Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein lived out most of her life in Paris. It was there in the early 20th century that she became enamored with the work of Pablo Picasso. Stein helped propel him into stardom, but she gained as much from Picasso as he did from her. Picasso’s style of abstract art, particularly his use of cubism, is a central element of Gertrude Stein’s own work. In her seminal piece Tender Buttons, Stein flexes her artistic muscles with sprawling, abstract, and at times nonsensical poems that break nearly all grammatical and poetic conventions. One I was drawn to in particular, “A Long Dress” is a purely algebraic experience. The title appears simple enough, but a cursory glance of the writing shows no concrete mention of the titular dress. Stein consistently chooses to be destructive rather than constructive in her poetry, a reflection of her cubist influence. Dresses have defined shapes, waists, currents, lines, and color, all things referenced by Stein throughout the poem, but she alludes to them through a distorted veil. Cubism aims to contort the reader’s view in a calculated way, for Stein that means grammatical “mistakes” or misleading sentence clues. When Stein writes “What is the current. / What is the wind, what is it.” she is not leaving out the question marks for the sake of abstraction, these are intentional misnomers. Confident as always in her words, Stein is not asking a question of the reader, she is creating equations and definitions in her own world. Each iteration of the word “what” in that last line of the first stanza has its own definition. This is Stein’s cubism at its finest, deconstructing one idea and using references to build it out into multiple meanings.
When Stein tackles colors in the third stanza things become even more abstract. Stein starts first with a declarative phrase disguised as an interrogative one “Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a / dark place.” In this line it is “where,” but Stein deploys many of the “Five W’s” throughout the work. The familiarity of these words disarms the reader, allowing Stein to sneak around the back and insert her labyrinthine metaphors. Here the idea of location represents the physical presence of the dress, and the dark place is the absence of any color.
Stein ends “A Long Dress” with her breakdown of colors by defining them in an atomic way. At her most misleading she goes as far as to mix up color combinations just to make the reader think harder on what they’re seeing. To go through each color in the poem would be needlessly time consuming, but her technique is most clear in the last two lines when she says “..a bow is every color. A line distinguishes / it. A line just distinguishes it.” Most writers would never think of a refracting line of light as a bow of every color, but Stein does. That’s what cubism means to her work, and what makes her so special to the world of poetry. Her ability to disassemble ideas and put them back together in new and abstract ways is something we rarely, if ever, have the pleasure of reading.