The Mina Loy Mysteries:
Legend and Language
Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy
Farrar, Straus Giroux, 473 pages; cloth $35.00
The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy
Edited by Roger L. Conover
Farrar Straus Giroux, 238 pages; cloth $19.00
The Hotel in the Jungle
Albert J. Guerard
Baskerville; 392 pp. cloth $23.00
Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff
Published in American Book Review, 18, no. 1 (Oct-Nov. 1996): 16-17, 26.
“I was trying,” Mina Loy observed in 1927, with reference to her polyglot, punning, scholastic, asyntactic, unpunctuated free-verse poems, “to make a foreign language, because English had already been used.” So distinctive was Loy’s “logopoeia” (the term Ezra Pound invented to describe this particular poet’s “dance of the intelligence among words and ideas”),  that it has taken the better part of the century for her to be appreciated for what she was–one of the central avant-garde poets writing in English. Indeed, Roger Conover’s collection The Lost Lunar Baedeker is more than a new edition of Loy’s poetry; it is the only available edition of her collected (although by no means complete) works. Together with Carolyn Burke’s long awaited biography of the mysterious Mina Loy, the Farrar, Straus collection (subsequently cited as FS) is thus a major literary event.
Burke, a feminist scholar who has already published a number of important essays on Loy’s work and its place in the Modernist canon, has a fascinating story to tell; indeed, Loy’s life is the stuff of Hollywood legend: it would (and probably will!) make a great movie. Born in 1882 to Sigmund Löwy, a Hungarian Jew who settled in London and became a very successful taylor, and Julia Bryan, the lower-middle class small-town Methodist “English Rose,” as Loy herself referred to her mother in her autobiographical narrative poem Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (1925), Mina Lowy (later Loy) never quite “fit” in anywhere. Rebelling against her strict and prudish mother, the stunningly beautiful Mina attended art school, first in St. John’s Wood and then in Munich, where the baronial couple with whom she boarded and who were supposed to be her protectors, put the beautiful girl in the way of a succession of young men in the hopes of “compromising” her and then blackmailing her parents. Fortunately, Mina found them out before anything happened and returned briefly to England before moving on to the art academies in Paris.
At the studio of a friend, Loy met Stephen Haweis, a short and ugly young fellow artist from England who was evidently bisexual. She admired his pedigree more than she did him: his mother had been an arbiter of fashion during the 1870s and 80s and wrote books, among them Chaucer for Children, which Loy had read. In a strange episode in which Loy claimed to have been hypnotized, Haweis seduced the twenty-year old virgin and she found herself pregnant. Marriage seemed the only solution. “Thus it came about,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography [the Loy papers are at the Beineke Library at Yale], “that this weakened creature actually united in wedlock to the being on earth whom she would have least chosen.”
Not surprisingly, the marriage proved to be a disaster. The baby, Oda Janet, born in May 1904 , on a night when Haweis was seeing another woman, died two days after her first birthday. Loy showed some watercolors at the Salon d’Automne and was making some progress as an artist. But she and Haweis separated, and the next year she had an affair with the French physician who treated her for depression, Dr. Henri Joël Le Savoureux. By the time she found herself once again pregnant, the affair was over. Haweis, who knew all about it and needed her income, offered to act the role of father; the couple reunited and moved to Florence. In July 1907 Joella was born and, since Haweis badly wanted a child of his own, in 1909, Loy gave birth to a son, Giles. The children, brought up as was then the custom in their circle, by servants, demanded little of Loy’s attention and she became a very active member of the Anglo-American expatriate colony which included Gordon Craig, Bernard Berenson, Carl Van Vechten, and especially Mabel Dodge, who became Loy’s best friend , and at whose house she met Gertrude and Leo Stein.
