Ulla E. Dydo, Stein scholar and editor of the selected works collection titled A Stein Reader: Gertrude Stein, asserts that Pink Melon Joy is “the most lighthearted, humorous, and erotic work” of the early World War I time; further, she writes that Pink Melon Joy “absorbs events and objects into its verbal process” and that “Stein’s verbal games are not fictions but always start from facts” (A Stein Reader, 280, italics mine).

Stein would say the long poem was an “exactitude of abstract thought” achieved in a disembodied form (cited in Dydo, A Stein Reader, 569). The work actually reads as a meditation: the stanzas are meditations on the body, desire, lesbian sex, and love. The first part of much of Stein’s erotic work, and these texts are no exceptions, is almost entirely made up of answering questions, thus allowing an understanding of sexually variant sex: she explains that which seems different really isn’t.

How Pink and Joyful is Your Melon?

Beginning with the title of the work, Pink Melon Joy, Stein invites us to participate, voyeuristically, in just how joyful the act of making the melon pink is.  Stein’s melon is a woman’s sexual pleasure zone, of which Stein is absolutely fascinated with making, witnessing, and describing how they are made pink. To be made pink, they must be touched, pleased, and brought into a state of in-joy.

As with all of Stein’s writing, gender switching is recurrent with subjects inhabiting both female and male identities and roles: Stein was both husband and wife to Alice, so there is no reason to confine oneself to a gynocentric reading of Stein’s work. Stein was a lesbian and she was a gender and sexual variant and exploratory; for example, she uses phallic and penetrative imagery often. Thus, one could easily say that her pink melon is variant: the delicate pink head of her “can be can be men” (Stanzas in Meditation, Part IV, Stanza VII, 107).  Pink melons equate to joy in this text, and while they are no doubt feminine, they can also be genderqueered.

Stein’s Erotic & Flowery Petaled Rose…

Stein writes early on that for “fourteen days” she “was aching” (Pink Melon Joy in A Stein Reader, 282). This Stein, who was seemingly “meant to be closeted,” boldly uses the first person “I” to describe her hunger: “I was aching,” she writes, when “I saw all the rose.” The botanist definition of “Labium” refers to “the lower lip of the flower of a plant” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Flowers are the reproductive/sex organs of a flowering plant, and so a woman’s sex and sexuality have often been represented as a flower in literature, art, and song. Such is the case with Stein’s poem: in a flower, the sex organs are contained within the flower and so too the rose of Pink Melon Joy has labia petals which can be spread open, those inner and outer folds of the vulva opening and closing around the clitoris and vaginal opening. Apply this image to where the rose and other flowers appear throughout Stein’s work and gardens of colourful sensuality and pleasure explode all over the page.

In her Introductory essay to the 1993 edition of Geography and Plays, Cyrena N. Pondrom does a fine job of deconstructing the sexual and intimate layerings of Stein’s Sacred Emily.  Metaphors of the rose—used for a woman’s name as well as the flower—come into play as Stein sees “all the rose”: love is a red, red rose after all and it was Stein who wrote “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in the 1913 erotic poem Sacred Emily (later published in Geography in Plays, 187; the line repeating in homogeneous forms in Operas and Plays and in many other works). Stein’s rose is a “loveliness extreme … sweeter than peaches and pears and cream” (Sacred Emily, Geography and Plays, 187). Stein is so enamoured with the gorgeousness of her created turn of phrase that the wax seal she used to seal the back of her letters bore the saying “A rose is a rose …” (Correspondence: Pablo Picasso Gertrude Stein, 308). To add, she had the phrase written on china, on her ceiling, and on linens.   Embossed printed, and embroidered sex.   Sex, a woman’s genitals, desire: all over the home, integrated into a life and the sharing of that life.

In her Introductory essay to the 1993 edition of Geography and Plays, Cyrena N. Pondrom does a fine job of deconstructing the sexual and intimate layerings of Stein’s Sacred Emily.[1]  Pondrom provides a complementary reading to mine and supports the sexual unmasking and deconstruction of Stein’s work.  She notes, for example, that previous Stein scholars have drawn attention to the fact that when reading “a rose is a rose is a rose” quickly, the repetition can read and sound like the word eros, so “a Rose = eros = eros = eros” (Geography and Plays, “Introduction,” xlv); thus, a rose becomes equated to sexual love and desire.[2]

On Stein’s narrative strategy, and what is underneath it, Pondrom writes that

extreme hermeticism … provided Stein with the opportunity to write of very private matters without public outcry, and several of these poems celebrate lesbian erotic joy … Critics … have argued that the hermetic style is motivated by the desire to code lesbian erotic experience… [Stein’s work] is a sustained effort to speak female experience, finding methods that lie beyond or outside the male-centered symbolic order, the order of traditional language … her effort is not to recuperate herself to the (patriarchal) world, but to reconstitute and revalue that world—to ‘act,’ as she commanded in Tender Buttons, “so that there is no use in a centre. (Geography and Plays, “Introduction,” xliii)

And so, the majority of Stein’s poetic narratives weave together female identity, lesbian-love making, and female love relationship (xlvi). In Stanza in Meditation the exploratory garden is diverse, and flowers recur repeatedly: “only one dahlia” and “she has been very kind about pansies,” while of course, “a rose which grows” is the dominant flower, “after all it astonishes even me” (Part IV, Stanza XXIV, 133).  How the rose becomes redder than red is what Pink Melon Joy dwells in. The intimacy that comes when a woman’s pleasure is unfolding, each petal a layer of pleasure, unfolding to its own rhythm, becoming the entire rose: the lover fully open, receptive, each petal soft, delicate, vulnerable.  The rose reveals its beauty and unique scent ever so slowly as it opens. Stein’s “aching” holds suspense and craving – it is the kind of yearning for pleasure that makes any lover anticipate the layers that intimacy and sex bring, as the rose eventually opens and flowers, wave upon wave of opening of pleasure.

© 2013

[1] Pondrom’s thorough and unabashed work is why I do not need to undertake the book to any large degree even as Stein echoes many of the same themes in Sacred Emily as she does in Pink Melon Joy, Stanzas in Mediation, Tender Buttons, Lifting Belly, and Baby Precious Always Shines.

[2] Stein was not the only influential artist playing with the word eros.  Marcel Duchamp’s persona Rrose Sélavy sounds like eros, c’est la vie and is translated as eros, such is life or eros, that is life.   Man Ray’s stunning 1920s photographs of Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy reveal an alluring woman, a femme fetale, diva dandy, who is playing with notions of both gender and desire.