cover image Stanzas in Meditation

Stanzas in Meditation

Gertrude Stein. Sun and Moon Press, $11.95 (184pp) ISBN 978-1-55713-169-0

Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, published previously in only a very limited edition, is a monumental and rather terrifying word machine. By contrast to the chattiness of the popular Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, with which it is contemporaneous, the poem is representative of Stein's work at its most mind-boggling and austere. The book's five parts, 162 stanzas, and 225 pages do not meditate on anything in particular; instead they construct and explore basic linguistic structures within the mental space of meditation. Meditation is a state of mind in which nothing has to happen, but anything and everything could; Stein's poem is accordingly general in concern and conditional in articulation, occupied throughout with such considerations as ``Should it be well done or should it be well done/ Or can they be very likely or not at all/ Not only known but well known.'' The tone of the poem is flat, reminiscent of logical exercises, sentences from primers and travelers' phrase books, and nursery rhymes; the words are mostly monosyllabic. In one sense, the relentlessly repetitive yet always slightly shifted use of a number of basic terms draws one's attention to the surface of the poem and bedevils any effort to go beyond it. But the mechanically proliferating stanzas involve a depth of desperation: ``Let me see let me go let me be not only determined.'' This poem is a fascinating if exhausting performance. The unbearable lengths to which Stein will go with words figure an impossible desire to leave words behind for good-to think and feel simply, for once-and this human predicament makes her experimentalism of abiding interest. (Nov.)