Harriet Scott Chessman: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

"Patriarchal Poetry"

        Let her be let her be let her be let her be to be to be let her be let her try.         To be shy.                  ("Patriarchal Poetry," YGS, 120)


In 1927 Stein returns to the question of creation from a new angle. In the earlier "Mildred Aldrich Saturday" she challenges the concept of a storyteller, whether female or male, a challenge heightened in A Birthday Book's eschewal of story or teller in favor of a mythos of continual and unordered linguistic birth. Although her 1927 prose poem "Patriarchal Poetry" continues this mythos, a new element appears in the annunciation of a writing primarily—although not exclusively—attached to a female presence and landscape. This writing will find its fullest expression in the 1927 novel Lucy Church Amiably.

"Patriarchal Poetry" grounds its consideration of literary origination and ownership in manifold allusions to Genesis. In rewriting Genesis, Stein's meditation links monotheistic creation with a monologic and authoritarian literary form allied to historical and narrative linearity. We may enter into her meditation via a surprising riddle occurring halfway through "Patriarchal Poetry":

What is the difference between a fig and an apple. One comes before the other. What is the difference between a fig and an apple one comes before the other what is the difference between a fig and an apple one comes before the other. (YGS, 128)

At first glance, the answer ("One comes before the other") appears irrelevant. Although "fig" comes before "apple" in the sentence, this priority evinces a humorous arbitrariness, and indeed under- goes a sudden reversal as a second "fig" follows "apple," to be followed in turn by another "apple." The claim to priority itself—to being "before"—becomes comically impossible to sustain.

Whereas the order of "figs" and "apples" in Genesis holds crucial significance for the conceptual shape of Western Judeo-Christian history, Stein blithely changes the original order in her first sentence. In the account of the Fall the apple "comes before" the fig, in that Eve and then Adam, in eating the apple, cause their own Fall, represented by their attempt to hide their nakedness in fig leaves. This story represents and explains the woman's "difference" in a negative sense. The price of Eve's transgression is the pain of childbirth and, as Stein may have interpreted it, the secondary status of women within patriarchal culture: "In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you."

The mention of "figs" and "apples" evokes a situation of Adamic naming grounded in the similarity of Adam to the original Namer. John's interpretation of Genesis in linguistic terms—"ln the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"—marks the originary power of God as the Word who, in naming, calls into existence and who continues to govern the world He has named. The story's sequence, from God's Creation to the creation of Adam and then to the creation and transgression of Eve, may be said to form an argument about the importance of priority in the establishment, from the beginning, of hierarchical relationships. Stein reveals the arbitrariness and changeability of such a sequence. Priority becomes a comic and even a useless issue, as the Word metamorphoses into words, composed of letters on a page: "f-I-f," "a-p-p-l -e." The order of letters in each word, although agreed upon by all speakers of the English language, manifests itself within Stein's writing as essentially arbitrary, just as the sequence of "apple" to "fig" exists simply through consensus: and who, Stein might ask, gives a fig for consensus? Eve's transgression against God's Word becomes in Stein's text a "mistake"—"Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake" (YGS, 124)—to be reclaimed as Stein's project. By making mistakes—"Patriarchal Poetry makes mistakes" (YGS, 132)—Stein turns Genesis on its head. She reenters the "Garden," not of Eden (God's and Adam's garden), but of language itself, a field within which words may be loosened from the old order, the old stories and meanings. Eve's capacity to make "mistakes" (a significantly mild term) forms matter for celebration, as in "Poetry and Grammar," where Stein observes:

[Verbs and adverbs] have one very nice quality and that is that they can be so mistaken. It is wonderful the number of mistakes a verb can make and that is equally true of its adverb. Nouns and adjectives never can make mistakes can never be mistaken but verbs can be so endlessly, both as to what they do and how they agree or disagree with whatever they do. (LIA, 211-12)

Once words make "mistakes," leaping away from their traditional significances and contexts, "patriarchal poetry" may be "fastened back." "Patriarchal Poetry" suggests this fastening in its beginning: "As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away" (YGS, 106). If "it" signifies "patriarchal poetry," then Stein suggests that this poetry "took" a long time to make, just as Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" embarks upon a lengthy project of unfastening. This poetic tradition, however, may be kept "back," in the past, where it cannot harm the present text. As the patriarchal poet, or the poetic tradition, "he" may be carried away from the present, just as the pronoun "he" may be loosened from its freightedness as a signifier of dominance within culture.

Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" also represents a "fastening back," not to an historical point but to an imaginary one. She offers us the utopian possibility of becoming present "before" words became ordered by the Word. This place of "beforeness" may be under- stood as a transformation of the presymbolic relation of intimacy between mother and child, where words have not yet become participants in the Law of the Father, but present themselves as sounds, alive, unfastened to objects, and fascinating ("fasten-ating") in their ceaselessly changing nature. Language in its original and potential form, Stein suggests, transcends all our attempts to "fasten " it down. In Stein's redeemed version of the mother-infant relation, no figure claims priority.

Words spill with profusion into the opening of Stein's second paragraph, in a movement illuminating her assertion that paragraphs are "emotional":

For before let it before to be before spell to be before to be before to have to be to be for before to be tell to be to having held to be to be for before to call to be for to be before to till until to be till before to be for before to be until to be for before to for to be for before will for before to be shall to be to be for to be for to be before still to be will before to be before for to be to be. (YGS, 106)

We hear a distorted echo of God's first Word here, his "Let there be. .." The "original" "Let there be. .." becomes dispersed: we see the words "let" and "be," and even an approximation of the whole phrase, now "let it be—––," yet their location in a sentence of divine significance has been made impossible. The word that originally might have meant God's (or the human author's) priority—"before"—becomes far more unstable, capable of breaking in two and coming together again: "to be for to be before." The Word, transformed into this cornucopia of words, has become a matter of spelling ("spell to be before to be before"), whose original "spell" ("Let there be. ..") may be unspelled by Stein's new incantation.

The beginning of this paragraph, "for before," represents a parody in small of the ideology of priority. "For" literally comes before "before": "For [comes before] before." This assertion attaches to a grander claim, as "for," signifying "because," marks the beginning of an explanation that might read: "Because [I came] before, [I have the right to claim power.]" "Before," in this sense, acts as the familiar agent, guarantor, and source of authority in Western culture. This "before," however, joins no complete sentence, divine or human, but opens onto a tumultuous series of words, "befores" scattered among them.

This deconstructive and demythologizing rewriting of Genesis, however, offers simultaneously a new act of origination, a call into literary and linguistic being. Unordered by sentences or syntax, the words in these paragraphs find a new order. As they jostle each other in a continual movement, coming together in a different form each time we attempt to read through them, rhyming, splitting in two and reuniting, repeating with seemingly infinite variations, these words plunge us into the immediacy and presence of language, where each word, even each sound, each letter, marks a birth—not a birth out of one coherent authorial presence, but a different kind, a sudden and delightful appearance of word after word, letter after letter, onto the whiteness of the page.

This continuous birth of language links with a "story" glimpsed but largely unwritten, one countering Genesis with an account of an utterly democratic creation. The "for" in one sense—"let it be for"—suggests a gift, an interpretation borne out further on:

    Dedicated to all the way through. Dedicated to all the way through.

    Dedicated too all the way through. Dedicated too all the way through.

    Apples and fishes day-light and wishes apples and fishes day-light and

wishes day-light at seven.

    All the way through dedicated to you. (YGS, 118)

Another presence becomes felt here, one that may in an immediate sense be "fastened" to Alice Toklas. "Alice" indeed comes in as a name within a few lines of this dedication: "Helen greatly relieves Alice patriarchal poetry come too there must be patriarchal poetry come too" (YGS, 119). "Patriarchal poetry" may be transformed to such an extent that it will "come" to these two women; or it may "come too," it may come along with other poetics, for Stein is establishing a democracy. In this sense, the opening passage ("For before") may represent a form of marriage vow, a statement of dedication: "to have," "to be," "to be for," "to be t[w]o" (an allusion to "Alice B. Toklas") "to having held," "to call to." All these infinitives suggest an infinity, an illimitability, of the love between these "two," as Stein vows that she "will" [love], just as she "shall" [ always love], "still," and for the duration of time ("while").

