Jackson Mac Low

Making Some Ordinary Things a Little Fancier: Gender in Mac Low’s Use of Stein

In my final plateau on Jackson Mac Low, I would like to spend some time looking at the gender politics at play in Mac Low’s use of Gertrude Stein’s work as both source and seed text in The Stein Poems. Stein’s work, especially on both political and epistemological levels, has long been studied as a feminist response to the otherwise highly masculinized writings of the other modernists (most notably Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot), and against the very masculine discourses of war writing and historical writing that became popular at the time. In Stein scholarship, the trend has been, for the most part, to read Stein as a writer concerned with presenting a feminized form of writing that is working against the history, narrative, and logic that marks phallogocentricity. For Maria Diedrich, in “‘A Book in Translation about Eggs and Butter’: Gertrude Stein’s World War II,” Stein works against the patriarchal tropes of “rationality, linearity, and hierarchical order” by rejecting history and historical temporality, instead privileging domesticity and what Diedrich terms “daily living” (92). In this sense, when Stein focuses her work on the domestic (clothing, food, household objects, and the quotidian in general), and when she also rejects the linearity of traditional narrative, she, in turn, “rejects the canonized paradigms of the war discourse [and thus] reconstructs a reality which in its destruction of the past and its negation of the future consists exclusively of the moment” (Diedrich 101). Of course, here Diedrich is looking specifically at Stein’s WWII-era writings, and Mac Low, for the most part, deals with Stein’s earlier work (the two texts he deals with most are A Long Gay Book [1911-12] and Tender Buttons [1914]), but a similar preoccupation with everyday life as a counteraction against patricentric modes of narrative and history are still certainly at play in Stein’s early texts.

On a metapoetic level, then, this a move for Stein from the detached and naturalized concept of “history” to the personal, affective, and highly constructed concept of “literature.” That is, as Phoebe Stein Davis writes in “‘Even Cake Gets to Have Another Meaning’: History, Narrative, and ‘Daily Living’ in Gertrude Stein’s World War II Writings,” “Stein makes ‘history’ (‘what goes on from time to time’), become ‘literature’ (‘what goes on all the time’) – what happens every day” (575). And, of course, a similar model (if less clearly gendered) is at play in Mac Low’s poetics generally; his move to asyntactical writing and his use of systemic and deterministic methods to produce his work breaks with these same conceptions of rationality, historicity, and linearity. And, moreover, the highly stylized manner in which Mac Low constructs and presents his texts, and his “attention to beauty” (Tardos xvi), show that he is, alongside Stein, an author who privileges the constructed over the natural or naturalized. And yet, Mac Low’s interest in producing “minimally egoic” texts (Tardos xviii), texts that attempt to break from the subjectivity of the author, seems to run counter to Stein’s manifestly feminist and feminized modes of writing that depend, in no small part, on the author’s gendered subject position. Indeed, as feminist critics of postmodern and poststructural writings have long argued, the erasure or reduction of the writing subject is alluring as a literary practice, but it is at best unhelpful, and at worst problematic, to dismantle a voice that is necessarily minoritarian. Language, Stein’s work tells is, is necessarily gendered, and as long as legible words exists, even if syntax, narrative, and even sense has been doctored, there will always be issues of gender at play.

The potential gendered problems of Mac Low’s use of Stein in The Stein Poems stems from, I argue, the politically neutral or unproblematic ways in which Mac Low uses the Stein texts he chooses. This is especially transparent once one considers the clearly political manner in which Mac Low writes-through Pound and Schwitters. As Tyrus Miller explains, for Mac Low, Pound “represented a powerful negative exemplum of the way in which art and politics could be linked – an authoritative and authoritarian model that it was crucial for the anarcho-pacifist Mac Low to come to terms with and defuse” (97, italics in original). Mac Low’s use of Pound’s work, then, is a process by which he comes to terms with, and potentially counteracts, Pound’s fascist politics and poetics. His use of Schwitters, on the other hand, is less critical but no less political. Miller writes instead that Schwitters “is a profoundly positive figure for Mac Low, artistically and, through his art, politically as well” (97). Rather than a point of contestation, “Schwitters is presented by Mac Low as his political alter ego as well as his aesthetic precursor and exemplum” (Miller 98). Thus, the Merzgedichte are anticapitalist, anticonsumerist pieces that join Schwitters’s political concerns with Mac Low’s own. In contrast, Mac Low’s use of Stein is almost purely aesthetic; while his overall poetics and politics are clearly influenced by Stein’s writing, The Stein Poems are less a political argument either for (as in Schwitters) or against (as in Pound) her politics, and more a joyful appreciation of what he views as the affective or emotional potentials of her work. This move is, from a gendered perspective, somewhat problematic.

