Marjorie Perloff

Published in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, ed. Maeera Schreiber and Keith Tuma (National Poetry Foundation, 1996), pp. 131-48. Rpt. in French translation in Après l’usure de toutes les routes: Retour sur l’épopée, Volumes 49-50 of in ‘hui, ed. Jacques Darras (Brussels, 1997): 127-145; trans. Dominque Goy-Blanquet

“These girls,” wrote Ezra Pound in the Little Review (1918), referring to Marianne Moore and Mina Loy, “have written a distinctly national product, they have written something which would not have come out of any other country.” [1] A rather surprising statement,  at least about Loy, given that this “girl” wasn’t American at all. Born in England in 1882 as Mina Gertrude Löwy to a Hungarian Jewish father who had emigrated to England as a young man, and an English mother, Julia Bryan, Loy grew up in London, studied art in Munich (1899-1901), and then, with her English husband, a fellow art student named Stephen Haweis, lived first in Paris (1903-06), and then in Florence (1906-16), where her two children Giles and Joella were born. [2] After her marriage to Haweis broke up in 1914, Loy took part in the Futurist movement; she wrote manifestos, participated in art exhibitions, and during 1914 had brief affairs with both the Futurist chef d’école Marinetti and the poet Giovanni Papini.  She also began to publish poems in Camera Work and Trend. In 1916, at the height of the war, she left Europe for the U.S. (her children remained in Italy) and became as active on the New York Dada scene as she had been on the Italian Futurist one. And it is here, in Walter Arensberg’s studio, that she met the great love of her life, the Dada poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, whose real name, Loy was thrilled to discover, matched her own, being Fabian Avenarius Lloyd. Or rather it matched her own creation: Loy, let us recall, was the shortened and Anglicized form of Löwy that Mina adopted when she first came to Paris in 1903. Loy/ Lloyd: to make things even more aesthetically compatible, Fabian Lloyd, was a nephew of Oscar Wilde’s wife Constance Mary Lloyd.

The U.S. stay lasted from October 1916 to January 1918–a little over a year–but it is during this year that the entire sequence Songs to Johannes was published as a special issue of Others (April 1917) and brought Loy to the attention of Pound and Eliot. In 1918 she followed Arthur Cravan to Mexico; a year later, after a long drawn-out idyll, Loy, penniless and pregnant, sailed for Europe to have her baby. Cravan, who was to follow shortly, disappeared mysteriously; his body was never recovered. Their child Fabi was born in London in 1919. Loy returned to Italy for two years and then settled with her two daughters (her son Giles had been kidnapped by her former husband and was to die soon thereafter) in Paris, where she lived from 1923 to 1936. Her long poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” and her unfinished novel Insel date from this period. It is only in 1936, at the age of 54 that Loy moved to the U.S. where she remained, first in Manhattan’s Bowery and then with her daughters in Aspen, Colorado until she died in 1966. In these later American years, she published very little and all but disappeared from sight.

Loy would thus seem to be the prototype of the deracinated cosmopolite, the sort of expatriate figure Eliot (who praised her poetry in The Egoist) must have had in mind when he had the Wasteland’s Marie say, “Binn gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Fluent in French, Italian, and German as well as in her own late Victorian English, she lived in New York for only one of her first fifty-four years. How, then, could Pound call her work a “distinctly national product”–an oeuvre that couldn’t “come out of any other country”? [3] And how is it that Virginia Kouidis would call her book on Loy (the only book-length critical study to date) Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet? [4]

Kouidis herself gives three reasons. First, she argues, Loy was “aware that the subjects and structures of English poetry in 1910 were inadequate to experience” (VK 135), and that she must therefore, like her fellow-Americans, Eliot and Pound, draw upon French models. Second, Loy’s logopoeia (Pound’s term, of which more below) is characteristically American: “she employs a compressed diction that abandons the poetic commonplace. . . .this diction reflects modes of perception and utilizes the spoken language” (VK 136). Here Kouidis is thinking of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and especially of Gertrude Stein. And third, “Mina Loy is linked to the Americans by her translation into poetry of the techniques and structures of modern European painting, especially Futurism and Cubism” (VK 137). Again, Stein and Moore, Stevens and Williams are cited as parallels.

