"Intermittent — Unfinishing": Mina Loy and the elusive text as resistance

by Hilda Bronstein

Among the many undated fragments in the Mina Loy archive is one which was probably intended as part of the autobiographical Islands in the Air. The paper is yellowing with age and begins to crumble at the edges. It contains an account of the moment in which the narrator herself came across sheaves of texts which she had written and abandoned years earlier:

In a freak continuity the Past lay before me, behind me lay the wastes of Time strewn with an astral litter. The accumulation of ideas. Ghosts of manuscripts written at odd whiles they had waned to in conclusion on subversive interruptions. Faded piles of ivory paper, with the passions of the years their rhythms vary. Half one volume had gone to the mice….they leave a pleasing debris of a flaky somehow oriental substance, fretted to the measure of a nibble.

The book I had felt impelled to write! Tentatively assuming that what seemed likely to me would seem likely to others. Intermittent — unfinishing, I saw how this Book in itself constituted my inhibition.1

These words capture the—probing, hesitating, interrupted—nature of Mina Loy’s work, much of which was undated and exists in various versions, having been subject to successive revisions, and rendering a reliable chronology of unpublished writing almost impossible. Moreover, autobiography and fiction blur, as she tells and retells her story by means of self-mocking inventions and re-inventions of the self. Not only was she Mina Lowy, Mina Loy, Ducie or Dusie Haweis, Mrs. Arthur Cravan or Mina Lloyd to those who knew her, but she playfully employed a variety of pseudonyms as poet and as autobiographical subject, including Muna Lee, Imna Oly, Sophia, Jemima, Ova and Goy Israels.

        The elusiveness of her opus is replicated in the history of its publication. The earliest poems to appear in print were those published by the New York small presses, when Loy posted handwritten drafts from Florence to Carl Van Vechten. At this distance, it was impossible to avoid editorial and typesetting errors. For example, in an undated letter thanking Van Vechten for his article in Rogue (August 1915), she asks, “By the way who is the hero who taps my spelling?” In another letter which she wrote upon receiving the copy of the July 1915 issue of Others (in which the first four “Love Songs” appeared for the first time), she observed:

I like the tendency of Others and the way it looks—I was rather sorry that some words were misprinted such as in pig-cupid—“sitting the appraisable” instead of silting the appraisable—and “there are” instead of “these are suspect places”.2

        Despite corrections in April 1917, when Others devoted a whole issue to the complete set of 34 poems, the original misspelt version of the variously named “Pig-Cupid” and “Love Song No.1” reappeared in the 1982 anthology Last Lunar Baedeker (the misspelling of which was itself a further case of contingent renaming in the history of this oeuvre).3 However, this is still not the end of that particular story since an essay by Thom Gunn published in 1988 provides yet another variation, with “sifting the appraisable.”s244 The latest corrected text of “Love Songs” did not appear until publication of The Lost Lunar Baedeker in 1997.5

        The indeterminate and provisional nature of the work was exacerbated partly by such editorial inconsistencies and partly by her own resistance to preset forms and closures. That textual variants and discrepancies might sometimes be part of a deliberate strategy is suggested by the inclusion of a list of tenets which she wrote in 1918 under the title of “Psycho Democracy”6: “Most movements have a fixed concept toward which they advance, we move away from all fixed concepts in order to advance.”(LLB 278) In her own words, her writing was “tentative—intermittent—unfinishing.” Even here she uses the present continuous—“unfinishing”—not “unfinished.” Features such as gaps, dashes and syntactical anomalies, the use of idiosyncratic vocabulary, including antiquated or rare forms of words, all serve to draw the reader’s attention to formal (or informal) qualities of the writing, and put into question the notion of the text as an autonomous entity which provides unmediated access to a “real” world. They serve to emphasise the nature of the poem as the site of ideological and psychological conflict where contradictions and tensions remain unresolved.

