“A Carafe, that is a blind glass.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a simple hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”
This is how Gertrude Stein begins her Cubist experiment in verse. Tender Buttons, Objects has been called a masterpiece, a failure, confusing, nonsense, and a beautiful collage. It has been supposed a practical joke, too obscure to have real meaning, or too meaningful to describe (the last presumably said by an unenthusiastic poetry student).
“A plate. An occasion for a plate, an occasional resource is in buying and bow soon does washing enable a selection of the same thing neater. If the party is small a clever song is in order.”
But, what ARE we to make of this collage of thoughts and uncomfortable sentences, categorized in the subjects of “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms”? Stein spoke of Shakespeare’s ability to create the Forest of Arden (in As You Like It) without ever saying the play’s setting was a forest. She wrote, “Now that was a thing that I too felt in me the need of making it be a thing that could be named without using its name. After all one had known its name anything’s name for so long, and so the name was not new but the thing being alive was always new.”
“A waist. A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.”
Tender Buttons, Objects has been interpreted as describing many things: some simple, some racy, some revolutionary. Most believe that the poem reflects Stein’s identification with modern painters, joining together words, images, and phrases using unconventional syntax, evoking emotion with sound and rhythm. She is perhaps more famous for her support of the modernist painters and the Saturday evening salons that introduced both the work and the artists to French intellectuals and English aristocrats, as well as her deep friendship with writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, than she is for her obscure and styled poetry. Among the painters she befriended, and whose work she ardently collected, were Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, and Henri Matisse. Certainly their work influenced her unique approach to language (and vice versa). Tender Buttons, Objects is still avant-garde almost a century after its first publication.
This recent edition, published by Chronicle Books, with lovely illustrations by Lisa Congdon, has all the sensory appeal a Gertrude Stein poem should evoke. The pages are thick and crisp as you turn them, the artwork is bright and precise – like figurative, visual maps of the narrative. The words are almost difficult, and do not flow quickly off the tongue. You must consider them slowly and sound them out carefully. The pairing of Stein’s poetry and Congdon’s vibrant illustrations results in a beautiful package, a gift that both delights and quandaries.
Years ago in both Chicago and New York there were stores owned by Epstein and Safro called Tender Buttons. The two women who owned the store lived in the building in New York. Both stores were very small and narrow.
From designers to artists it was the store to go to. I had the good fortune to stop in both of them and to this day still have some of those buttons. When a piece of clothing I made wore out I would remove those buttons as they were a treasure to me.