Two Poems by Gertrude Stein
Introduction by Andrew Epstein
I still remember my first brush with Gertrude Stein’s remarkable poem “Susie Asado” when I was a young graduate student in the early 1990s. The moment stands out because it was one of those rather rare aesthetic experiences when you encounter a work of art that looks and sounds so utterly unlike every other work of art you’ve seen before, one that is so completely outside your frame of reference, that you can’t help but be intrigued and stimulated by its weirdness and dissonance. It was akin to the first time I put on a cassette tape at the age of 13 and heard “The Black Angel’s Death Song” by the Velvet Underground, and was instantly sure that the song’s screeching viola, jarring rhythms, and surreal, word-drunk lyrics made every song I’d ever heard before sound impossibly tame and familiar.
Reading Stein triggered that same sensation – a pleasurable, albeit slightly scary, feeling of being overwhelmed with a new work’s strangeness and difference. I knew that this poem, along with its companion piece “Preciosilla,” were written in 1913, at a moment when Stein was fascinated by her close friend Picasso’s experiments with Cubism, fragmentation, and collage. And I quickly discovered the useful fact that both poems were inspired by the rhythm, movement, and sensual beauty of a flamenco dancer Stein had seen perform in Spain. I soon learned that scholars have read these poems in a wide range of ways – viewing them as experiments in prioritizing the sound of words over their meaning, as Cubist portraits of the Spanish dancer, as coded erotic love poems, or as efforts to create an “open field of narrative possibilities” where multiple potential scenes could happen simultaneously, exemplifying a crucial lineage of avant-garde writing that Marjorie Perloff labeled “the poetics of indeterminacy.”
But all of that mattered less to me than the palpable pleasure of hearing the headlong rush of the poem’s rhythmic refrain, with those five “sweets” coming to rest on “tea,” and the emphatic repetition of that mysterious, exotic-sounding name, “Susie Asado.” I loved the wordplay and odd puns, the way Stein makes language squirm and pop in multiple directions at once, so that “sweet tea” is both a drink and an affectionate name for a lover (“sweetie”) and “told tray sure” invokes a sturdy platter on which one might put a pot of tea but also a “told treasure.”
I was also drawn to Stein’s habit of playfully flirting with but then undermining logic and clarity. Confident-sounding assertions and declarative sentences almost settle into sense before twisting away from conventional meaning in endlessly intriguing ways, as when Stein writes “A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers,” or “the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove.” I found it very liberating, even dizzying, to realize that a literary work could make such claims – could state with apparent certainty that “a nail is unison,” or (as she writes in Tender Buttons) “a description is not a birthday,” or “there is no authority for the abuse of cheese” – leaving the reader to ponder in what ways those claims might or might not be true or valid. I also loved how things in these poems seem to be constantly on the verge of turning into other things, so that “a pot is the beginning of a rare bit of trees,” “the ancient light grey” is actually “yellow,” “trees tremble,” and everything seems unfixed and in motion.
“Susie Asado” also felt vaguely erotic for reasons that I found hard to pin down, though it’s immediately evident in the joy Stein takes in the sensuality of language, both the clashing and chiming sounds of its music, and the jouissance of its proliferating, shifting meanings. This is even more overt in “Preciosilla,” cousin to “Susie Asado,” which similarly plays with expressing barely concealed lesbian sexuality. From its opening image of a person (Clare’s cousin) washing, to the tearing of “her clothes,” to its images of a growing, wet, pink lily and a “single curly shady,” to its exhortation to “come in the stem, come in the grass grown water” – the poem keeps building in erotic energy until it reaches a climactic, panting stream of commands: “go go go go go go, go. Go go. Not guessed. Go go,” before finally subsiding into the sigh that is the last line. Has there even been a sweeter or sexier ending for a love poem than this one? “Toasted susie is my ice-cream.”
My students usually giggle and snicker a bit when they hear this poem read aloud, clearly registering how hot and steamy it is without being able to fully say why. I’ve also always found it compelling that the poem’s giddy exuberance is set off by a surprisingly moving, question-mark-less question about suffering which seems to come out of nowhere – “why is grief.” Why, indeed? Grief seems to be the antithesis of all the color and energy and sensuality of the rest of the poem: “Grief is strange black.” But no matter: “sugar is melting” and Stein does not tarry with grief for long – it is time to “please get wet” and “go go go.”
Looking back, Stein later explained that her experiments during this period “finally resulted in things like ‘Susie Asado’ and ‘Preciosilla’ etc. in an extraordinary melody of words and a melody of excitement that I had done this thing.” The sheer delight Stein takes in language, and her contagious excitement at having “done this thing” with words, burst out of every phrase in these two groundbreaking poems. As she put it in a remark that seems to encapsulate the raison d’être of her poetry itself: “In the midst of writing there is merriment.” Yes, but surely it is there in the midst of reading as well, especially in reading the poems of Gertrude Stein.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Susie Asado which is a told tray sure.
A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers.
When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short for incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
What is a nail. A nail is unison.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Cousin to Clare washing.
In the win all the band beagles which have cousin lime sign and arrange a weeding match to presume a certain point to exstate to exstate a certain pass lint to exstate a lean sap prime to and shut shut is life.
Bait, bait tore, tore her clothes, toward it, toward a bit, toward a sit, sit down in, in vacant surely lots, a single mingle, bait and wet, wet a single establishment that has a lily lily grow. Come to the pen come in the stem, come in the grass grown water.
Lily wet lily wet while. This is so pink so pink in stammer, a long bean which shows bows is collected by a single curly shady, shady get, get set wet bet.
It is a snuff a snuff to be told and have can wither, can is it and sleep sleeps knot, it is a lily scarf the pink and blue yellow, not blue not odor sun, nobles are bleeding bleeding two seats two seats on end. Why is grief. Grief is strange black. Sugar is melting. We will not swim.
Please be please be get, please get wet, wet naturally, naturally in weather. Could it be fire more firier. Could it be so in ate struck. Could it be gold up, gold up stringing, in it while while which is hanging, hanging in dingling, dingling in pinning, not so. Not so dots large dressed dots, big sixes, less laced, less laced diamonds, diamonds white, diamonds bright, diamonds in the in the light, diamonds light diamonds door diamonds hanging to be four, two four, all before, this bean, lessly, all most, a best, willow, vest, a green guest, guest, go go go go go go, go. Go go. Not guessed. Go go.
Toasted susie is my ice-cream.