The Early Poetry of Mina Loy

MinaLoy

For last weekend’s Cultureteca, among other things, I looked at some of the poetry being written and published in Russia and the United States a hundred years ago, in July 1915. This included a brief recap of the formation of the literary magazine Others: A Magazine of the New Verse, founded in New Jersey by Alfred Kreymborg.

When the first issue of Others appeared in July 1915, featuring four short ‘Love Songs’ by Mina Loy, she was at the time still living in Florence. Born as Mina Löwy on 27 December 1882 in London, her father was a Hungarian Jewish tailor and her mother English and of the Evangelical faith. After leaving school at the age of seventeen, spending a couple of years learning art in Munich, and returning to England where she studied alongside Augustus John, she moved from London to Paris in 1903, and began her career as a post-impressionist painter.

The first Salon d’Automne exhibition, multidisciplinary and eschewing hierarchies of genre, opened in October 1903, showcasing works by Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Albert Gleizes, and a retrospective for the recently deceased Paul Gauguin. By the following autumn, under her newly-adopted surname, Loy had been elected to this salon, and six of her watercolours were exhibited alongside rooms devoted to Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

In the spring of 1905, two more of Loy’s watercolours were displayed at the Salon des Beaux-Arts. Soon after her arrival in Paris, she had met and married another young English artist, Stephen Haweis, who at the same time was gaining some prominence as a photographer. The couple had a child, who they named Oda, but Oda died on her first birthday. Short of money and with their relationship faltering, in 1907 Mina and Stephen moved to Florence.

While she had been involved in Paris’ literary scene, it was only after her move to Italy that – owing to her close friendship with the well-read American heiress and patron Mabel Dodge – Loy met Gertrude Stein. Stein and her older brother Leo had amassed an impressive collection of post-impressionist paintings, and counted Matisse and Picasso among their friends. But if the initial connection came through art, Loy and Stein also shared an interest in Christian Science, and Stein’s experiments in literary form would prove a primary influence on Loy’s writing.

Loy also read Bergson, Freud, and eastern philosophy with Dodge; however beyond burgeoning friendships and an increase in activity after a slow first few years in Florence, the relationship between Mina and Stephen continued to deteriorate. They had two more children, but both parents embarked on a series of affairs. Loy became increasingly attached to the circle of the Italian Futurists, headed by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who in February 1909 had published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro his Futurist Manifesto: a rejection of past forms and an embrace of modern technology which asserted, ‘Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice’.

Loy began a romance with Giovanni Papini, a polemical essayist, poet, and short story writer who integrated with the Futurists, but frequently tussled with Marinetti over the narrow definition and practises of the movement. This romance soured upon Loy’s brief affair with Marinetti. Despite a strain of misogynistic thinking in his work, Marinetti considerably spurred her to take up literature; and while Loy continued to show her art, several of her paintings appearing at the Futurist Open International Exhibition of 1914, she also began to publish her earliest poems.

Her poetic debut came with ‘Café du Néant’, published in the August 1913 issue of The International, which also featured poetry by Rabindranath Tagore. This had been facilitated by Carl Van Vechten, another acquaintance who Loy made through Dodge. And Van Vechten soon followed up by publishing Loy’s ‘The Costa San Giorgio’ in the ‘little magazine’ of modern literature he was editing at the time, Trend. ‘The Costa San Giorgio’ begins:

‘The Costa San Giorgio’, by Mina Loy (1913)

We English make a tepid blot
On the messiness
Of the passionate Italian life-
traffic
Throbbing the street up steep
Up up to the porta
Culminating
In the stained frescoe of the dragon-slayer

The hips of women sway
Among the crawling children they produce
And the church hits the barracks
Where
The greyness of marching men
Falls through the greyness of stone
Oranges half-rotten are sold at a reduction
Hoarsely advertised as broken heads
BROKEN HEADS and the barber
Has an imitation mirror
And Mary preserve our mistresses from seeing us as we see ourselves
Shaving
ICE CREAM
Licking is larger than mouths
Boots than feet
Slip Slap and the string dragging
And the angle of the sun
Cuts the whole lot in half

In June 1914, Loy’s ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ were published in Alfred Stieglitz’s New-York-based arts review Camera Work. And in November ‘Parturition’, a graphic depiction of childbirth, appeared in Trend. By this juncture – with tensions among the Milan and Florence Futurists heading towards a split; her frayed relationship with Papini; and World War I now underway, causing Papini to become increasingly nationalistic – Loy was looking to make a move to New York.

Trend soon folded, and in early 1915 Rogue was established in New York by Allan and Louise Norton. Featuring literature by the likes of Stein, Wallace Stevens, and Walter Arensberg, in April Rogue printed Loy’s ‘Sketch of a Man on a Platform’; and in May ‘Three Moments in Paris’, incorporating a slightly revised ‘Café du Néant’:

‘Three Moments in Paris’, by Mina Loy (1915)

1. One O’Clock at Night

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
Leaning against your shoulder
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
And the only less male voice of your brother pugilist of the intellect
Booms      as it seems to me      so sleepy
Across an interval of a thousand miles
An interim of a thousand years
But you who make more noise than any man in the world when you clear your throat
Deafening      wake me
And I catch the thread of the argument
Immediately assuming my personal mental attitude
And cease to be a woman

Beautiful halfhour of being a mere woman
The animal woman
Understanding nothing of man
But mastery      and the security of imparted physical heat
Indifferent to cerebral gymnastics
Or regarding them as the self-indulgent play of children
Or the thunder of alien gods
But you wake 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.”

