Saturday, December 18, 2010

Discovering Stettheimer

I'm a huge fan of Gertrude Stein, and have been reading her for decades, but the amount of writing she produced is so prodigious that I haven't manged to read all of it yet. Similarly, Stein's circle of friends, collaborators, and correspondents is so large that one can spend years reading biographies and memoirs and still not uncover all the interconnections.

That's why I was happy to hear of the publication of Crystal Flowers, the collected poetry of Florine Stettheimer (edited by Suzanne Zelazo and Irene Gammel) from Bookthug. Stettheimer is probably best known for designing the costumes and set for Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts in 1934, but was also a visual artist and now, thanks to this collection, she can be recognized and reassessed as an interesting Modernist poet.

Zelazo and Gammel's generous introduction draws connections between Stettheimer and such experimental women writers as Emily Dickinson, Mina Loy and, of course, Stein, but emphasizes Stettheimer's distinct camp aesthetic, painterly style, and light satiric verse. In many ways her writing is diametrically opposed to Stein's Cubist portraiture, but one can make connections between Stettheimer's sexualized "Comestibles" poems and Stein's equally sensual (although more esoteric) "Objects" sequence from Tender Buttons. For example:

"You Beat Me" (Stettheimer)

You beat me
I foamed
Your sweetest sweet you almost drowned me in
You parcelled out my whole self
You thrust me into darkness
You made me hot--hot--hot
I crisped into "kisses"

"This is the Dress, Aider" (Stein)

Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers.
     A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let.

And, like Stein, Stettheimer also has numerous short and often elliptical portraits of friends, objects, flowers, and Americana throughout her collection.

Although not mentioned in the introduction, Stettheimer's work often reminded me of the work of British poet Stevie Smith sharing Smith's short, sly, and deceptively innocent tone. Stettheimer even has several satirical nursery rhymes and parables that resemble that of Smith. This is a rather strange connection to make because, aside from the verse produced, the lives of these two women were completely at odds: Smith being the reclusive English "spinster" and Stettheimer moving in, and hosting parties for, the most visible and artistic social circles of New York's pre-WWII glitterati.

Because of her social connections and gregarious lifestyle (she counted among her close friends Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Carl Van Vechten), Stettheimer's writing will also be of interest for readers seeking insight to the lives and lifestyles of the "bright young things" of New York's golden age, and her writing can be profitably viewed as a precursor to the ambiguously sexual and camp creations of Frank O'Hara and Andy Warhol.

I should also note the beautiful production of Crystal Flowers, one of the strongest I've seen from Bookthug, including a colourful Stettheimer painting on the cover, photos, reproductions of Stettheimer's manuscripts, and detailed editorial annotations by Zelazo and Gammel. A real steal at less than $20.

Ordering information can be found here.

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