Wednesday, October 02, 2013

ModPo 2013 #23 Familiarity and Alienation: On Stein's "A Long Dress"

Dress pattern image from

Gertrude Stein's "A Long Dress" from Tender Buttons


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. 
I was given fair warning in the introduction to week 4 (Chapter 2.3). Gertrude Stein is difficult. Yes, she is.

I see that there is a first literal reading: the making of a dress, the industry of making a dress, the constraints of making a dress. Around the industry of making a dress is this thing called fashion that has something to do with what is current, with colors that are meant for certain seasons and collections or lines designed for what is fashionable. The line that "distinguishes" it (presumably the long dress) could mean the fashion line (or the collection) or perhaps it's the line in the pattern of the dress.

Then, there is a second layer of meaning, a "reference," that calls on the meta-poetic or consciousness of the poem as the process of writing poetry or making meaning itself. The "line" in the poem now refers to the long line of tradition. "Current" now has something to do with what is modern, what is "new" versus what is traditional or from the "long line" of tradition. Now the manufacture of dress now refers to the manufacture of literature, of poetry, to the manufacture of meaning. If I didn't watch the video discussion, I wouldn't have made the connection at all. Maybe a hint to all this would have been the repetition of "lines" at the end of the poem, "A line distinguishes it. A/ line just distinguishes it."

There are other unexplained lines in the poem that are intruiging/ confusing like the absence of question marks, the reference to the wind which I don't associate with the a long dress. There is the reference to a dark place that is not a dark place. How is this related to the long dress? And why should a white and a red be a black? How is a yellow and green a blue? How is pink scarlet? And how does this "bow" have every color? Is she saying that a history, a tradition makes it possible for "dark places" to disappear? Are the first set of colors referring to skin color? What about the second set of colors? Everyone knows that yellow and blue make green so why is she inverting it? And what about pink being scarlet? Is pink referring to nakedness and scarlet referring to the scarlet letter? Bow definitely refers to rainbow. But at this point, what does it have to do with anything? Is it the bow at the waist? The ultimate constraint? I really have no idea.

I wanted to enjoy the poem, I really did. But the thing's too wide open. Maybe that was her point? She used familiar words and familiar constructions but did it in such a way that the reader would not really recognize them after all? What is the difference between art and random words strung together? I know that the construction of the poem was effortful. But what if the result is too alienating? Dickinson's poems, while adhering to creating puzzles out of language, were familiar enough to start with so that I could be engaged as a reader. For example, gathering Paradise in one's narrow hands is not direct nor prosaic but, at the same time, it is pointing to something familiar enough so that the reader has a clue. Maybe there might be multiple interpretations but we are given Paradise contrasted with narrow hands and there is something that can definitely be made out of that.

So, for now, I'll not make any conclusions yet. I'll just keep going through Stein for the week and see what happens.

Note: I am currently taking a course on called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.

No comments:

Search This Blog