Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject, or: Who is Mina Loy?

by Alex Goody


        Mina Loy was a prominent figure in avant-garde Paris of the 1920s and is a colourful presence in accounts of the modernist period. She was a beautiful woman who for a time approached mythic status, reputedly disputing rumours of her own insubstantiality by a public appearance at Natalie Barney’s famous rue Jacob salon. Modernist accounts often offer a fictionally reconstructed Loy: eg. in Post-Adolescence, Robert McAlmon’s novel of Greenwich Village life in the 19teens she appears as “Gusta Rolph,” a woman with “a romantic soul underneath sophistication” who is “her own original portrait of the artist”;1 and in Ladies Almanack as “Patience Scalpel” the dissenting heterosexual voice amidst the women of Djuna Barnes’ subversive, lesbian text.2 Memoirs and reports remark on Loy’s physical attractiveness as frequently as on her work itself, and often the two are described interchangeably. Indeed Loy’s public reputation as author of the scandalously frank Love Songs to Joannes and other alarmingly “free” verse appeared inextricably bound up with projections of her as desirable and desiring woman. She represented an emblem of modernity who embodied, as much as intellectually and creatively explored, the challenges and innovations of the avant-garde.3 From her first contacts and involvement with the Italian Futurists F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini, through her status as widow of the mysteriously vanished Arthur Cravan (posthumously canonised by the Dadaists and Surrealists), to her participation in the artistic community of inter-war Paris, Loy was an iconic figure, a presence reported, constructed, and gossiped about. Until recently one usually encountered this anecdotal Mina Loy before her writing or art. Loy has however benefited from the “refiguring” of modernism undertaken by contemporary critics,4 and her remarkable poetry is finally being read constructively in the wider Anglo-American literary world. But, while the revival of interest in her work has enabled readers and scholars to begin exploring and elucidating the complexities of her writing, the enigmatic aura of Loy’s exemplary expatriate existence remains while her poetry continues to resist exclusive categorisation and interpretation.

        There are two possible approaches to interpreting “Mina Loy.” Firstly, one could look at the ways in which she constructed and deconstructed her artistic and authorial identity, actively participating in the production of an enigmatic public persona. Secondly, one could focus on the import of her writing, not only her formal experimentalism, but her radical political, philosophical, and aesthetic vision. The starting place for many discussions in this second approach is her “Feminist Manifesto”(1914) which expresses in the innovative typography and style of the Futurist avant-garde, the most extreme ideas about the rejection of masculinist constructions of female identity. The manifesto calls for the “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty” “as a protection against the man made bogey of virtue.”5 This text indeed proposes a complete re-evaluation of women’s self-conceptions; “NO scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition, will bring about Reform, the only method is Absolute Demolition.”(LLB, 153)

        The two approaches suggested above do not need to be mutually exclusive. As I will argue in this article, Loy’s “life” and her “art” exhibit, indeed proceed from, a common polyvalence, an equivalent instability and subversive equivocality which serves to undermine notions of the autonomous self (artist as singular producer) and the singular aesthetic object. It is by exploring the speaking subject and aesthetic vision of Loy’s poetry alongside her systems of disguise and modernist performance, considering the intersections between them, that it becomes possible to elucidate some of the major strategies of her modernist poetics.

        “To You,” a poem first published in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others in 1916, offers a clear intersection between a thematic posing of personal/public identifications and a textual exploration of the construction of the speaking subject. It is clearly, although somewhat ambiguously related to Love Songs to Joannes (1917), currently the best known and most discussed of her work.6 This article proposes a strategic reading of the apostrophic “To You,” one which reveals a linguistic subject who stands for/as the author herself, both as speaker and addressee, thereby making the subjectivity of her utterance and the attribution of authorial control problematic. This in turn provides a clear example of the more general enunciative instability that Loy deliberately exploits in her double-crossing attitude to modernism. Such a textual strategy is certainly linked to Loy’s presence as a woman in the hegemonic masculinism of modernism, enabling her to stand inside and outside the avant-garde simultaneously. Loy’s doubleness can be read as an example of the general textual self-consciousness in modern poetry centred on the instability of the speaking-subject, an affect of the mutable culture of modernity. But, as Carolyn Burke points out, in a wider sense it seems a manifestation of the scrutiny of the linguistic subject similar to that in the work of Emily Dickinson.7 “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person,” Dickinson writes,8 and this personal and textual  questioning of the self-possessed/self-possessing author, acutely informed by the gendering of the poet-genius, certainly resonates with Loy’s work. Loy’s undermining of the assumed transparency of subjective utterance (the identification of author with textual “I”) is mirrored in the “disappearances, falsifications, disavowals, and deliberate disguises” of her writings.9 Her use of anagrams, pseudonyms, and her own renaming, are all linked to her subversion of authorial certainty but they also serve as a strategy for resisting, or at least co-opting the fetishistic commodification of Loy, as avant-garde woman.

        Loy was born Mina Gertrude Löwy in London in 1882 and died a naturalised citizen of the USA in Aspen, Colorado in 1966.  She was the child of an Eastern-European, Jewish immigrant tailor who was a fairly successful businessman by the time he married Loy’s English, Protestant mother, who was from a working-class background but aspired to bourgeois respectability. The eldest of three daughters, Loy received no consistent education and left England in 1900 never to return for any lengthy period. She moved between Paris, Florence, and New York for the next four decades, living among the homeless of New York’s Bowery district before retiring to live near her daughters in Colorado in 1953.