This allusion to Stein's relationship with an actual woman forms part of a larger revision of the concept of genesis, for in Stein's alternative "creation" at least two figures are present: the "we" of the "to be we" passage—"To be we to be to be we to be to be to be we to be we" (YGS, 114). The unnamed "they" referred to throughout the piece may refer simultaneously to "patriarchal poets" and to the two whose "wedding"—"Not a piece of which is why a wedding left" (YGS, 113) [not a piece of wedding cake is left?]—"Patriarchal Poetry" announces, and through whom the "poetry" comes into being. Together, "they have it with it reconsider it with it" (YGS, l08), where the "it" may be both their love and, incongruously, patriarchal poetry, which undergoes reconsideration in relation to ("with") "their" intimate creativity, their creation of intimacy. "They might change it as it can be made to be" (YGS, 112): through their doubled efforts, they have the power to change the very conception of authorship.

This half-articulated intimacy gives birth to an alternative language and literary form allied to the female, although open to an interplay of gender. Toward the middle of "Patriarchal Poetry," the birth of this new form is announced (and prayed for) more openly:

    Let her be to be to be to be let her be to be to be let her to be let her to be let her be to be when is it that they are shy.     Very well to try.     Let her be that is to be let her be that is to be let her be let her try.     Let her be let her be let her be to be to be shy let her be to be let her be to be let her try.     Let her try.     Let her be let her be let her be let her be to be to be let her be let her try.     To be shy. (YGS, 120)

This pronoun "her," open in its reference, may include Alice "B." Toklas ("Let her be" can be read as "letter b"), Stein herself ("Let her try": let her attempt to recreate patriarchal poetry by renaming and reclaiming it), and a discourse "more democratically inclusive of the feminine ("her try," or "her[s]t[o]ry," the opposite of an exclusive "his story"), for which the text wishes and prays through its rhythmic incantation. The word "shy," enfolding within itself both "she" and "I," emblematizes the doubleness of this writing. Furthermore, the plea to "let her" constitutes an invocation to the "letter" ("let her try": letter/herstory: a new form of literature), which, as the element composing written language, may be "rearranged," just as Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" rearranges traditional "letters": "Rearrangement is nearly rearrangement" (YGS, 119). The letter, as a material sign, comes as close as possible to the literal, as the traditional place of the female, now drawn into language.

In the insistence upon language's materiality, upon its graphic shapes and designs as well as its presence as sheer and delightful sound, Stein attempts ("Let her try") to attach language to the body, especially to the realm of lesbian relationship, which be- comes her figure for the form of writing she (they) urge(s) into existence. Soon after the incantation of "Let her try," the sexuality that has been intimated but only obliquely described bursts into articulation:

Near near near nearly pink near nearly pink nearly near near nearly pink. Wet inside and pink outside. Pink outside and wet inside wet inside and pink outside latterly nearly near near pink near near nearly three three pink two gentle one strong three pink all medium medium as medium as medium sized as sized. (YGS, 121)

This passage "nearly" describes a lesbian erotics. The suggestive "wet inside and pink outside," although it is not "fastened" to any particular part of the body, hints at the female genitals, just as the numbers "one," "two," and "three" may refer to fingers. Stein's resistance to naming names here forms an essential part of her dismantling of traditional representations of the female body. Further, the limitlessness of this sexuality, as Stein evokes it, represents the basis for a utopian transcendence of history. Origin and priority have no hold here, for this erotics has no beginning and no end; it cannot be understood as a linear narrative, just as its participants, its "authors," cannot be identified. Each may be .'before" the other, in the sense of being present to the other, yet no one figure emerges as the primary creator of this ongoing event. In this sense, although the model for such dialogic creativity is that of lesbian love-making, the model opens out to a larger field inclusive of both genders, in which gender itself becomes a questionable category, since the hierarchy upon which it has been based becomes no longer possible.


Title Harriet Scott Chessman: On "Patriarchal Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Harriet Scott Chessman Criticism Target Gertrude Stein
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Public is Invited to Dance: Representation, the Body, and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein
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