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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 7: March 2021
Ekphrastic Prosimetra: 468 words
Publisher’s Notes: 223 words
By Charles D. Tarlton

Gertrude Stein in Oil 1

SOCRATES: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.
—Plato 2

We almost certainly know that the face on this portrait of Gertrude Stein was later repainted over a besmirched original. The contrasts in style within the one painting—between (1) the matronly female figure, in a (is it brown velour?) robe, the blouse and brooch, against the subtly Matissean background, and above the Rose Period hands, and (2) the distorting mask-like planes, angles, and surfaces of the new countenance—move this painting to the cusp of Cubism. Picasso, sensing failure in his first attempt, brooded and took the painting away and only later saw not only that the first face was wrong, but also glimpsed, in that very moment, something of the future of Twentieth Century painting.

don’t we all wear masks
to cover our cloaked
faces already
split, one eye dark, hard, and cold
the other so suspicious

have you ever seen
the shadow of a nose across
a real human face?
here logic, I think, dictates
what the eye’s allowed to see

Oh, what fun it is to be cudgelled [sic] by Gertrude, to be enlightened, and slapped, and warmed, and crushed, and slain, and brought alive by Gertrude.
—Thornton Wilder 3

oh, there’s a sternness
here, wrapped up, contained
by an etiquette
disguising an inveterate
wildness, you have only to read

Would he like it if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him....Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly and resemblance. For this is so.
—G. Stein 4

There is little in this painted portrait of Gertrude Stein to prepare you for the unexpectedness of her writings. She bores deep holes in small places, trailing language behind her like a shipworm burrowing in driftwood, hammering new palaces from dull ruins, beating her mesmerizing word-tattoo, and teaching courage to whoever picks up a pen or taps a keyboard. There is still much unsaid. None who admired her, however, none who were infected by her automatism, would ever go so far, could ever cut so far loose from Henry James or Thackery as to really—follow her! Think more of Naked Lunch, Thomas Pynchon, or Richard Foreman. And she “wrote” Picasso’s portrait!

foreground beat over
meaning, but leaving always
something of the sense
as she enfolds Picasso
with Napoleon, his eyes

whatever he was
however famous, wonderful
something sarcastic
in this painting ridicules
not her, oh no, the painter

she floats in innocence
tilted in her balancing act
leaning forward
as if to catch what you said
hardly believing her ears


Publisher’s Notes:

1. Portrait of Gertrude Stein (oil on canvas, 1905-06) by Pablo Picasso (1819–1877) is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because this painting is still under copyright in its source country until April 2043 (Estate of Pablo Picasso), we cannot reproduce it here.

2. Epigraph is from Phaedrus, a dialogue between Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) and Athenian aristocrat Phaedrus (c. 444–393 BCE), written circa 360 BCE by Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427–347 BCE), who was a student of Socrates, the founder of the Platonic Academy, and a teacher to Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Phaedrus is available at The Internet Classics Archive.

3. Quotation by Thornton Wilder (1897–1975) is from his letter dated 23 April 1938, which appears on page 216 of The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (Yale University Press, 1996), edited by Edward M. Burns and Ulla E. Dydo (with William Rice).

4. Quotation by Gertrude Stein (1897–1975) is from “If I Told Him, a Completed Portrait of Picasso,” first published by Vanity Fair in 1924 and reprinted in Selections: Gertrude Stein (University of California Press, 2008). In addition, Poetry Foundation has reprinted the portrait online.

And you can experience Stein’s recitation of the text in this 1935 recording on YouTube (3:43 minutes long).

Charles D. Tarlton
Issue 7, March 2021

is a retired university professor of political theory who lives in Old Saybrook, Connecticut with his wife, Ann Knickerbocker (an abstract painter), and a Standard Poodle named Nikki. He is the author of three books of prosimetra published by KYSO Flash Press: Touching Fire: New and Selected Ekphrastic Prosimetra (2018), Get Up and Dance (2019), and Carmody & Blight: The Dialogues (2019).

His most recent book, Peaches and Roses: Episodes in the Navajo Degradation, was released in January 2021 by Silver Bow Publishing (New Westminster, British Columbia). He also has a poetry e-chapbook published in the 2River series, La Vida de Piedra y de Palabra: Improvisations on Pablo Neruda’s Macchu Picchu; an experimental prosimetrum in Lacuna entitled Five Episodes in the Navajo Degradation; “The Rock in a Jar,” an extended prose poem in several parts in Gone Law 32; and “The Turn of Art,” a short prosimetrical drama pitting Picasso against Matisse, in Fiction International.

Tarlton has been writing poetry and flash fiction since 2006, and his work is published in numerous literary journals and magazines: Abramelin, Atlas Poetica, Barnwood, Blackbox Manifold (UK), Blue and Yellow Dog, Book Ends Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Contemporary Haibun Online, Cricket Online Review, Dark Matter, Fiction International, Haibun Today, Ilanot Review, Inner Art Journal, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Jack Magazine, KYSO Flash, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, London Grip, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Muse India, Palette Poetry, Peacock Journal, Prune Juice, Randomly Accessed Poetics, Rattle, Red Booth Review, Red Lights, Review Americana, Ribbons, Shampoo, Shot Glass, Simply Haiku, Six Minute Magazine, Sketchbook, Skylark, Spirit Wind Gallery, Tallow Eider Quarterly, The American Aesthetic, The Ekphrastic Review, The Houston Literary Review, tinywords, Tipton, Unbroken Journal, Undertow Tanka Review, and Ink, Sweat, and Tears.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Artifact With Steam (2019) by Ann Knickerbocker, ekphrastic tanka prose in the e-collection Get Up and Dance featured in KYSO Flash (Issue 12, Summer 20189)

Featured Author Charles D. Tarlton, with six of his ekphrastic tanka prose and an interview with Jack Cooper, in KYSO Flash (Issue 6, Fall 2016)

Notes for a Theory of Tanka Prose: Ekphrasis and Abstract Art, a scholarly paper by Tarlton residing in PDF at Ray’s Web; originally published in Atlas Poetica (Number 23, pages 87-95)

Three American Civil War Photographs: Ekphrasis by Tarlton in Review Americana (Spring 2016)

Simple Tanka Prose for the Seasons, a quartet by Tarlton in Rattle (Issue 47: Tribute to Japanese Forms, Spring 2015)

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