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Lost Poets: Mina Loy, a passing satellite

Guest article by Liza Hartley (Bachelor of Arts, *1998)

‘Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not— seek within yourselves to find out what you are. – Feminist Manifesto, Mina Loy, 1914.

Mina Loy wurde 1882 als Mina Gertrude Löwy als Tocher eines ungarischen jüdischen Vaters und einer protestantischen englischen Mutter geboren. Sie gehört zu den führenden Intellektuellen ihrer Zeit und besticht mit einer unglaublichen Originalität. Mina Loy war Freundin und Mentorin zugleich für Gertrude Stein, ihr Werk wurde von Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot und William Carlos Williams bewundert, doch heute ruft ihr Name nichts mehr hervor. Dies mag an Mina Loys Poesie liegen: Schwierig und die Leserin oft im Leeren lassend. Geduld, Intelligenz, Erfahrung und ein Wörterbuch braucht es, um Mina Loys Poesie zu lesen… und eine solide antifaschistische Haltung, da ihre zeitgebundenen eugenisch inspirierten Quotes nur schwer zu ertragen sind. Weshalb aber doch eine Besprechung hier zu Mina Loy? Weil ihr poetisches Projekt unglaublich viel Modernität in sich vereint, Widersprüche, die zeitgenössische Diskussionen quasi aus der Vergangenheit wiederspiegeln. Die Nicht-Kategorisierung von Mina Loy ist das Spannende: Radikal feministisch, ekelerregend faschistisch, futuristisch.  

 Wir laden Sie hiermit ein, Mina Loy in dem ausgezeichneten Aufsatz der jungen, brillianten und poetisch versierten Intellektuellen Liza Hartley kennenzulernen. 

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Born Mina Gertrude Löwy in 1882 to a Hungarian Jewish father and a Protestant English mother, Mina Loy was a poet of towering intellect and astonishing originality. A friend and mentor to Gertrude Stein, Loy’s work was admired by Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, but now her name is all too often met with blank expressions. This is perhaps because Mina Loy’s poetry is so exceptionally difficult it rewards the casual reader relatively little. It has been said that to read Loy one requires four things: a good deal of patience, intelligence, experience and a dictionary.[1] The crux of her difficulty lies not only in the complexity of her lexis but in the strangeness of her poetic project. Loy’s poetry walks a tightrope between the desire to violently split social forms and a compulsion to hybridise conflicting identities. Her search for the poetry of ‘the new woman’ in all her modernist innovation and obscurity resulted in a corpus that defies categorisation altogether.

Her poetry is at times both radically feminist and violently fascistic. She wrote poetry that is so pregnant with meaning it all but bursts at the seams as it struggles to contain an array of contradictory associations, ventriloquisms and ironies. In her work Loy appears beneath her hybridising, autobiographically allusive pseudonyms as ‘Gina’, ‘Ova’, ‘Goy Israels’, the ‘anglo-mongrel’. Her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ may exhort the female reader ‘[l]eave off looking to men to find out what you are not— seek within yourselves to find out what you are’ and yet one would be forgiven for calling Loy a poet determined to be anything other than what she is. In reality, Loy’s many contradictions and guises are not the result of a belief in ‘being’ anything at all, rather they are symptomatic of a poetic drive toward a more fundamentally kinetic ‘becoming’.

It is worth clarifying that I refer specifically to a notion of ‘becoming’ which is similar in form but crucially different to that defined by Nietzsche in Ecce Homo. Nietzschean becoming is ‘[t]he affirmation of transience and destruction,[…] saying ‘yes' to opposition and war, becoming, with a radical rejection of even the concept of being.’ Nietzsche may prove a useful reference point in typifying the lexis of phallic authority and fascistic violence which threatens to undermine the sincerely dynamic, feminine and Jewish nature of Loy’s poetry by crystallising into a too rigid principle of splitting and destruction. As a young Jewish feminist, Loy was briefly a member of the Futurist movement during which time she took F T Marinetti as her lover. Loy’s seeming fascination with ventriloquism sees her feminist tracts and poetry parrot the Futurists’ tone of masculine authority and pleasure in violence which would later become the hallmarks of the fascistic thinking to which the movement succumbed.