It is this period, around 1912, that she shifted her primary allegiance from painting to poetry, although, as Burke tells it, there was never a conscious decision to “become a poet.” And indeed, the main “events” of the war years were Loy’s separation from Haweis (who went off to Tahiti in search of new inspiration for his art) and her affairs with both F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini, the two competitive Futurist leaders finally having a nasty falling-out over her. Futurism proved to be a big influence on Loy’s own writing–she wrote, for example, a manifesto “Aphorisms of Futurism” and a “Feminist Manifesto,” using the typography, lay-out, and parole in libertà Marinetti had made famous. At the same time, she found herself disgusted with the patriarchalism and misogyny of her Italian lovers, and when war broke out, she was eager to join Mabel Dodge in the U.S. She had already published in Camera Work, Rogue, and Others and wanted to be where the action was. Leaving Giles and Joella with the servants, Loy sailed for the New York, arriving in October 1916.
Now followed the great romance that has intrigued later artists and critics and that is the subject of Albert Guerard’s novel The Hotel in the Jungle, of which more below. In New York, Loy was greeted as the author of the notoriously racy “Love Songs,” published in Others–love songs that dared refer to the “rosy snout” of a “Pig Cupid . . . Rooting erotic garbage,” or to “The skin-sack / In which a wanton duality / Packed / All the completions of my infructuous impulses.” Taken up by the Arensberg Circle, Loy ran around with Marcel Duchamp, the Picabias, and William Carlos Williams, acted in playlets by Alfred Kreymborg, wrote and performed in her own plays, and was in general the gorgeous poet-belle of New York until she met the love of her life, Arthur Cravan, the infamous “Dada boxer” (he had fought [and lost] a match with Jack Johnson, the then heavyweight champion, in Barcelona), whose real name was Fabius Avernarius Lloyd and who was Oscar Wilde’s nephew. A huge, blond, virile and boorish drunk, a draft dodger who came to the U.S. without any papers, Cravan dabbled in poetry and art, briefly edited a little Dada magazine and engaged in every sort of wild exploit until the U.S. entered the war, at which point he was at risk of being deported. He and Loy had fallen madly in love (even their names Loy and Lloyd matched!), and when he decided to escape to Mexico, she joined him. Their Mexican idyll of 1918 (more properly, their bumming around in near-starvation conditions) was cut short when Mina again found herself pregnant. She and Cravan married, but it was decided that she must go to England to have the baby (the war was now over), and she booked passage on a ship from Argentina to London. Meanwhile, Cravan, who had no proper papers, fixed up a sail boat in Salina Cruz, where they were then staying, and planned to pick up a larger boat up the Pacific coast, and sail, with a group of friends to Chile, joining Loy in Europe as soon as possible. On the day that he tried out his new boat, Loy waved to him from the pier. The boat disappeared from sight and Loy never saw him again.
Did Cravan drown or did he turn up, as legend had it, in some obscure Mexican village, where he lived on incognito? No one knows for sure, but what is certain is that Mina Loy nearly went mad before arriving at her mother’s house in Hampstead and giving birth to Fabienne Cravan Lloyd in 1919. Within a few months she was back in Florence, united with her children, but she set out again for New York in 1920, hoping to find the missing Cravan. During her absence, Haweis kidnapped Giles and took him to the Bahamas; the boy died of cancer in Bermuda in 1923. Meanwhile, Loy settled in Paris with her two daughters; she wrote a number of poems, was again an an active member of the expatriate set (including, this time, Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford as well as the members of the Natalie Barney salon), and began, with the help of Peggy Guggenheim a lampshade business that was quite successful. Some of her art work was exhibited in local galleries and in New York; “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” was published in the Little Review, and the one book published in her lifetime, Lunar Baedecker (sic) appeared in Robert McAlmon’s Contact series in 1923.
But Loy was hardly the chastened middle-aged poet. One of the remarkable episodes of her forties was that she looked on in approval as Joella’s husband, Julien Levy, visiting from New York where he was an art dealer, had an affair with Lee Miller; indeed Loy almost had an affair with Julien herself. She had a relationship with the German Surrealist painter Richard Oelze, fictionalized in her novel Insel (1931). In 1936, lonely and tired of Paris, Loy moved with Fabi to New York; after Fabi’s marriage in ‘44, she lived in almost complete obscurity in the Bowery, befriending the poor and homeless and collecting trash to make assemblages, whose technique resembles that of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Cornell having become her close friend. Only in 1953, when it became increasingly hard for her to be on her own, was she persuaded to move to Colorado by her two daughters, both married for the second time to successful architect-designer-hotelier husbands, who were establishing themselves in the new ski resort world of Aspen. She remained in Aspen until her death in 1966, well cared for, ironically enough, by her devoted daughters and, beginning to be recognized by the literary world as an important poet. Kenneth Rexroth had long been an admirer. In 1958, Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables was published by Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Press; at the publication party at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, old friends like Kay Boyle and Bob Brown, and the publisher-poet James Laughlin were present. In her last years, she was visited by Robert Creeley and Paul Blackburn, to whom she had become something of a heroine.
