Posts tagged Tender Buttons
Pine Torch, Revisited

About a month ago, I tried to write here about "pine torch." Today, in my attempt to try again, it was only by searching for and failing to find a pretty photograph of a pine torch that I landed on a solution: instead of pine torches, the tea house woman can light the bal masqué another way. Maybe with little candles hanging from tree branches with satin ribbons. Or maybe like this or this or this or this or this or even this with candles or fairy lights. I don't think it matters, exactly, but what I figured out is that part of her problem can be that the tea house's traditions should of course be updated — not just to make business more efficient but to make her own life somewhat easier. So instead of lighting the annual ball with torches, like her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother did, which she would have to chop and set aflame herself, worrying about party guests knocking into them and catching fire, she can opt instead for, say, hanging lanterns with battery powered flameless flickering candles. 

OK, so, the backstory about "pine torch"? It has to do with my process. I'm a writer who fears the blank page/blinking cursor. I'm far better at editing and shaping existing words than I am coming up with new ones. So nearly a decade ago, under a rapidly approaching deadline to complete We Take Me Apart, I acted out of desperation and cut up Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. I made hundreds of lists of ten random words from her text, and then I wrote a page of my own — I had to use one list per page. Often, this meant using one word per line. And this resulted in my having lines like: "gratitude is cousin to the squeezing of a heart." Anyway, the method worked and I had enough pages to prove to my publisher that I was making steady progress and I was able to ask for an extended deadline, which I met. This method worked so well for me that I tried it again for Desire: A Haunting. And, again, it worked. The words I used as prompts for this book come from John Ratti's A Remembered DarknessAnd then, for Fit Into Me, I started again with another new list, this time from Anne Carson's translation of Sappho's fragments (If Not, Winter). Somewhere in this book is "pine torch," which I then came upon in one of my ten-word lists, and I got stuck. I researched the pine torch and learned it's the kind of torch Bilbo Baggins used in LOTR, and then I learned how to make one and why one might want to make one: they're impervious to wind and rain. But for my purposes, why would the tea house woman need wind- and rain-proof torches? So I landed on the bal masqué. Garden party. Nighttime. Torches. Of course. But I just couldn't ever write that scene. Now, three years after that failure, a month after the failure of my attempted blog post about that failure, I think I've got it. Or, at least, for the first time I have an avenue to explore. 

I am a slow writer. People are surprised to hear this, most recently one of my favorite former professors, Richard Preiss (why favorite? bc this, for example, or, you know, his book on early modern clowns, or his book-in-progress on sewage, need I go on?). I wasn't always a slow writer. A decade ago, you could say, "Go!" and I'd be off to the races. Now? You say "Go!" and I raise an eyebrow at you and LOL and look for my reading glasses and put a Pop Tart in the toaster that I'll forget about and see tomorrow sticking up looking sad, still chuckling about how badly you misjudged my ability to go when you said, "Go!" LOLOL. But really, I'm just slower, more patient and careful now. I wait. I'll wait and wait until the answer appears. In this case, three years and a month. 

P.S. If you're curious, the other words in this particular list are: night, greatly, desires, darling, reproach, harmless, face, son, and throat. And if you don't know the tea house woman, who appears first as a minor character in We Take Me Apart, then as a main character in Desire: A Haunting, you can meet her now in her own right in Fit Into Me. A few of the fragments from Fit were published here, four years ago when they first came into being.  

Goodnight Moon; Tender Buttons; and, now, Nox

I have only ever introduced Tender Buttons to students after we've read and discussed Goodnight Moon, the book's project of nomenclature, the relationship between text and image and signifieds not signifying, as in the anthropomorphized, de-racialized rabbit meant to represent the story's "old lady," and, not least of all, that terrifying blank page of nothingness: "Goodnight nobody"! Now, after studying Nox with Joe and Ed (also preparing for exams), I've inserted Carson into my Brown & Stein lesson plan. The clear connection between Goodnight Moon and Nox has everything to do with the talking points outlined above, but also, of course, their shared struggle to reckon with the unknowability of night, and to reconcile its elusiveness with its allusiveness(es). 

