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Lilies do need a catalogue if they are to “dirt” a surface.

November 25, 2009

As printed in the first edition of "Tender Buttons" (1914)


If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this they need a catalogue.

First, I will re-punctuate the text to indicate how I hear this prose-poem read. I don’t do so to impose any particular meaning on it, which would be demonstrably hard to do in any case. I do it simply because if I am to read the thing aloud—say, in a classroom setting—I have to decide what to do with my voice. Making you decide what to do with your voice is one of the things Tender Buttons is somehow “about” anyhow. So:

“A RED STAMP. If lilies are lily white; if they exhaust noise and distance, and even dust; if they, dusty, will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace; if they do this—and it is not necessary, it is not at all necessary—if they do this, they need a catalogue.”

Well obviously, right? Lilies do need a catalogue if they are to “dirt” a surface. I know I would need a catalogue, in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s sense 1.a. of the word, if I set about, using lilies, to “dirt a surface with no extreme grace”: A list, register, or complete enumeration.” Otherwise I’d not have the least idea how to “dirt a surface” with “lilies” that had (as we are told) “exhausted noise, distance, and even dust.” To “exhaust” dust means, if anything, to use it up completely; or to tire it out (as a transitive verb), if we are to suppose “dust” capable of feeling, well, anything. And then there was the automotive sense of “dirtying” the air, and also “surfaces” lacking “extreme grace,” which was available already to Stein in 1914; but not with lilies, of course: with internal combustion engines. As often in Tender Buttons, lexical meanings work against the “grammatical” or “logical” forms so otherwise comfortably available to the voice. “Lilies” do not belong to that category of things that can “exhaust” anything, nor do “noise” and “distance” and “dust” belong to the category of things that might be “exhausted,” whether by lilies or by anything else. And nothing can “dirt” a surface. That is, “dirt” as a verb has not operated in English since the early 19th century, when Cardinal Newman spoke, in 1833, of “sitting down on the ashes which are so dry as not to dirt.” I’ve half a mind to say that Stein is taking (or overtaking) the kind of license with grammar Shakespeare often did, making verbs of nouns, nouns of verbs, and so on. Or maybe she’d just got up from reading her Newman: I can see how she might have fun with “ashes which are so dry as not to dirt.”

Picasso's portrait of Stein

But what of that “red stamp”? I suppose it cannot be a postage stamp. The OED—not that Stein has any respect for such an institution, because after all, it is institutional;—the OED offers up only these alternatives for the word as a noun: a kind of dance; a “stamp” of the foot/feet, whether in a dance or not; a stagnant pool of water; and then of course that battery of senses that runs from fencing, dicing, to a place where horses stand, and then on to definition 5. a.: “An instrument for making impressions, marks, or imprints, on other bodies; a stamping-tool, an engraved block or die for impressing a mark, figure, design or the like, upon a softer material”; and ultimately to the more familiar meanings the word takes in the contexts of printing, official seals, and postage. Which among these meanings demands most importunately the attention of the reader? Well, printing, obviously, and also  making impressions on “softer” material (bodies, say?)—especially impressions somehow “red.” We can say this, taking into account the title of the book: to “stamp” a thing is to touch it, whether the thing be floral or not. But the tact of the stamp carries us immediately into the flowers, doesn’t it? Into the lilies (again, forgive me Ms. Stein, the OED): “Any plant (or its flower) of the genus Lilium (family Liliaceæ) of bulbous herbs bearing at the top of a tall slender stem large showy flowers of white, reddish, or purplish colour, often marked with dark spots on the inside; esp. (without qualification) L. candidum, the White or Madonna Lily (cf. b), which grows wild in some Eastern countries, and has from early times been cultivated in gardens; it is a type of whiteness or purity.” Or, by figurative extension: “3. fig. a. Applied to persons or things of exceptional whiteness, fairness, or purity; e.g. a fair lady; the white of a beautiful complexion.” Which then naturally ushers us into the second figurative extension, again having to do with gender: “3. fig. b. Used as a term of abuse, esp. of a man to imply lack of masculinity.” Gender, genre: matters of due concern to Stein, we may say without controversy, in Tender Buttons. Exactly what is this book anyway? Poetry? Prose? Écriture féminine avant la lettre? A hoax? All four things together?

By Georgia O'Keeffe

White lilies one must simply suppose to be “lily white.” There’s a nice tautology in that, or in any case a fuzzy logic. As for myself, living as I do in bustling central Kyoto, 6,000 miles from where I was born, I reckon I’d pick up a vase of “lily-white” lilies that could “exhaust noise and distance and even dust,” if I could only find them somewhere outside of the pages of Tender Buttons. In any case, flowers are the sexual organs of plants (domestic and otherwise), and sometimes they even bear “a red stamp,” as in the adjacent quasi-erotic painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.

But what the prose-poems in Tender Buttons chiefly do is this: derange our sense of semantics, syntax, logic and grammar, while, for the most part, remaining  completely readable, thoroughly available to the voice—indeed, delightfully so, especially in part one of the book, “Objects.”

Notice how in “A Red Stamp” we find an if/then structure five times deployed (implicitly), with a neat parenthetical emphasis which clarifies or qualifies nothing, contrary to the proper function of parentheses (“and it is not necessary, it is not at all necessary”). In short, the logical structures are all in their proper places. But nothing else is. There is no necessity at all about the matter, in fact. Lily-white lilies may dirt a surface that has “no extreme grace” (as against mere “grace”), and they may “exhaust noise and distance and even dust.” Then again they may not. These Steinian lily-white lilies are neither here nor there.

But one thing is for sure: if lily-white lilies do these things, they most certainly need a “catalogue.” Which, be it remembered, is what “Objects” (sort of ) constitutes: a catalogue of boxes, cloaks, pieces of coffee, carafes; of umbrellas “mounted,” “Mildred’s” and otherwise; of hats, pianos, and seltzer bottles; of red hats and blue coats, of plates and purses; and, of course, a “perfectly unprecedented arrangement” between silly-lily “old ladies.”

N.B. For a link to a fine reading of Tender Buttons at Librivox (done by Cori Samuel), click here. For a down-loadable facsimile of the first edition (1914) of the book, click here. For other discussions of the book within this blog—in which the meaning of its title, among other things, is treated—click here. “Silly-lily,” by the way, is a meme, or turn of phrase, ambient enough to have found its way all the way over to the title of a cut on a record by “Bunkface,” a four-piece Malaysian rock band from Klang, Selangor, formed in 2005—as a quick Google informs me.

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