Two of the three traits here cited are largely negative: Loy is judged to be “American” by her borrowings from French poetry (Laforgue) as well as French and Italian art forms (Cubism, Futurism). As for the third, the purported adoption of an American speech idiom, the fact is, as we shall see, that Loy’s language is anything but direct, colloquial, or idiomatic–what Eliot called the “return to common speech,” or Ezra Pound, “direct treatment of the thing.” [5] All the same, Pound was on to something important when he declared that Loy’s poetry couldn’t come out of any other country but the U.S. For what does make Loy, like her friend Gertrude Stein, so curiously “American,” I shall suggest here, is her invention of an intricately  polyglot language–a language that challenges the conventional national idiom of her British (as well as her French or Italian, or, paradoxically, even her American) contemporaries.

It is significant that, from the beginning, it was the United States, not England, whose little magazines–Camera Work, Trend, Rogue, Blind Man, Others, and Dial–were receptive to Mina Loy’s writing. The first two installments of “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” came out, very appropriately as we shall see, in the “Exile” issue  (1923) of the Little Review ; the third, in Robert McAlmon’s Paris-based Contact Collection of Contemporary Verse (1925). As an “Exile” in New York, Loy was linked to the Arensberg Circle and, later to the American expatriate circles in Paris. When Alfred Kreymborg came to write his survey of American poetry called Our Singing Strength (1929), he placed Loy in his chapter on “Originals and Eccentrics,” grouping her with Marianne Moore, Lola Ridge, and Adelaide Crapsey, as well as with Mardsen Hartley, Pitts Sanborn, Helen Hoyt, and Emmanuel Carnevali. “During the war,” we read in Kreymborg, a  “curious woman, exotic and beautiful, came to New York from foreign shores: the English Jewess, Mina Loy, [whose]  clinical frankness and sardonic conclusions, wedded to a madly elliptical style scornful of the regulation grammar, syntax, and punctuation, horrified our gentry and drove our critics into furious despair.” Her work as well as her personality, Kreymborg reports, “created a violent sensation.” [6]

But in what sense, if any, is the “elliptical style” of this “English Jewess,” who spent so little time in America before her fifty-fourth year, identifiable as “American,” especially since, overtly, it has little in common with the “American” styles (and settings) of such of her contemporaries as Stevens and Williams? To answer this question,  I propose to examine Loy’s remarkable long (and still almost unknown) poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” (1923-25). For here, in this allegorical, parodic, often disjointed  pseudo-narrative of the poet’s ancestry, birth, childhood, and coming of age, we have Loy’s most compelling representation of her “mongrelization”–the “crossbreeding” of the English and Hungarian-Jewish strains that produced, so the author herself seems to feel,  a form of mental and emotional gridlock that could be overcome, in life as in art, only by large doses of the transnational avant-gardism of the interwar period.

The Mongrel-Girl of Noman’s Land

What Pound rightly called logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words,” as he put it in “How to Read,” aptly characterizes Loy’s poetics. Whereas melopoeic poetry is one in which “the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property,” and phanopoeia is “a casting of images upon the visual imagination,” logopoeia “employs words not only for their direct meaning, but it takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the words, its usual concomitants, of its known acceptances, and of ironical play.” [7] Kenneth Rexroth seems to have these qualities in mind when, in a 1944 appreciation, he suggests that Loy’s neglect is probably “due to her extreme exceptionalism. Erotic poetry is usually lyric. Hers is elegiac and satirical. It is usually fast paced. Hers is slow and deliberately twisting. If it is bitter and dissatisfied, it is at least passionate.” And Rexroth adds, “Her virtues are self-evident. She is tough, forthright, very witty, atypical, anti-rhetorical, devoid of chi-chi.” [8]

Now consider the opening section of “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” called “Exodus,” in which the impersonal narrator tells the tale (in the present-tense and in swift, cartoonish strokes) of her father’s childhood in “Buda Pest,” his coming to the “cancellated desert of the metropolis” which is Victorian London, his youthful employment as “highest paid tailor’s / cutter in the City,” his lonely boarding-house life and sexual fantasies, and his, to her mind, ill-fated meeting with the “English Rose” who is to be Loy’s despised Protestant, virginal, bourgeois, cold and prudish mother. Here is a passage about fifty lines into the narrative: [9]

