Daily Archives: September 1, 2018

page 62 of 134 of Tender Buttons


I don’t know much about Gertrude Stein, but I do know she spent a lot of time with Hemingway and the Lost Generation gang, especially around meal time. And since she’s devoted the middle section of Tender Buttons to food I would assume a good meal and good company meant a lot to her, as it does to most of us.

And so I decided to read this section differently than I did Objects, the first third of this book. I read objects very carefully, poem by poem and took notes on each individual poem and did my best to understand how each poem made me feel or my nest to imagine what she is writing about. I’m sure in most, if not every case, I was well of her intended mark, but I also feel like her poems are now as much mine as they are hers – not in the copyright sense, but in the way the artist must give up their art to whomever interacts with it. In this way I feel as if she’s still reaching out through her work to force her readers to come to terms with her and with themselves, to discover something about both parties that was previously unexplored.

However, with Food I decided to pretend I was an eavesdropper listening in to one of Stein’s feasts where I was only able to catch snippets of conversation. I read quickly and didn’t stop except to underline the word cheese a lot, frown at her use of a racial slur, enjoy the line “a neglected Tuesday”, an imagine what it must be like “to see in onion and surely very surely rhubarb and a tomatoe”. I felt this was important because I am not a genius like her or her friends, I am not part of the inner circle of literary giants who could make an artistic revolution around a breakfast table. I can only catch a few words here and there above the surrounding din because I am not part of her world, I do not know her, I can only interact with her across nearly a century of nearly incomprehensible ink.

And maybe this was her intention, to force a reader 100 years later to experience what she and her friends experienced as a Lost Generation, a generation of young people disillusioned by a world gone mad, a world that was quickly closing its borders and filling in the maps, a world that had little place for imagination over commerce. She represents, as Zweig wrote about, a World of Yesterday bounded by a terrible war that used the shattered wreckage of a thousand cities to build a barrier that we can never climb back over and return to “the old ways”. I might as well try to see as an onion sees with my eyes burning from the gas left over from the war that chocked and drowned countless  young innocents.

All that’s left are snippets of conversations about cheese. But at least now I have a slightly better idea how she felt, how her generation felt about the world. Fragmented, confused, but still trying to be understood.

page 31 of 134 of Tender Buttons

This is This Dress, Aider

An aider is a helper or assistant, and she uses the word “whow” which is odd since she hasn’t used language to represent a sound before (if that is in fact what she’s doing) so I think she might actually be laughing or surprised?

The “jack in kill her” line seems horrible violent, but I don’t think she’s writing about Jack the Ripper. And who “a meadowowed king” is or was I’d like to know, but perhaps he’s a buried loved one? Could this be a funeral?

page 30 of 134 of Tender Buttons


I once tried to read Finnegans Wake, I even have a set of framed posters of one that has the first line of the book and the other contains the last line of the book, and I love how they loop back and form a complete circuit, but I don’t love the book, I couldn’t even get past the first page and the last line but I appreciate what it is and I’m glad it exists because it’s a mile marker that marks the limit of what I’m willing to put up with, like this poem. So Stein’s Book is like Joyce’s book in my mind.

page 29 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Suppose An Eyes

A trip to the country market on the train in summertime. The empty seats are darkened by the people taking their seats, one is a girl in a dress with her date who, like a soldier is fighting the war of love with a girl he cannot read. And maybe there is a barn cat who purrs when the lace girl pets him, and she is buying some beef from the farmer for dinner.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Dog

I like the cadence of saying “A little monkey goes like a donkey”, it’s fun to say and if you just repeat that over and over again it becomes a sort of whimsical mantra, a mantra that doesn’t really mean anything per se  but could be like a sort of funny thing we say to ourselves when we’re surrounded by so many serious people doing serious things.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons


Could she be talking about the shoeshine kids? I remember seeing shoe shiners from time to time in the city and they pound away with the cloth back and forth until the shoe “shows shine”. They use their spit, “pus”, they work long hours to have just enough to have a place to pay the rent.

She’s playing on the word choose with “Shoes” and “choice”, but I’m not able to see what she’s driving at.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Table

I feel like she’s talking about stability, about having a place where things can be arranged any way she wants, where she can change that arrangement, a place where things that otherwise wouldn’t be able to stand on their own can have a place. A table is where we sit down to eat and share our lives together, it’s the center of domestic life, of conversation, of a center to our lives we return to over and over in an unsteady world.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Little Called Pauline

I imagine she’s writing about a little girl, perhaps somewhere between 5 and 9 years old. Perhaps she is practicing her handwriting, “prints all day”, eating a watermelon, and wondering why girls can’t be priests, There is no pope”.

