Nonfiction: Buttons Tendered by Marci Vogel

Marci Vogel is a native of Los Angeles, where she attends USC’s PhD Program in Literature and Creative Writing as a Provost’s Fellow. Her poetry has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Intro Journals Award. Recent work appears in FIELD, Grist, Puerto del Sol, ZYZZYVA, Anti-, and the Seneca, Colorado, and Atlas reviews. We are thrilled to have her piece “Buttons Tendered” in Anamesa Spring 2013:

 Buttons Tendered: An Index Becoming of Gertrude Stein
Words  •  Concepts  •  Gestures

Marci Vogel

What do you tell and how do you tell it.[1]

Everything begins with A, writes Gertrude Stein in 1940, in a text that was not published until 1957 and not as its own book, To Do: A Book Alphabets and Birthdays, until 2011. This most recent rendition assumes the form of picture book, as one might expect of writing organized around the alphabet; the pictures are indeed whimsical, such that they might be enjoyed by children, for whom alphabets and birthdays hold particular significance. Children may also very well be able to read many of the words and enjoy the author’s play of language,[2] and yet this text did not find publication for years after it was written because publishers rejected it as fitting for children. That it is now a book with pictures does not make it any more or less so, does not render the text any less (or more) complex, does not change “the challenging linguistic exercises … the recurrent sense of menace in some of the stories.”[3] This, then, is a picture book that works both as itself and as something else, as something that “colors outside the lines and then … move[s] the lines to capture the liberated color.”[4] This book was published just last year, and yet it accomplishes what Stein claimed nearly three-quarters of a century ago was the business of the artist: “to be exciting… By exciting I mean it really does something to you really inside you.”[5] What Stein set out to do was to create new ways of doing something through language. This, of course, meant using language in new ways, which, at the same time, meant thinking in new ways, which meant, as William Carlos Williams wrote of Stein in 1935, “smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to get them back clean… Unbound thinking has to be done with straight, sharp words. Call them nails to hold together the joints of the new architecture.”[6] See AS, as in something working as something else: words as nails, the sounds of words as hammers, compositions as collections that do something really do something to us. See KNOWING not as succession but as “immediate existing,” poetry as calling (an intensive, see NAMING),[7] picture book as poetry lesson.[8] See composition as REPRESENTATION, essay as attempt, its original meaning. See also: “Act so that there is no use in a center.”[9]

Instead of a center, we are offered collections of words, each word a button arranged among others, each arrangement tendering something new. Stein began writing the prose poems––some call them still lifes––that became Tender Buttons during the summer of 1912 while vacationing in Spain with her beloved Alice Toklas. She centered the compositions around everyday objects of their domestic life, but the arrangements themselves were anything but everyday. As Joshua Schuster notes, “Generating poems from such mundane experience was not on its own anything too radical, but in this new writing the banal objects appeared to atomize or discombobulate while the grammar was split apart at the seams.”[10] See buttons as on a keyboard (see TECHNOLOGY), see fingers pressing tenderly the key of each letter, each key a button tended, each tending a letter into word. See tender exchanging button for unknown

Psychologists William James and Hugo Münsterberg were investigating the nature of consciousness at Radcliffe, circa 1895.[11] Stein is there at the same place, the same time studying, being influenced. See consciousness as a continuous becoming. See KNOWING, see SIMULTANEITY. See also the C that begins cahier, the notebook always ready, capturing consciousness in the moment of occurrence.

“There is none,” writes Walter Benjamin, at the time in which Gertrude lived, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[12] In a document published thirty years after Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Michael Kaufmann writes of Stein: “She writes not of things in words but of words as things, things with outsides and insides and histories and futures. As Picasso elucidates the essential shape of a carafe, so Stein elucidates the essential form contained in the word. She makes not a physical shape but a verbal and ideational one, and so shapes a reality of language.”[13] This shaping allows us to see language consciously, see it afresh, an attempt (as an essay is an attempt) to unhinge barbarism from document. As Kaufmann observes, “If we cannot see language, see print, language uses us rather than the reverse.”[14] Stein herself reminds us: “There are two things a dictionary and the country.”[15] See LIBERATION; see composer John Cage (born one hundred years ago, around the time Tender Buttons was published): “Get out of whatever cage you find yourself in.” See HISTORY. Repeat.

“What do you tell and how do you tell it.”[16] No question mark. See above. See influences, see quotations, see an inscribing on, a carving in the skin.

