Tender Buttons

Gertrude-Stein-Pablo-Picasso
Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso (1906)

First published in 1914, Tender Buttons, by the American writer, Gertrude Stein, is a collection of poems written in a style which some critics have described as verbal Cubism. Stein’s close friendship with Pablo Picasso, detailed magnificently in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), undoubtedly exerted a great influence on the experimental style of composition in which everyday objects are described in ways that detach them from their familiar context so that the reader has to reassemble the parts in order to derive the sense. Plainly, it is a modernist work that demands some effort on the part of the reader, and this explains why it is one of the great unread classics. This is a pity because the work contains some of Stein’s very best writing and with the correct approach it can bring a good deal of pleasure. Each poem has to be read slowly and with a relaxed, meditative voice so as to handle each fragment of syntax with care, to examine it closely and allow the unconscious to assist in the process of assembly. There are many beautiful observations within the poems but they have to be teased out by a sympathetic reader, one who genuinely enjoys the true power of poetry and is attuned to its often unconventional rhythms and syntax. The theme of the work is, of course, explicit in the title, which celebrates the tenderness of homely relationships, including the people who occupy the home and the ordinary, everyday objects that surround them and which they use.


Tender Buttons

A reading for Gertrude:
           a table means
necessary places
           cutlery on the starched
white linen
           and a glass of any height
a looking glass
           a lamp and a cake
a tin lined with crumbs
           a precocious blue
but not so sad after all
           green can be lean
but nothing tendered
           nothing gained
A table means also
           and also perhaps
full of possibilities
           a commitment
and a compromise :
           the light was gracious
one might say forgiving
           so that they all
looked their best
            A table is geometry
and dynamics
           and sometimes crosstalk
and sometimes silence
           it has moods and expectations
and some things are certain
           and some things are not
A wet-weather window
           opens us to the elements
and chance as we know
           is a very fine thing

Picasso once ate
           and drank and smoked
at her table and loved
           in her all that there was
to love and more
           and Alice once sewed
a button on his shirt : :
           that was a tender
thing to do
           don’t you think ?

John Lyons

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