        Changing her given name from Löwy to Loy as she entered the art circles of Paris in the early 1900’s, Loy was forced to abandon the independence of this title, along with her professional success, when she moved with her first husband, Stephen Haweis, to Florence in 1906. Loy was subsumed into a largely domestic role in the expatriate community, her appellation as “Dusie Haweis” compounding the disappearance of “Mina Loy,” the avant-garde artist, until her introduction to the Italian Futurists.10 From 1914 she published her poetry and prose under her self-chosen name, Mina Loy, but practised a variety of linguistic disguises, anagrams, verbal personas, and so on in her texts and elsewhere. “The Effectual Marriage”(1917) details the “conventional” relations between Miovanni and his wife Gina, certainly an intended reference to Mina herself and Giovanni Papini.  In a later satire on Futurist antics, “Lions’ Jaws”(1920), Mina Loy becomes “Nima Lyo, alias Anim Yol, alias/Imna Oly”, an anagrammatical presence acting as “secret service buffoon to the Woman’s Cause.”(LLB 49) Imna Oly also appears on the programme of a 1920 play in which Loy appeared, instead of her own “name.”11 Susan Gilmore argues that such disguises are not simply “the modernist subject [...] disappearing behind a screen-like persona.” Instead, “Loy invokes the persona of the impostor and its linguistic counterpart, the anagram, to render the woman writer’s presence in her texts visible yet elusive.”12

        There are disguised references in other of Loy’s poems (“Sister Saraminta”—“mina-as-art” in “The Black Virginity,” for example) and her art work is often signed cryptically (and with misleading dates). Even Loy’s legal name did not remain static; on remarrying in 1918 she took the name of her husband, Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, himself the owner of a suggestive pseudonym, Arthur Cravan, and a variety of personas. As Burke notes “it must have seemed an extraordinary coincidence when she [...] found her chosen name absorbed or contained within her new married name, Lloyd, which she took as the private version of her public self. She maintained this name on her legal documents even as she continued to publish and exhibit under the other.”13

        Throughout her later life Loy rewrote and re-presented her early life in various ways. These autobiographical and semi-autobiographical writings (and the “auto-mythological” Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose)14 offer a range of disguises—Jemima, Sophia, Ova in Anglo-Mongrels (suggestive of a variety of resonances from egg to Oda, Loy’s first child who died after a year) and, perhaps surprisingly, Daniel. Even at her most personal, such as in the story “Hush Money,” which deals with the death of her father, Loy refuses the simplistic identification of author with textual subject and resists a system “which abstracts and universalises male authors even as it attempts to render female authors all too concrete.”15 More than this, the biographical and textual fragments, the anagrams and performances that Loy produced and manipulated suggest a disregard for a core, stable selfhood–her identities and her poetic articulations issue from an unstable subject position that ultimately embraces the ambivalence of contingency and performativity. This radical attitude has more than a passing affinity with the Dadaist performances and contingencies of Marcel Duchamp, Loy’s contemporary and colleague while she lived in New York. Not only her rejection of conceptions of autonomy and genius, but also Loy’s own approach to art clearly aligns her with Duchamp’s deconstruction of the art object.16 Loy’s 1924 critical analysis of Gertrude Stein’s writing, for example, re-inscribes Duchamp’s iconoclastic challenge to the divisions and hierarchies of established art practice; she celebrates modernism as a transfiguration of the mundane and a dismantling of aesthetic boundaries:

The pragmatic value of modernism lies in it’s [sic] tremendous recognition of the compensation due to the spirit of democracy. Modernism is a prophet crying in the wilderness of stabilized culture that humanity is wasting it’s [sic] aesthetic time. For there is a considerable extension of time between visits to the picture gallery, the museum, the library. It asks what is happening to your aesthetic consciousness during the long long intervals?

The flux of life is pouring it’s [sic] aesthetic aspect into your eyes, your ears—and you ignore it because you are looking for you[r] canons of beauty in some sort of frame or glass case of tradition.17

        In her poetic writing Loy is clearly committed to a radical transformation of traditional forms and ideas and this accompanies her subversion of the customary certainties of selfhood, integrity, and aesthetic hierarchy.  Her Love Songs to Joannes (a collage composition of thirty-four distinct but interlinked pieces) offer a direct challenge to the formal and aesthetic conventions of love poetry. The inadequacy of romantic lyric expression is recognised in modernism, but Loy’s disrupted and disruptive syntax, form, and imagery do not merely detail the estrangement of the modernist poetic subject they highlight the objectification and denial of women and the body that the myth of romance requires. The Love Songs from the very beginning of the sequence show the falseness of Romantic love, reducing it to the unromantic reality of sex:

Spawn    of    Fantasies
Silting the Appraisable
Pig Cupid    his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
“Once upon a time”
Pulls a weed    white star-topped
Among wild oats    sown in mucous-membrane

I would    an    eye in a Bengal-light
Eternity in a sky-rocket
Constellations in an ocean
Whose rivers run no fresher
Than a trickle of saliva
These are suspect places.(LLB 53)

This poem immediately emphasises the physical actuality of love, transforming the coy boy cupid into a rooting hog. The offspring of the fantasy of love relies upon the detritus of his hackneyed origins for his existence: “erotic garbage.” The phallic and visceral imagery of the first poem is re-expressed in poem II:

                                        The skin-sack
In which a wanton duality
All the completions of my infructuous impulses
Something the shape of a man  (LLB 53)

Loy parodies the stereotypical posturing of heroic, forceful, thrusting phallic activity, juxtaposing it to the basic animality and pitiful, uninspiring physical reality behind such a metaphor—“rosy snout,” “skin-sack,” “Something the shape of a man.” Indeed this phallus can provide no orgasmic satisfaction, just an incompatible mechanical-sexual impulse; he is little more than a derma-clad automaton, “a clock-work mechanism/Running down against time/To which I am not paced.”(LLB 54)

        Loy does not replace the discarded mythical representation and expression of love with a notion of the spontaneous joy and creativity of sex.  Instead she offers the Futurist alternative to Romance, a union of Marinetti’s ideal “nonhuman types” in whom “moral suffering, goodness of heart, affection, and love, those sole corrosive poisons of inexhaustible vital energy, sole interrupters of our powerful bodily electricity, will be abolished.”18 Loy presents a Futurist vision of unemotional, explosive union:

No love    or the other thing
Only the impact of lighted bodies
Knocking sparks off each other
In chaos  (LLB 59)

The Futurist substitute for the romantic archetype of heterosexual love, rather than being an essential and energising force, perpetuates the division between men and women. Such a mechanical and reductive interaction is inimical to creativity, “the other thing.” In its sterility this Futurist sexual union is ultimately as destructive to female identity as the tradition it usurps; in both cases feminine specificity and material reality are denied in the preservation of “inviolate egos.”(LLB 58) Loy portrays Futurist “unsuperstitious” sex not only as depersonalised and abstract but barren and meaningless.