Burke’s narrative of this extraordinary life is lively and well-written, but the reader should be cautioned that this is largely an inside view, based primarily on Loy’s own unpublished autobiographical writings. The biographer evidently found no documents and obtained no interviews relating to Loy’s childhood and youth so that her assessment, say of Mina’s prudish and nasty mother, is entirely based on the poet’s own account. Yet the facts, such as they are, don’t always support that account. How was it, for example, that Julia Bryan, the seeming Wasp super-prude, let herself be seduced by a Jewish stranger, a stranger whom she married only when she was seven months pregnant with Mina? Or again: can we be sure that Mina’s melodramatic description of the Munich baronness is accurate, given that the lady in question is never so much as named? And there are many such lacunae in the earlier chapters of the biography.
The four chapters that deal with the Florence years (1907-17) are more successful: here Burke has made good use of the Mabel Dodge papers, of Stein’s appraisal of Loy in Alice B. Toklas, of Carl Van Vechten’s correspondence, and other expatriate reports. But she is curiously silent on the transformation of Loy the visual artist into Loy the poet. Who were her models other than Marinetti and, marginally, Gertrude Stein? What did the word “poem” mean to her and how did she conceive of verse? Later, when she ran off with Cravan, is there any suggestion that she felt she was giving up her vocation? Or was she, as she emerges from Burke’s narrative, primarily a dilettante who tossed off a poem here and there in response to specific occasions?
Becoming Modern argues that Loy “provides us with a Baedeker of modernism–a guide to the imaginative landscapes created and inhabited by this quirky new woman.” But the “new woman” label, which Burke uses throughout, is problematic. Loy’s sexual adventures, for example, shocking as they may have been to her bourgeois late-Victorian family, were by no means atypical for the expatriate upper-class circles in which she travelled: witness Mabel Dodge, Nancy Cunard, and Peggy Guggenheim. For a sexually liberated “new woman,” on the other hand, she certainly managed to compromise her “free life” by repeated pregnancies, and she regularly subordinated her poetic and artistic ambition to whatever love affair most stirred her passion at a given moment. Paradoxically, then, this “new woman” played the traditional feminine role of secondariness. In Florence at the outbreak of the Great War, she envied the Futurists their ability to go to war, but her cult of virility was not accompanied by so much as the slightest interest in politics, much less in the ideological battles of the teens and twenties. In Mexico, she foraged for food, cooked for Cravan, and nursed him like the most abject of concubines . As a middle-aged grandmother in Paris, finally free to write or paint, she distracted herself by flirting with her son-in-law. And by the time she was in her fifties and had settled in New York, she had all but given up poetry altogether. If Loy was the beautiful and tantalizing New Woman of the Arensberg Circle, she was also, in later years, almost a bag lady.
These are paradoxes endemic to the larger culture of the earlier twentieth century, and they point up the difficulties experienced by the woman poet or artist of the period who happened to be straight. Stein, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Beach, Natalie Barney, Marianne Moore–none of these writers had children; H.D. had one. Loy, by contrast, gave birth four times. How did childbirth inhibit the career of the “New Woman”? Burke doesn’t really take up this and related problems, evidently because she sees Loy’s life so largely through Loy’s own eyes. But the reader can’t help wondering what others really made of Loy. Yes, she received early kudos from Pound and Eliot, later from Williams and Rexroth. But what, for example, did Duchamp think of her poetry and art work? The Picabias? Alfred Stieglitz? And later: Djuna Barnes and especially Gertrude Stein, beyond the few references in Alice B. Toklas. And did Marinetti ever comment on her oeuvre or did she remain, for him, just another sex object? And what did the Italian servants and local teachers make of Loy’s frequent absences?
