Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
I have to thank my friend Rebecca for recommending this one. When I told her I was reviewing the books of 1914, she immediately said she thought Tender Buttons came out that year, and she was absolutely right. I always work from the “191X in Literature” Wikipedia page, and every year I end up adding about a dozen women authors who were not included. But I don’t know anything about poetry, so the poetry section had remained all-male until Rebecca tipped me off about Gertrude Stein. (I later added Amy Lowell and just now I added Katherine Tynan.)
When my brother heard about Tender Buttons, he said, “I’ll bet no one has ever read it from front to back before,” even though he knew it was very short. When my girlfriend, whose head is in the gutter, heard the title Tender Buttons, she asked, “Is it about sex?” Before anyone even opens the cover, this book provokes a strong reaction.
I was excited for Tender Buttons because it is the first Modernist book I’ve encountered in this project. My only previous interaction with Stein was seeing her opera The Mother of Us All over ten years ago. (At least I think I saw it? Could there be more than one opera about Susan B. Anthony?) I began reading Tender Buttons, and I was tickled to see how the poems are in the same format as prose usually is. If I hadn’t been told it was a book of poetry, I wouldn’t have known. It was so different from all the other books of 1914 that it was like a breath of fresh air. Here’s an example:
Elephant beaten with candy and little pops and chews all bolts and reckless rats, this is this.
I was reading along, and while I was enjoying the cadence of the words and the feeling they evoked, I didn’t understand it at all. It made no sense to me whatsoever. I read this one to Aine:
If the speed is open, if the color is careless, if the selection of a strong scent is not awkward, if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color, not any color. If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing.
This is no dark custom and it is not even acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread. That is spread, it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing.
“Yeah, she’s on drugs,” she replied.
I knew I needed help, so I asked Rebecca to come over and explain Tender Buttons to me. When I confessed that I was enjoying it but I couldn’t understand it, she reassured me that no one understands Tender Buttons. She said if I liked it, then I understand it. I can’t remember exactly what else Rebecca said, but this is the gist of what I retained. She said that I’m free to interact with Tender Buttons any way I want, and it's Rebecca’s favorite book of poetry. Also that Gertrude Stein was trying to create an eternal present even though this is impossible, and that she was experimenting with something that is completely plotless. This made me think of Balanchine’s ballets.
I told Rebecca I was worried because I felt I was being influenced by context and having been told that this is a ground-breaking work by an amazing writer, and I don’t know how I would have felt about it if I’d read it on the internet and been told it was flash fiction by a brand new writer. Maybe I just like it because I feel like I’m supposed to or I want to be in the cool kids club. But I do feel this book is as weird today as it was a century ago, which is something. Rebecca said she thought Gertrude Stein would say that you cannot escape from context, there is always context. She said Gertrude Stein is very permissive, except for a few things that she was very bossy about, like “This one is poetry. This one is a dialogue,” etc. Rebecca also encouraged me not to rush through Tender Buttons, which I had been doing because it was the end of December and obviously I was on a tight schedule since 1914, I mean 2014, was almost over. I decided I have the rest of my life to finish it. So I’ve only read the first section, “Objects,” and there are two more, “Food” and “Rooms.”
Speaking of which, I got a copy out of the library which is just the “Objects” section and it is illustrated (by Lisa Congdon.) At first I liked the whimsical illustrations, but then I started to feel like they were interfering with the working of my own imagination. Also there’s only so much weirdness that one thing can contain. I was thinking maybe I ought to try illustrating the “Food” section myself.
Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds by Amy Lowell
I also didn’t read all of this, only a bit. At first I thought it was boring but then I got sucked in. I liked the title poem, in which a writer meets a strange man who at first seems to be an arms dealer and then an opium dealer, but who actually helps writers in exchange for... their entire lives. The writer character enters into the bargain without agreeing or realizing, or he has already agreed simply by becoming a writer.
North of Boston by Robert Frost
I went into re-reading this book thinking I love the short poems, like “Mending Wall,” “After Apple Picking,” “The Wood-Pile,” and “Good Hours” but not the long ones that have a lot of dialogue. But actually I do like some of them too: “The Death of the Hired Man,” “A Hundred Collars,” and “Blueberries.” My new favorite was “Home Burial” which I must have read before but I have no memory of it; how do you like this part?
... The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well no try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
So pretty much a ringing endorsement for Robert Frost from me.
What didn’t I read, and why?
Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki
I’ve had it up to here with Saki’s anti-Semitism, so I skipped this year’s offering, but I did notice that some of the stories in this book are his most famous ones that are frequently anthologized, like “The Open Window,” “The Schartz-Metterklume Method,” “A Touch of Realism,” and “The Byzantine Omelette.” There’s no need for you to go through life without reading “The Open Window.”
The Flying Inn by G.K. Chesterton
I liked some of Chesterton’s other stuff, but when I read that this one was xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-vegetarian, I figured why should I put myself through that? You can get all that stuff in our present day.
Bird of Paradise by Ada Leverson
I bought this book, and then what did I do with it? Where is it? My dementia seems to be getting worse. When I told my brother he said, “Oh no! That’s sure to be the best book of 1914!” He said he read all her other novels and they’re all fabulous. Oh no!
That's all for the Best of 1914! Thank you for reading and I'll return next January with the best of 1915.