- Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly” and the Great War
Gertrude Stein first published her experimental poem “Tender Buttons” as a slender volume by a small, avant-garde press. Years later, it would be anthologized and is most accessible currently in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. In contrast, “Lifting Belly” first appeared in Stein’s collection, Bee Time Vine, was then anthologized in The Yale Gertrude Stein, and most recently appeared as a slender volume by a small, marginalized press. Rebecca Mark, editor of this 1989 edition, claims, “With the publication of this edition, lesbians will be able to read what many critics have called a lesbian classic, and Stein and ‘Lifting Belly’ will find an audience of women who love women . . . she has given lesbians a great gift” (Mark xxxii). 1 Mark’s introductory comments celebrate one of the most frequently considered aspects of the poem, namely its unabashed lesbian eroticism. Throughout its fifty pages, much of the poem consists of dialogue and conversational fragments between two lovers. Much of the dialogue is erotic; some is indecipherable pillow talk. “Lifting Belly” is, however, much more than an anthem of lesbian love. It is a story of lovers existing in a time and place of war. The poem reflects how the war affects their lives and how they cope with the anxiety of it.
In describing “Lifting Belly,” Bettina Knapp states, “Within the outwardly daily trivia reported in the lines of this intentionally disparate [End Page 608] and fragmented work, are intimations, illusions and outright references to the sexual pleasures Stein experiences” (Knapp 91). In this single sentence, Knapp mentions the three aspects of “Lifting Belly” that have drawn repeated critical comment. In addition to its lesbian eroticism, the poem’s language play and focus on everyday aspects of life seem to fascinate most critics. The First World War, raging at the time the poem was composed, is normally relegated to the position of an intrusive, albeit important, backdrop for the lovers who are the subject of the poem. Harriet Scott Chessman, writing on Stein’s language, notes, “‘Lifting Belly’ makes scattered references to the Great War throughout the poem, yet the war remains an emphatically peripheral phenomenon, marginal to the love of words and the love touched upon by the words” (Chessman 106). Stein’s references to the war form a perceptible pattern that emerges through the course of the poem. This pattern of reference places the war not, as Chessman claims, at the periphery of the poem, but at its center along with the other aspects of the poem normally highlighted by critics.
Stein was writing “Lifting Belly” from 1915 until 1917. While exact dates for its composition cannot be established, events in Gertrude Stein’s life clearly bracket a period during which she composed it. Stein and Alice Toklas left Paris for Palma de Mallorca (Majorca), Spain in March 1915. The two stayed with William Cook, an American painter and friend. During her time on Mallorca, Stein began writing “Lifting Belly.” Her year there was a productive one. She also wrote “Pink Melon Joy,” “Possessive Case,” “No,” “Farragut, or A Husband’s Recompense,” and “He Said It. Monologue” (Chessman 224). In June 1916, Stein and Toklas returned to their home in Paris where Stein continued to work on “Lifting Belly.” In March 1917, Stein and Toklas left Paris again, this time as hospital workers and supply transporters for the American Fund for the French Wounded (AFFW). By the time of their departure, “Lifting Belly” was complete. It is worth noting that the two years during which Stein composed “Lifting Belly” are at the very center of the war’s four-year duration.
Critics as well as biographers comment on the extremely autobiographical nature of Stein’s Mallorcan work. Richard Bridgman notes, “Normal speech and an increasing number of personal details entered Gertrude Stein’s writing. Names of friends, recognizable objects, domestic quarrels and tender reconciliations constituted the bulk of [End Page 609] her subject matter” (Bridgman 143). Likewise, Chessman comments, “The autobiographical element becomes more evident than in Stein’s works before the war, as references to Stein’s living situation begin to enter...