        In a contemporaneous piece, “Human Cylinders,” Loy depicts an equivalent situation of mechanical-sexual interaction which serves to illuminate the predicament presented in Love Songs.19 In this poem sex, the “lucid rush-together of automatons,” reinforces the “singularity” of the lovers who ignore the possibility that they “[c]ould form one opulent well-being.”(LLB 40) Their union is one of the “frenzied reaching-out of intellect to intellect” “[o]ver the abyss of the potential” where

Concordance of respiration
Absence of corresponding between the verbal sensory
And reciprocity
Of conception
And expression  (LLB 40)

There is no “communion” between these “human cylinders”(LLB 40) and so no productive outcome. Just as their mingled breathing belies the lack of mutuality, the hyphenated words in the poem (“rush-together,” “well-being,” “reaching-out”) pose a verbal conjoining that is inversely reflected in the separation and autonomy of the lovers. Loy makes it clear that the division between them is a manifestation of the dualistic categorisation of existence sharply distinguishing between “[o]ne little whining beast/Whose longing/Is to sink back to antediluvian burrow” and “one elastic tentacle of intuition” sent to “quiver among the stars.”(LLB 41) The reiteration of “one” enforces the link between this dualism and the autarchic self, and both are seen to negate potentiality through their assertion of certainty: “The impartiality of the absolute/Routs    the polemic.”(LLB 41) The poem implies that the paradox of existence is a fertile and productive space suggesting that “the problematic” should be realised rather than transcended; attempts at certainty or transcendence simply “[d]estroy the Universe/With a solution.”(LLB 41)

        “Human Cylinders” clearly depicts the motivations and effects of the Futurist rejection of love, emotion, and other passéist traits. A reductive (mechanistic) construction of human experience actually reinforces the (male) intellectual transcendence of the mechanics of life exposing the inherent contradiction in the masculinist invocation of a ‘machine aesthetic’. Thus, the transcendent intellect is the last refuge of the omniscient Self, elevated by and through a denial of material (fleshly) existence and that associated with it. As Marinetti bluntly states, “we strong Futurists have felt ourselves suddenly detached from women, who have suddenly become too earthly, or, to express it better, have become a symbol of the earth that we ought to abandon”.20 In Love Songs this denial of the “earth” is contiguous with an absence of fertility and through this trope Loy depicts the subjugation of female specificity.21 It is not simply that Loy identifies female autonomy and creativity with reproduction—as is clear in her poem “Parturition” she avoids a simplistic essentialism in which the fecund female body stands for/as the creative female mind.22 Rather, she illustrates how the multiple identity that is signified by reproduction—the blurring of inner and outer, self and other that “Parturition” enacts—is denied in the affirmation of the autonomous “I.” From the perspective of the maternal body, the creative woman can articulate the beyond, the outside that is simultaneously inside, and so undermine the hegemony of the singular and the norm(al). Such a perspective is derivatively reproduced in the modern movement of double consciousness; it is the “problematic” equivocality or “doubleness” of women/Woman that is disavowed in assertions of female inferiority at the same time as it is co-opted into the mindset of the modernist avant-garde.

        Love Songs challenges the denial of (a) woman’s voice, of women’s particularity, in the dominant aesthetic formulations of Western culture. The sequence explores the loss of women’s selfhood in the sterility of Futurist union and equates this with the negation of female specificity required by the myth of romance. In Love Songs and elsewhere Loy represents the negation of women spatially, as the restrictive environs of a room or house. As in her earlier poem "Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,”23 such images of confinement signify the meaningless domestic sphere as well as the sexual role assigned to a woman, but in Love Songs they also imply an isolation from the world and from meaning (as in poems V, VII, and XXVIII):

The steps go up for ever
And they are white
And the first step is the last white
And I am burnt quite white
In the climacteric
Withdrawal of your sun
And wills and words all white
Illimitable monotone
And the white dawn
Of your New Day
Shuts down on me
Unthinkable       that white over there

—  —  —  Is smoke from your house   (LLB 64-5)

That the loss of autonomy is inextricably linked to a loss of language highlights the fundamental premise of the love-lyric tradition that creativity, inspired by and through the feminine, originates in the masculine. Loy makes it clear that the tradition of love disempowers both the female voice and female creativity. In Love Songs her reliance on the man reduces the female speaker to a state of objectification and nullification, the correct role for her in a cult of amour, and without his presence she is devoid of meaning:

      My pair of feet
      Smack the flag-stones
      That are something left over from your walking                   (LLB, 55)

     In ways without you
      I go
      As things go                                                                       (LLB, 62)

        From her correspondence and from other evidence Loy’s Love Songs appear to be directly related to her failed relationship with the Futurist Papini. It is possible that this biographical element to the sequence could obscure the actual challenges posed by Loy’s text, notably the ultimate uncertainty of the voice of the sequence, whether it is, or is not, Loy as poet or both.24 To read Love Songs as simply a personal narrative of failure and submission emphasising the disappointment of the poems, wrongly equates Loy as artist with Loy as individual and with the speaking subject of Love Songs. (The) Woman is silenced by modern love, but a voice does speak through the discontinuities and ambivalences of these love poems. This voice is merely tentative and partial, but it does exceed the closure of romantic myth and romantic lyric alike in a manoeuvre that appears indicative of the contradictory position that a female (modernist) poet occupies.