The arid gravid
intellect      of Jewish ancestors
the senile juvenile
calculating prodigies of Jehovah
crushed by the Occident ox
they scraped
the gold gold golden
muck from its hoofs

moves Exodus       to emigrate
coveting the alien
asylum      of voluntary military
service     paradise        of the pound-sterling
where the domestic Jew        in lieu                                             of knouts        is lashed with tongues

This passage makes an interesting contrast to the work of a poet closely linked to Loy– Williams, whose Spring and All was published by Contact the same year as “Anglo-Mongrels.”  Here is the opening of VIII:

The sunlight in a
yellow plaque upon the
varnished floor

is full of a song
inflated to
fifty pounds pressure

at the faucet of
June that rings
the triangle of the air

pulling at the
anemones in
Persephone’s cow pasture–

Williams’s verse is at once “free” (the lines range from three to seven syllables and from two to four primary stresses) and yet highly structured. The lines are suspended, breaking at odd junctures, as in “a/ yellow plaque upon the / varnished floor.” But visually these lines are gathered into neat tercets of roughly equal size. And the language of these tercets is concrete and particular, the poet’s response to the natural world being conveyed without commentary by means of image and metaphor. The sharply visualized “yellow plaque” of sunlight on the “varnished floor” is described synaesthetically as a “song / inflated to / fifty pounds pressure / at the faucet of /June,” and then, in terms of myth, as “anemones” lighting up “Persephone’s cow pasture.” [10]

In contrast, Loy’s “stanzas” are intentionally ungainly, syllable and stress count, line length, spacing, and stanza length being much more variable than Williams’s.   Indeed, Loy’s is not so much “free verse,” in the usual sense of the term, as it is a variant on skeltonics (so named for the Tudor poet John Skelton), that is, “a distinctive shortlined meter [in which] typically the lines carry only 2-3 stresses in 3-6 syllables (though longer lines are not uncommon), and there are frequent short runs of monorhyme called ‘leashes’ [and] parallelism is a major rhetorical device.” [11] In Loy’s version, these “leashes” often come within lines, as in “arid gravid,” “senile juvenile,” or “Occident ox.”  What holds these stanzas together is not a larger rhythmic contour or consistent image pattern as in Spring and All, but a network of elaborate rhyming, chiming, chanting, and punning, as in the sequence “Jewish–juvenile–prodigies–Jehovah,” where jew is found in every word, or in the rhyming and chiastic linkage between “Occident ox” and “Exodus.”  “Crushed by the Occident ox,” Exodus”  naturally “covet[s] the alien / asylum   of voluntary military service   paradise  of the pound-sterling.”  “Voluntary”–”military”:  doesn’t this sound like a contradiction in terms?  And what sort of “asylum” is “alien”?  Yet these tightly packed lines make perfectly good sense:  to join the British army voluntarily provides Exodus with the “alien” (to him) “asylum” of the “paradise of the pound-sterling.”  Once “domesticated,” in his new country, the Jew   in lieu / of knouts    is lashed with tongues.”  Not lashed with the whip as were his ancestors in Hungary, just lashed with tongues.”  And the rhyme “Jew” / “lieu” suggests that the Jew can never be more than a substitute in English society, a kind of simulacrum, in lieu of  the true blue Englishman.

Mina Loy’s debt to Futurism (as well as her critique of her male Futurist mentors) has been frequently discussed,[12] but what has gone unnoticed is that Loy’s very diction and syntax constitute a sharp critique of Marinetti’s famed parole in libertà. In the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” (1912), Marinetti had defined poetry as “an uninterrupted sequence of new images” or rather image-bearing nouns in apposition. “Every noun,” he declared, “should have its double; that is the noun should be followed, with no conjunction, by the noun to which it is related by analogy. Example: man-torpedo-boat, woman-gulf, crowd-surf, piazza-funnel, door-faucet.” At the same time “One must abolish the adjective, to allow the naked noun to preserve its essential color,” and again “One must abolish the adverb, old belt buckle that holds two words together.” [13]A sequence of naked nouns, tactile, concrete, imagistic, and often, as in Zang Tumb Tuum, onomatopoeic: here is the source of immaginazione senza fili (imagination without strings).