See “a single hurt color.”[17]

Stein wasn’t the only Modernist who broke traditional distinctions of genre; across the Channel, Virginia Woolf was writing essay as fiction, fiction as poem, essay as correspondence, correspondence as criticism, all of it aiming for liberation. Hermione Lee quotes from Woolf’s diary: “I am doubtful if I shall ever write another novel… Were I another person, I would say to myself, Please write criticism; biography; invent a new form for both; also write some completely unformal fiction: short; & poetry….”[18] Unformal, not as in casual but un- as in not, as in something else, as in not constrained by. See EPIGRAPH: What do you tell and how do you tell it, what and how joined in the same sentence, meaning: do both at the same time. See SIMULTANEITY, concept as gesture, GENRE as OBJECT lesson; see X marks the spot, nexus of form and thought.

“Let me tell recite what history teaches. History teaches” is the last line of Stein’s “If I Told Him. A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” It is a portrait composed of lines (some very short, some very long), as a poem in verse might be; there is repetition, there is melody, as a poem might have. Picasso is portrayed as well in three other Stein texts: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), and Picasso (1938). Each text claims a kind of truth expected from writing that portrays real people, but as Hélène Klein points out, “In all three texts … Stein tells us a story, not the History that she no doubt would have liked to have lived and perhaps even believed that she had lived … her openly hagiographic narrative is not the least bit bothered with historical truth….”[19] What does history teach and how does it teach it?[20] As for how, Benjamin would respond: “Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is addictive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.”[21] As for what, Stein merges it with the how, so that questions are presented without question marks, questions as facts merged with the immediate enormity of feeling: “Why is there more craving than there is in a mountain. Why is there so much useless suffering. Why is there.”[22] See HISTORY as a habit of perception, a habit made to be broken; see DOCUMENT, Benjamin: There is no document which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. See Williams: smashing the words clean.

Between writer and reader, it is a quality that arises in the act of reading as reader completes the writing, an immediacy of shared experience. As Hermione Lee notes: “Books change their readers; they teach you how to read them. But readers also change books….”[23] Gertrude tells intimacy as this way: “Undoubtedly that audience has to be there for the purpose of recognition as the telling is proceeding to be written and that audience must be at one with the writing, must be at one with the recognition….”[24] See INTIMACY as in immediacy, a gradual becoming, a complete entering, as in it really does something to you. See also: KNOWING, or BUTTON, tender exchange of.

For Stein, knowing was immediate consciousness, fully experienced in the moment of recognition: “How do you know anything, well you know anything as complete knowledge as having it completely in you at the actual moment that you have it. That is what knowledge is, and essentially therefore knowledge is not succession but an immediate existing.”[25] See INTIMACY, see also the K in kind, as in tender, as in kissing kin, as in a kind of fierceness that uncovers blindness, spectacular VISION.

Of Stein’s innovative work, Donald Sutherland notes: “I think one has to like freedom in order to like [it] at all… One has to want a work to be itself, on its own … [a]s one presumably wants to be, oneself. One has to want a work to find its own spontaneous logic and form its ideas on the way rather than follow out a preconception.”[26] Stein confirms: “I found myself plunged into a vortex of words, burning words, cleansing words, liberating words, feeling words, and the words were all ours, and it was enough that we held them in our hands to play with them; whatever you can play with is yours, and this was the beginning of knowing.”[27] See DOCUMENT as BUTTON, key to the prison.

And of Stein’s experimentation, Weinstein observes: “Writers and painters seem as a group most responsive… Perhaps her influence has been most acute on poets, since poets are continually being absorbed by language and intoxicated by the effects it can evoke.”[28] Indeed, in her 2007 book-length study, Deborah Mix investigates Stein as offering new vocabularies of thinking for contemporary women writers Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, Teresa Hak Kyung Cha, Daphne Marlatt, and Betsy Warland. Whether any work results in genius is perhaps for others to judge, but one quality of genius seems to be its influence on others. Perhaps genius, too, is the capacity to remain open to being influenced. Of genius, Stein offers this: “I once said and I think it is true that being a genius is being one who is one at one and at the same time telling and listening to anything or everything.”[29] By genius then, perhaps we mean capacity (see X), an embracing of the genie in the bottle that is the possibility offered in language. We are reading and we are writing; we are rendering a new way of seeing and becoming changed. It is a process both gradual and immediate, this smashing, this atomizing. Mina Loy, living at the same time as Stein wrote of her: “Gertrude Stein / Curie / of the laboratory / of vocabulary / she crushed / the tonnage / of consciousness / congealed to phrases / to extract / a radium of the word.”[30] See MODEL as mode; see also fashion, as in: how to fashion one’s work, one’s life, see a new way of being. See LIBERATION, VISION, see the model painting herself. See INTIMACY.