        The contradictions and paradoxes of Loy’s position as a modernist writer and as a woman cannot be overstated. With the gendered ideologies of modernism (supported by such studies as Otto Weiniger’s influential Sex and Character (1907) and blatantly manifest in pieces such as Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST (1914/15) and Ezra Pound’s “Translator’s Postscript” to Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love [1922]), to be a woman poet (not a poetess, the fate accorded to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the early twentieth century) required great personal resources and unique tactical manoeuvres. Loy was often compared, most notably by Ezra Pound, to her contemporary Marianne Moore, and there are distinct similarities between the two writers’ tactics of self-conscious and self-referential irony, verbal dexterity, wit, and linguistic resonance.25 But Loy’s often painfully incisive poetry is the antithesis of Moore’s dry, regulated and controlled verse. There are also comparisons to be made between Loy and both Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein.26 Unlike these modernist writers, however, Loy’s firm heterosexual identification distanced her from the (textual and material) strategies that they adopted; ie. Stein identifying herself as masculine genius to her supportive “wife,” Alice B. Toklas, and Barnes revelling in a sexual-textual ambiguity and excess. 

        To take up a position within modernism Loy, like her female contemporaries, negotiated her own specific mode of being and writing which confronted the multiple complexities of sex/gender, modernity and author(-)ity.27 Rather than employing an authority based in an ancient and/or feminine or female alternative which would produce a self-sufficient language (the Sapphistic tradition which informs H.D.’s poetic, for example), Loy used the productive gaps and contradictions in her text (as object as well as signifying system). From an initial exploration of the potential of the maternal body as a site and space of aesthetic conception and ontological discovery (in “Parturition”), Loy goes on to use the text as a generative matrix.28 She employs the suggestive spaces of her poetry (the blanks, white spaces, gaps between and beyond words) and in doing so enables an iterative authorisation which avoids the assumption of authorial mastery or semiotic purity. At the same time, her acute sensitivity to the overdetermined constructions of femininity influences her textual strategies which thus serve to confront the gendering of modernism with a poetics of the situated and contingent, one which asserts neither the absolute authority and singularity of language nor of the self. 

        In her poetry Loy is sensitive to the performative privilege of the speaking subject, a sensitivity which necessitates equivocality in the act of speaking and/or writing.  The instability of language that hegemonic modernism explores, but through gendered strategies of displacement and authorisation attempts to disavow, is demonstrated in Loy’s poetry through her rejection of any distinction between the voice and the text, or the prioritisation of the act of speech. She offers no resolution to the crisis of representation and her poetic style functions “not as the privileged vehicle of avant-garde authority but rather as a witness to its metaphysical pretensions”.29 But, does her lack of resolution actually amount to a negative response? Loy’s Love Songs overturn the restrictive ideology (and ideological representations) of romantic love by offering the material reality of a failed affair and by detailing the negation of female autonomy and voice in the myth of Love and in a real relationship. The prevailing mood of disappointment and indeterminacy, the absence of mutuality or productive self-abnegation, suggests that Love Songs does indeed express a “negative aesthetics,” as Meera Shreiber reads the sequence.30 Shreiber is not alone in emphasising the negative strategies of Love Songs, indeed Burke argues that they “stage [an] inch by inch withdrawal from language.”31 Janet Lyon goes further identifying what she describes as the “absences” in the sequence as a crucial aspect of “the dialectical movement of negativity” which is the “focal point” of Love Songs.32

        Such readings, although ostensibly demonstrating Loy’s radical revisiting of avant-garde practice, do suggest that Love Songs (and other pieces) manifest a lack or insufficiency of language and articulation. This viewpoint ultimately consigns Loy to a realm of silence, a realm beyond the Symbolic which is often, almost stereotypically, cast as the space of the feminine.  In contrast I would wish to emphasise the excess of meaning in Loy’s poetry, including Love Songs, which demonstrates a mode of expression that utilises the visual and the implicit in addition to not instead of the semantic. Such profusion of signification is coterminous with the multiplicity of the uncertain speaking subject, as well as being closely identified with immanence and mutuality (the “opulent well-being” that the “Human Cylinders” refuse to aspire to, perhaps). Thus, what Marjorie Perloff describes (albeit in a different context) as Loy’s use of “the grim advantage of what we might call negative identity,”33 I would recast in a much more positive and enabling light as a tactical and indeed empowering employment of a multiple, duplicitous voice, a subject-in-process not fixed either into the rigid authority of (confessional) truth or the antithetical absolutes of a dialectic. Loy’s texts, such as Love Songs, which produce an uncertain speaking subject are actually emancipatory in a much more sophisticated and ultimately more progressive mode than the clarion call of her “Feminist Manifesto” or “Parturition.” By exploring her contingent stance as (woman) author through her texts themselves, Loy’s poems offer the possibility of liberation from the ideological boundaries of gender and identity without denying or negating the physical actualities of existence (as a woman), and without abstaining from language.

        This liberatory effect can be seen in “To You,” a text which inscribes the illusory position of the authorial voice.34 The poem reveals the precarious position of the female modernist interloper as an alien subject and a foreigner to poetic authority, while insisting on the physical presence and articulations of this foreign body. As the title suggests, “To You” serves a dedicatory function and Loy’s own comments on the poem in a letter to Van Vechten suggest a textual relationship to her Love Songs to Joannes:

If you wanted me to be a happy woman for five minutes or more; you would get Songs for Joannes [sic] published for me—all together—printed on one side of each page only—& a large round in the middle of the blank reverse of each page—& one whole entirely blank page with nothing on it between the first & the second parts (—pause in between moods)—the dedication —“TO YOU.”35