In “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” Loy turns this aesthetic on its head. Her nouns are abstract, not concrete–intellect, ancestors, prodigies, asylum–and they are modified by adjectives that often overwhelm (and even contradict) her nouns as in “the senile juvenile / calculating prodigies,” or in “coveting the alien / asylum of voluntary military service.” Not parole in libertà but conceptual words and phrases (whatever the part of speech); not lyric sequences of analogies but schematic, parabolic narrative:

The cannibal God
shutters his lids of night     on the day’s gluttony
the partially     devoured humanity
warms its unblessed beds     with bare prostrations  (LLB 113)

Here is Loy’s version of late Victorian London, with its alien devouring Deity presiding over the sordid nighttime couplings (“bare prostrations”) in the “unblessed beds” of the dreary mass metropolis. If this passage brings to mind Eliot’s “Preludes” (“One thinks of all the hands / That are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms”), Loy’s “unblessed beds” are purposely left unspecified, their occupants never quite materializing as actual human beings.

In this respect, Loy is much closer to Wyndham Lewis than to Eliot or Pound, Williams or Stevens, or, for that matter, to Moore, to whom critics from Pound on down have linked her, evidently because of gender. The de-particularization of “Exodus,” as of “English Rose” in the next section, and of “Ova” (Mina Loy herself), “Esau Penfold” (Stephen Haweis), and “Colossus” (Arthur Cravan), is symptomatic of Loy’s larger metaphysical perspective.[14] Whereas Marinetti (and the Imagists as well) put his faith in objects, lining up catalogues of concrete nouns (torpedo-boat-battleship-machine gun) and onomatopoeic sounds (“zang-tumb-tuum,”  “ta-ta-ta-ta”) for their immediate presentational value, Loy is a satirist, a diagnostician who is willing to regard her very own parents as nasty stereotypes, representative of a late Victorian Imperialist England in which the outsider, especially an Eastern European Jewish outsider (“Exodus”) could only gain a foothold by marrying an “English Rose,” no matter how great the mismatch.

Indeed, in her portrait of her father Sigmund Löwy, Loy seems to accept all the anti-Semitic stereotypes of her time and place. Exodus’s mother has “hair     long as the Talmud” and “tamarind eyes” (LLB 111); his father stuffs him “with biblical Hebrew and the seeds of science   exhorting him/ to vindicate / his forefathers’ ambitions” (LLB 111-12). In the passage I have cited above, “the senile juvenile / calculating prodigies of Jehovah” (senile because even as children they must push and shove and make their way) learn to “scrape / the gold gold golden muck” from the “hoofs” of the Occident (read “gentile”) ox.” Arriving in London, Exodus is soon the “highest paid   tailor’s / cutter in the City,” masters “business English,” “stock exchange quotations / and conundrums of finance / to which unlettered immigrants are instantly initiate” (115). His gift to his daughter, we learn later, is none other than “The Jewish brain!” (132). But the stereotype is not only of the shrewd, money-grubbing Jewish immigrant. Loy endows her father with the reputed “Jewish” artistic bent (a Sunday painter (“Painting feeling his pulse. . . .Under his ivory hands / his sunflowers sunwards / glow”, 118), as well as with the powerful sex drive of dark “Eastern” males: “He / loaded with Mosaic / passions that amass / like money” (124), and again, “Exodus / Oriental / mad to melt / with something softer than himself” (126).

Inevitably, the union with his opposite, the cold, virginal “English Rose,” is bound to prove disastrous. Loy’s portrait of her mother in Part 2 of “Anglo-Mongrels” contains some of her most devastating satire, satire in which, again, the language itself is as “mongrelized” as are the principals of her narrative. Here is the opening:

Early English everlasting
quadrate Rose
trimmed with some travestied flesh
tinted with bloodless duties         dewed
with Lipton’s teas
and grimed with crack-packed
the prim gilt
of a luster-scioned

Rose of arrested impulses
of the primordial attributes
a tepid heart inhibiting
with tactful terrorism
the Blossom Populous
to mystic incest with its ancestry
by the divine right of self-assertion
the post-conceptional
virginity of Nature. . . .   (LLB 121)

Here Loy has produced a brilliant parody of Le Roman de La Rose, her skeltonic rhymes inverting the value of virginity in Machaut’s medieval romance so as to make it an absurd value, a cash commodity whereby the British empire plies its trade. The opening “litany” might be interestingly compared to Eliot’s slightly later (1930) quite serious litany in “Ash Wednesday” (“Rose of Memory / Rose of forgetfulness /. . . . The single Rose / Is now the Garden”). Loy’s alliterating opening, “Early English everlasting” also echoes parodically Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable. . .” (from “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves”), while the reference to the four-petalled rose (“quadrate”) refers to the Rose of fin-de-siècle occultists, most notably Yeats’s “Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose.”