Her (non-matrilineal) Jewishness becomes the site of a psychic double bind as she adopts the phraseology of eugenicist fascism demanding ‘race-responsibility’ from her ‘superior’ women readers in her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ of 1914, only to later foreground the innocence and purity of the Jewish body. Her desire to eradicate the torment of ambivalence; of being neither fully Jewish nor fully gentile; resisting reductionist femininity while embracing the truly feminine, vacillates between driving her creation of a new feminine, Jewish, modernist, sex-positive dialect and employing the very linguistic tools used to oppress those movements and identities. In other words, Loy’s anti-phallic destabilising of identity is always at risk of becoming phallic in the intensity of its assertion and demands. Loy’s astounding success in cultivating her own poetics of ‘becoming’ is only made possible through her constant dalliance with paradoxically utilises violence and pain in the grotesque body to centre the reality of the mutable, intelligent, dynamic body which is diametrically opposed to the smooth, cold body of classical art so prized by fascism.

Let us examine Loy’s Futurist period which began in 1913 while she was living in Florence and was certainly over by the time she left Florence with her children, divorcing her Husband the painter Stephen Haweis, for New York in 1916. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published in 1909. The mission it set forth revolved around acceleration; embracing the new and strange; the destruction of the bonds of the past in search of a new language capable of expressing the speed and innovation of the new world. Loy’s poetry is driven by an impulse toward splitting what her native tongue has erroneously cobbled together as singularities: subject, object, body, Jew, mother, nationality, woman, etc. Poetic form itself is a restrictive set of demarcations from which she actively seeks freedom. Marinetti’s Futurism, with its lexis of smashing barriers, accelerating forward and discarding tradition presented a fascination for Loy which she indulged yet never fully embraced; Loy would maintain that none of the Futurists’ inner-circle would call her a Futurist. Misogynistic and fascistic tendencies were imbedded in futurism from its foundation; Marinetti’s manifesto states: "We will glorify war—the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman."

I have already made clear my position that the Futurist language of disintegration posed a greater threat to Loy’s project of freeing poetry from erroneous, restrictive notions of permanence and unity than its proclaimed values would suggest. This is because any attempt to maintain disintegration itself as a principle runs the gauntlet of hardening into an armoured rule of splitting and demarcating, thereby risking the reduction of the entire project’s energy into a conventionally masculine posturing. The desire to atomise and split presents a radical potential in its destructive force, but it is also conservative in its drive to have things in their correct place and to eliminate the dynamism of ambivalence.

Loy’s especially feminine and Jewish anxieties intersect in her poetic depictions of cataclysmic life events: primarily child-birth and death. In the semi-autobiographical ‘Anglo Mongrels and the Rose’ the figure of ‘the Rose’, ‘Alice the gentile’ or ‘Ada’ represents Loy’s English mother who resents and despises Mina’s ‘Anglo-mongrel’ Jewish father ‘Exodus’. The child she bears him, Mina, is also an Anglo-mongrel, and Loy imagines her own mother’s pregnancy as a nightmarish corruption by foreign objects:

To the mother
the blood-relationship
is a terrific indictment of the flesh
under cover
of clothing and furnishing
“somebody” has sinned
and their sin
— a living witness of the flesh
swarms with inquisitive eyes.[2]

The horror of female embodiment comes to a crisis point in the indictment of the pregnancy; “somebody” has sinned, the body of the mother instantly subsumes the totality of her selfhood. The leash repetitions of ‘flesh’ either side of the phonically similar ‘furnishing’ equates the body with inanimate furniture and the flesh with insentient fabric, further dissolving its connection with and ownership by the ‘host’ mother. She is no more than her body, a vessel for the parasitic child and, which is worse, the child is figured as the shameful progeny of the unsuitable mingling of her English ‘purity’ with Exodus’ Jewishness. Loy’s rage towards her mother whom she believed had not cared for her in her childhood, does not prevent her from pitying the mother’s sensation of annihilation and ruin.  The mother undergoes a monstrous transfiguration.