This letter, in which Loy also, self-consciously and ironically, invokes the example of Sappho for her Love Songs, would appear to establish “To You” as the tributary preface to Loy’s sequence of modernist love-lyrics, and this is the motivation behind Conover’s grouping of the poems in his earlier edition of Loy’s work The Last Lunar Baedeker. However, Conover omits the poem from The Lost Lunar Baedeker and admits that “[Marisa] Januzzi has persuaded me that despite ML’s plea to CVV [...] I may have taken this request too literally in LLB. I now find it difficult to read ‘To You’ as a prelude to ‘Songs to Joannes,’ either thematically or structurally.”(LLB 191) Conover’s caution is correct, and it is certainly misleading to read “To You” as a simple “dedicatory poem [...] an elusive evocation of the loved one in the context of the city.”36

        The address of “To You” does imitate the conventions of the ahistorical, apolitical romantic lyric, in which the loved one (You) is invoked to facilitate an expression of the speaker’s state of mind (I). However, a literal interpretation of Loy’s poem and comments ignores the allocutory complexity of “To You.” There is no straightforward beloved, either real or imagined at the receiving end of Loy’s apostrophe.  As Peter Quartermain highlights, the syntactic drift of this piece, which inaugurates the liberating discontinuities of Love Songs, acts against any singularity or linearity of interpretation.37 The line-breaks which disrupt the semantic groupings of “To You” produce an uncertain grammatical subject, and the prepositions which structure the poem highlight the relational activity of the piece. Thus, not only can we recognise the act of writing as an actual production (rather than representation or deferral of meaning), but we are also witness to a textual production of a relational subject. Although “You” is/are addressed and invoked, this postulated third person (the text, the writing, the subject) of the poem is the writer herself. As in her Love Songs, Loy undermines the egocentric poetic tradition that uses the Other, the addressee, the beloved, the woman, to enable a solipsistic self-exploration.  By placing herself as both addresser and addressee, as speaker and silent/silenced listener, Loy offers a textual examination of her unauthorised status as active, literary voice. In its questioning of poetic convention, “To You” introduces the subversive tendencies and equivocal voice of the Love Songs.

       “To You” proposes a complex apostrophe emanating from the site of modernism—athe dislocated metropolitan space:

The city
Wedged between
Impulse and Unfolding
By diurnal splintering
Of egos
The aerial news-kiosk
Where you
With a nigger
And a deaf-mute
Of introspection  (ll.1-14)

“The city,” a reflection of the modernist situation itself, offers both confusion and clarification.  The individual addressed from this ambivalent site of potential and uncertainty shares in the condition of the city, and is clearly identified with the dispossessed inhabitants of this cosmopolitan zone; “a nigger/And a deaf-mute/Of introspection.” The nigger/deaf-mute association establishes the addressee as the equivalent of these underclass subjects, pointing to the rhetorical stance of the poem. Loy is addressing her own authorial presence, characterising her unsanctified interlocutory role by appealing to tropes of “Otherness”; ie. she invokes emblems of cultural dispossession and denial to signal her presence as outsider. Using the colonial figure of “blackness” Loy represents her (un)authorised role as one of transgressive intervention:

Plopping finger
In Stephen’s ink
Made you hybrid-negro  (ll. 15-17)

By usurping authorship from the male she becomes a racially mixed Other, the blackness of the (unauthorised) written word (as black ink) metonymically referring to the blackness of race.  Thus, she is stained by crossing the boundaries of (male)subject-(female)object (of self and other). 

       The name “Stephen” represents masculine authority with a nexus of autobiographical and cultural implications. Stephen is Loy’s first husband (Stephen Haweis) who resented and restricted her development as an artist and writer. But he is also Stephen Daedelus, the prototypical modernist artist of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-15), or his mythical precursor Saint Stephen, the original martyr. In appropriating author-ity from “Stephen”, Loy establishes herself as “hybrid,” offering a defiant doubleness which exceeds the restrictions of dualistic ontology or oppositional aesthetics. The “You” of the poem violates the boundaries of purity and control, offering, instead, a blurring of the distinctions between subject and object, self and other, author and audience. Thus, the cross-breed also crosses borders, trespassing on the traditional prerogative of (male) author-ity, and infringing the self-containment of the authorial voice.

        The “hybrid-negro” is also an early gesture towards the mixed heritage that Loy explores in her sequence Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose: a linguistic, intellectual, and cultural hybridity that comes to form a fundamental aspect of her aesthetic. In Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (first published between 1923 and 1925) Loy poses her “auto-mythological” self Ova as a “mongrel—girl of Noman’s land.”38 As the offspring of the “English Rose” and Exodus, the “wondering jew,” this “composite Anglo-Israelite” has a heritage as well as artistic aspirations which transgress the boundaries of culture and ideology.39 Here and elsewhere the trope of the hybrid and the textual identification with racial and social outsiders undermines the supposed “purity” and superiority of Western culture and its artistic expression. This is not simply a rhetorical stance but lies at the heart of Loy’s aesthetic vision. Hybridity results, for Loy, in a re-invigoration of culture.  Against the paralysing purity of form and expression Loy offers her own multilingual poetic vocabulary, celebrating the “composite” “living language” of America in an article on “Modern Poetry”.40 Indeed, the lexical hybridity of Loy’s writing has served some critics as the defining element of her work.  In this context Perloff notes Loy’s “curious polyglossia” and finds it to be a distinct mark of her modernist poetic, one which foreshadows the current multiplicities of “English” throughout the world.41 This echoes Jim Powell’s earlier assessment of Loy and Basil Bunting which points out that

English is a hybrid, born of the mingling of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman French, further complicated by ecclesiastical, scholarly and literary infusions from Latin, Greek, and the literatures of the continental Renaissance and after, and more recently by imperial imports from throughout the world. Loy and Bunting have created poetic voices which can draw comfortably on all the registers of English, from the earliest slang to the most abstruse or mandarin locutions.42

The tactic of polyglot or hybrid articulation can also be interpreted, from the position of authority, as a failure rather than a challenge to tradition and certainly some aspects of Loy’s work have been seen as “clumsiness” exhibiting a lack of “technical mastery.”43 Such comments highlight the hazards of the poetic stance that Loy takes when textual doubleness is read as poetic inadequacy rather than excess or multiplicity.

