Angela Genusa’s TENDER BUTTONS

There’s a small window of time after opening the file for Angela Genusa’s TENDER BUTTONS (Gauss PDF, 2013) in which you haven’t quite figured out for yourself whether the material you’re looking at is some glitchy, corrupted version of the document or the poetry collection itself. The pages of cryptological glyphs and elaborate algebraic equations are immediately intrusive and alarming, hardly what you’d be expecting from a book of poetry unless you were already familiar with Genusa’s or Gauss PDF’s previous work. Confronting the difficulty of something so foreign and intensely conceptual (and how you’re going to try to make sense of it), then, becomes the requisite first step in addressing some of the further complexities of conceptual poetry as a whole, and this title specifically.



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Gliding down the trackpad, I found myself asking, on more than one occasion, how long I should reasonably expect to, or be expected to, stare at the text. On one hand, the collection had announced itself as a book of poems, and with poetry’s being a time art (like music or dance), the expectation might be that I would need to commit to reading this “word” by word, line by line, extending the duration of my stare for quite a while. But on the other, I couldn’t get over the fact that the text seemed to communicate primarily as a piece of visual art, something that can be absorbed and accounted for (at least in its material totality) on a much shorter scale.

Each approach to the text seemed to lend itself to a certain shortcoming: if I stare too long, is the joke on me? Will there be a certain confirmation bias present, one which has me finding infinite pattern and play, even what isn’t there intentionally, what isn’t even worthwhile? But if I don’t stare long enough, should I be embarrassed by my lack of effort? Will my review incur the laughter of Kenneth Goldsmith? Will he find me not smart-dumb, but dumb-dumb? Give me the Seth Abramson treatment? Will Tan Lin unfollow me on Twitter?

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I wondered if I didn’t have a kind of ‘ship of Theseus’ paradox on my hands: if I were to skip one “word” of TENDER BUTTONS, could I still say that I’d “read” TENDER BUTTONS? And if I were to skip two or three pages in the middle of the collection—what then?

Reduced another way, the dilemma becomes one of identifying whether Genusa’s conceptual project is fundamentally indulgent or fundamentally generous, only singularly successful at the level of generating one good novel idea—this is, after all, a kind of translation of Gertrude Stein’s seminal Modernist text of the same name—or regeneratively successful in rewarding multiple careful consumptions (“readings,” “viewings”). How simple or complex is the code, I want to ask. How mundane or profound are its discoveries? Perhaps it’s a question of reciprocity in labor: how much went in from the artist, and how much do I need to put in in return?

Ultimately, I want more of this, more art that asks me to reassess something as fundamental as how to consume it. As I’ve heard Stanley Plumly say more times than I can count: there is nothing new in the world but the form. I’ve also been told that the job of the poet now is to figure out what a poem is now—and that a good way to find out what a poem is doing now is to figure out what it is giving up. Consider these few lines from the final page of the text:



Σ▄êñè;ôr”Æ(εM╚èHú╣7″)”ÄΣ▄êñè;ôr”Æ(εM╚èHú╣7″)”ÄΣ▄ê┐ ╥√M*w(OS*4Nûi**

Some claims about this I can make with more certainty than I can others: there is no spoken language here, so there is no prosody, no meter, no aural pattern. No words, strictly speaking, so no connotations of words, no register (lofty or colloquial), no tone (e.g. its numerical flatness is not the journalistic flatness of Forche’s “Colonel” or present early in Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”). No figurative language, no image. And on top of this, all that’s being lost in translation: the haeccity of the original Tender Buttons, the Stein-ness of Stein.

There’s a lot about poetry being given up to make these poems, but it’s undeniable that the stuff in question is language, that it communicates meaning through a (digitally) written medium—and more, that it’s patterned language (Michael Collier’s fundamental definition of “poetry”), which is where the most interesting questions start to arise.

The above three lines (sentences?) mark the only time in my reading of TENDER BUTTONS—Yes, I did try the strategy of reading every page “word” for word, and it was totally fulfilling—that I was able to detect a complex sequence repeated without the use of the Search/Find feature on my computer. The staircases of black boxes down the page were visual cues that I might have even then passed right over had the reading habits of my childhood not inexplicably kicked in (“I’m going to skip to the last page to see how it ends.”). This turned a key.



Suddenly I had to ask myself to what extent these patterns—in better and more complex forms—had existed the entire time, to what extent I was even capable of detecting (or better, understanding) them. Does my being human hold me back? Am I the wrong audience for this iteration of the book because I am not, well, a computer? Had I a “mind” bent toward an alphabet of this kind, and with a memory capable of holding several (all!) of these more complex patterns in a fixed place simultaneously, would the poetry not become more apparent, more out-in-front? Less gimmicky than Tender Buttons: In Wingdings! and more in line with what I’m very much sensing it is now: a sincere and serious exploration of the limits and scope of poetry-in-translation?

Because, of course, this isn’t actually in Wingdings, or some other comparable font: there is no ready-made font—at least not in OpenOffice or Word—that converts Genusa’s TENDER BUTTONS to or from Stein’s Tender Buttons 1-to-1. The work is more involved than that, a conclusion I was only able to make after choosing to read this as poetry (i.e. slowly) rather than “just” as visual artifact. In fact, this could even be less a riddle of translation than of transmutation, something not to solve like a newspaper puzzle, with one glyph corresponding to one letter, but something else—larger, and more arresting, with all of its integrity—entirely.



A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.


Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.





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Read it on Gauss

 Michael Gossett is from Memphis, Tennessee. He tweets a commonplace book of poetry, riddles, comedy, and basketball at: @michaeljgossett


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