        Another aspect of the indeterminacy which surrounds Loy and her work is the misdating of certain of her texts and paintings. Roger Conover asks: “When she misdated her paintings, was she anticipating our posthumous eavesdropping and intentionally throwing us off the track?”(LLB xviii) An answer to this question is suggested by a particularly notable textual misdating, which occurs on the original handwritten version of the poem ‘An Aged Woman’ in which she writes:“[T]he past has come apart/events are vagueing/the future is unexploitable.” This poem, the reflections of an old woman close to death, is startlingly signed, “Mina Loy, July 12th 1984” (as if from the grave, since Loy died in 1966). Like Conover, one is tempted to ask whether this interference with time is deliberate playfulness in anticipation of our “posthumous evesdroppings,” or a manifestation of amnesia on the part of the elderly poet whose past had indeed begun to “come apart.”

        Loy’s deceptions have served her purpose of defying the constraints which are enmeshed in language itself. When Colossus, the young hero in Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, declares that “All words are lies,” he expresses Loy’s personal mistrust of language, her awareness of the way in which seemingly transparent words are axiologically encoded. In particular, she called into question the prevailing sexual ideologies of her time. In keeping with the precepts of her confrontational “Feminist Manifesto” of 1914, her writing is the assertion of her own status as a woman experimentalist in the predominantly male communities of avant-garde artists and writers within which she lived for much of her life. Although work is inextricably linked to the subversive and iconoclastic activities of the Italian Futurists, New York Dada and French Surrealists, her poetry also constitutes a challenge to them, one which was specifically grounded in gender. The anxiety which she experienced with regard to the oppressive constraints of patriarchy upon her own subjectivity — constraints which manifest themselves in works such as Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose and the unpublished Islands and Goy Israels—is perhaps what she refers to when she says that “this Book, constitutes my inhibition.” That is, having responded to the imperative to contest patriarchy, once reified in a text, the very fixity of the writing becomes, in itself, problematic. This may even explain, in part, her compulsion to repeated revisions of the work. 

        While Loy often adopts the revolutionary mode of the historical avant-gardes among whom she lived and worked, and challenges the wider artistic and cultural economies which the movements were themselves defying, she simultaneously challenges some of the precepts of those same movements. Indeed, certain of her early poems offer specific response to contemporary Futurist texts. For example, the poem “One O’Clock at Night”(1915) engages satirically with Marinetti’s “scorn for women” as expressed in War, the World’s Only Hygiene.7 Her poem begins, “Though you had never possessed me/I had belonged to you since the beginning of time.”(LoLB 15) The division of self (the independent “me”) and other (the passive “I”) exemplifies the kind of internalised debate which is a significant feature of much of Loy’s work. A Bakhtinian confrontation takes place between an autonomous “me” who is “never possessed” in the first line, and the acquiescent “I” of the second line, the voice of woman described by the Futurist as “the tragic trinket, the fragile woman.”8 This second voice speaks with a “sideways glance” at her male companion, and at the Futurist discourse of misogyny which exerts its own energy as it infiltrates the language of the poem. As well as the intrasubjective debate between “active” self and “passive” other, there is also the intersubjective confrontation between the woman poet and the Futurist. This ironic and mocking intonation, whereby opposing views are contained within the same utterance, is what Bakhtin referred to as “double voiced discourse.”

        In the lines which follow, the poet addresses the Futurist directly, adopting her allotted role, “purely animal,” and simultaneously distancing herself from it by means of irony:

And sleepily I sat on your chair beside you
Leaning against your shoulder
And your careless arm across my back         gesticulated
As your indisputable male voice   roared
Through my brain and body
Arguing dynamic decomposition
Of which I understand nothing.  (LoLB 15)

The gaps in the typography serve to stage the verbs which follow (gesticulated and roared) by isolating and so amplifying them. These gaps also self reflexively provide an example of “dynamic decomposition” of which the poet denies all knowledge. This halting quality is a characteristic of Bakhtin’s concept of the “sideway’s glance,” as the poetic voice mockingly anticipates the criticism or reaction of the “indisputable” male voice. 