        Loy herself is aware of the textual difficulties of her aesthetic vision of hybridity and multiplicity; eg. in “To You” the interloper-writer is both licensed (by transgressive powers) and dispossessed (by convention). As traditional outsider she figures as a silent/silenced individual, the victim of editorial impediments or textual unreliability:

      A couple of manuscriptural erasures
      And here we have your deaf-mute
      Beseech him
      He will never with-hold so
      As the tattle of tongue-play
      Or your incognito  (ll. 18-24)         

In an oxymoronic oscillation between silence and “tattle,” Loy illustrates the uncertainty of the text. Such textual ambiguity, or the disguise of authorial personae, can empower the outsider, but can also function to regulate the modernist transgressor and impede the communication of his/her specific individuality. This precarious position can produce a dangerous indeterminacy as well as a liberatory one—the difficulty of identifying an affirmative voice in Love Songs perhaps.

        Loy ’s “To You” offers the pseudo-certainty of the text as a “tight-rope stretched above commotion” that “Frays to tow”(ll. 29, 30), emphasising the instability of the written word and presenting Truth as a balancing act. Loy chooses not to mourn the passing of absolute truth and authority, so that her carnivalesque figuring of the crisis of representation is in stark contrast to the parsimonious edifice against chaos that Eliot constructs in The Waste Land; “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.”44 What Loy suggests is that the writer occupies a performative space from which a variety of authorial poses can be presented, poses which often seek to disguise the contingency of their origins in an assertion of complete agency and control.  Rather than adopting the armour of personae, as Pound and many other modernists do, or writing with a customary detachment, a dis-acknowledgment of self which is the tactic of much of Marianne Moore’s work, Loy “seems to reject any coherent model of the self as something both imaginary and conventional,” as Peter Nicholls describes it, reformulating “modernist irony” so that the “reflexivity of her style turns the force of the critique back upon the self.”45 In “To You,” as elsewhere, Loy seeks to expose the masquerade of the author through her own modernist performance which inserts itself into, and subverts, the dominant discourse of the avant-garde. With an incongruous blurring of reality and metaphor that parodically re-enacts the literalising metaphors of racism, sexism, and masculinism, the addressee of the poem, Loy as writer, presents her own equivocality and textually situates herself within “y[/]our mask of unborn ebony/And the silence of y[/]our harangue.”(ll. 27-28)

It is the city, as the form of the modern, which offers a depersonalised audience to the performance and reinscribes the doubleness of the text. In Love Songs Loy metonymically presents the simultaneous internal/external perception of self (self as observer and observed) through the eye/I homonym, which is also crossed with physical-spiritual enlightenment (eye/light/enlightenment). In a similar nexus of associations the city presents an illuminated/illuminating vacuity from/in the reflecting windows/eyes of its gaze: “Lit cavities in the face of the city/Open their glassy embrace to receive you.”(“To You” ll. 25-26) The self is both confirmed and dispersed in the soul(lessness) of the metropolis. In the final lines of “To You” Loy restates her position as silenced alien, offering it as an inevitable product of the crisis of modernity. The poem returns to the “stain” of race, but also suggests the equalising power of miscegenation as racial and textual uncertainty. The ambivalence of origins destroys hierarchy as it destroys legitimacy, producing an unbounded potentiality which Loy implies both linguistically (“levelling”) and typographically, with the openness of a final dash:      

In the shattering city
Alien as your aboriginal
In the levelling dirt—      (ll. 36-39)

What “To You” offers is a dedication from and to Loy the writer, addressing her self as (a) speaking subject. The poem breaks boundaries and orthodoxies and accepts an alien nature that is paradoxically both a disadvantaged state and an inevitable and enabling role.  As a “dedication” to Love Songs this subterfuge enunciates Loy‘s position as authorial voice against and beyond the weight of tradition and authority.  It is through such tactics that Loy’s unique positioning vis-a-vis modernism can be recognised. What her work productively explores are the contingencies of language, expression, and (modern) culture, enabling the outsider to speak (through) the arbitrary relations of modernity. The incongruous gap in the text of modernism that so many writers attempt to fill or bridge with models of linguistic precision, impersonality, stylistic self-sufficiency, gender ideology, and so on, is the inter-zone that Loy explores and exploits. This inter-zone is uncertain and duplicitous, and here the transgressor risks annihilation while resisting co-option into the realms of authoritative/authoritarian “Truth.” But, for Loy as artist, Anglo-Jewish expatriate, mother, modernist, woman, it is the fertile space from which and of which her complex, exceptional, uncompromisingly modern writing “speaks.”



1   Robert McAlmon, Post-Adolescence (Paris: Contact, 1923; rpt. by U of Mexico P, 1991, ed. Edward N. S, Lorusso) 14, 17. [back to text]

2   “Patience Scalpel” remarks, for example, with characteristic irony, “Are good Mothers to supply them [ie. her Lesbian companions] with Luxuries [ie. lovers] in the next Generation; for they themselves will have no Shes, unless some Her puts them forth! Well I’m not the Woman for it!” Barnes, Ladies Almanack (1928, Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992) 13. [back to text]

3   See for example Alfred Kreymborg, Our Singing Strength: A History of American Poetry (New York: Coward McCann, 1929) 488-9. [back to text]

4   I refer, of course, to the work of Bonnie Kime Scott, among others: her anthology The Gender of Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990) includes work by Loy prefaced with an introduction by Carolyn Burke. Scott’s two volumes Refiguring Modernism Vol I: The Women of 1928 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995) and Refiguring Modernism Vol II: Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996) are key works in the movement towards non-reductive, feminist revisions of the modernist canon. [back to text]

  Mina Loy, “Feminist Manifesto,” in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ed. Roger L. Conover (Manchester: Carcanet. 1997) 155, 154; hereafter cited as LLB. [back to text]

