Gertrude Stein – a memoir

Gertrude Stein – a memoir

Behind these mortal bones
           a beating heart
a nicety and a name
           and an ear to the ground
She knew the purr of love
           and all the finesse of needlework
hers truly was a wonderland
           in which words came to dine
wore a shawl with assorted hats
           and sat in Picasso’s frame

Suppose the eyes saw
           the lips would tell
and the hand would carve
           snippets of silence
the bed linen spick and span
           and time at the window
looking on
           with mathematical delight

See she said
           see how the light curls
how it drips into darkness
           at the end of the day
and nightime
           is a small price to pay
for a loving tongue
           and a cup to drain
Poetry she said
           is just lines of words
that start and then stop
           stop and start

John Lyons

 

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Plus ça change

O'Hara_de Kooning.jpg
Frank O’Hara, by Elaine de Kooning (1962)

Plus ça change

Being lost for words
             and being speechless
is not the same
             nothing is ever the same
things are or they are not
             but they’re never the same
similes are absurd
             as no one thing
is like another
             Gertrude Stein taught us
that not even repetitions
             are the same
a rose is a rose is a rose
             is an equilateral triangle
of competing energies
             each rose qualifying
the other ones
             one after another

When Elaine de Kooning
             portrayed Frank O’Hara
standing in her studio
             first she painted
the structure of the face
             above the tall lean body
and when she had finished
             she wiped out the face
so that the portrait
              would more closely
resemble the subject
             the portrait and the subject
were not the same
             nothing is ever the same

John Lyons

The rose

The rose

The purity
           the clarity
the beauty
           of the rose

the living rose
           grown from seed
proud in its bed
           or snipped and displayed
in a cut glass bowl

the rose that is a rose
           that is a rose
set in stone
           for all time
and for all minds

minds built from
           fragments of mind
snippets of experience
           and knowledge
woven into the mind

by any other name
           I would know a rose
secure in its certainty
           though I may not
always know
           my own mind

sweet unadorned rose
           that never betrays
that never abandons me
           rose unthorned
so dear to my heart

John Lyons

In a natural world

In a natural world

In a natural world dressed
         in such simplicities
the truth is so plain to see
         nothing duplicitous
nothing tendentious
         and no dishonesty :
everything is as it is
         which explains Gertrude’s
rose is a rose is a rose
         though by any other name
it would have been as sweet

Choice and preferment
         single us out—
and then there’s love
         that takes its course
free from ritual and process
         that which in living
outlives the moment
         that inclines towards infinity
and is beyond measure
         which is love’s true measure
not the glint in her eye
         nor the quickening of breath
not the contraction of muscle
         nor the stroke of a hand
not a pouting lip
         nor hair that falls loosely
across her broad forehead
       nor the blush of her cheeks
nor the ache of the limbs
        nor a convulsion of the flesh
but simply a being
       in the moment
moment to moment
       with neither judgment
nor expectation other than to revel
         in that moment
and the untrammelled pleasure
         of pure existence

John Lyons

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

The kitchen – a preliminary sketch

The poem below was written in Spanish many years ago and it was partly inspired by a reading of several works by Gertrude Stein, in particular her stories, Three Lives, and her long prose-poem dedicated to the home, Tender Buttons. Having been written in Spanish it benefited from the sounds and rhythms of that language, some of which have been lost in the English translation. 


The kitchen – a preliminary sketch

The kitchen is the household’s nest and home’s soul
it is the homely heart of hearts and so much so that
we must admit that without a kitchen there is no home
       just as without a heart there is no body
new paragraph

And it doesn’t matter whether it has a gas or electric
or even a wood stove the kitchen is always
the great engine the main driver that powers a home
it is the turbine the dynamo and the source and origin
       of all domestic and experiential energy

In the kitchen the plants and flowers and wood all feel at home
       cold cast iron and tender marble at home too
       at home cork and wickerwork
       surrounded by glass and ceramics
and everything just as natural as can be in the kitchen with only plastic
and polyurethane and anything at all synthetic feeling a little out of place
       surrounded by so much vegetable
       mineral
       and human nature

Here technology counts for little
in the role the kitchen plays in home life
because every technological device has a single purpose
to fulfil an ancient task in the newest
and most efficient manner nothing more
so that while not exactly redundant
technology is indeed par excellence expendable
and so much more so
than the cry of a cockerel or a lark
       at the crack of dawn

