"Tender Buttons [Milk]" by Gertrude Stein was offered by Poets.org's Poem-A-Day and reviewed in Songs of Eretz on January 20, 2013. The term "reviewed" is used loosely, as I was completely baffled by the poem at the time and pretty much gave up. Now, however, with my new knowledge of Stein garnered from my participation in the MOOC Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo), I feel like I can take a better stab at it. A link to the poem may be found here:
If I have learned anything about Stein from ModPo, it is that her poems cannot be read from beginning to end in the usual way without them seeming to be confusing or even utter nonsense. Stein used words differently than most people do. She used words to "represent" ideas or concepts rather than to "refer" to the specific common usage meaning of the words. Her poetry was also often erotically charged in a way that is not perhaps immediately obvious. With all this in mind, I offer the following review of "Milk."
The title refers to female charms (to use a polite word), as in "giving away the milk for free."
The first line refers to the ovaries and vulva, not just any vulva, but one that is swelling with arousal or "a constant increase." "White egg" evokes ovaries. "A cabbage showing settlement" evokes the folds of the vulva.
The second line evokes a man with an STD. Just substitute the male organ for "nose" and STD for "cold."
The third line opens with, "All the goods are stolen." In other words, the female subject of the poem is "giving away the milk for free," or perhaps she resisted a little and then gave in, or perhaps she was raped (literally "stolen"). "All the blisters are in the cup" follows. Substitute STD for "blisters" and vagina for "cup."
In the fourth line, things get almost pornographic. The word "cooking" (fucking) is repeated, and I'll allow my readers to use their imaginations as to what "very little and all large holes" might mean.
The fifth line opens with, "A real pint," referring to semen or perhaps sexual fluids in general. The "open" one is the vulva, the "closed" one is the male urethra afterwards, and the "middle" one is the cervical opening. All this being "so bad" or naughty in a sexual way (as in "she's been a naughty girl").
The sixth line lists the swirling emotional and physical responses that the ravished woman feels after the act: the STD(s) ("tender colds"), the memory of her lover's face ("seen eye holders"), "work" (the sexual effort), "change" (her life has changed), "meaning" (she tries to make sense of it--is this love? etc), "dark red" (here, we learn she was a virgin now deflowered), and finally "all this and bitten, really bitten" (all these confusing sensations, but she is smitten with her lover nevertheless).
The final line is chilling. It opens with, "Guessing again," as the ravished maiden wonders what giving herself to her lover meant to him. Not much, as the cad leaves her to go "golfing" (putting his "balls" in eighteen other "holes") just like "the very best men."
So, there you have it. Kind of shocking stuff from someone who from all appearances could be anybody's grandmother.