        In “One O’Clock in the Morning” the poet contests through irony the Futurist polemic which, according to Marinetti, woman “without knowing it…is intimately sure of being, as a mother, as a wife, and as a lover, a closed circle, purely animal and wholly without usefulness.”9 In the final lines of this poem, the thinking poet confronts her own double, the sexual woman. The opposing drives of “animal” sexuality and intellectual thought are both aroused by the bombastic futurist discussion, variously described in a mildly amused tone as “cerebral gymnastics,” the “self-indulgent play of children” and “thunder of alien gods.”

Beautiful half-hour of being a mere woman
The animal woman
Understanding nothing of man
But mastery   and the security of imparted physical heat
Indifferent of cerebral gymnastics

Or regarding them as the self-indulgent play of children
Or the thunder of alien gods
But you woke me up
Anyhow     who am I  that I should criticize your theories
of plastic velocity

                    “Let us go home      she is tired       and wants to go to bed.”

The poet remains silent, granting the final words of this poem to the Futurist, who, in an imperialist gesture of closure, appropriates her very will, voicing her supposed desire to return to her previous “sleepy” state of non intellectual passivity. Just as she has asserted “you woke me up” he declares that “she is tired            and wants to go to bed.”

        In 1920, Loy returned to Florence after a four year absence. Here she encountered the explosive atmosphere in which an intense power struggle was taking place on the streets between Socialists, moderate Nationalists, and gangs made up of loose associations of Fascists, Arditi and Futurists. That she had, by this time, become profoundly disillusioned with Marinetti's belligerence and with the Futurists’ enthusiastic participation in war is apparent from the manifesto “Psycho-Democracy,” which was written in 1918 and published privately in Florence in 1920.10 Here she expresses her personal cynicism concerning the nationalisms which had contributed to the bloodshed of World War I, and in contrast to Marinetti's description of war as “the world's only hygiene,” describes military conflict as “the cataclysmic factor in social evolution.”(LLB 280)  In the poetry written during this period, she throws down the gauntlet to Marinetti by manifestly employing the symbolist tropes to which he had so loudly declared his bitter aversion in the manifesto “We Abjure our Symbolist Masters, the Last Lovers of the Moon.”11 His hatred of the nostalgic poetry of Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Verlaine, and of  the so called “debilitating” influence of woman, was the ammunition with which he had earlier mounted an attack on his rival in literature and politics, the symbolist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The sensuality and romantic sentimentality of Symbolism had provided the necessary antithesis against which his own belligerence and aggression could be defined. He dissociated Futurism from the language of Symbolism and, in the process, condemned what he called the “enfeebling” influence of D’Annunzio, “lesser brother of the great French Symbolists, nostalgic like them and like them hovering above the naked female body.” Since it was precisely as a woman that Loy contested Futurism, it was therefore appropriate that she should do so by an assertion of symbolist tropes. 

        Two poems which demonstrate this are “Apology of Genius”(1922) and “Lunar Baedeker.”(1923)12 Virginia Kouidis has suggested a connection between these poems and Laforgue’s “Climat, Faune et Flore de la Lune,” identifying Loy’s attraction to the Laforguian use of exotic and polysyllabic words, and his dry epigrammatic style. For Kouidis “Lunar Baedeker” is “a satire of moonstruck escapists,”13 while of “Apology of Genius” she writes that the poem:

images the artist’s uniqueness and persecution. For the image of the artist as a martyr clown Mina Loy is again indebted to Baudelaire and Laforgue. “Lepers of the moon,” the public’s hostile epithet, recalls Laforgue’s pierrots with “La coeur blanc/tatoue/De sentences lunaires.” For the public the lunar image signifies a lunatic divorce from reality. But for the pierrot and the abused artist the moon represents alienation and revolt.14

What Kouidis fails to note here, is that the employment of lunar imagery and decadent language in these post-war poems was a defiant riposte to Marinetti and his proscription of such tropes. Loy’s poem ‘Apology of Genius’ begins:

Ostracized as we are with God—
       The watchers of the civilized wastes
       reverse their signals on our track

Lepers of the moon
all magically diseased
we come among you
of our luminous sores (LoLB 77)

Loy’s “apology” draws attention not simply to the alienation of  the artist, as suggested by Kouidis, but specifically to those artists who are also women. The use of the plural first person pronoun in the opening line, “Ostracized as we are with God” may be read as referring to the sense of otherness experienced by those for whom she speaks:

You may give birth to us
or marry us

the chances of your flesh
are not our destiny—

The cuirass of the soul
Still shines—
And we are unaware
if you confuse
such brief
corrosion with possession…(LoLB 77-78)

Her appropriation of Laforguian language defies Marinetti’s critique of “the sickly, nostalgic poetry of distance and memory; romantic sentimentality drenched with moonshine that looks up adoringly to the ideal of Woman-Beauty.”15 Loy’s words, drained of sentimentality, constitute a reply on behalf of those who are formed in this image:

In the raw caverns of the Increate
we forge the dusk of Chaos

to that imperious jewelry [sic] of the Universe
—the Beautiful—,

While to your eyes
         A delicate crop
of criminal mystic immortelles
stands to the censor’s scythe.(LoLB 78)

The “mystic immortelles” of the final lines, defined according to the OED as “everlasting flowers,” also translates from the French as “immortal women,” those whose writing is ineluctably subject to “the censor’s scythe.” The poem can thus be read as asserting the subversive or oppositional creativity of the woman poet.

        Similarly, “Lunar Baedeker” satirises those decadents referred to by Marinetti and described by Kouidis as moon-struck escapists. She writes, “The poem recreates their exotic lunar refuge in a décor of Decadence shaped by gilded words and images, and lush patterns of sound.”16  Kouidis discusses the manner in which the employment of Laforguian imagery of death and decay in “Lunar Baedeker” provides a critique of an outworn poetic language (according to Loy, ‘in the museums of the moon’) and of those artists who seek escape from the world in “lunar” flights from reality. This reading does not, however, go far enough, since such a critique would coincide with the disdain of Marinetti and the Futurists for those to whom he refers ironically as “our Symbolist Masters.” However, there are a number of ironic references in “Lunar Baedeker” which suggest that Loy’s barbs are aimed not so much at the language of Symbolism as at Marinetti himself. In 1909, the year in which they first became acquainted, Marinetti had published an extravagant  Futurist fantasy entitled “Let’s Murder the Moonshine,” in which a horde of Futurist artists sets out to “lay the great military Railroad to the flanks of Gorisnakar, summit of the world!” He writes:

Our nerves demand war and despise women, because we fear supplicating arms that might encircle our knees on the morning of departure!…What can they want, women, the sedentary, invalids, the sick, and all the prudent counsellors? To their vacillating lives, broked by dismal agonies, by fearful dreams and heavy nightmares, we prefer violent death and glorify it as the only thing worthy of man, that beast of prey.

However, the advance of the Futurist hordes is interrupted at midnight by the appearance of the moon as it breaks through the clouds:

suddenly we felt the carnal Moon, the Moon of lovely warm thighs, abandoning herself languidly against our broken backs.
A cry went up in the airy solitude of the high plains: “Let’s murder the moonshine!”
Some ran to nearby cascades; gigantic wheels were raised, and turbines transformed the rushing waters into magnetic pulses that rushed up wires, up high poles, up to shining humming globes,
So it was that three hundred electric moons cancelled with their rays of blinding mineral whiteness the ancient green queen of loves.17

In this hyperbolic Futurist vision, man overcomes the “carnal” desires conjured by moonlight, symbol of womanhood, and thus defeats the so-called “debilitating” influence of female eroticism. 

        “Lunar Baedeker” constitutes Loy's wry response to Marinetti’s tirade. Its hallucinatory vision conjures the astral zone of death, to which those women associated by the Futurists with moonshine were exiled. Loy’s poem begins:

A silver Lucifer

cocaine in cornucopia

To some somnabulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies 

In a reference to the “lovely warm thighs” of Marinetti’s lunar seductress, Loy conjures “some somnabulists/of adolescent thighs/draped/in satirical draperies.” She appropriates a decadent sense of ennui, and the language of death and decay—“infusoria,” “tombstones,” “ashes,” “Necropolis,” “mildews”—to project her own vision into what Marinetti had referred to as the “fearful dreams and heavy nightmares” of these despised women. There is an incantatory quality in the combination of the polysyllables in “cornucopia,” “somnambulists,” and “hallucinatory,” together with the alliterative clustering of consonants in lavish phrases such as “Peris in livery/prepare/Lethe /for posthumous parvenues.” Moreover, the Futurist weapon of death, electricity generated by “gigantic wheels,” is parodied by Loy as a ZODIAC CAROUSEL (using the capitalised typography which originated with Marinetti himself), as Loy takes her poetic revenge on the Futurist “Crusaders”:

Of ecstatic dust
And ashes whirl
From hallucinatory citadels
Of shattered glass
Into evacuate craters 

As the Futurists are mockingly vanquished, the notion of eroticism as an expression of romantic love is postulated as mere illusion, an obsolete poetic deception:

Onyx-eyed Odalisques
And ornithologists

The flight
Of Eros obsolete

And “Immortality”
In the museums of the moon


Pocked with personification
The fossil virgin of the skies
Waxes and wanes.

Like the outworn lunar metaphor, “pocked with personification,” woman must struggle to gain access to any kind of self image, which has not been already constructed for her. Loy’s deliberate imitation of symbolist language and topoi in “Lunar Baedeker” and “Apology of Genius” constitute a gendered critique of Futurism and an assertion of the female poet’s artistry and selfhood.

        Throughout her lifetime Loy appears to have avoided the kind of legitimacy which might have been provided by centrality within any one movement or ism. Her relationship to both Futurism and, later, Surrealists exemplified what Susan Suleiman has referred to a “double allegiance,” whereby women writers who are drawn to the formal and cultural radicalism of predominantly male avant-gardes, nevertheless find themselves in conflict with the sexual ideologies of those same movements.18 This ambivalence, together with a persistent reluctance to impose any stable order on her oeuvre or on her history, has made it almost impossible to “know” the woman or to “place” her work, and this despite the efforts of increasing numbers of Loy scholars. In the introduction to Mina Loy: Woman and Poet,  Keith Tuma has referred to her “signature elusiveness”19 when he writes:

As the editors of this notoriously “difficult poet,” we are interested in making vivid the ways in which Loy is both complicated and complicating. While Loy’s work and biography suggest her centrality to the history of the avant-garde in poetry, prose and the visual arts, there are also elements odd and perhaps unassimilable there, even at a moment when we have come to recognize a plurality of competing modernisms. How does one name this particular feminism? What is this avant-gardism with its roots in Victorianism and Decadence? How is this pugnacious poetics of the body crossed by eroticism, spirituality, and irony all at once?20

Tuma’s dilemma as to the positioning of Loy within modernist and avant-gardist paradigms, draws attention to the many ways in which the complexities and contradictions  in her writing have rendered it resistant to recuperation and to easy accommodation within recognisable taxonomies.  Her own denial to Jonathan Williams in the 1950s that she was ever a poet,21 and her comment to an editor seeking contributor’s notes that “I don’t think anything biographical would be cheerful” exemplify the strategies by which she avoided the imposition of any kind of totalising or reifying completion. Even her biographer Carolyn Burke admitted that she “had expected more coherence from Loy’s autobiographical writings than finally emerged once they were collated”22 but notes, in her introduction to Becoming Modern, that this reluctance to being categorised or “placed” anticipates the anarchic cultural world of the postmodern. She writes, “It may be that in her multiplicity, Mina speaks to us now, in the era of the postmodern, because she followed no one path and did not present a unified body of work”23

        Mina Loy was perpetually driven by the imperative of resistance to break rules, explore forbidden territories, and avoid the conclusive, preferring disguise and even anonymity to “centrality” within the avant-garde. She held to her place at the margin of the margins and her work was neglected as a result. Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which is Not One might have been speaking of Loy's slippery and elusive opus when she wrote of woman that: “One must listen to her differently in order to hear an ‘other meaning’ which is constantly in the process of weaving itself, at the same time ceaselessly embracing words and yet casting them off to avoid becoming fixed, immobilized.”24


[1]    Mina Loy, unpublished fragment, Box 4, Folder58. Found in Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, hereafter cited as YCAL. [back to text]