But what is entirely Loy’s own poetic signature is that her rose images, far from producing an imagist or symbolist landscape, jostle with conceptual nouns, puns, and aggressive rhymes, in a curious “mongrelization” of linguistic registers. The poet’s rose is “paradox-Imperial” in that her vaunted purity and modesty can “work” on male suitors only because this “Blossom Populous” can bank on its “mystic incest with its ancestry,” its “divine right of self-assertion.” Rose’s very “flesh” is “travestied” by its class origin, “tinted with bloodless duties,” and “dewed / with Lipton’s teas.” Here not only do the suffixes match, but “dewed . . . teas” nicely puns on the “duties” this “pouting / pearl beyond price” has been trained to perform. And a further pun relates those “teas” to the “tease” which “She / simpering in her / ideological pink” (124) turns out to be. For what are those “petals” but the “prim gilt” (“guilt”) or fake “luster” covering the “penetralia” to Rose’s “core-crown”–crown” by virtue of the “divine right of self-assertion,” the assertion of her illustrious Imperial pedigree.  Even the lady at Exodus’s boarding-house dinner table, after all, excuses what are evidently her bad table manners by saying, “Our Dear Queen picks chicken bones / in her fingers” (115). Why, then, should Exodus not pick a few chicken bones of his own? Trained as he is to “scrape / the gold gold golden / muck” from the hoofs of the “Occident ox” (112), why not a little “prim gilt” from the “luster-scioned / crown”?

The narrative of Exodus’s meeting with and courtship of “Alice the gentile” is high comedy:

While she
expecting the presented knee
of chivalry
the sub-umbilical mystery
of his husbandry

His passionate anticipation
of warming in his arms
his rose to a maturer coloration
which was all of aspiration
the grating upon civilization
of his sensitive organism
had left him

splinters upon an adamsite
of nerves like stalactites

This dying chastity
had rendered up no soul
yet they pursued their conjugal
dilemmas as is usual
with people
who know not what they do
but know that what they do
is not illegal                                    (LLB 126-27)

In the first stanza above, the six “leash” rhymes — “she” / “knee”/ “chivalry”/ “mystery”/ “husbandry”/ “hysterically”– concisely and bitingly define the misalliance of Exodus and his Rose. To be brought up to expect the chivalry of the “presented knee,” only to be exposed to that “sub-umbilical mystery” of his “husbandry” (the phrase combines euphemism and pun to describe, from Rose’s perspective, the act that can’t be named) culminates in that free-floating adverb that destroys, in more ways than one, the decorum of the preceding noun sequence. Hysterically is what we’re left with. The same effect is rendered in the next stanza by the rhyming of suffixes of abstract nouns–“anticipation”/ “coloration”/ “aspiration”/ “civilization”–where the last word “civilization” doesn’t belong semantically in the catalogue of mental states that precede it, the irony being that this “civilization” consists precisely of such foolish forms of flirtation.

Rose’s resistance to Exodus’s “passionate anticipation” is defined in terms of minerals: “adamsite”  (a greenish-black mica) and “nerves like stalactites.” Again, the two geological terms rhyme. “No soul,” it seems, in this “conjugal” union. But–and now Loy switches to ordinary diction to make a fine point– these Victorians were “people/ who know not what they do / but know   that what they do / is not illegal.” The indictment of marriage as an institution could hardly be more scornful.

