some use in giving" them meaning; for it is in the attempt to define the external world--whether it be the world found outside of us by our senses or the world taken inside of us through the act of engaging language--we in essence define ourselves, returning guiltlessly to our origins.


V. The Bottom Nature of Things

Of course, all good texts require close reading and contemplation, but TENDER BUTTONS is special in that it becomes a sort of exercise in repetition. Because of Stein's syntactic violations, each word or mark of punctuation in the text forces the reader to return to the start and repeat the experiment. With each repetition, another layer of the onion is exposed. This can continue for as long as we are willing to participate; however, TENDER BUTTONS is unique in that, really, very little--apart from an aesthetic appreciation of the musical quality of the words themselves--can be gained by reading through the text only once without looking back. It is by force of repetition--repeated words, repeated syntactical patterns, repeated subjects, repeated questions, and repeated readings--that Stein encourages her readers to grapple with the "no since" which she offers up for meditation. By asking us to confront the multiplicity inherent in our own language, Stein forces us to investigate how we make sense of the world. In essence, she is providing us with hundreds of variations on the title itself. Thus this text forces us to break down and examine our language and our relationship to it. In other words, Stein asks us to deal with some rather weighty inward-seeking issues here. I think, therefore I am. Well, what exactly is thinking? From where do our thoughts come? Do they come from words? Because if they do, then we know that thought--like language--is ambiguous and can only be meaningful insofar as its context allows. By varying the context, Stein’s subversion of linguistic convention allows her readers a sort of flexibility and freedom that traditional texts do not so explicitly invit, enabling us to revel endlessly in a moment, retreating inwardly toward what she had so succinctly deemed the "bottom nature" of things.

NOTE TO VISITORS: This page is part of a doctoral dissertation that is scheduled to be completed May 2006 at the University of South Carolina. Feel free to peruse, but keep in mind, much of the bibliographic infomation required of such a project is yet to be included. If you have any questions, suggestions, or problems concerning what you find here, feel free to contact me at marcelle@thelemming.com. You are also invited to leave a message for me and other visitors HERE. The Arcades Project Project or The Rhetoric of Hypertext, Copyright 2005: all rights reserved. This site was created and is maintained by H. Marcelle Crickenberger who holds all rights to all images and all material on this site not credited otherwise.