1 Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea. 2 Susie Asado. 3 Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea. 4 Susie Asado. 5 Susie Asado which is a told tray sure. 6 A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers. 7 When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller. 8 This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy. 9 Incy is short for incubus. 10 A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must. 11 Drink pups. 12 Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail. 13 What is a nail. A nail is unison. 14 Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Upon first reading, “Susie Asado” makes little semantic sense. Words are strung together in unexpected ways, making it difficult to read them in terms of their quotidian significations. Read out loud, however, the poem seems to take on a greater coherence. The repetition of various words, and therefore phonemes, generates rhythmic cohesion and draws attention to timbral relationships across the lines. This is especially evident in the first five lines: the insistent sibiliant “s” and dental stop “t,” established in the first four, melt together to form the dense affricate /tʃ/ and fricative /ʒ/ in the “tray” “sure,” that ends line five. This sonic fastening, this phonetic copula, takes on even greater significance when the reader learns that Gertrude Stein wrote the poem upon having seen and admired a performance by the flamenco dancer La Argentina (Perloff 73). The rhythmic beating of the quintuplet “sweet” becomes mimetic of the clipped sound of castanets, the sibilants in “Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea / Susie Asado” as the whoosh of a dress, the “t” perhaps evocative of the chatter of the bailadora’s feet. Line 6 seems to hammer this point home, as it seductively flashes to the reader a rare clear image of the dancer while continuing to pack in a density of fricatives and sibilants: “A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers”. Words, under this reading, function primarily as sonic brushstrokes in the portrait of a dancer.
Such an approach would leave out the most difficult and jarring aspect of the poem — its relation to semantic ‘sense.’ Whether or not a reader wants to engage with the semantic dimension, it is indisputable that words, regardless of their use or context, resonate with signification; for instance, we cannot truly un-perceive the meaning of “tea.” While it might be reasonable to read the first six lines largely in terms of their sonic effect, line seven seems to generate a break in the poem, in which a semantic reading seems necessary. Stein varies and increases the syntactic complexity of her sentences, the reader is forced to perceive words in semantic relation to one another, as in line 7: “When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.” The copula “is,” once readable purely as voiced sibilant /z/ in line 5, now acts strongly as a verb. This connective, as well as others verbs, preposition, and deictics, continually proliferate as the poem progresses, particularly salient in the phrases “Incy is short for incubus” and “A nail is a unison” — phrases which, in their granular concision, force the reader to perceive or seek out identifiable meaning. Indeed, these two phrases bring to the foreground a way in which semantic meaning might necessarily proceed through either metonymic or metaphoric frames of perception. I would thus like to consider how one might read the section which these phrases bookend: lines 9-13, through the Jakobsonian conception of the two tropes.
9 Incy is short for incubus. 10 A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must. 11 Drink pups. 12 Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail. 13 What is a nail. A nail is unison.
What metaphors and metonymies can we perceive here? Do we find ourselves clinging more strongly to the axis of similarity or that of contiguity? If this poem were representative of a certain kind of aphasia, which type would it be? In “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” Roman Jakobson describes continuity disorder in terms of a failure to form syntax, and selection as a failure to generate synonyms for specific words (244, 250). We might think of the confusion or lack of sense experienced by a reader of “Susie Asado” as a direct result of the difficulty one might experience in trying to ‘diagnose’ the poem of a specific aphasic disorder. We can’t readily create a metalanguage to determine the semantic meanings of the words, because Gertrude Stein’s language does not function in this poem to communicate a specific and circumscribed message. The previously outlined sonic interpretation of the poem uses the idea of flamenco as a sort of metalanguage, but for all we know, the poem might not correspond to that alleged primal scene. Without stable ground, there’s no way of assigning a vehicle or tenor to a metaphor, it is impossible to read metaphorically. Instead, we might consider a metonymic reading by looking at how the words interact with one another, across the space of a phrase, a line, or the entire poem.
