Monday, August 20, 2007

or something just like it

The painfully fascinating DS and I visited an exhibit at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco this weekend, the occasion being the hundredth anniversary of Gertrude Stein's meeting Alice B. Toklas.

This, the celebration of a private milestone for a public poet, might strike you as suspect. It struck me that way anyway. As I learned working on my Bellow thesis, it's generally in the work of poetasters and artistic bottomfeeders that we witness the failure to distinguish between the poet's body of work and her lived life. But well, my friends, we've come all this way. The ocean floor has all sorts of good bits. And now that we've invaded the personal life of the ladies, what the hell, let's mill around for a bit, shall we?

First things first: I do wish there were more happy photos of Alice. Take a look at the one I've got here. I can earnestly say that that's one of the more flattering shots. Hayzeus! Most of the others are more of the same, painted portaits included, Gertrude looking very much the satisfied rooster and poor Alice to her side and slipped a bit back, as if an apron-string kid, always the dour sulker. If pictures are to be trusted (which, unless maybe taken by Arbus or Sherman, they are not!), Alice haunted around looking perennially bummed out--always with the same long limbs, pulled face, heavy cloche, shadowy mustache, and the eyes--ugh. The very eyes of contrition. Buck up, Alice. Look at the company you keep, for god's sake!

Anyway, we walked exactly two short hallways with a total of five display cases and maybe a dozen of said less-than-charitable portraits and photographs. All in all, it was a very good tourlet. It's a rare occasion, indeed, that I find myself trading Gertrude Stein recordings. DS even has a fantastic McAlly speaker doodad and so we sat on a wide birch bench and ate chocolate malt balls and listened together to our iPods (DS's black, mine an angelic white) giving poetry reading by proxy for our very own Gertie.

Syllable by arch syllable, she introduced "She Bowed to Her Brother" with a review of the importance of the period in the piece. I don't know why I'm so much less interested in Gertrude's perspective on the period than I am, as DS pointed out, the em dash in Dickinson. I just think Dickinson's dashes made a difference. Stein's readings seemed to be so very much about performance. Then again, so were Parker's. So were Millay's. And I have lots that I love about each of them. And it's not Stein's haughtiness that bugs me. If that were the case, "Daddy" would not be one of my more frequently played tracks in my lists. (And what do you know? DS played me a great excerpt of Plath. She can be heard tightly decrying the personal's unjustified place in the poetical; she made the important caveat that the personal must first be managed and manipulated and shoved around until it can be kept in its written corner. "Now stay, bad personal experience worth recounting; stay, I said!") I mean, if Plath wasn't arrogant enough in her standards and style to give Stein a run, then I don't know who was. And I, by the by, revel in Plath's punishing poems.

So. It's all, along with the sudden hole brutally torn in my own literary universe, naturally got me thinking about posterity. And I suppose that whatever aspect of a subject's life is being recognized, remembered, memorialized, at the very least I expect the items to be the authentic artifact.

To my great surprise, as I stood with my nose practically pressed up to the glass before the typewriter Toklas used to type Stein's weird poems and prose, DS read from the little placard that it was, in fact, "something just like" the Smith Premier of the Parisian lovebirds, NOT actually the McCoy. Outrageous.

I am going to start my own museum in which I will have papier-mâché Blackwing pencils, credible holographic replicas of the Moleskine notebooks, maybe a foam-mounted poster of the Olivetto giclée that hung over Sontag's worktable. I will even make my own brownies and say my creation bears a striking resemblance to Alice's recipe. I'll call the show my Depressed Ladies' Literary Bakesale. It will be brilliant. You're invited. Bring your iPods.