And she gets mad when she has to wear something with lace, but secretly she enjoys it. And her head is tight from being platted, and perhaps she ripped her dress, “stitch of ten”, and she’s dreams of a beautiful wedding.

John Clare: The Nightingale’s Nest

I feel like the poet has invited us along on an adventure to find the form of love. Love, of course, isn’t a tangible thing we can hold in the way we could hold a nightingale – if we could catch one, which in this poem we can’t – yet we know love exists the way we know the nightingale exists. We hear its song, we see the nest it’s built, but if we try to disturb it then love may flee from us and thus we are also aware of when love isn’t present.

And like the nightingale’s nest, love can be made from the most humble objects and wear the most humble cloak.

This poem is highly intimate in that the deeper we get into the poem the closer we get to the place where love is born: love’s nest and the fragile eggs full of love’s potential. What goes on in those eggs is a mystery, just like the nightingale herself, yet when we hear the “out-sobbing” of the song we instantly recognize the connection between ourselves, young and old, with that bird, with the woods, with all of nature and the universe. We are intimately connected to all living, loving things.

Yet there is a timidity too. The bird hides when she sings, she hides her nest deep in the brambles, she is not flashy, but even in a world full of fear and danger, she allows herself to “tremble in her ecstasy”, and “to release her heart” as if wanting so much to be found, to be discovered, to share everything about herself with the universe. And so there is conflict here in that she hides but finds joy in announcing her vitality to all of nature.

How often do we feel the same way? Late at night when we might find ourselves alone we may imagine ourselves as great lovers full of energy and strength and confidence, yet when the sun comes up and we must venture forth into the brambles of society we shrink, we hide our ecstasy from others and instead of out-sobbing our heart’s joy we conceal it. How brave then we must be to find love, to let love find us! How much like the nightingale we are and how much like her tender eggs we are too, fragile, vulnerable, hidden away, but so full of potential.

Frankenstein: Read from August 24 to September 1, 2018

The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge says of Frankenstein: “You are probably looking for Frankenstein’s monster, you idiot.” While this is always a “fun fact” for that know-it-all friend we all have (certainly that’s not us, right) to trot out in an effort to make everyone around them feel inferior for not having actually read the book, I think there is something deeper going on here than just confusing the monster for its maker. The fact that even after having read the book – and I’m only discussing the original 1818 version, not the later revised edition – I still want to call the monster Frankenstein speaks to what I think Shelley was really going for at the heart of this novel.

A common misconception about this novel is the idea that she was writing about science gone amok. True, her revised edition 1831 edition contains far more musings that touch on this point, but her original intention, her original creation was about something far more interesting: relationships. When we first open the book we a reading the letters of Walton, a captain of an Arctic Research vessel who laments that he does not have a friend in which he can share ideas with and help him be a better man. Walton is smart enough to know that even at our best, we are always better when a friend can challenge us, bounce ideas off of us, and flat-out remind us when we’re being foolish. And so enters Victor Frankenstein and by the end of the novel when Walton’s crew seems near the verge of mutiny, Walton decides against pressing the adventure on and bravely turns the ship around. Walton, unlike Victor literally changes course rather than pursuing a course that could kill his crew and himself.

And this is what I believe is at the core of what Shelley wanted to explore: isolation breeds inhumanity. Think about how when Victor creates the monster he does so all alone and at the expense of all his relations. Later, when he first submits to create the monster a mate, he does so on an isolated island while his vacation partner and best friend, Clerval, is left behind. Or from the monster’s point of view, he is at his most humane when he is surrounded by the family he spends a year observing in secret. The monster gains insight into the best traits of humanity, but once he is shunned, he reverts into an actual monster that places no value on human life.

Shelley is not so much interested in “the dangers of science”, she’s interested in the dangers of isolation from humanity. She is telling a story about how we are at our best when we have companionship, when we have people around us who challenge and love us but when we turn from humanity, for whatever reason, we lose our humanity because our humanity is defined by the people around us.

Shelley spends a lot of ink in the novel describing how beautiful the landscapes are and how when Victor experiences nature with his friends and family he’s at his best, or at least not nearly as depressed, yet when he confronts the monster and then later chases after him the scenery is a blank ice sheet, a wasted void of nothing and devoid of all life and humanity. Victor keeps turning away from companionship and instead chases after his inner obsession. And by inner obsession I mean that the idea of the monster started out as just an idea that he was able to actually manifest physically – his inner thought literally were made manifest and were given their own agency. The monster is an avatar of his obsession to plumb the absolute depths of his intellectual abilities by isolating himself from all distractions until he was successful.

