Weekly Prompt: Stein on My Mind

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Paris 1923 | Courtesy of VerySmallKitchen

Speaking of summer reading, my summer reads (and flicks too, apparently!) have demonstrated the uncanny trend of featuring the work and life of a single character: Gertrude Stein.  Without knowing anything about the book except that it was recommended to me by multiple people, I started reading Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.  I’m about four chapters into the novel, and have just begun to realize that the mysterious “Mesdames” referenced obliquely throughout the introductory chapter are none other than Alice B. Toklas and, as she is called in the book, “GertrudeStein.”


I had also planned to read Juliana Spahr’s Everybody’s Autonomy: Collective Reading and Collective Identity (University of Alabama Press, 2001) later this month, and when I flipped through it a few days ago — lo and behold, the title of chapter one?  “There Is No Way of Speaking English: The Polylingual Grammars of Gertrude Stein.”  Spahr goes on to consider such figures as Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, but, as far as I can tell, grounds most of her inquiry in the groundwork Stein laid for future generations of poets in Tender Buttons and other influential writings.

But last night’s movie is what really convinced me that something the universe has been orchestrating a grand conspiracy to get Stein on my mind.  Friends had warned us to walk into Midnight in Paris without any expectations or previous knowledge about the film, so we had no clue what the movie was about — or into whose home the main character would stumble after wandering into 1920s Paris.  I won’t spoil the (admittedly very thin) plot, but suffice it to say, I got the message.

So, that said.  Here’s your prompt for the week, taken from Joan Retallack’s introduction to Gertrude Stein: Selections (University of California Press, 2008) — yes, another book that just “happened” to be on my list.

Nouns can be themselves when placed, unmodified by adjectives and adverbial phrases, as sensual presences in space-time, just as color can be color or a line can be a line.  This sets up a force field that exceeds the confines of the familiar framing devices of stories or symbolic structures  Each grammatical moment frames itself, and in so doing is unrestricted in its own right and equal to the next. (“Introduction,” 46)

If this doesn’t make much sense, the little snippet of a poem below can act as an example of what I think Retallack is referencing in her introduction.  I wrote this before beginning my summer reading list, but perhaps it’s poems like this that brought me to Stein and the revolutionary work she accomplished.

red gloss back split         seam strip
dot splotch            antler feet, whisker toes
heel & hem            finger wisp            antler prongs
feelers         eye-eye            face whiskers
spindle tip forearms            catlike preen ladybug lady
bug o          eye-eye white dot neck            thorax head


*  *  *


Write a poem composed entirely (or at least mostly!) of nouns, in which words and objects exist as “presences in space-time,” and where time is located solely in the present.  Think about how grammatical structure can be dramatically remade to convey the immediacy of a linguistic composition in time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.