The geographical ambivalence of the eyes allows either the interpretation that they are observing her from the position of a judgmental society, or that they are the swarming eyes of the monstrous parasite boring out from within. In either case, the swarming eyes incorporate themselves into the mother’s flesh, replacing her epidermis. The evocation of the Argus Panoptes myth further hijacks the mother’s body, transfiguring the woman into her own ever-present alienating observer. The pregnancy is an ‘indictment of the flesh’ in which the mother’s awareness of her judgement is both inscribed on her body and internalised, hence the ambivalence of the eyes’ kinetic directionality boring inwards or outwards, such that she becomes her own judge, jailer and prisoner. This is the moment of death, the expectant mother is a corpse swarming with flies that might eat her flesh and, in doing so, become a carpeting exterior layer that disguises while it destroys. The uncertainty of ‘somebody’ declares the destruction of discernible individuality and identity alongside the reduction of the self to the body.

The angst surrounding a sensation of reduction into simply ‘the mother’ at the expense of one’s personhood is surely relatable for many women, both during and after pregnancy. But the very specific image infestation is inextricable from another anxiety attached to the very disintegration and atomisation which Loy explores: that of her Jewish identity. The corruption of the mother’s body in ‘Anglo Mongrels’ is inextricably linked to the ‘impurity’ of the child she carries. It is no coincidence that it is flies that Loy returns to repeatedly when exploring anxieties about her own hybrid body: much of fascist propaganda, particularly that produced under Nazism, seized on the age-old trope conflating Jews with ‘Das Ungeziefer’; vermin. The noun derives from ‘Ungezibere’ meaning 'unclean beast not suited for sacrifice'. The animal demarcated as vermin has no practical value to the cultural traditions of the state and no spiritual value to the faith or to God. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt points to the active stripping of German citizenship, first from naturalised citizens of Jewish origin, then of Jewish German citizens as not only controlling the ways in which the Jews could participate in and contribute to the state but of manufacturing the ‘crisis’ of statelessness.  The gradual degradation of Jewish identity by the German state sought to push Jews into the margins of the category of humanity itself.

Loy, as a non-matrilineal Jew, is herself at the very margins of an already marginalised identity; caught between the two identities of her parents, unable to conform to either. She imagines herself as the fictional ‘Goy Israels’ whose father also feels a race-responsibility to his Jewishness.  ‘Anglo Mongrels and the Rose’ and her unpublished novel ‘Goy Israels’ deploy tropes of impurity, but this is part of a complex interchange. Jewish philosophy is itself richly entangled with purity laws which Nazism knowingly exploited to construct an ironising contempt for the Jews’ supposedly hypocritical concern with purity while being themselves ‘vermin’. Mr. Israels cannot accept Goy as his idealised Jewish offspring because she is not Jewish and ‘in her he is allied to his persecutor’ the gentile. Aimee L Pozorski posits that ‘Given this philosophical, even painful, account of growing up confused by a compound racial heritage, perhaps it is not surprising that Loy would "escape" from these complications by writing a manifesto against producing racially-hybrid children.’  Given that her poetry is driven by the force of what is at once a conventionally modernist and a deeply personal psychology of splitting, it is perhaps true that her prose might try to resolve the tensions of her poetry by advocating unity, singularity and purity. But Pozorski seems to miss a crucial hybridity in Loy’s eugenicist exhortation which runs:

Every woman of superior intelligence should realise her race-responsibility, in producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit or degenerate members of her sex…
For the harmony of the race, each individual should be an expression of an easy & ample interpenetration of male & female temperaments. [3]

Loy is exhorting race-responsibility but the exact race she seems intent on preserving is unclear. The superiority of the women she addresses resides not in their Englishness, Jewishness or whiteness, but in their ‘intelligence’. It is a matter of intellect rather than genetics. The information stored in the flesh is made coherent by that which is stored in the mind. Loy’s poetry is richly populated with instances of ecstatic union between flesh and mind. This is the substitution of the pre-destined and the ingrained with the mutable, the fluid and the self-determining. The violence of the exhortation is still fascistic; Loy is simply substituting the unintelligent for the Jewish/disabled/homosexual for breeding out. But the internalisation of the justifying criteria from the body into the intellectual capacity also disembodies the violence itself. It becomes considerably easier to interpret the exhortation as poetic or symbolic, more of an appeal to women to pursue and value their own intelligence to the same extent that they are wrong-thinkingly valued as ‘pure’ breeding animals.

