Every Spring, I have the pleasure of teaching the glorious consternations of Gertrude Stein’s linguistic hijinks and language theories to undergraduates. If you know anything about Stein, you know that “hijinks” might be too tame a term for her work. You might know her as an ex-pat fan of Picasso or maybe you remember Kathy Bates in her role from the movie Midnight in Paris. Or maybe you’ve heard of her but don’t know much about her work at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case—few high school curricula would be brave enough to take on her poetry and most college surveys skip her in favor of the more relatable poets (Stevens 13 ways!, Williams’ red wheelbarrow!). Her work is difficult, and some say, obtuse. But I have always been moved by her project, and I continue to be grateful that my teaching team sees fit to keep her on our interdisciplinary syllabus.
Her work centers on the potential of our language and on freeing it from what she called the “patriarchy of grammar.” What she meant by that phrase was that language, like many of the roles and social interactions that define how we relate to one another and ourselves, has been fixed and formulated by a sort of rigid dominant discourse. That kind of rigidity does not leave room for imagination, it prefers tradition to prophecy, it sidelines and suppresses. And the most insidious characteristic of a fixed and utilitarian language, is that we become convinced of its power (or lack of power) to articulate a vision of ourselves and the world.
Stein wanted to divest and re-invest: she wanted to reclaim and rebuild language, to excavate etymologies, to conduct translingual affairs with words. She might, for instance, focus on the word “chair,” and simultaneously see the verb and the noun, then conflate them for a “seat of power.” She might just as easily move from “chair” to “cathedral,” given that they come from the same root. For one brief moment of juxtaposition, the chair soars to new heights buttressed by a romantic relationship of language. She might then return to earth and move from chair to chaise (as in lounge) and then to its auditory twin, “chase.” And suddenly, the sedentary chair becomes an active pursuit of relationship and perceptions. Chair is no longer a utilitarian tool but a story worth telling and hearing. Her approach to words infuriated the poetic establishment, because it didn’t look like poetry. But I maintain, every year, in front of a group of undergraduates that nothing could be more poetic than this lovely dance with words. But what does it MEAN, they ask? Her poems revel in the bounty of words themselves and invite others to do the same. And like the modernist painters of her time, only an intimate knowledge and careful tending of that language would allow her to step so boldly out of the poetic tradition. When I ask students to try and imitate that style, without fail, they reconsider their first assessment and acknowledge how sophisticated her work really is.
Stein’s voice resonates with me because it is powerful and playful. She approaches language, not as a legacy to be preserved but as a gift to be explored, which feels somehow simultaneously sacred and subversive. In her mouth, words grow and morph, language invites the full potential of becoming and makes room for possibilities. Those qualities feel particularly feminine to me, but perhaps they belong to anyone who has traced themselves through the spaces and silences of texts instead of the bold print of protagonists. Perhaps they feel feminine because the voices I have long admired—both in history and in my own community—are voices of women who do this very thing. And furthermore, I do not think they must belong to any particular group. And certainly, I see this generative quality of linguistic imagination keenly in the Gospel itself. Theologian Marion Grau notes, the Word incarnate embodies just those sacred and subversive qualities, and what is THE WORD if not the dynamic relationship of life and language?
The ability to re-define relationship is vital, and it is not a project singular to Gertrude Stein. Even though her poetic project is stunning, Stein’s poems are not really the kind that rattle around in your heart, (though I do have “A Carafe that is a Blind Glass” memorized). So many poets, particularly women, have taken their cues from her or have explored similar territory. In 1977—several decades after Stein was perturbing literary critics everywhere, Adrienne Rich published the poem “Natural Resources” in her volume, The Dream of a Common Language. In this poem and in the entire volume, she imagines a “language with the capacity to free itself” from accumulative force of tradition—like Stein, she bristles at the strictures of that patriarchal grammar (Janet Diehl).
Salvaging words from the wreck of wear and inattention is not only gesture of trespass but a declaration of significance. The poetic iamb becomes the cry I AM—an iteration of self and connection to the divine. This kind of poetic work affords space to live and breathe, to grow and write and imagine. In this mode, then, language itself seeks to save, germinate, flourish, and mutate without fear of exclusion. In her 14-section poem, Rich explores the ways in which language has been used to dominate. This domination not only excludes women, but it isolates men as well. She writes of children “picking up guns / for that is what it means to be a man”—a vision of masculinity that as she notes a few lines later, requires “women’s blood for life.” These words ring too eerily prescient and present given our contemporary moment of violence against women and people of color—all those fixed by that patriarchal grammar. When “man” can only mean one thing, “woman” must also only mean one thing. But Rich imagines a language untethered, language with the ability to “make and make again where such unmaking reigns.” Rigid language unmakes, but we have the choice in every encounter to revise, to re-vision, to remember our roots in the subversive and sacred Word.