And perhaps this is why upon seeing the monster come to life he immediately turned away from it because what had been a beautiful idea in his mind (and he had thought he was creating something beautiful) he saw just how ugly the inside of his own mind was, just how ugly that absolute obsession turned out to be. The monster was a product of Victor’s sick, isolated mind and, like Gogol’s Nose, the two had to reunited, only here it wound up being tragic.

And so when we think of the monster as an unnatural abomination, what we are really reacting to is that the monster represents the inhumanity of isolation from humanity. It represents the dangers of shunning humanity while we pursue our obsessions. The monster does not, however represent the dangers of pursing forbidden knowledge since what Victor was initially attempting to do was not at all against nature. Victor wanted to cure death, Victor wanted to understand how life worked which are not unreasonable goals. Victor was applying good scientific principles to his pursuit by taking what he knew and actually applying it via real demonstration.

This is how science has always worked and the fact that what Victor created turned out horribly isn’t an indictment of science, it’s an indictment of pursuing something to such an isolated extreme that the result is perverted because the process didn’t take place as part of a community. Scientists work together when exploring the secrets of nature and the universe, they bounce ideas off of each other, they learn from scientists who came before them, and they allow independent scientists to verify (or falsify) their findings. The process does not happen in isolation and the results are always tempered with collaboration.

Victor’s failing was to think he could do this all on his own, that creating a human could be done without the help of other humans. When humans have children (biologically) it takes at least two people to create a child, and even in cases where someone can’t have children then there are doctors and adoption specialists and surrogates who make up the community of parenting. Victor failed to take into account the neighborhood of man, a line Shelley uses again and again in the novel, and when he tried to create a human being like himself, all he did was create a manifestation of his ugly obsession.

page 26 of 134 of Tender Buttons

In Between

I feel like Stein lived a lot more than me and it’s hard not to be a little jealous of her. But then I don’t want to be like her, either. I don’t think language should have so many other meanings, so much room for interpretation. So much has been made about the distance between the word and the thing it is describing, yet how much better can we hope for? Language always comes up short, but then so do we.

page 26 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Red Roses

Sitting in class before the instructor came in I turned to my friend behind me to discuss Stein. He made an observation about her poem Careless Water that the reason why she mentions Japanese is because of the art of kintsugi and how an object’s history is made up of the times it’s broken but also repaired.

Later, as I read this poem that came to mind. It came to mind that reading Stein isn’t only an act of courage, but also a communal act where each person can contribute to the whole. In this way she’s connecting her life to all of ours (and vice versa) and connecting each of us to each of us.

The House of Fame: Read from August 26 to September 1, 2018

Book 3:

The construction of the house of fame is quite remarkable and a work of creative genius. First of all it’s a perversion of Dante’s Paradise in that instead of a loving, benevolent God rewarding all the faithful with eternal life, the court at the House of Fame, rather than worshiping their God only beg for recognition and favor and in turn she is totally arbitrary in whom she meets out rewards. Earlier I noticed how Chaucer might be playing with the idea of showy, intoned prayer being no better than a fart and I think this is what he sees as the result. He seems to be explaining what happens to people who are to focused on being showy than on actually doing the hard work. This makes line 1100 funny because he doesn’t want to show off his craft / skill as a poet, he just wants to make one moral point, but he doesn’t know what that point is and so he needs Apollo’s help to guide him.

One has to wonder what had happened to Chaucer to cause him to write this poem. Line 1887 says he is looking for new material to set him apart from the old masters, and line 2129 describes a scene that could be straight out of his day job counting and verifying shipments of goodness knows what. Perhaps he was wondering if this is all his life would ever be knowing full well he had the talent to be a great poet yet felt stuck in a world that only recognized the unworthy, or at best arbitrarily handed out fortunes. Perhaps he had even been caught up in some slander (which translates here to scandal) and he bemoans when in the wicker rumor mill he sees truth and lies joined together in such a way as to make them indistinguishable?

Whatever his reasons, he does make some wonderful observations on the nature of fame and how petty gossip is and how the whole idea of fame is built upon an unsteady foundation. Even the material of the castle, beryl, is interesting in that while it magnifies, it also discolors so that one never gets a true representation of the thing being examined. He’s saying that the old masters whose pillars make up this castle, when you really look at them, are not what they seem to be and they even argue and bicker among each other.

Of course we can’t ignore the sexism latent in what he’s writing by turning Dante’s male God of Paradise into a fickle female. Yet when we consider how differently romance works compared to epic, in that in romance no man is complete without a lady (in epic the woman impedes the male hero), he is making fun of this trope too. He sees not just the flaws of epic, but also of romance and he’s not shy to make fun of it.