A kitchen has its own rhythm and its own music and in that
it resembles a poem a poem perhaps hanging on a kitchen wall
amid photos of grandparents and great grandparents as though a recipe
for the preparation of some stuffed eggplants
because in reality poems too are stuffed in so many different ways
with so many different sauces to give them a particular flavour and
likewise certain recipes too are followed to carry them off
so that poetry and cooking
       -in practice and in situ-
       are two quite similar things
although on the other hand
       totally different and no comparison

In a kitchen to come up behind someone who’s peeling potatoes
or rinsing vegetables under cold water running
over the sink can be a real treat because the person
with their hands full cannot defend themselves and one can
hug that person from behind or give them a peck on the neck
or do both simultaneously and there’s nothing
the poor person can do with busy wet hands
but let out a scream and laugh and try to turn around or dodge
but most of the time it’s in vain because from a kiss
which by the stars is bound to be bestowed
there’s no escape because it’s fate
and no one escapes their fate as we all too well know
although rarely do we know what exactly fate is
especially our own random luck
our destiny or that of those we most love
       because that’s life
       with a destiny but unpredictable
       as though there were no destiny
       at all

And notice that a kitchen occupied by one person barely counts
as a kitchen because the nature of the kitchen requires the minimal presence
of two so as to classify as a real kitchen
and the reason for this is that the kitchen is a place of sharing
and by definition solitude’s not something to be shared
so it fails to qualify as a kitchen but rather undermines it authority
or at least removes authenticity and I’d go as far as to say takes away the taste
from the food served in that room that I daren’t
even call a kitchen given that it’s occupied nothing more
than by one person alone and that’s not sharing
and by failing to comply with the rules of the kitchen
       is hopelessly disqualified

And a rhetorical question would be
where else can one find such an intimate and innocent
formal and informal promiscuity in a house than in the kitchen
and that is largely due to the fact that a main ingredient of a main kitchen
is miscegenation
or rather the confluence
of a huge variety of ingredients in a single dish
because to tell the truth when the culinary art
is practised seriously very rarely does the kitchen not assume something
of the atmosphere of the General Assembly of the United Nations
when a host of products from various flags around the world congregate
all of which are destined in accordance with the talent
of the person in charge of the cuisine to melt into
a unique combination into a single unified taste though there might
persist a plethora of minor or secondary flavours
       underlying the unicity of the dominant flavour
       and that’s why all prejudices have to remain
       out of the kitchen so as not to impede the peace process
which is cooking within the confines of that space
that is indeed a kind of sanctuary
for all human rights and values
of respect and democracy and friendship and affection
       and quite simply love

Moreover as if this weren’t enough the kitchen is a place
where many alien things are always mislaid
and where other equally alien things are always found
a phenomenon that is repeated so often
that it gives the impression that the kitchen is a magical space
with frankly surprising powers of attraction
and it’s impossible to hear the question
where’re the keys or the newspaper
without thinking with an almost pathological automatism
of the probability that the blessed newspaper quite certainly
is in the kitchen not far from the cup and glasses
and perhaps beneath the keys to the car
       or to the house itself

And that’s why friends prefer to be in the kitchen instead
of anywhere else even after the meal they’ve just
ingested because the host or hostess will constantly
have experienced the following and that is that after filling
their stomachs friends want to fill their soul with delicacies
no less nutritious than an oven roast or a fried fish
or a plate of rice with shrimp or chorizo
since it’s true that the human species
       cannot live on bread alone
       but on daily conversation and dialogue
       and the exchange of ideas and impressions
       and tastes and sometimes even mild or strong
       disagreements and opposing politics and it seems
that being surrounded by utensils and pots and heavy porcelain
lends to some if not to most people
an unparalleled sense of security so that rarely do they
accept the suggestion to file out into the living room
while the leftovers are put away and the dishes washed
and the stove is cleaned and the coffee has been filtered
because they fear that they’ll lose that frank and warm
human quality that is
       the necessary environment
       of a fine inexhaustible kitchen
       whether here
       or in Timbuktu
       and in saying all this
       I feel I’ve said so very little
       and that I’m really
       just getting going

John Lyons

© 1990, 2015