6   For recent discussions of Love Songs see Burke, “Mina Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ and the Limits of Imagism,” San Jose Studies 13.3 (Fall 1987): 37-36; Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) especially 195-208; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “‘Seismic Orgasm’: Sexual Intercourse, Gender Narratives, and Lyric Ideology in Mina Loy”; in Studies in Historical Change, ed. Ralph Cohen (Charlottesville & London: UP of Virginia, 1992), rpt. in Mina Loy: Woman & Poet, ed. Meera Shreiber & Keith Tuma (Orono Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1998); Virginia M. Kouidis, Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State UP, 1980), especially 59-85; Peter Quartermain, “‘The Tattle of Tongueplay’: Mina Loy’s Love Songs” in Mina Loy: Woman & Poet; Eric Murphy Selinger, “Love in the Time of Melancholia,” in Mina Loy: Woman & Poet; Meera Shreiber, “‘Love is a Lyric of Bodies’: The Negative Aesthetics of Mina Loy’s Love Songs to Joannes,” in Mina Loy: Woman & Poet; Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, “‘Little Lusts and Lucidities’: Reading Mina Loy’s Love Songs ”in Mina Loy: Woman & Poet. [back to text]

7    Burke, “Supposed Persons: Modernist Poetry and the Female Subject,” Feminist Studies 11. 1 (Spring 1985): 131-48; 131. [back to text]

8    Quoted in Burke, “Supposed Persons” 131 [back to text]

9    Ibid. 136 [back to text]

10 The appellation “Dusie” originated in Loy’s year studying art in Munich (1900) where she was given this nickname because of her confusion over the formal and informal second person pronouns Du and Sie. The name is used by Loy in her early 1910s Florentine correspondence and by Mabel Dodge and Carl Van Vechten in their memoirs of the period. Burke notes the origins and usage of Loy-as-Dusie in Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy 62 ff. [back to text]

11 See Burke, Becoming Modern, 296-7 for details [back to text]

12 Susan Gilmore, “Imna, Ova, Mongrel, Spy: Anagram and Imposture in the Work of Mina Loy,” in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet 273. [back to text]

13 Burke, “Supposed Persons,” 137. [back to text]

14 “Auto-mythology” is the apt term used by Conover to describe Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose in his first edition of Loy’s work, The Last Lunar Baedeker (1982, Manchester: Carcanet, 1985) 326n. For an exploration of the autobiographical, mythical, and analytical strategies adopted in Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose see my “Autobiography / Auto-mythology: Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” in Representing Lives: Women and Autobiography, eds. Alison Donnell and Pauline Polkey (London & New York: Macmillan, 2000). [back to text]

15 Gilmore, 285. The manuscript of the unpublished story “Hush Money” is held in box 6, folder 160 of the Loy Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale [back to text]

16 This is not just a coincidental affinity—Loy wrote for the short-lived, New York Dadaist magazine The Blind Man which championed Duchamp’s apostatical gesture of defiance to bourgeois art; his submission of ‘R. Mutt’s’ Fountain, a urinal, to the 1917 New York Independents exhibition. [back to text]

17 Loy, “Gertrude Stein,” Transatlantic Review 2.3 (October, 1924): 429-30. For an illuminating consideration of Loy’s connections with Duchamp and Dada and their role in the development of her aesthetic see Marisa Januzzi, “Dada Through The Looking Glass, or: Mina Loy’s Objective,” in Women in Dada : Essays on Sex, Gender, and Identity, ed. Naomi Sawelson-Gorse (Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT, 1998). [back to text]

18 Marinetti, “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine,” from War, the World‘s Only Hygiene (1911-15), in Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed. R.W.Flint, trans. R.W.Flint and Arthur A.Coppotelli (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972) 91. [back to text]

19 “Human Cylinders” was first published in 1917, see LLB, 185 for details. [back to text]

20 Flint ed., Marinetti: Selected Writings 75. [back to text]

21 DuPlessis reads “two intertwined narratives” in Love Songs, an “intellectual analysis of the amorous failings of these highly developed intellectuals, whose precepts and experiences don’t match” and “her extreme rage and grief that she does not have his child, that she did not get pregnant, or that pregnancy was not allowed to happen, barred from happening by contraceptive practices, or even, perhaps, aborted.”(DuPlessis, 275)  She goes on to argue, using Loy’s call for a feminist maternity in the “Feminist Manifesto,” that Loy employs the reproductive justification of sex to facilitate a non-oppositional definition of female sexuality. DuPlessis’ analysis, although somewhat dependent on biographical speculation and a literalisation of the reproductive tropes of Love Songs, is not incompatible with my own understanding of Loy’s revaluation of the creative female through a foregrounding of the maternal. [back to text]

22  “Parturition” was first published in 1914, see LLB, 176-7 for details.

     As Janet Lyon details, Loy represents the experience of “Parturition” as “an intellectual complex which converts the experience of the body into supersensate consciousness” and challenges accepted versions of “genius”: “maternity has given her something that every avant-garde artist needs, but few have: to wit, the capacity for parallax vision, which will move her dialectically out of common sense and into knowledge.” Janet Lyon, “Mina Loy’s Pregnant Pauses: the Space of Possibility in the Florence Writings” in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet 387, 389-90. [back to text]

23  First published 1915, see LLB, 181 for details. [back to text]

24 There is ample opportunity for biographical speculation about Love Songs which will not be indulged in here: details of Loy’s relationship with Papini, which continued intermittently with her involvement with Marinetti during 1914-15, are related in Burke, Becoming Modern, 119-94. [back to text]

25 See Ezra Pound, “A List of Books,” The Little Review 4. 11 (March 1918): 56-58; rpt. in Ezra Pound: Selected Prose, 1909-1965 ed. William Cookson (New York: New Directions, 1973). Burke, among others, discusses Pound’s use of Loy and Moore’s work in his definition of logopoeia highlighting especially the gender politics of his co-option of their work in “Getting Spliced: Modernism and Sexual Difference”, American Quarterly 39 (1987): 98-121. See also Burke,“Supposed Persons: Modernist Poetry and the Female Subject,” and Marjorie Perloff, “English as a ‘Second Language’: Mina Loy’s ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,’” in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet. [back to text]