The logopoeia of these early sections of “Anglo-Mongrels” is extremely intricate. Punning will often depend on foreign words or on breaking up words into their morphemes. “Deep in the névrose night,” for example, enables Loy to embed her “rose” in the French word for “neurotic.” The “disciplining” of “the inofficial / ‘flesh and devil’ / to the apparent  impeccability / of the English,” plays on “parent” and sinning (i.e., “non peccavi”). And perhaps most wittily, Loy uses personification and circumlocution to create burlesque scenes of virginal defensiveness:

For of this Rose
wherever it blows
it is certain
that an impenetrable pink curtain
hangs between it and itself
and in metaphysical vagrance
it passes beyond the ken
of men unless
of exorbitant incomes
And Then–
merely indicates its presence
by an exotic fragrance   (128)

The image of the hymenal “impenetrable pink curtain” hanging “between it and itself . . . in metaphysical vagrance” is wonderfully absurd, especially since the reference is embedded in the nursery-rhymes “Rose” / “blows”, “certain” / “curtain”, “unless”/ “possess”, and especially the crescendo of “ken” / “men”/ “And Then–”. The only “presence” here, as the final pararhyme suggests, is not of a living body but only a teasing fragrance. Withholding is all.

In the course of the poem, Loy pulls out all the generic stops–allegory, mock epic, biography, realist narrative–so as to foreground the ironies inherent in her tale. But it is the tone of the poem, the distance between its aloof narrator and her cartoonish characters,  that makes Loy’s work distinctive.[15] For who, after all, talks about her parents this way?  Who would characterize her own birth as the extraction from her mother’s loins of “A clotty bulk of bifurcate fat” (130), or describe her baby self as “feed[ing] / its mongrel heart on Berger’s food / for infants” (132)? Is the poet too cruel to the memory of her parents? Too intolerant and unforgiving? Just plain nasty?

In the later sections of “Anglo-Mongrels,” the poet details Ova’s coming to consciousness, her gradual separation from “the heavy upholstered / stuffing” of the “netherbodies” of both mother and nurse (LLB139), whose presence can no longer stifle the child’s curiosity about words, for example “iarrhea,” which the two-year old toddler overhears and transforms into a kind of magic wand. Yet neither her precocious love of language nor her later forging of her own version of Christianity, can quite break the family tie:

Suburban children
of middle-class Britain
ejected from the home
are still connected
with the inseverable
navel-cord of the motherland
need never feel alone   (154)

This extract from “Ova among the Neighbors” lacks the punning, sound play, and high-spiritedness of the earlier satire: indeed, Loy consistently seems less comfortable talking about herself than about her cold and hypocritical mother, her ineffectual father, and the series of nursemaids and governesses who try to control her childhood activities. In the course of the narrative, the emphasis remains squarely on the indictment of the imperial England of the poet’s childhood, with its “bland taboo / from the nursery to the cemetry” (156) and its “twilight turbulence / of routine in coma” (157).

But–and I want now to come back to Virginia Kouidis’s representation of the American Mina Loy–the poet does not, at least not in this poem, turn to French models; she does not adopt natural speech rhythms (as do Eliot and Pound), and by no means is hers the Cubist aesthetic one associates with Gertrude Stein. Cubism, after all, implies multiplicity of perspectives, the blurring of figure-ground relationships, and the indeterminacy or reference, the outlines of a wine glass doubling as the stick figure of a man, guitar strings as letters of the alphabet or body parts, and so on. And further: unlike the Marinetti who invented parole in libertà, or the Dadaists of the Cabaret Voltaire, or the Eliot of the Waste Land and Pound of the Cantos, Loy was not a collagiste.[16] She does not paste together disparate verbal fragments, letting  their spatial juxtapositions create a complex network of meanings. Rather, hers is a temporal mode,  a satiric narrative, however broken and self-interrupting, in which structures of voice and address take precedence over the “constatation of fact,” as Pound called it, of the Image.

Where, then, does this logopoeaic mode come from? Perhaps the first place to look is at the Yellow Nineties of Loy’s London childhood: the England of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, of Art Nouveau and her one-time art teacher Augustus John. Like the calla lilly lamps she invented in the late twenties (see figure 1), her verbal compositions are highly stylized, intentionally artificial, extravagantly mannered. As she herself put it in an unpublished homage to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Tipped off as it were by the poet I preferred, I at last began to function” (LLB 315).

