I’m not going to lie: Tender Buttons, despite its brevity, is challenging. Reading it is like doing yoga or Pilates. It is a deceptively hard workout. But, maybe the fact that the title alludes to a French slang term for “nipples” will make it worth all of the effort.
The slim volume, to which all Modern American prose poetry can be traced, consists of several nipple-referencing, short prose poems arranged in three sections: Objects, Food, and Rooms. Personally, Gertrude had me at “Food.” With poems called “Breakfast” and “Sugar,” I needed no nudging. But, perhaps you do. So here is an amuse bouche:
Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging.
If you hear “udders” instead of “utters,” you’re not alone. The woman is obsessed with nipples. Also, she frequently uses homophones throughout these poems to poke fun at the body. Just read “Peeled Pencil, Choke,” and you’ll get the idea.
Some literary critics have interpreted this book as a lesbian love poem, claiming that the structural transgressions she makes in her poems are meant to underscore her cultural transgression as a lesbian. The word-play, the fragments, the strange punctuation–all are used rhetorically to challenge the reader’s assumptions about gender.
Whether you choose to read Tender Buttons because you like nipples or whether you choose it because you like subversive discourse, Stein’s originality of perception–her obsession with perception–will make it worth your while.