Regarding Tender Buttons, let us suppose, as Joshua Schuster does, that it may be a pedagogical misstep to teach "Objects" before "Food" or "Rooms":

It is common pedagogy to state that the first object, the carafe, in which the sentence 'The difference is spreading' appears, is meant as the flagship statement for the book when it was never meant to be so. . . . 

Indeed, until now, I have participated in this pedagogical approach. On a more personal note, I even used the first subheading in "Objects" — "A carafe, that is a blind glass." — as the epigraph to my first book. So I am jarringly thrilled and inspired by the re-ording and expansion of my lesson plan: 

  1. Goodnight Moon
  2. "Food"
  3. Nox
  4. "Rooms"
  5. a brief return to Goodnight Moon
  6. and, finally, "Objects" 

The move from Goodnight Moon into that first sentence of "Food" — "In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling." — is almost unbelievably perfect, no? And the justification/excuse for mixing up the order of Tender Buttons becomes its own talking point, as Schuster suggests:

If 'Food' is first, the first sentence reads: 'In the inside there is sleeping [...].' If 'Rooms' is first, the opening sentence is: 'Act so that there is no use in a center.' Both sentences are about space, movement, and surrounding environs, rather than fixing central focus points. Furthermore, each of these three sentences implicitly argues that no sentence is primary or more titular than any other.

Leaving "Food" and its final subheading — "A centre in a table" — we would then enter Nox, where, fairly early on, Carson delivers this heartbreaking line: "We want people to have a center, an account that makes sense" (3.3).

This single utterance breaks open the book and provides several avenues into Nox's other concerns, its questions about the irretrievability of what is lost, lost in translation, lost in reading and interpretation, lost in life itself, and how elegy is history is night. And a mini-lecture, perhaps, on Derrida de-centering the center.

With this center-centered approach, we would then leave Nox and return to Tender Buttons, to "Rooms," which opens with: "Act so that there is no use in a center." 


I know, right?


I think, too, it's a more seamless transition into "Objects," as we leave that final paragraph of "Rooms," which recalls Goodnight Moon as well: 

A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was a sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus and also a fountain.


Magnificent asparagus!

My God, I can't even begin to express how much I love that surprise ending, that "magnificent asparagus," oh, and "also a fountain," which feels like such an add-on, a lesser-than but equal-to strange afterthought, a possible amendment, perhaps due to the rhythmic insistence of the repetitions preceding it, the seeming force of sentences working together to build an argument. Rhetoric. Syntax. Meter. Play. Genre. Politics. Semantics. Hermeneutics. Historicism. And a whole shitload of assonance and consonance, and other Sonic Pleasures. We can talk about everything. Anything. Even nothing. 

Especially nothing, as we return, briefly, to Goodnight Moon, to "Goodnight nobody"!, and to all those strange, defamiliarized and unconcealed objects we thought we knew so well. Recalling what it was like, long ago, to be actively learning language.  

To be willing to unlearn, to be willing to try to learn again, anew, upon being presented with Stein's very different "Objects."

To turn objects into subjects. 

To make it personal.

Are not all our buttons tender when pushed?

Tender, the care with which there is incredible justice and likeness

. . . the choice and a torch . . . 

Or a fountain of acceptance as we learn to appreciate difference.

. . . more cultivation and some seasoning . . . 

Tender, then, our resignations to one another. 

. . . terrific sacrifice . . . 

. . . plenty of breathing. . . 

Re-signifying why, and how, "The difference is spreading" is not simply a descriptive, declarative entrance into a confounding text, but a moral imperative for a new time, fraught with implications, bursting with possibilities, this source of optimism, this single sentence, a rallying force — a battle cry.