Gertrude Stein – a portrait

gertrude stein
Gertrude Stein, John Lyons (oil on canvas)

Gertrude Stein – a portrait

Neatly folded napkins
           and freshly cut roses
in a cut glass vase
           a long oak table
guests to populate it :
           amid the wealth of words
silences cultivated
           in every nook and cranny

Alice and her embroidery
           Gertrude with hers
a carafe of red wine
           sparkling silverware
shining porcelain 
           At the window
heavy drapes
           to keep out the dust
and for the world
           to know its place

Sometimes always
           occasionally
loving glances
           often exchanged
time under orders
           and life
on its best behaviour :
           a dog with a name
a stern smile
           the making of history
word by word
           line by line

John Lyons


Revised

Uplifting

Uplifting

She loved the stars
       and she loved linen
and fires of burning
       olive branch
with which to keep warm
       Love was all weathers
including storms including
       the thunder and the rain
and the scent of olive wood
       burning in the hearth
She loved neat and tidy
       and a stitch in time
and every night sleep
       saw the danger in boats
and kept her thoughts
       on dry land and perhaps
no moon and a smoking fire

What of the evils of eating
       sweetbreads and figs
and cooking in oil
       what of them indeed ?
A boat could sink
       in troubled waters
Moonlight and darkness
       both in a room
sleep and not sleep
       a great deal
and a great deal
       of pleasure

Why do you always smile
       why do I always smile
why do we always smile ?
       Is it because easily pleased
or too many roses
       a strength or a weakness
a spirit lifted with greater
       ease than a body ?

A wind whistles
       down by the ocean water
in which a long skirt trails
       Lift it lift it my sweet peach
Distance is a cloud
       hanging heavily above a hill
Lift it lift it my sweet peach

An accidental bird takes flight
       a yellow noon bird
and I am not at all surprised
       how pretty you are
my dear canary
       I love cherish idolise
adore and worship you
       and naturally we celebrate
when we come together
       before a smoking olive-wood fire
or just about anywhere
       else come to think

John Lyons


The above text borrows extensively from a love poem written by Gertrude Stein, entitled “Lifting Belly” which Stein composed over a period of two years (1915-1917). Although it centres on the relationship between Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, placing Stein on a par with Sappho, it is set against the backdrop of the Great War, and simultaneously celebrates and transcends Stein’s own sexuality. A great poem, the treasures and pleasures of which are released to the patient reader.

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