As much as Stein concludes anything, she “came to the conclusion that poetry was a calling an intensive calling upon the name of anything…”[31] and it is perhaps in this way that Tender Buttons works most saliently as a poem. For Michael Kauffman, Tender Buttons “is a narrative of naming––a narrative with no plot, character, or action in the conventional sense––simply a narrative of the mind encountering language and print.”[32] Perhaps narrative, perhaps poetry, perhaps both, and more; there is no question that naming is involved, as indicated by the nouns used to name the heading of each section: Objects, Food, Rooms. But names often lose their shine; over time and use, the mind fills in so that names do not so much call as indicate, and it this unconsciousness of habit we fall into when using names that Tender Buttons works against, as Sutherland points out: “…much of the effort in Tender Buttons is to replace or to shock the name of anything in order to restore the sense of immediate unprepared experience.”[33] This freshening of experience occurs in the placement of names among other names in utterly new ways, ways that both anticipate and break our habits of naming and reading. It occurs in the resistance to define the meaning of what is named, offering direct experience as definition, arrangements of words and sounds. This is how a handkerchief becomes “a winning of all the blessings, a sample not a sample because there is no worry.”[34] Naming as narrative, calling as poetry; definition as experience, handkerchief as blessing. If anyone’s ever handed you a handkerchief when you’ve really needed one, you understand utterly the fresh experience of directness, no definition needed. See NAMING as in new baby, weighed in pounds for the first time; see music calling into existence newly.

As in lesson, as in concept that becomes form, as in a genre gesturing into being, tendering its own button, tendering us another way, tenderly.

As in continuous. As in continuous action, never completed because always becoming. The verb always happening, as in: “Loving is certain if one is going on loving. Loving then in a way is certain. Loving is certain when one is going on loving.”[35] See PRESENT as gift.

Is for skipping over. “The sister was not a mister.”[36]

In her essay, “The Prose Poem as Modernist Genre,” Margueritte Murphy articulates the question of representation as one of Modernism’s preoccupations: “Modernity influences not only what one represents, but how representation can take place.”[37] (See: What do you tell and how do you tell it.) For Stein, representation includes not simply how words look but how they sound. She captures, or tries to, in as much as something can be captured in the moment it is occurring. She represents by rendering, as Murphy notes, “…the synesthetic dimension of experience and art as she ponders how color represents, and the relationship between color and sound; in other words the conversion of new ways of looking into a new language.”[38] See Stein, Tender Buttons: “It is so very agreeable to hear a voice and to see all the signs of that expression. Cadences, real cadences, real cadences and a quiet color.”[39] See REPRESENTATION as putting on new glasses, not once, not twice but re-, again and again, each time newly. See VISION hearing sound. See also EPIGRAPH: What do you tell and how do you tell it. See HISTORY as new DOCUMENT.

Everything being composed, all at once, as in: “There was a whole collection made. A damp cloth, an oyster, a single mirror, a manikin, a student, a silent star, a single spark, a little movement and the bed is made.”[40] See multiple, see ZERO. 

As in explosion of during the time Stein lived, 1874–1946. See all things modern: telegraph, telephone, teletype machine, type as a magic button.

As in dismantling. See GENRE.

Is not the same as verisimilitude; there are cameras for that. See TECHNOLOGY.

See “A willow and no window, a wide place stranger, a wideness makes an active center.”[41]

Of it, Stein writes, “X is difficult, and X is not much use and it is kind of foolish that X should have been put into the alphabet, it almost makes it an elephant,” and simultaneously, “X is funny anybody knows that it is funny even X itself knows it is funny.”[42] At the nexus where X crosses exists the facility to hold two seemingly opposite ideas at once: X as an object lesson of capacity, of widening “the field of consciousness,” which, as Weinstein notes, is exactly what Stein’s work does: “alters … the quantity of consciousness––the size….”[43] As such, X is a particular gift, such as one might receive, in fact, for one’s birthday or perhaps Christmas. In the story X tells, X can sometimes stand for the C in Christmas: “It is very confusing, why should there be an X in Christmas when there is no X in Christmas why should there be one…” there is not necessarily a reciprocity between the letters: “…a Xylophone can not turn an X into a C.”[44] Not every letter holds the same value or can be used in the same way in differing situations. There is an exactitude that must be upheld. And yet, there is also a pull to tender an exchange, along with disappointment at not being able to do so. It is a C that Xylophone wants for Consolation of not being able to turn X into C, and it is understandable, this wanting to be consoled when one is unable to change one’s circumstances, to widen one’s capacity or field. But letters do not occupy the field in solitude; there are other letters around in an order; they play with each other to make a grammar, and sometimes there is generosity in the composition, as with a boy named Charlie King who offers Xylophone either his C or his K in exchange for a xylophone on his birthday. See: story as OBJECT lesson, letters as tender, letters as consolation. See letters don’t live in isolation; neither do we.

