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As with many poems, an initial read-through of Gertrude Stein’s Preciosilla may leave many readers bewildered as to what her intent or message may be. From a technical perspective, it is difficult to make sense of the language because the entire poem consists of unrelated words that are constantly juxtaposed, and Stein does not adhere to traditional grammatical rules in her text. It is this distinct, albeit seemingly obscure writing style, however, that allows for the true meaning of the poem to come through. Preciosilla, though not easily deciphered at the start, is about sexuality in all its intricate glory. To truly explain this, Stein focuses less on content and more on linguistic form in order to construct sexuality as a multifaceted concept.
The Cubist influence
Stein, influenced by the Cubist movement that occurred during the time of her writings, applies this style of art to Preciosilla by emphasizing the structure of sexuality, rather than merely a description of it. Cubist painters created a distinguishing form of art by attempting to express objects and ideas from multiple points of view all at the same time. In the same way, Stein depicts sexuality from various perspectives. At one place in the poem, she says “…shut shut is life” (line 5), suggesting an end to life and negative imagery. On the other hand, in another place she mentions, “This is so pink so pink in stammer” (line 11). Here readers are given the imagery of sex as something light and positive. Throughout the entire poem Stein incorporates these various views, conveying the idea that sexuality is only made real because of conflicting beliefs about it.
Just as is done in Cubism, Stein presents sexuality as though it were fragmented rather than consistent and complete, but still as a whole. Cubist painters generally employed the use of geometric shapes in their works of art to indicate the numerous sides of what they were painting. Stein does this as well by rejecting any particular one-sided view. Instead, she combines these “fragments” to create a unified whole. Almost none of the sentences in the poem have a clear, comprehensible meaning to them. It is almost as though these strings of words are fragments themselves, pieces of various sentences or phrases put together to create an entirely different whole. This is already evident from the first sentence of the poem: “In the win all the band beagles which have cousin lime sign and arrange a weeding match to presume a certain point to exstate to exstate a certain pass lint to exstate a lean sap prime lo and shut shut is life” (lines 2-5).
Stein also portrays sexuality by means of metaphors, further presenting it as a complex concept. The meaning and interpretation of many of the words in the poem are initially lost due to the juxtaposition of apparently dissimilar words. Such examples would include “sleep sleep knot” (line 15), and “nobles are bleeding bleeding two seats two seats on end” (lines 16-17). What Stein does in many of these phrases is use metaphorical imagery, having one thing represent another. The “knot” may be an image of two lovers entwined during intercourse, while the “two seats” very likely refers to the anatomy of two female lovers.
One consistently recurring example of a metaphor is Stein’s use of the word “lily.” Its constant appearance throughout the poem indicates that it is a symbol of female genitalia. “Lily” evokes images of a delicate flower, comparable to a woman’s vagina. The flower is often white and is used to indicate purity, which is how many people ideally perceive a woman to be, sexually pure and innocent. Another word that continually appears in the poem is the word “diamonds.” The image of diamonds brings to mind something clear and sparkling, and is often used to describe a person’s eyes. Stein may be taking a different approach to sexuality by focusing on a lover’s eyes, something that is more often addressed in romantic love than in sexual love. It is not by coincidence that a diamond is cut in such a way so as to have many facets to it, thus mirroring the many facets that sexuality has also.
Moving beyond imagery, Stein also uses the visibility of the poem itself to give a different perspective of sexuality. A reader’s initial impression of Preciosilla is that it is a piece of prose rather than a poem. It is written in the format of a short story or text instead of in the traditional break down of lines in a poem. The reason for this could be to show that poetry can take on various forms, and by doing so she projects this idea to sexuality as well. Another noticeable quality to the poem is the constant repetition of certain words. Other than “lily” and “diamonds,” Stein repeats various additional words: “Bait, bait, tore, tore her clothes, toward it, toward a bit” (lines 6-7), and “Please be please be get, please get wet, wet naturally, naturally in weather” (lines 20-21). The repetition ultimately creates a transformation of the words, so that in the end they mean something entirely different than what the reader initially thought them to be. These terms, as they are constantly used over and over again, slowly progress to define what sexuality is.
Preciosilla is a poem that can only be understood by looking at it in its entirety, at all the various features of sexuality as several parts that make up a whole. A reader looking at any individual paragraph would not be able to make sense of it. Only be stepping back and seeing the poem as a whole can the reader understand how the poem itself is constructed, and consequently how it constructs sexuality.
Gertrude Stein’s Preciosilla attempts to “paint” a “verbal portrait” of sexuality. Just as Cubist artists use paint to depict objects and ideas from several viewpoints, Stein uses words to describe sex in such a way that she takes it above and beyond description. She communicates the idea that sexuality is not merely just a concept or activity that can be illustrated by means of describing something in the traditional sense. Instead, she shows that it can only be properly addressed through the use of form, by way of fragmentation, metaphors, and visibility.
Stein makes Preciosilla unique in that it takes readers beyond the mere content of the poem. If a reader were to focus solely on content and the literal meanings of the words in the poem, it would be impossible to comprehend the message. Stein forces readers to look beyond that and to see the entire picture, paralleling the very thing she discusses in her poem: sexuality. Just as poetry can be complex and viewed from multiple standpoints, she shows that sexuality embodies these characteristics as well.
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