26 Burke explores the connections and affinities between Loy and Stein in “Without Commas: Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy,” Poetics Journal 4 (1984): 43-52, and in “Getting Spliced: Modernism and Sexual Difference,” and between Loy and Barnes in “‘Accidental Aloofness’: Barnes, Loy, and Modernism” in Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1991). On Loy and Barnes and their “spectacular” presence in modernism see also my “Ladies of Fashion/Modern(ist) Women: Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes,” Women: a cultural review  10.3 (1999): 266-82. [back to text]

27 The complex relations between certain women modernists (including Barnes, Stein and Woolf) and the dominant ideologies and aesthetics of the modernist period are fruitfully explored in Bridget Elliott and Jo-Ann Wallace’s study Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (im)positionings (London & New York: Routledge, 1994). Elliott and Wallace’s characterisation of the avant-garde as a “field of cultural production” and their emphasis on the materialist configurations of artistic output highlights the very different strategies that women modernists were able to adopt. [back to text]

28 Lyon argues that “throughout Love Songs it is the matrix that bears the weight of meaning.  The matrix produces the poem’s various concrete configurations; equally important, the foregrounding of the matrix in the poem relativizes the value of those various configurations.” Lyon, 391. [back to text]

29 Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995) 222. [back to text]

30 See Shreiber, “‘Love Is A Lyric/Of Bodies’: The Negative Aesthetics of Mina Loy’s Love Songs to Joannes.” [back to text]

31 Burke, “Mina Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ and the Limits of Imagism,” 44. [back to text]

32 Lyon, 390, 391. [back to text]

33 Perloff, 145. [back to text]

34 “To You” was first published in Others 3. 1 (July 1916): 27-28. A handwritten manuscript of the poem, dated 19 February, 1915, is held in the Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale, and a version of the poem appears in The Last Lunar Baedeker, 89-90. All quotations of the poem here follow the manuscript (referred to as ms), except for the emendation to l.25 (noted below).  The ms differs from the first published version (referred to as Others) as follows (The Last Lunar Baedeker variations are also noted):

            ll. 2-3: these form a single line in Others and The Last Lunar Baedeker.

            l. 17: hybrid] ms, The Last Lunar Baedeker;  hybred Others.

            l. 25: cavities] Others, The Last Lunar Baedeker;  cavaties ms.

            l. 39: ends with a full-stop in The Last Lunar Baedeker only. [back to text]

35 N.d. letter, c. late 1915, held in Vechten Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale; quoted in Kouidis, 64. [back to text]

36 Kouidis, 64n [back to text]

37     Quartermain, “The Tattle of Tongueplay.” [back to text]

38 Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose was first published in sections in the Little Review 9 (Spring 1923, and Autumn/Winter 1923-4) and in Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers (Paris: Three Mountains Press, 1925): A complete text of Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose which avoids the editorial problems of the text offered in The Last Lunar Baedeker is forthcoming in Roger L. Conover, ed., The Autobiography of Mina Loy: ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’ and ‘Colossus’.  The quotations here and following from the first published versions. Contact Collection, 149. [back to text]

39 Little Review 9 (Autumn/Winter 1923-4): 50; ibid. 41; Little Review 9 (Summer 1923): 15. [back to text]

40 “Modern Poetry was first published in 1925, it is reprinted in LLB, 157-161.

     Some critics have found Loy’s use of racial tropes, particularly conceptions of “the negro,” problematic but there is no space to enter fully into this debate here—Marisa Januzzi is perhaps indicative when she writes of Loy’s “Widow’s Jazz” that “[h]er thematic and aesthetic appropriation of the ‘negro’—body, ‘soul; and dialect—may well seem dated and problematic; indeed Loy’s time-bound use of the trope of the ‘Negro primitive’ threatens to eclipse the symbolic significance of the imagery in the context of the poem as a whole,” Januzzi, “Mongrel Rose: The ‘Unerring Esperanto’ of Loy’s Poetry”, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 437. However, rather than a typical modernist exploitative and/or Eurocentric notion of the “primitive” as an unmarked, originary culture, I would argue that Loy’s work expresses a continuity with, not an appropriation of, African-American Jazz culture or the Jewish immigrant worker. These displaced, dispossessed, and hybridised cultures and peoples represent the truly modern for Loy; instances of dislocation and contingency which cannot belong to or in traditional forms but who are, ultimately, the voice of the modern world. Januzzi’s circumspection does not prevent her from celebrating the “challenging implication” of Loy’s work which appears very close to the crucial strategy that the present article has discovered in “To You” and Love Songs; “[t]he elusive location of the self in the fertile, generative material of language itself.”(437) [back to text]

41 Perloff, 145. On the ‘heteroglossia’ of Loy’s poetry see also Elisabeth Frost, “Mina Loy’s ‘Mongrel’ Poetics” and Januzzi, “Mongrel Rose: The ‘Unerring Esperanto’ of Loy’s Poetry”, both in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet [back to text]

42 Jim Powell, “Basil Bunting and Mina Loy,” Chicago Review 37.1 (Winter 1990): 23. [back to text]

43 Ivor Winters, “Mina Loy,” Dial 80 (1926): 498; Kenneth Rexroth, “Les Lauriers Sonts Coups,” Circle 1 (1944) 69. [back to text]

44 Eliot, The Waste Land and other poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1940) 43. [back to text]

45      Nicholls, 222. [back to text]

BIO: Alex Goody lectures in English with Media Studies at Falmouth College of Arts, Cornwall, UK where she is also the Research Co-ordinator for English. She is currently writing a monograph on hypertext, Dada and modern poetry and works, more generally, on women modernists and the avant garde. She has published pieces on Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes and New York Dada.



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