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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. 

***

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).