In fact, Mac Low actually identifies Stein’s work as moving away from the quotidian or ordinary, even in (or through) her presentations of domestic ordinariness. This is best demonstrated in Mac Low’s discussion of Stein, “Reading a Selection from Tender Buttons,” collected amongst a series of Stein readings in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Mac Low writes:

Is the whole poem then a ‘pointing’ from the ordinary transparent carafe (‘nothing strange’) to one ‘not ordinary’ – one that is ‘blind’ – an orderly (‘not unordered’) movement ‘spreading’ from transparency & clarity thru the ‘single hurt color’ to the implied darkness & opacity of blindness, a movement condensed & made explicit in the title?” (204)

Here Mac Low extrapolates from Stein’s “All this and not ordinary,” from the first poem of the collection, “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” that the poem looks to move from the ordinariness of a transparent carafe to one made different (and thus “not ordinary”) by virtue of its being filled, and thus made “blind” — no longer transparent. What he fails to identify, anywhere in this reading, is the political import behind Stein’s use of these images of domesticity, and the blatant references to “violence” as indicative of the limitations of the domestic sphere. Instead of the clear political responses he has to Pound and Schwitters, his response to Stein here is markedly aesthetic and affective; he describes the process of reading Tender Buttons as both “inward” and “emotional” (203).

For Elisabeth A. Frost, in her article, “Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino,” this affective but apolitical or neutral response to Stein’s work is what marks Mac Low’s reading, and the other readings compiled in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, as problematic. She writes, “The entries in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book‘s ‘Readings’ section–all appreciations of Tender Buttons and all written by men — bear witness to Stein’s importance to this particular ‘movement’” (par. 2). But she also adds that where “recent feminist avant-garde poets linked to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing” admit to owing a great debt to Stein’s poetics, they do so reservedly, in that they “contest them — and her — as well” (par. 2). For Frost, the readings of Stein in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book amount to “simply acknowledg[ing] Stein’s language experiments” (par. 2), without adequately critiquing or contesting the politics therein. This lack of political engagement is perhaps best demonstrated in one of the sexual innuendoes I discussed in my previous entry, which appears in the first four lines of “Mercy Can’t Give a Girl Much Pleasure in Things (Stein 108),” and reads

Mercy can’t give a girl much of a costume.

She was pleased, nay, delighted to be put on the table.

If things were resolved by analyzing redness, wouldn’t that make some ordinary things a little fancier?

More tables are designed than made.

In this section of the poem, Mac Low mines the results of his systemic use of Stein, producing a poem that seems to detach Stein’s interest in the ordinary from her source poetry. Mac Low’s poem suggests that theorization (“analyzing” and “design[ing]”) works to remove the quotidian from its place, making it “a little fancier” and thus not “ordinary.” Analysis and design fall squarely into the designation of logic, sense, and, ultimately, history; it is thus unsurprising that these activities seem to directly follow the process of laying “she” (and unnamed female character) on the table. This reorganization of Stein’s work moves the feminized writing-subject position to the quotidian object itself, and instead shifts its focus to the very discourse Stein’s poetics strived to work against. If “[m]ore tables are designed than made,” and if “analyzing redness” (perhaps the very redness that renders a carafe blind — a “hurt color”) makes ordinary things fancier, than certainly this text is not interested in using “daily living” as a recourse away from the grand narrative of logic and history. This is not to say that Mac Low’s poetics more generally does not oppose these structures; I hope to have demonstrated in my previous entries that this was certainly the case. What I seek to illuminate here is merely that there are clear gendered issues with the seemingly apolitical manner in which Mac Low engages with Stein, and I would be remiss if I did not, in this final section, point them out.

3 thoughts on “Making Some Ordinary Things a Little Fancier: Gender in Mac Low’s Use of Stein

  1. This is a very useful, insightful way to wrap up your discussion of Mac Low’s work.

    I wonder if musing for a paragraph or so about ways that Mac Low (or, in a sense, any of the male writers who admire her work) could have more effectively/ethically engaged with her Stein’s writing would be helpful. I don’t think you mean to do so, but this post writes male responses to Stein slightly into a corner, implying that it might be best for them to not engage with her work. Perhaps you could suggest a way around this possible impasse?

    I know I’m picking up your thoughts at a significant delay, but do/could you touch on this topic again in your Duncan (another ardent admirer of Stein’s work–see especially his _Play Time Pseudo Stein_, though there are some other pieces in the Collected Early Duncan, if memory serves) entries?

    • Ah, yes. I supposed I do need to be more forgiving her. Stein is for everyone, right? I think that the way around the impasse of approriation is in not picking and choosing what political elements we take from Stein. Ignoring the clearly gendered elements of her work (and then being so, so affective in his reading) is what irks me most here. Then again, perhaps I am just oversensitive…

      • I don’t think you’re overly critical in this plateau–I just think offering a positive alternative to the shortcomings of Mac Low’s practice would be helpful, if only by providing an example of what you see as a more ethical engagement with Stein’s work. But, yes, I think that the basic stance is probably what you suggest, that one shouldn’t pick and choose what political elements to take from Stein–though, really, isn’t every engagement with any text a practice of picking and choosing?

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