Yellow as a happy thing is not so unusual, but Stein equates it syntactically with a tiny violent noise, letting us both see in Technicolor (a process invented in 1916) and hear in stereo (demonstrated by Clément Ader as the first two-channel audio system in Paris in 1881). See FEELING. See “a yellow happy thing is a gentle little tinkle that goes in all the way it has everything to say.”[45]

Of this last letter, this last tender button, Stein tells: “I like Z because it is not real it just is not real and so it is a nice letter nice to you and nice to me, you will see.”[46] What will we see? If we regard closely (see INTIMACY), perhaps we will see what we do not yet perceive, and in our seeing will lay a multiplicity of possibility, as in: “And if Zero was not a hero if he was not a real hero there would not be a billion of them there would only be one one single one. And if Zero was not a hero well if Zero was not a hero how could anything be begun if there was only one one one.”[47] See one as everything becoming at once.

[1]Gertrude Stein, Narration: Four Lectures by Gertrude Stein (1935; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 31. Hereafter referred to as Narration.

[2] For example: “Way up in the sky ever so high was something flying it was not a bird it was not a bat it was not a hat, it was an airplane and that was that.” Gertrude Stein, To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, illus. Giselle Potter, introd. Timothy Young (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 51. Hereafter referred to as To Do.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Narration, 41.

[6] William Carlos Williams, “A 1 Pound Stein” in Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 163.

[7] Narration, 20 & 25.

[8] For example: “A poem has to have big teeth, /And a poem has to say forget-me-nots. / I do not know why / But this is no lie. / This is what a poem has to do. / And a poem has to have a birthday. How could one know how old a poem is if it never had a birthday.” To Do, 99.

[9] Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms. (1914; repr., Los Angeles: Green Integer Print, 2002), 63. Hereafter referred to as Tender Buttons.

[10] Joshua Schuster, “The Making of Tender Buttons,” Jacket2 (April 21, 2011),

[11] Gertrude Stein, Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena, introd. Anne Charters (1909; repr., London: Penguin Books, 1990). Charters notes James’s influence on Stein on pages xii & xiii.

[12] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (1955; repr., New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 256.

[13] Michael Edward Kaufmann, “Gertrude Stein’s Re-Vision of Language and Print in Tender Buttons,” Journal of Modern Literature 15, no. 4 (Spring, 1989), 450.

[14] Ibid., 452.

[15] Gertrude Stein, How to Write, introd. Patricia Meyerowitz. (1931 as Grammar, Paragraphs, Sentences, Vocabulary, Etcetera.; repr., Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1975), 19.

[16] Narration, 31.

[17] Tender Buttons, 9.

[18] Hermione Lee, “Virginia Woof’s Essays” in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, eds. Sue Row and Susan Sellars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 99.

[19] Hélène Klein, “Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso: In Their Own Words,” trans. Alison Anderson in The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, eds. Janet Bishop, et al. (New Haven and London: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Association with Yale University Press, 2011), 243–248.

[20] A version of this question is asked by Susan McCabe in the introduction for her University of Southern California graduate course: Modernist Forms of Temporal Imagination. Fall, 2012.

[21] Benjamin, “Philosophy of History,” 262.

[22] Tender Buttons, 77.

[23] Lee, “Essays,” 91.

[24] Narration, 60.

[25] Ibid., 20.

[26] Donald Sutherland, Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), 84.

[27] Stein quoted in Deborah Mix, A Vocabulary of Thinking: Gertrude Stein and contemporary North American women’s innovative writing (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 149.

[28] Norman Weinstein, Gertrude Stein and the Literature of the Modern Consciousness (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970), 128.

[29] Narration, 34.

[30] Mina Loy, “Getrude Stein,” The Massachusetts Review 35, no. 2 (Summer, 1993), 244.

[31] Narration, 25.

[32] Kaufman, “Gertrude Stein’s Re-Vision,” 450.

[33] Sutherland, Gertrude Stein, 75.

[34] Tender Buttons, 24.

[35] Gertrude Stein, “A Long Gay Book” in A Stein Reader, ed. Ulla Dydo (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 170.

[36] Tender Buttons, 65. This entry also recalls Mr. Ramsay’s inability to conjure an idea for Q in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

[37] Margueritte S. Murphy, introd., Family Portrait: American Prose Poetry 1900–1950, ed. Robert Alexander (Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2006), 20.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Tender Buttons, 71.

[40] Ibid., 68.

[41] Ibid., 77.

[42] To Do, 107–108.

[43] Weinstein, Gertrude Stein, 7.

[44] To Do, 112.

[45] Stein, “A Long Gay Book,” 170.

[46] To Do, 120.

[47] Ibid., 127.