If indeed a more traditional conception of racial purity was the drive behind her eugenicist exhortation, it would certainly be an instance at which the conventionally rigid, Futurist mode of demarcation undermines her will to ‘becoming’. It has already been established that the mutability and kinesis of becoming must resist being warped into a series of posturing declaratives. While Loy’s capacity to briefly join and then dismiss the Futurists is perhaps conducive to a wider view of her life in its entirety as a project of becoming, it nonetheless threatens to diminish the force of her corpus when she advocates what we would now recognise as systematised, authoritarian female genital mutilation in her famous call for the universal ‘unconditional surgical destruction of virginity throughout the female population at puberty’.  The same is indeed true when she legitimises eugenics in whatever form. Yet we ought to interrogate the function of exhortations such as these in the context of her wider artistic and political project. Loy’s politics and her art are difficult to separate and her ‘Feminist Manifesto’ with its unconventional typography and spacing treads a line which is formally much closer to her poetry than it is to the prose of a conventional manifesto. Within poetry it is much easier to see, as we have often seen in Loy, that the employment of images of violence toward women expresses a highly directed rage at the aesthetic of femininity itself. This is aptly demonstrated in the work of a poet to whom Mina Loy is sometimes compared: Hilda Doolittle or H.D. ‘H.D implicitly calls for women and men to reconcile aesthetics and the feminine: “beauty without strength, / chokes out life. / I want wind to break, / scatter these pink stalks, / snap off their spiced heads.” […] she does not call for a literal snapping off of women’s “spiced heads” but for eradicating the environment that produces such cultivated or artificial weakness as beautiful.’[4]

Loy seems intent upon taking the destruction of contrived feminine vulnerability further than attacking the vehicle which represents it. In Loy’s formulation the body of the woman replaces the tired vehicles that have usurped it in commonplace metaphors. In reinstating the visceral body where it has been elided and obscured with prettier euphemisms Loy forces her reader to confront the reality of women as flesh and blood, equally as liable to penetration, rupture, resistance and decay as male bodies. But this replacement also metaphorises the body itself for the person. The body itself becomes a vehicle. If we take it that H.D is not truly advocating the destruction of flower heads but rather the destruction of the fetishisation of cultivated weakness, then Loy’s advocation may be taken simply as a more arresting expression of the same. This would be in keeping with Loy’s foregrounding of the reality of the lived body in its grotesque viscerality over obliquely oppressive euphemisms for the body.

Mina Loy’s poetry is exceptionally difficult. It presents the female Jewish body and experience as a subject-in-process, constantly dynamic and fluid, unable to be crystalised or contained. Loy uses pain, oppression, disgust and disorder towards a poetics of sincerity, understanding and compassion. The guises she adopts are not caricatures, they are complex, and she must wrangle with the threats they pose to her construction of an irreducible embodied consciousness. In doing so she creates something genuinely new: a body of ‘becoming’ as expansive and feminine as it is volatile and transgressive. And though she never attained particular recognition in her lifetime, and has attained relatively little acclaim after her death, her voice was one of the most truly unique and extraordinary to come out of 20th Century Europe. Our poetry would be enriched by remembering her.

 

*Liza Hartley was born in Manchester, United Kingdom in 1998. She studied English Literature at Cambridge University specialising in the modernist poetics of gender and race. Liza currently works as the editor of a legal review in London and she enjoys writing poetry in her spare time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Roger. L Conover, ‘Introduction’, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (xvii-xviii) (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997) p.xix.

[2] Mina Loy, ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’, The Last Lunar Baedeker, ed. by Roger L Connover (Highlands: Jargon Society Press, 1982), p.147.

[3] Mina Loy, ‘Feminist Manifesto’, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997) p.154.

[4] Cristanne Miller, ‘Finding “Only Words” Mysterious: Reading Mina Loy (and H.D.) in America’, The Cambridge History of American Poetry, ed. by Alfred Bendixen (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), pp.583-602 (p.589).

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Artikel online veröffentlicht: 4. Mai 2020