Saturday, December 03, 2005

Domestic Projects: A Random Thought on Gertrude Stein and Lorrie Moore

What do Lorrie Moore and Gertrude Stein have in common, other than I’m reading both of them right now? They write in different genres (does Stein actually write in a known “genre”?). They are separated by three or four generations. Even after nearly a century Stein’s brilliance is still somewhat obscured, while Moore, though hardly a bestseller, is widely praised.

And maybe the fact that I’m reading them at the same time, and that they both write in English, is all they have in common. Maybe I’m just seeking connections between unconnectable “things.” But I do see a connection. Domesticity. Or more the perversion of domesticity. Or maybe the problem of the perversion of domesticity. They both explore the tension between an idealized view of domesticity and a perceived reality, and the tension between domesticity and the exotic, the undomestic.

Their strategies are very different, which is reflected in their choice of genres. In Tender Buttons, Stein takes the actual language of domesticity (Objects, Food, Rooms), and, as if the nouns and verbs were physical objects, turns it on its heads, scrambles it and reassembles it into some adult version of Green Eggs and Ham. She throws an entire house through a cracked looking glass and forces the reader to climb in after it, forcing us to rethink our relationship to both language and the items she “describes.” (I’m using describes very loosely.)

Moore also employs a cracked looking glass, but instead of throwing things throw it she forces her characters in front of it. She approaches domesticity not through it’s framework or it’s language, but through its population. Moore’s characters seem to inhabit the domestic space’s Stein has de/relanguaged. Stein’s spaces seem devoid of inhabitants. Her response to the void of the domestic is too tear it down and rebuild it. Moore’s response is less radical, or at least more subtle, she forces you to live there.

The obvious problem is I’m comparing jackhammers to faulty plumbing and shredded blue jeans, experimental poetry to well-crafted short stories, anti-narrative to narrative. In this case, both are highly valuable as art, and together highlight the limits of each approach. Stein’s writing seems supra-human, but also devoid of characters, even “humanity” at times. Language seems to replace everything, and it doing so throws, necessarily, into question our very relationship to language, and our relationship to the “reality” it purports to describe. Moore deals less with the questions of language, and more with character’s relationship to “reality” as the character perceives it.

Is a melding of Stein and Moore possible? Not a compromise between the two, but something that radically reharmonizes the two into something new. (Maybe it has already occurred and I’m not aware of it, maybe Fanny Howe’s fractured and fragile domestic scenes). Because it seems the more I read Stein, who I tried to read at 19, during my Beat-phase and couldn’t wrap my head around (not that I have wrapped my head around her now), the more I think that much of contemporary “post-avant” poetry is trying to recreate, rewrite Stein. She often seems more influential than Pound or Eliot or Williams, and more modern than all three, and a better “contemporary” poet that many contemporary poets. However, Moore writes, stylistically at least, as if Stein never did, yet Moore inhabits similar spaces. It seems that instead of just rewiring Stein, an interesting project would be forcing Moore’s characters to not just live in Stein’s de/reconstructed spaces, but also in her de/reconstructed language.

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