Gertrude Stein has a very different way of writing poems. Instead of foregrounding the denotation of words, she often writes by associating their sounds. In this way, reading a Stein poem is like listening to music. Stein’s poetry is influenced by cubism and especially the paintings of Picasso and Matisse. She often writes poems similar to the way that these artists use paint by trying to represent an object abstractly and in many different ways simultaneously. In “Susie Asado,” Stein creates a portrait (one might compare it to the tradition of the portrait in painting). Susie Asado was a flamenco dancer and Stein captures the essence of her dancing in words. For example, the first line evokes the sound of Asado’s rustling dress and punctuated tapping as she dances. By reading the poem aloud, one can really hear the flamenco that the poem conjures up. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in reading the poem as the sound and expression of Susie Asado’s dance. It teaches us something about how language means. Often, we only pay attention to the definitions of words, but Stein draws our attention to other ways that words evoke experience and convey meaning. Because of Stein’s eclectic approach to language, some conclude that the poem doesn’t make any sense or that it can only be understood as sound. But this may be an oversimplification. We recognize—and Stein of course did too—that words always have denotations and so they always mean or suggest meaning. Looking more closely at the poem—and this is the cubist part—we see patterns, allusions, and puns that allow us another way to read the poem. For example, “a told tray sure,” along with “silver seller,” makes “tea” into an extended metaphor. With its connotations of propriety and manners, the image of taking tea stands in stark contrast to the passion of the dance. “A told tray sure” also gives the sense of holding a tray steady, which captures the balanced and controlled way that Asado dances. The phrase is also a pun. It is “a told treasure” and Stein is telling the treasure of Susie Asado’s dance. In French, and Stein lived in Paris and spoke French, it is “a told très sure.” That is, “it is told of course!” This makes the words emphatic. Stein’s words are as passionate as the dancer they describe. It is not so much these meanings themselves but the way the poem accrues meaning that is important to notice. Like many of the best cubist paintings, the poem rewards rereading and patient attention. I think this is probably the poem’s greatest pleasure and its greatest significance.
Reportedly the portrait had been inspired by the flamenco dancer La Argentina, whom Stein and Toklas had admired when they were in Spain in 1913. How then could the first evocation of the dancer be dominated by the highly un-Spanish association of tea on a tray? I did not find poetic peace that night…The next morning, however, […] I suddenly heard it. "Sweet tea": sweetie. It was a revelation that changed the entire portrait for me. Stein's sound play suddenly pulled the rapid dance of "Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet…" over the end of the line – and over the edge of proper British manners – into a rapturous calling of "sweetie Susie Asado." Now the whole beginning sounded like a lover's plea, with "tray sure" melting into "treasure," another tenderness [...] Movements of desire may have run into obstacles (broken-off lines) because of different languages – English and Spanish, perhaps even French ("tray sure" can be read as "tres sure," the French feminine version of "very sure") […] The dancer's mysterious English name, Susie, may point to the French word for worry, "souci." Any too passionate leanings ("lean on the shoe") might have caused slippings, a loss of balance, especially if the dancer's movements ("slips slips hers") had conveyed too bold a message (with her slippers, her lips, or revealing her slip) as the sound seems to suggest.