Tender Buttons: Objects
by Gertrude Stein, illustrated by Lisa Congdon

Chronicle Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-452-11209-1.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 12/21/2013


Ordinary objects become extraordinary when one pays attention to them. Pablo Neruda was a master at it in his odes to common things. And here's Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons: Objects, first published as a "modernist masterpiece" in 1914. This latest version has been reinvigorated with the whimsical illustrations of Lisa Congdon.

When reading Gertrude Stein one can't expect sentences to read with the usual logic or syntax. Each word becomes an object as it's celebrated for sound and rhythm. Opinions of the book through the years have included "a collection of confusing gibberish, and an intentional hoax." It's also been referred to as "a masterpiece of verbal Cubism."

The image on the front cover, a chair, accompanies Stein's "A Chair." Don't expect any chairs in her prose poem, though. Instead you'll find: "a widow in a wise veil," "suitable bedding," "not any sofa," and "a whole barn." If we freed our minds, and relaxed a little, perhaps we too would let "a chair" offer such flights of fancy.

"A Substance in a Cushion" is illustrated by a colorful sash looping into circles which is precisely what the poems do—"linguistic circles" as the back cover states. And there's the chair: "Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them."

I found it a delight to see Condon's interpretations or rather, reactions, in her playful illustrations. "A Petticoat" for instance, shows the white, the ink spot, the "rose charm." The young woman has painted toe nails, Congdon's playful addition. "A Box," "Mildred's Umbrella," "A Plate," "A Red Hat," and "A New Cup and Saucer" will have you appreciating the objects around you while seeing them in a new and unconventional light.

Congdon throws in her own surprises with a deer head covered in red flowers for "Red Roses." For "A Shawl," Congdon has drawn tickets (referred to in the prose poem), with words and numbers in various colors that look well worn. I can imagine choosing such tickets and writing my own version of "a plate that has a little bobble."

The book has inspired generations of experimental poetry and with this new release will, no doubt, invoke more exploration of words and objects. Although Tender Buttons was published in 1914, it now has a refreshing new twist that will help it find a whole new appreciative audience.

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was born in the United States and lived in France for most of her life. She was a novelist, essayist and a poet who hosted salons that gathered together the great thinkers, artists and writers of her time. Lisa Condon is a San Francisco-based fine artist and illustrator best known for her colorful paintings and drawings. Visit the artist's website.

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