Alerts is an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal, or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking /writing critically. Your response is invited.
She knows so much, in her essays. She's so authentic that sincerity is irrelevant; after all you can say what you mean and be sincere without knowing who you are but she knows who she is, a grown-up genius.
She tells us the opposite of what they told us in high school--personality
count. What counts is emptiness, an empty readiness. To write well is to write out of
not out of identity. Identity is what you use to cash a check, she says. As entity we exist in a way that has nothing to do with remembering, nothing to do with an audience, with an "I" that is composed of the eyes upon us. The effort of insisting on ourselves as personality distracts from the necessary minimal functions of the mind, she says, smiling her Buddha smile.
We learn more about Stein through her essays than through biography. Biography is identity, a finished thing, probably a lie. The real self emerges out of conversations about tools and consciousness. Stein's tools are beveled but high gauge, and her observations of language have the arbitrariness that comes from genuine intimacy. For instance: interjections have nothing to do with anything, not even themselves; commas are servile; and the question-mark is OK as a brand for cattle but not much else. Her tastes are clear, and what she finds indigestible she rejects as poetics. Grammar is inside us, like heart, liver, blood. Grammar is a physical matrix that determines what we can say and therefore what we can do. Compare Monique Wittig
Les Guerrilères: "The language you speak is made up of words that are killing you."
Stein does not use inflated or overinherited language. She chooses good simple words insistently, as if she is always at the beginning again, her complexity growing out of her insistent simplicity. Her words. Force. Us. To. Read. Them. Every. Word. For. Word. Forward, without skipping, for reading is a physiological act set in the continuous present; we must not pretend that the present is the future.
Stein slows us down. She knows how not to name things but to encircle them. Beginning again and again (before names, before the laws of names) becomes a natural thing, and tentativeness builds ineluctably to confidence. We read her slowly or again and by the time we understand what she means we have been composed. And finally it is not only the repetition but the equanimity of the repetition that composes us. Does her tone of equanimity combined with her radical forms present a paradox? No. Yes. To play upon her remark about Alice B. Toklas in the Autobiography,
Stein has a radical point of view but she likes to sit with her back to it.
(Gertrude Stein: Writings and Lectures 1909-1945.
Edited by Patricia Meyerowitz. Penguin Books 1974.)
Gertrude Stein is remarkably usable. Critics have retrieved her for female modernism, for the female aesthetic, for the avant-garde, for American experimentalism, for lesbian writing, for theoretical study of gender and culture, for the literary matrilineal descent (if we are women writers we think back through our mothers, says WooIf in
A Room of One's Own).
And we will soon make her presence more substantial by writing about the profoundly important female experimental writing in the less accessible Stein--published in eight volumes of the Yale Edition, of which Richard Kostelanetz's selection can give only a sketchy idea.
Stein is useful not only to critics but to writers who are now trying to resist precisely the same structures of mind/culture/language as she did then. Stein's reinvention of the sentence does not depend on her own voice, content, palette, referential universe for its literary efficacy. Any of us can adapt her "semi-grammaticalness," her disruptions of the sentence which abrogate but do not demolish syntactical convention. These disruptions are precisely the model so many women writers want for scrambling but not scrapping the text we are trying to rewrite--for doing what she did, retaining the skeleton of the sentence but giving it entirely new flesh. A typical Stein sequence of the Tender Buttons
period, not frequently quoted:
A wonder to chew and to eat and to mind and to set into the very tiny glass that is tall. This is that when there is a tenement. All weights are scales.
No put in a closet, no skirt in a closet, no lily, no lily not a lime lily. A solving and learned, awake and highing and a throat and a throat and a short set color, a short set color and a collar and a color. A last degree in the kink in a glove and the rest.
A letter to press, a letter to press is not rowdy, it is not sliding, it is not a measure of the increasing swindling of elastic and breaking.
The thread, the thread, the thread is the language of yesterday, it is the resolution of today, it is no pain.
("Americans," 1913, in Geography and Plays,
This writing works by arousing the expectation of sense, then disappointing or subverting that expectation and substituting for sense multiple, irresolvable linkages of lexical meaning. It doesn't make itself either through "voice" or Profundity, as do Joyce's, Beckett's, even Woolf's writings. If we use any of them as models, we can only "sound like" them, imitate them, echo or shadow a subjectivity which itself is part of what we're trying to rewrite. Stein gives us a real blueprint, a deep structure
of resistance to prevailing materials of mind/culture/ language because, in spite of everything (all attempts to change the weather), it is still patriarchal late capitalism outside, years after Stein's achievement.
Eminently usable anti-patriarchal literary structures such as Stein's need not be the sole property of women writers. As Julia Kristeva suggests in
About Chinese Women,
whoever chooses to use them puts her--or himself in the cultural position of woman: the margin, the only place from which we can begin to dismantle all structures of center and margin. But if that is the case, where now in praxis is the difference in literary daughterhood?
Lynn Luria-Sukenick's most recent book of poems is
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1982. She will teach in the writing program at the University of Arizona, Tucson, this spring.
Marianne DeKoven is the author of
A Different Language
(University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), a study of Gertrude Stein's experimental writing. She teaches literature at Rutgers University, and is working on a study of gender and modernism.
HOW(ever) invites written reaction to these thoughts on Stein, and hopes to devote a large chunk of a future issue to dialogue around the questions posed here. We are also interested in suggestions for specific readings in Stein that have had special appeal for you, with emphasis on lesser known works or passages not often cited.