To proceed with a metonymic reading of the poem, I’ll focus on lines 9-13, and begin with line nine: “Incy is short for incubus.” The metonymy here is flayed open, self-referentially displayed in atomic form. Stein tells us to read “Incy” as a metonym, and by placing “incubus” directly on the page, draws the reader’s attention to the multiplicity of ways in which the word “incubus” signifies. An incubus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition, is a demonic spirit, typically male, “supposed to descend upon persons in their sleep, and especially to seek carnal intercourse with women.” In another sense, “incubus” brings to mind the word “incubate,” which shares the same Latin root verb: incubāre — to lie upon. And finally, the homophonic relationship between “Incy” and “Inky” generates a visual metonymy between Incy and the dark color and liquid materiality of ink. Incy thus comes to metonymically stand in for a whole host of associations — a deep color, the cover of night, a late hour, the warm flesh of a bird’s brood patch heating its eggs.
This beginning metonymy opens up a great field of perceptual possibilities in lines 10-12, and it would be impossible to point out a singular reading that truthfully encompasses all — so I will simply demonstrate one. For me, the “pot” which begins line 10 draws the “ink” of Incy into a further relation with an idea of an inkpot, and the “vats in bobbles” again contribute to the sensory presence of a liquid-holding vessel. “Bobbles” bring to mind bubbles (sonic contiguity) or an agitation of movement (semantic contiguity); one might imagine bubbles forming on the surface of the liquid of a shaken inkpot, or the nib of a pen disrupting this surface, a nib that, once removed, writes on paper. The nib, gradually depleting the ink held under it, will “shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.” (10).
The triple repetition of “drink pups” in lines 11-12 engages again in the kind of sonic repetition more evocative of dance that begins the poem, especially given the glimmering presence of the “sash” in line 12 — but in this context, the drinking pups are also a continuation of a liquid sensibility. I have importantly skipped over a discussion of the presence of the “tree” in line 10, which seems to disrupt the vision of an inkpot that I have constructed thus far, as Stein writes: “A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees.” (10). This tree, as I see it, forms a juncture in this section of the poem, drawing a direct link to the bobolink which might inhabit is branches.
The tree brings us, finally, to the bobolink, which in many ways forms the key metonymic connection in the poem. Like the Incy of Incubus, the bobolink opens itself to a multivalent set of meanings. The bobolink’s onomatopoeic name, a shortening of “bob o’lincoln,” is metonymic in itself but more importantly refers to the sound of its call, just as “Susie Asado,” as a poetic entity, refers to its own sound in the way it forms meaning. The word “bobolink” contains and links together both the “bobble” of line 10 with the ink implied in the “Incy” of line 9. And finally, consider its scientific name, Dolichonyx orzyivorus. Dolichonyx signifies a long (dolkikhos) claw (onux), and orzyivorus: a rice (oryzi) eater (vorus) (Danielson 67). As the pups drink, the bobolink eats. Its long claws are pin-like nails. The nail itself is the “unison” of keratin and skin, hence Stein’s thirteenth line: “What is a nail. A nail is unison.”
Read in this fashion, it becomes apparent that Stein manages, through the contiguity of words and their significations, a kind of unison between sound and sense, for which the bobolink forms a perfect metonym. When the opening lines come back in the poem’s final line, the sibilants and stops of “Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea” register as more than simply mimetic of a dancer. “Sweet” becomes become sweeter, like the chirping of a bird. It becomes, in a way, pure repetition, rather than rhythmic impulse; pure sonic unison, not a discrete set of sibilant phonemes. The bobolink effectively brings the poem beyond the mode of Cubist portraiture, beyond the mode of sonic experiment, into a realm in which sound and sense are allowed to exist in conjunction, in a multiplicity of guises.
(16 November 2017)
- Danielson, Bill. “Bobolinks.” Still Speaking of Nature: Further Explorations in the Natural World. Albany: State University of New York, 2011.
- Jakobson, Roman. “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” Selected Writings II: Word and Language, Mouton, 1971.
- Oxford, English Dictionary. “bobolink, n.”.
- —. “incubus, n.”.
- Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry as Word-System: The Art of Gertrude Stein.” The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1981.
- Stein, Gertrude. “Susie Asado.” Poetry Foundation.