2. Cafe du Néant

Little tapers lighted      leaning diagonally
Stuck in coffin tables of the Cafe du Néant
Leaning to the breath of baited bodies
Like young poplars fringing the Loire

Eyes that are full of love
And eyes that are full of kohl
Projecting light across the fulsome ambiente
Trailing the rest of the animal behind them
Telling of tales without words
And lies of no consequence
One way or another

The young lovers hermetically buttoned up in black
To black cravat
To the blue powder edge dusting the yellow throat
What color could have been your bodies
When last you put them away

Nostalgic youth
Holding your mistress’s pricked finger
In the indifferent flame of the taper
Synthetic symbol of      LIFE
In this factitious chamber of      DEATH
The woman
As usual
Is smiling      as bravely
As it is given to her to be      brave
While the brandy cherries
In winking glasses
Are decomposing
Harmoniously
With the flesh of spectators
And at a given spot

There is one
Who
Having the concentric lighting focussed precisely upon her
Prophetically blossoms in perfect putrefaction
Yet      there are cabs outside the door.

3. Magasins du Louvre

All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass

Long lines of boxes
Of dolls
Propped against banisters
Walls and pillars
Huddled on shelves
And composite babies with arms extended
Hang from the ceiling
Beckoning
Smiling
In a profound silence
Which the shop walker left trailing behind him
When he ambled to the further end of the gallery
To annoy the shop girl

All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass
They alone have the effrontery to
Stare through the human soul
seeing nothing
Between parted fringes

One cocotte wears a bowler hat and a sham camellia
And one an iridescent boa
For there are two of them
Passing
And the solicitous mouth of one is straight
The other curved to a static smile

They see the dolls
And for a moment their eyes relax
To a flicker of elements unconditionally primeval
And now averted
Seek each other’s      surreptitiously
To know if the other has seen
While mine are inextricably entangled with the pattern on the carpet
As eyes are apt to be
In their shame
Having surprised a gesture that is ultimately intimate

All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass.

* * *

Today interest in Mina Loy waxes and wanes. She remains best known for Lunar Baedeker, which was published by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Press in 1923, and for her ‘Feminist Manifesto’, which she wrote in Italy in 1913. But during her lifetime it was ‘Love Songs’ which had the greatest impact. Otherwise known as ‘Songs to Joannes’, these thirty-four poems were written on the subject of her failed relationship with Papini.

Published in Others from the first issue of July 1915, Loy’s ‘Songs’ were marked by their free verse and idiosyncratic use of punctuation. Drawing stylistic comparisons to the work of Emily Dickinson, like her Loy made use of hyphens; but more often she introduced unorthodox line-breaks and spaces between words and at the start of sentences. Allied to the suggestive subject matter, which in fraught and highly analytic language still clearly referred to sexual intercourse and male genitalia, ‘Love Songs’ caused something of a scandal.

When she finally arrived in New York in October 1916, Loy quickly became a central figure among the core of artists who spent their time between New Jersey and New York City, and had collectively rallied around Others. These included Kreymborg, Man Ray, Walter and Louise Arensberg, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Marcel Duchamp. She was immediately drawn into the Provincetown Players theatre group. Her divorce from Stephen Haweis was finalised in 1917; and in that year, she met the ‘poet-boxer’ Arthur Cravan. A whirlwind romance resulted in their marriage in Mexico City; but with Loy pregnant, Cravan disappeared, presumed drowned.

Among those critical of ‘Love Songs’, Amy Lowell called the poems ‘obscene’ and threatened to withdraw her work from Others. Loy’s poetry was condemned as pornographic, and its free verse parodied. On the other hand by 1917 Ezra Pound, writing in The Little Review, praised Loy’s literature as ‘a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters’. And in the prologue to 1920’s Kora in Hell, William Carlos Williams acclaimed Loy and Marianne Moore as the twin poles of America’s poetic landscape.

‘Love Songs’, by Mina Loy (1915)

I

Spawn of fantasies
Sitting 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

There are suspect places

I must live in my lantern
Trimming subliminal flicker
Virginal            to the bellows
Of experience
                                Colored glass.

II

The skin-sack
In which a wanton duality
Packed
All the completions of my infructuous impulses
Something the shape of a man
To the casual vulgarity of the merely observant
More of a clock-work mechanism
Running down against time
To which I am not paced
        My finger-tips are numb from fretting your hair
A God’s door-mat
        On the threshold of your mind.

III

We might have coupled
In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment
Or broken flesh with one another
At the profane communion table
Where wine is spilled on promiscuous lips

We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings.

IV

Once in a mezzanino
The starry ceiling
Vaulted an unimaginable family
Bird-like abortions
With human throats
And wisdom’s eyes
Who wore lamp-shade red dresses
And woolen hair

One bore a baby
In a padded porte-enfant
Tied with a sarsanet ribbon
To her goose’s wings
But for the abominable shadows
I would have lived
Among their fearful furniture
To teach them to tell me their secrets
For I had guessed mine
That if I should find YOU
And bring you with me
The brood would be swept clean out.

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