At the same time, she infuses the language of the fin de siècle with solecisms, neologisms, foreign phrases (characterizations of Cravan, for example, seem to demand French as in Loy’s designation of him as “un brute mystique” or “le dieu qui se conserve et le fou qui s’evade,”LLB 318-319), Jewish inflections, and realistic references to bodily functions that would not have been tolerated by the Rhymers’ Club or the Savoy. Indeed, her curious polyglossia reflects her own “Anglo-mongrel” ancestry as well as the expatriation of her adult life.

“Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” written in Paris after the traumatic loss of Cravan–a loss from which, by her own account, Loy never recovered–thus represents a rupture with a lyrical tradition that parallels Gertrude Stein’s break with conventional narrative some ten years earlier. [17] Like Stein (or, for that matter, like Loy’s American expatriate friend Djuna Barnes), Loy maintains an  ironic distance to her materials. The “Buda pest” of the Löwys was not, after all, a place she really knew but largely a mythic space she herself had invented. And, compared to the “Unreal city” of Eliot’s Waste Land, published the year she began “Anglo-Mongrels,” her own London locales remain curiously abstract and schematic. The “isolate consciousness / projected   from back of time and space” that Loy explores in her narrative poem is not given to fantasies of shoring fragments against its ruins. Rather, as Pound and Rexroth recognized, the poet’s sardonic wit and bitter acerbity find their outlet in the play of language itself, the logopoeia that finds satisfaction in discovering the paragrams and puns latent in any given vocabulary.

If this logopoeic poetry has finally come into its own, it may well be because our own “American” English has become so thoroughly mongrelized. Interestingly, Loy herself predicted this turn of events. “It was inevitable,” she remarked in one of her rare critical essays “that the renaissance of poetry should proceed out of America, where latterly a thousand languages have been born, and each one, for purposes of communication at least, English–English enriched and variegated with the grammatical structure and voice-inflection of many races. . . . Out of the welter of this unclassifiable speech, while professors of Harvard and Oxford labored to preserve, ‘God’s English,’ the muse of modern literature arose, and her tongue had been loosened in the melting pot.” [18]

This was written in 1925, the same year “Anglo-Mongrels” was published. At the end of the century, as “English” in the U.S. becomes increasingly other, no longer the language of the mother country but an amalgam of “névrose” locutions and syntactic structures taken from African, Latin American, and Asian as well as European cultures, Loy’s poetic language no longer appears especially eccentric. Such neologisms as “increate altitudes” (LLB 169) or “the more formulate education” (LLB 152) no longer seem, as they did even to favorable critics like Rexroth, “lapses of skill” (see KR 69), and the campy artifice of her Exodus/Colossus narrative can now be understood as deploying verbal displacement and syntactic dislocation for essential satirical ends.

Roger Conover recounts an anecdote that is apropos in this regard:

[Loy] wrote under an elaborate system of anagrammatically and numerologically derived pseudonyms.  Was she impersonating herself or did she have a double? . . . . Was it her pseudomania, perhaps, which accounts for a rumour that was circulating around Paris in the Twenties–that Mina Loy was in fact not a real person at all, but a forged persona, a hoax-of-critics.  Upon hearing this, the story goes, Mina Loy turned up at Natalie Barney’s salon in order to convince guests of her existence:

I assure you I am indeed a live being. But it is necessary to stay very unknown . . . To maintain my incognito the hazard I chose was–poet. (LLB,xvii-xviii)

It is a nice parable of the grim advantages of what we might call negative identity. Mina Loy’s “pseudonymity” may well have been the signature that gave her the “American” freedom to invent a verbal world of her own. “I began,” she recalls, “to ‘furnish’ England with a small pattern, an incipient rhythm, a wisp of folklore” (LLB 315). And again, in “Ladies in an Aviary,” “It is so sweet this sugar, the sugar of fictitious values” (LLB 316).


[1] Ezra Pound, “A List of Books,” Little Review, March 1918; rpt. in Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, ed William Cookson (New York: New Directions, 1973), pp. 424-25.

[2] The Haweises’ first child Oda was born in 1904 in Paris but died on her first birthday. My biographical sketch is largely based on Roger Conover’s Introduction and Time-Table: see Mina Loy, The Last Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger L. Conover with a Note by Jonathan Williams (Highlands, N.C.: The Jargon Society, 1982), pp. xv-lxxix.   Subsequently cited in the text as LLB.  Loy scholars have discovered that this edition is by no means definitive and Conover’s spacing of lines and stanzas does not always follow the originals, but for the moment, his is the best edition we have.  A small detail that deserves notice here:  Conover lists Loy’s father as Lowy, the Anglicized spelling of the German Löwy;  Löwy, in turn, would derive from Löwe (lion), Löwenthal, and so on.
Carolyn Burke’s long-awaited, forthcoming biography, to be published by Farrar, Straus in 1996, will no doubt fill in the picture much more fully.

