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Tender Buttons

    A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and
a sold hole, a little less hot.
American author Ben Marcus, writes about experimental fiction and contemporary authors in a Harpers essay. He briefly discusses Gertrude Stein's 1914 prose poem Tender Buttons and observes that:

"The language is simple, and the syntax is familiar, though it is shorn of recognizable content and reads like an encoded WWII dispatch. Sentences shift purpose in midstream, and parts of speech get hammered until they wobble, exposing the deep strangeness of language." 

Language is set of symbols with a mutually agreed upon meaning but meanings can change over time or with context and are constantly being negotiated by users. Texts as intentionally ambiguous as Stein's offer a special challenge because, again to quote Marcus, much of Tender Buttons is "...free of coherence, so much more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative, enigmatic rather than earthly, evasive rather than embracing".

In a text so open and enigmatic readers are certain to find what they are looking for -- a "feminist reworking of patriarchal language" as even the most basic criticism suggests or, as the book jacket promises, Stein's "bawdy sense of humour". More significantly readers of Tender Buttons are reminded that appreciation of most poetry requires some acknowledgement of the slipperiness of language. This is not a grudging acceptance but rather a celebration of "the deep strangeness of language". Much contemporary text based art work also celebrates this strangeness. We might specifically consider early cubist collages (that Stein would have known intimately) and important work of this century, like that of Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer and Mark Titchner. 

My project, the modest distribution of small pins adorned with the word "TENDER", celebrates Stein's work and humbly acknowledges the complexity of language. These tender buttons (an awkward pun) can act as a kind of label or assertion. Like Stein's poem they can be sexual, an attempt to address patriarchal language or simply an evocative declaration.

Blair Brennan
February 2011 

Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons: Objects Food Rooms (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), 24  

Ben Marcus, "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as we Know it: A Correction," Harpers Magazine,
October 2005, 48 

. Ibid, 49 

Wkipedia online encyclopaedia, s.v. "Gertrude Stein." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Stein (accessed on April 23, 2008)

Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons: Objects Food Rooms (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), back cover

Tender Buttons artist's statement

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