Category Archives: Tender Buttons

Tender Buttons: Read from August 29 to September 3, 2018

An Apology to Gertrude Stein

Reading you made me nervous. My professor assigned your book, Tender Buttons, as an introduction to modernist poetry and though I knew your poetry can be challenging I was eager to read you for the first time. Yet immediately I realized I was in trouble. I kept turning the pages hoping I would find a poem that resembled something I was familiar with: a narrative thread, a story, anything to wrap my mind around. Failing that I turned to my journal and for each of the 58 poems in Objects I kept detailed notes hoping I would find something that made sense.

Then I began to panic. I wanted so much to contribute to a conversation about you that I found myself getting angry that my fellow classmates would be the ones who would share insight while I who had spent hours and hours with you would only be able to sit mute and perhaps receive a failing participation grade for the day’s class.

But I need to apologize to you for getting our relationship off on the wrong foot. As I was waiting for class to begin my friend and I were discussing our opinions of your poetry. I lied and said I enjoyed your work, but I was angry with you. My friend, however, told me how much he loved your poem Careless Water because he understood you were talking about the art of kintsugi. Once he realized what you meant by your reference to the Japanese the world of your poetry opened up to him. And it opened up for me as well.

As class went along and I listened to my classmates discuss your poems I realized how wrong I was to think that I alone had the ability or even the right to understand your poetry in isolation. I realized that to understand you it took all of us working as a group to piece you together. Each of us were like a jagged and broken piece of pottery that wanted to be fitted back into place. As each person offered their unique observations about your poems I also realized that what we were piecing back together might not exactly match the original, that the shape might be a little distorted and that the repair seams would be visible, but that we were making your poems anew and we were adding to your story.

And then I realized how incredibly brave each of us are when we read your poetry because we are bringing a piece of ourselves to your art. True, we might be a little jagged and sharp at the corners and we might not fit exactly, but you are allowing us to participate in your poetry by giving us the freedom to see your poems through our own eyes and with our own experiences. And as I revisited each of your poems I was liberated because I now had permission to work with you, and my classmates, and my professor to make a new meaning for your poems and to not be afraid that I might be “wrong” about what you meant.

Gertrude Stein, I apologize for being selfish and assuming you came in only one shape and with a set of instructions that would allow me to piece you back together again. You wanted to bring us together, to share your art with, and my first reaction was to hate you for it. I am sorry.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Waist

“A star glide” is a nice way to think about the stars moving across the night sky, or maybe a shooting star?

I think of a nail when she writes “Object that is in wood”, but could she also be thinking more about the essence of wood that makes it pine? And does wood pine for anything? Does the wood pine for the nail to connect it to something new?

But then is she speaking of a clock: “time” and the crystal face of the clock? Is she talking about a waste of time?

page 24 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Water Raining

There is an element of bravery in reading Stein. By not understanding her we are forced to look into ourselves for meaning and see what gets dredged up. I worry about being “wrong” about her poetry, but her freedom of grammar and language gives us the freedom to think freely. She embodies misunderstanding because understanding another person is impossible. How can we really know them?

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Careless Water

I can’t for the life of me figure out why she keeps bringing up the Japanese. Is this some “oriental” fetish, some idea of Asiatic cultures being delicate and / or fragile?

I do feel like I get an interesting image of an ancient, spider-cracked piece of china that is ready to fall apart with the slightest shock. Or could she be talking about beauty and how just one piece of hair being out of place could “ruin” the whole effect?


page 23 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Cutlet

I’m imagining a manly butcher sawing away at a piece of meat. But there is something sexual in this imagery, like a blind fumbling around in the dark as the man agitates the woman (this could be good or bad). Is this how she thinks of sex? She was a lesbian after all and so the idea of sex with a man could be something she might describe this way?

Or is it fair to even bring sexuality into it. We don’t read too much into poets who aren’t LGBTQ, so why do it to her? Should it ever matter? Isn’t just sex two pieces of meat agitating each other?

page 22 of 134 of Tender Buttons


I’m imagining some sort of church service. Foliage are the flowers, the “little piece of white cloth” is the clerical collar, the oil is the incense?

The rest of the poem is a loss for me. Snips? No round color? Is that a play on the clerical collar? Are we still dealing with a priest / religion who doesn’t have anything useful to offer?

page 21 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Cloth

The cloth is a priest. I wonder if the widow in A Chair has been speaking with a priest? Is this priest always ready to give advice on any occasion? Is the poet getting tired of this priest showing “the best way”? Who doesn’t just want to grieve and be angry at God when there is tragedy? Isn’t that the human way? Sometime we’re closer to hell than heaven.

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A Mounted Umbrella

Has Mildred misplaced her umbrella and now it’s lost? Are we watching her search for this now missing umbrella. Is the poet chastising Mildred for being careless? Why else would there be a “lesson” to learn? Though it would be odd for our poet to talk about things being in their proper place since she can’t even agree with the dictionary.

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A Purse

Secrets? It would be an invasion to go through someone’s purse, even if it were open. There is something oddly intimate about a purse and how it seems to represent the person even if they are not around. We recognize a person by their purse, we attach part of their secret life to it and we are intrigued – why else write about it?

page 21 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Frightful Release

My reading of “A bag” is influenced by the next poem, A Purse. So now I’m thinking someone left their bag behind but nobody knows who it belongs to? And imagine losing your bag and all the important parts of you that you carry around in it? Who wouldn’t come back for that, or is someone trying to leave a life behind? Has someone mismanaged their life?

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A Chair

I see an old woman, dressed in mourning black, sitting in a chair next to the bed of a dead or dying loved one. Perhaps “the sign” is crossing herself and the necessary betrayal is that she will continue living. Is hope a prayer, is prayer a spectacle? Is the barn the church, does the dirt refer to the cemetery where they will be buried? Is there no special protection for death?

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A Blue Coat

Perhaps she is painting something with a coat of blue? But what that could be I don’t know. Is she blue? Is she sad? She mentioned blue in A Plate in reference to sadness, but there “A sad size that is not sad is blue” so I’m not sure what she means by this. Either way, I like the idea of someone painting themselves blue, even their shadow.

page 18 of 129 of Tender Buttons

A Long Dress

Maybe I thought too hard about the title because I kept thinking of power lines and electricity in this poem. Is she comparing the magic of electricity to the wind? “What is the wind, what is it.”

The color imagery is harder to imagine. The colors seem more extreme than they should be, “a pink is scarlet” – is this a play on The Scarlet Letter: infidelity and sexuality? Is the line and the bow part of a gift? An unwrapping or undressing? Is the electricity the sexual energy between two people?

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A Seltzer Bottle

The long sentence reminds me of all the millions of bubbles in a bottle of seltzer constantly rising to the top endlessly. Even the word suppose sounds like the bubbles when you listen to the fizzing – “melodiously”. The exact meaning of each suppose (bubble) I’m not sure of, but there seems to be an elegance or refinement to the imagery as if this were a nice party?

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A Plate

Is this a wedding gift? Maybe it came in one of those boxes she’s been going on about? It’s customary to get a married couple something for the home (as well as something old, new, borrowed, and blue).

Then perhaps she’s talking about cut flowers in a vase. and maybe the wedding cake?

The more I read the less I understand. This is very frustrating.