[3] In the Egoist, V (1918): 70, T. S. Apteryx [Eliot’s pseydonym] called “The Effectual Marriage” (a thinly veiled account of her relationship with Papini) “extremely good.” A year later, Ezra Pound recalled “Effectual Marriage” as one of the poems of the last thirty years which by virtue of its ‘individual character’ remained in his memory. See Pound, Profile: An Anthology Collected in 1931 (Milan: John Scheiwiller, 1932): 13.

[4] Virginia M. Kouidis, Mina Loy.  American Modernist Poet (Baton Rouge and London: Louisia State University Press, 1980); subsequently cited in the text as VK. The American label is all but ubiquitous: see, for example, Jane Augustine, “Mina Loy: A Feminist Modernist Americanizes the Language of Futurism,” Mid-Hudson Language Studies 12.1 (1989): 89-101;  Carolyn Burke, “The New Poetry and the New Woman: Mina Loy,” in Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, eds. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985): 37-57;  Linda A. Kinnehan, Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[5] Eliot, “The Music of Poetry” (1942), On Poetry and Poets (New York: Noonday Press, 1961), p. 23; Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. with an introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1954), p. 5

[6] Alfred Kreymborg, Our Singing Strength, An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930)  (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc. 1929), pp. 488-89.

[7] Ezra Pound, “How to Read” (1928), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London:  Faber and Faber, 1954), p. 25.

[8] Kenneth Rexroth, “Les Lauriers Sont Coupés,” Circle 1.4 (1944): 69-70.

[9] LLB 112-113. Conover normalizes Loy’s dramatic spacing and omits her dashes, hyphens and other special punctuation devices.  In my citations, I reproduce the spacing of the original: for the passage cited here, see Little Review, 9 (Spring 1923): 11-12.

[10] William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, in Imaginations, ed. Webster Schott (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 109.

[11] See T. V. F. Brogan, “Skeltonic,” in  The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 1154-55. An example from Skelton’s “To Mistress Margaret Hussey” goes like this:
Merry Margaret,
As midsummer flower,
Gentle as falcon
Or hawk of the tower
With solace and gladness,
Much mirth and no madness,
All good and no badness;
So joyously,
So maidenly,
So womanly. . . .

[12] See VK 49-59; Carolyn Burke, “The New Poetry and the New Woman: Mina Loy,” 39-43; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “‘Seismic Orgasm’: Sexual Intercourse, Gender Narratives and Lyric Ideology in Mina Loy,” in Ralph Cohen (ed.), Studies in Historical Change (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1992), pp. 264-91; and especially Elizabeth Arnold, “Mina Loy and the Futurists,” Sagetrieb 8.1-2 (1989): 83-117.

[13] F. T. Marinetti, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” (1912), in Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, trans. R. W. Flint  (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991), pp. 92-97.

[14] For a discussion of Loy’s brand of Christianity and Freudianism, see  Keith Tuma, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’,” Sagetrieb 11. 1&2 (1992): 207028.

[15] Virginia Kouidis suggests Jules Laforgue as a model (see VK 91-94), but Laforgue is much more lyrical than Loy, and, despite his ironic registers, much more concerned with self expression.

[16] See, on this point, Chapter 2 of my Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), and my essay on “Collage,” forthcoming in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[17] In the final issue of the Little Review (1929), Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap gave their authors a questionnaire to fill out. One question was:
What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (if you care to tell). Mina Loy responded: “Every moment I spent with Arthur Cravan. The rest of the time.” See LLB 305-306.  Cf. Loy’s apotheosis of her lover in “Arthur Cravan is Alive!”, LLB 317-22.

[18] Mina Loy, “Modern Poetry,” Charm, 3, no. 3 (April 1925): 17. I owe the discovery of this essay to Marisa Januzzi, who has uncovered so much important uncollected Loy material.