In all fairness to Burke, the relation of life to work is especially elusive in Loy’s case because she seems to have been so oddly unself-conscious about her poetry as well as her art work. Her letters even to Mabel Dodge are circumspect and guarded, as indirect as those of a heroine in a Henry James novel. She made little effort to get work published or shown in galleries and saved her introspective moments for her love affairs, which seem to have been the very core of her life. Consequently, when later writers have tried to reimagine the Loy-Cravan story, Loy is presented, not as writer but as an intriguing woman.
In The Hotel in the Jungle, Guerard’s new and densely woven Conradian novel, Monica Swift (Mina Loy) is portrayed as a romantic idealist, convinced that her lost husband, Brian Desmond (Arthur Cravan) is to be found somewhere in the tropical mountaneous jungle of southern Mexico. Monica’s 1922 quest parallels the earlier (1870) one of the Southern belle Rosellen Maurepas in search of the buccaneer conqueror of Nicaragua, William Walker, with whom she is in love, as well as the later (1982) quest of a young New Orleans graduate student, Eloise Delonde, who is researching Maurepas’ career, and comes, once again, to the Hotel Balnearo near Las Grandas, where her own adventures parallel those of her forbears. The novel makes absorbing reading in which each mystery leads to a further revelation and then new mystery, but it leaves Mina-Monica more or less in the place she has always occupied– a “poet” more interesting for her physical beauty and her love affairs than for anything she has written. Then, too, Guerard’s focus is less on Loy than on the Cravan myth itself, in all its ramifications of charisma, power, and questions of survival.
If we want access to Loy’s writing, which is, after all, the reason we care about Loy’s life, we must, accordingly, turn to the poems themselves, now finally available in a well-priced and superbly annotated, if still not wholly adequate edition. The problem here lies not with the editor, Roger Conover, but with Farrar Straus. “The publishers parameters for this edition,” Conover explains, made it impossible to include Loy’s longest poem, ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose.’ “ This omission is unfortunate: the student of Loy really needs this ambitious long poem as a context for the shorter, more casual ones. But further: the new edition includes “all but ten poems published during Mina Loy’s lifetime, or about two-thirds of the poems she wrote.” And further: only five short prose works are included.
What a pity. Conover’s earlier edition, The Last Lunar Baedeker, published by Jargon Press in 1982 and long out of print, was ironically more inclusive. LLB82, as I shall refer to the earlier edition, following Conover’s own practice, was a beautifully printed and produced book. It contained a 35-page biographical and critical introduction, a chronology, a sheaf of beautiful illustrations, and all of Loy’s then extant published poems and prose writings as well as 29 previously unpublished poems. The novel Insel was not included and the essay “Modern Poetry” (Charm 1925), discovered only recently by the brilliant young Loy critic Marissa Januzzi, and included in the new edition, was also missing. LLB82 ran to 334 oversize pages. By contrast, Lost Lunar Baedeker has 238 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 pages, a third of which are appendices and notes.
What might have been a Collected is thus a Selected Poems–a frustrating fact when one thinks that we now have available Collected Poems by Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball, or by British war poets much less accomplished than Mina Loy. More important: so far as the establishment of the definitive text goes, Conover, as he is the first to admit, had the problem that “For nearly two-thirds of the thirty-four poems [prior to 1942], no manuscripts or page proofs have yet been found” (p. 171). He had to make do, therefore, with first publications, which are often unreliable, given that the poems were often handwritten and included in letters to friends.. Misspellings abounded and, since Loy hadn’t seen proof, there were frequent errors. The only one of her books published in her lifetime, Lunar Baedecker (sic, 1923) was typeset by compositors who could not read English, let alone distinguish errors from experiments; they couldn’t even spell her title correctly!. Given this state of affairs, Conover remarks reasonably, “One can only start to clean up the site.”