In the final section, Rich writes:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who, age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
This, in case you were wondering, is the part of the poem that has been rattling around my heart for the past few months. And I linger on two particular words: save and reconstitute. The word save is from the French, saveur, to keep, to redeem, and to protect. A patriarchal grammar might fix that word for us as “rescue” or “keep”: the kind of saving that robs some of agency and keeps to petrified thinking instead of the more generous restoration and reconciliation of its historical roots. “To save” does not ignore or erase loss but instead focuses on retrieving ways of living into the promise of health and wholeness, like a farmer whose saved seed promises a future harvest—keeping that offers reconstitution and restoration. Here, in this final stanza, the poet’s heart is moved by all she cannot save—and, I might go so far as to say we cannot actually “save” anything in that almost arrogant first sense, the rescue and salvation sense. We can only be present with one another and bear witness, to keep and restore wholeness. I am reminded of the daughter of Old Testament Jephthah, whose father promised to sacrifice whomever came out of his door first if the Lord would deliver him in war. This has always seemed like such an irrational promise to me. What man would do this? What father would do this? In the name of war? And when his only child, his daughter meets him in celebration as he returns, he must make good on his oath. Her friends have no power to protect her. They cannot save her, at least not in a fairytale ending rescue. There is no scapegoat waiting for her, no deus ex machina. But instead, these friends offer the only thing they can offer—they are present with her, they keep her, and redeem her for a while. They roam the hills with her, they sing with her, offering their words to wind. And together, they carry her deeper into the world she must quit. And for generations after, her life has lead women into the wilderness together. It is not the happiest of endings, but it is not nothing.
Similarly, the poet acknowledges all this loss with humility. Some things, maybe no things can be saved, but she does not give up. Her heart is not broken beyond repair, but is instead moved to action, and she decides to “cast her lot with those who age after age, perversely and with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” She does not cast that lot alone, but with a remnant of the perverse—perverse only because this valiant hope and creative impulse stands opposed to the status quo. And notably, perverse carries the same constitution of letters as preserve. Given the context of the rest of the poem, she gestures toward women and their collective capacity for healing, but again, the ambiguity of “who” gestures also toward any person who is willing to give up the power of dominant discourse for the potential of reconstitution.
To reconstitute is to “establish anew”—which means a new way of doing things cannot be set in motion simply with different faces in charge; that is to say, we cannot install leaders who ascribe to the same exclusive language. To reconstitute requires imagination and an ear for prophecy, because it also the weight of framing and ordination. To reconstitute is to shift perspectives, to see from someone else’s vantage point. It is to ordain—to make holy and sacred this word work. As Ocean Vuong, poet and author says, “the future is not in our hands, it is in our mouths.” And one iteration of reconstitute even means to “change the form or membership.” Reconstituting the world could bring more experiences from the margins into the story, improving all of us in the process, refreshing and reanimating what is parched.
The past year has been fraught with the paralysis of grief. Together, we have mourned so much and for so many. Sometimes the words we have at hand feel empty and meaningless, but the prophetic voices have sustained me, the ones whose hearts are moved to response. Specifically, my women friends and the poets have offered a consistent presence that has helped me mourn the broken without breaking. They help me see and speak beauty. Rich’s dream of a common language takes shape as ferocious sister-love for me in particular and for the world at large, that allows, requires language to occupy sacred and subversive spaces. So many times this past year, I have been told by those powerful dominant discourse voices to “yield,” that my voice was wrong or abrasive or did not matter. Perhaps all of us have experienced that discouragement as the news rages and the pandemic distances us from one another, as if we are singing into the wind. But like a seed saved for future harvest, to “yield” can mean both to surrender and to flourish, an interstitial place of discovery and imagination from which to blossom. This is where I want to cast my lot—in the tensions and ambiguities. One of my favorite authors, Marilyn Chandler McIntyre writes, such “tolerance for ambiguity is one of the most urgent disciplines and attitudes we can cultivate. It is the opposite of bigotry, rigidity, and culture-bound vision (117). In community and with attention, words lose their binary inflexibility and become instead, dense with life. Words become an invitation to engage in practices of hope against all odds. We are not obligated to a culture-bound vision, but because we have the future in our mouths, we should be obligated to cultivate the healing potential of language—of the embodied Word that is vast enough to reconstitute the world.