Sunday, September 30, 2012

Poetry Monday: Gertrude Stein

It's Gertrude Stein week at ModPo, and I'm afraid I'm not jumping for joy. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy the work of Stein. My uncle gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Alice B Tolklas at far too young an age (about the same time he gave me poetry books by Rimbaud and Plath) and I became deeply engrossed in the descriptions of bohemian Paris in the 1900s (the start of a kind of Francophilia that has remained with me), the warmth and camaraderie, and above all, the experimental fun and whimsy inherent in the writing.  But Stein's poetry has been something else for me altogether.  In the ModPo video on the topic, Al Filreis asks the question "How comfortable are you with something that is seemingly incomprehensible?" Like Molly, one of the teaching assistants, I'm not at all comfortable. So yes, this week I'm out of my comfort zone. But I'm in that place with an open mind, ready to work and ready, above all, to grow.  Here's the first poem that we're working on and after a few readings and a little exploration through the video discussions, I've already begun to grow a little more comfortable. The poem is "A Long Dress" from Tender Buttons. It's actually one of the more "accessible" poems in Tender Buttons, but I use the word accessible in a fairly generous way as you'll see when you read it.


What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.

What is the wind, what is it.

Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.

Here are some of my early thoughts.  On first reading, "A Long Dress" seems to refer to the dress literally as  a constructed piece of fashion, created out of the machinery of a sewing machine, powered by electrical current (or even wind current), crackling with that electricity and beauty: the long line of fashion, tradition,  motion, beauty. It seems to be one complete thing: a covering, a symbol of wealth and beauty, a 'dress-up'. But when we ask what it is and what is the underlying 'current' (both in the sense of the times and in the sense of the scientific principle that drives its utility), we begin to deconstruct the dress into both the languge that makes it up in this instance. The lines we see are the lines of poetry; they are the lines of creation where we make different colours and different meanings by changing our lines, our pauses and syntax, and by the way in which we can modify and combine our lines to make many dresses, many colours, many poems, many different types of meanings where nothing is dark and everything revealed. This is the nature of human creation - to combine and create. Red and white make pink rather than black, which might be hinting at the dark places beneath the dress - the blackness under the surface, both in a sexual sense (in which case white and red equaling black is metaphoric), and in in the sense that the seeming darkness can be brought out into the light depending on the lines we create. The colours are only seemingly paradoxical. The dress is only seemingly whole. Time (currents) is only seemingly real (a fact we learned from Einstein). Our bodies are only seemingly fixed and solid (because made up of atoms and in constant motion and transition). This is what Stein is aiming to show in her work. Lines are the arrangements of our lives. They aren't any more real than this moment which is already gone, but they're all that is.

So now I've looked hard into this work and written my own little explication on it, I'm no longer feeling uncomfortable with it. I'm ready to crackle with these currents. What about you?  Does this poem make you uncomforable?

1 comment:

  1. I was surprised at how effortless it was to engage with Stein (and I definitely had a lot of skepticism coming in to the class). What I put it down to is how well Al Filreis, with his remarkable TAs, has prepared the ground. I said elsewhere, and will say it here, I think this course is rewiring my brain. I can't believe how lucky I am to be part of this.