On the whole this clean-up operation has been extremely useful. Loy’s original spacing has been restored; like Emily Dickinson, her empty spaces or silences are as significant as her actual lines and phrases. Her original punctuation (primarily the dash) or lack thereof has been respected. The poems have been rearranged chronologically rather than under generic headings like “Love Songs” and “Satires.” This makes it possible to follow Loy’s entire career much more easily. And Conover has restored what seem to have been Loy’s intentions in the face of “corrections” evidently made, the first go-round, by Jonathan Williams.
But–and this is a perennial problem with a poet as careless about her manuscripts as was Loy — is hers always a case of first thought, best thought? Take the famous “One O’Clock at Night,” published as the first of “Three Moments in Paris” in the Rogue I.1 (1 May1915). Conover has a wonderful long note on the poem, discussing its clever appropriation of “Futurist vocabulary in mocking defiance of Futurism’s male constabulatory,” and giving the background in Mina’s very mixed feelings toward Marinetti, whose mysogyny and posturing she thoroughly disliked, even as she told Mabel Dodge that she was “indebted to [FTM] for twenty years added to my life from mere contact with his exuberant personality.” In the LLB82 version, “One O’Clock at Night” begins:
Though you have never possessed me
I have belonged to you since the beginning of time
And sleepily I sit on your chair beside you
And your careless arm across my back gesticulates
As your indisputable male voice roars
Through my brain and my body
Arguing “Dynamic Decomposition”
Of which I understand nothing
Sleepily (LLB82 39)
But in the “corrected” new edition, the poem is in the past tense, giving us locutions like “I had belonged to you since the beginning of time,” “And sleepily I sat on your chair beside you” and “your indisputable male voice roared / Through my brain and body” (FS 15, my emphasis). The past tense seems entirely inappropriate for Loy’s presentation of succesive sensations, sensations reported as being felt now, without retrospection, in the “Beautiful halfhour of being a mere woman” referred to in the second stanza. And the dynamic of the poem is that all these sensations–not wanting the man to “possess” her totally, half-listening to his noisy lectures, even while sleepingly revelling in the pleasure of their just completed love-making–all these demand, I think, a progressive present.
The aim to restore the “correct” text does not, then, have uniformly good results. In “Café du Néant,” “Little tapers lighted leaning diagonally” becomes “Little tapers leaning lighted diagonally,” evidently on the authority of a rare surviving manuscript, although the 1923 Lunar Baedecker had it the other way around and there is no indication that Loy objected. On balance, however, the new Farrar Straus edition is more reliable, especially so far as spacing, punctuation, and spelling go, and Conover’s notes and appendices provide a wealth of information, cross reference, background, and further reading in the scholarly literature. Indeed, the notes to individual poems often teach us more about a given compositional and biographical crux than does the biography.
The Lost Lunar Baedeker thus deserves to be widely read and taught. In 1996, Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrel” language (the language of one trained to use British English, American, French, German, and Italian, often simultaneously), her use of coinages, nonce words, and abstractions, her obliquities, indirections, and omission of punctuation, will no longer seem as strange as it did in 1958, when Jonathan Williams’s first American edition of Loy’s poems came out. “Love Song X,” for example, reads:
Shuttle-cock and battle-door
A little pink-love
And feathers are strewn (FS 57)
For readers brought up on Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Robert Creeley’s For Love, or Rae Armantrout’s Necromance, Loy’s droll little language game should be entirely congenial. Whatever the sorrows of her often-tawdry life, such poems remind us, the written word, as she learned to use it, had the power of creating “Laughter in solution / Stars in a stare / Irredeemable pledges / Of pubescent consummations” (FS 63). Or again, “Licking the Arno / The little rosy / Tongue of Dawn / Interferes with our eyelashes” (XXV, p. 64). Among the great modernist poets, Mina Loy was surely the greatest wit, the most sophisticated commentator on the vagaries of love, the one whose brittle and sardonic laughter continues, as these three books testify, to pursue us.
Ezra Pound, “Marianne Moore and Mina Loy,” review of Others , Little Review, March 1918; rpt. in Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965 (New York: New Directions, 1973),p. 424.