[2]    Mina Loy in a letter to Carl Van Vechten, dated July 1915, YCAL. [back to text]

[3]    Mina Loy, Last Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger Conover (Manchester: Carcanet, 1982) hereafter cited as LLB. [back to text]

[4]    Thom Gunn, “Three Hard Women: H.D., Marianne Moore, Mina Loy,” in Vereen Bell and Laurence Lerner, eds. On Modern Poetry (Nashville, Vanderbilt UP, 1988) 48. [back to text]

[5]    Roger Conover provides a detailed explanatory footnote outlining the history of the publication of Songs to Joannes in Lost Lunar Baedeker, (Manchester, Carcanet, 1997) 188-194, hereafter cited as LoLB. According to Conover, this edition “relies on the 1917 Others version as its copy-text, and varies from it in relatively few instances…In most instances the first and final intentions converge. Where they do not, the copy-text or editorial judgement prevails.” LoLB 191. [back to text]

[6]    A short version of “Psycho-Democracy” or “LISTEN! The Idea MarketOrgan of the Psycho-Democratic Party,” was printed in Florence on a folded card, and circulated to her friends. Loy expanded and revised it several times. Roger Conover published a longer version in The Last Lunar Baedeker (1982). It is believed that she started to compose it in Buenos Aires when she was waiting for her missing husband Arthur Cravan. See LLB 328. [back to text]

[7]    Mina Loy “One O’clock at Night” from the tryptich “Three Moments in Paris” (1914). First published in Rogue 1.4 (May 1, 1915): 10-11, quoted from Conover’s 1997 version LoLB. T.F.Marinetti, War, the World’s Only Hygiene, in R.W.Flint, ed. Marinetti: Selected Writings, trans. R.W.Flint and Arthur A.Coppotelli (New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1972) hereafter cited as SW. [back to text]

[8]       T.F.Marinetti, “Against Amore and Parliamentarianism,” SW 72. [back to text]

[9]    Marinette, SW 73. [back to text]

[10] See above FN.6. [back to text]

[11]       T.F.Marinetti, “We Abjure Our Symbolist Masters, the Last Lovers of the Moon.” This manifesto formed a part of War, the World’s Only Hygiene (1911-1915). [back to text]

[12]   “Apology of Genius” first appeared in The Dial 73 (July 1922): 73-74. Both “Apology of Genius” and “Lunar Baedeker” appeared in Lunar Baedeker (Paris: Contact, 1923). [back to text]

[13]  Virginia M.Kouidis, Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet ((Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980)100. [back to text]

[14]  Kouidis cites Laforgue’s L’Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune as “the precursor of Mina Loy’s poems,” ibid. 112. [back to text]

[15]  Marinetti, SW 68 [back to text]

[16]  Kouidis, op. cit. 100. [back to text]

[17]  Marinetti, SW. [back to text]

[18]   Susan Suleiman, Subversive Intent (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990) xvii. See also my essay, “Mina Loy's Insel as Caustic Critique of the Surrealist Paradox,” in HOW2.4 (2000). [back to text]

[19]  Keith Tuma and Maeera Schreiber, eds. Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1998) 12. [back to text]

[20]  Ibid. 12. [back to text]

[21]  Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Berkeley:U of California P, 1997) viii. [back to text]

[22]  Ibid. vii [back to text]

[23]  Ibid. xvii. The work of British artist and poet Carlyle Reedy provides one contemporary example of such resistance to closure. Her texts, always in process, are constantly subjected to alteration and amendment , and may only be (rarely) experienced in performance or in temporary ‘draft’ form. [back to text]

[24]  Luce Irigaray, Ce sex qui n’en est pas un (Minuit, 1977). Trans. by Claudia Reeder in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms (New York:Harvester, 1981) 103. [back to text]


BIO: Hilda Bronstein lives in Berkshire, England. She works within various programmes for adult learners at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College. The above extracts are from her PhD thesis (in progress) on the writing of Mina Loy and women of the avant-garde. She has been supported in her research by Royal Holloway College, University of London, the University of London Central Research Fund, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board.



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