By Katie Meynell
In a photograph from 1917, the avant-garde poet Mina Loy appears both enigmatic and defiant. Taken by Man Ray, the centrepiece of the portrait is Loy’s earring: a dark-room thermometer. In a typically Dadaist manner, the object detracts from the subject.
The portrait mirrors the way twentieth century critics, from Ezra Pound to Roger L. Conover, have rendered Loy an object, rather than a subject worthy of independent study. Man Ray’s later portrait (c 1920) is in the collections of the Beinecke Library, the sole public owner of Loy’s papers. The portrait was mounted by Joseph Cornell. Doubly framed by male artists, Loy’s blurred figure twists away from the viewer. Her closed eyes and half-smile leave us wanting. The outline of Loy’s literary career, like that of her figure in this portrait, is a shifting collage of overlapping, irregular shapes.
Loy did not align herself with any one avant-garde group. She has been described as a Futurist, Dadaist, feminist, modernist and post-modernist. The artist changed her Jewish surname Löwy to Loy by the first exhibition of her artwork at the Salon d’Automne in 1904, aged 22. After her first solo exhibition in 1912, Loy stopped painting altogether. Inspired by F. T. Marinetti’s ‘Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), she published her first work ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ (1914) in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, a photographic quarterly. Published the following year in Others magazine, Loy’s overtly sexual ‘Love Songs’ caused a stir amongst modernist circles (poet Amy Lowell subsequently refused to submit her work to the periodical). From the series’ opening lines, where ‘Pig Cupid’ nuzzles ‘erotic garbage’, Loy pulls deified eroticism down to earth. The ‘Love Songs’ scandal made Loy’s name.
By the time she moved from Florence to New York in 1916, Loy was already known amongst avant-garde circles. In Paris, she crossed paths with Gertrude Stein, whose salon became a meeting point for avant-gardists such as Picasso, Matisse and Pound. These figures visited Loy’s infamous lampshade shop, sponsored by Stein, on the fashionable Rue du Colissée in the late 1920s. Loy’s complex relationships with other authors, and various avant-garde movements, is reflected in the archives at the Beinecke Library. Before the Beinecke digitised the collection in 2017, much of Loy’s prose, poetry, designs and drawings from 1914 to 1960 was inaccessible and untouched. The original manuscripts are mingled with the works of her contemporaries, including Gertrude and Leo Stein, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings and H. D. This collective grouping is typical of Mina Loy’s critical standing: more often than not, she is one name in a long list; a member of a group. Her multiple, often fleeting relationships with various overlapping avant-garde groups complicate this collective identity.
Loy soon rejected the misogynistic and fundamentally violent foundations of Futurism, these flaws perhaps revealed to her partially through turbulent affairs with Marinetti and Giovanni Papini, Futurism’s chief founders. Shortly after moving to Paris, Loy turned to Cubism. While Futurism aimed to capture the energy and dynamism of the modern world, Cubism represented reality through multiple viewpoints to create a fragmented, abstract effect. In contrast to ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’, Loy’s poem ‘The Costa San Giorgio’ forms a complex, eclectic and colourful Cubist word-collage. Published in The International in a series of three poems titled ‘Italian Pictures’ (c 1914), both this and ‘July in Vallombrosa’ describe artistic materials and processes as a form of alternative punctuation. Typically of her early poetry, Loy’s distinctive indentation and spacing further punctuate the series, encouraging visual links between lines.
‘The Costa San Giorgio’ contains a vibrant array of colours and sensory experiences, from ‘The smell of small cooking’ to ‘Jerk patches of street’ and the ‘clacking / Of all the green shutters’. Typographical spacing and various font sizes add to the collage’s visual impact. The colour imagery unifies ‘the messiness / Of the passionate Italian life-traffic’ which is:
Throbbing the street up steep
Up up to the porta
In the stained frescoe
These unpunctuated and widely spaced lines enact the movement described. Loy’s collation of disparate figures and sensory experiences creates a ‘stained frescoe’, a phrase that conveys the impact of visual art on Loy’s poetry. The ‘Fluidic blots of sky’ which punctuate the poem recall the Neo-Impressionist style of Cézanne and Matisse, with whom Loy exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1904.
Loy’s connection to the visual avant-garde strengthened her friendship with Cubist contemporary Gertrude Stein, whom she described in a poetic portrait (c 1924):
of the laboratory
congealed to phrases
a radium of the word
Loy imitates Stein’s meticulous crushing, congealing and extracting of ‘vocabulary’ with her precise indentation and spacing. The indented phrases are set apart as a pair that forms a powerful summation of Stein when combined: she crushed to extract. Using spatial language similar to Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), Loy’s ‘Ignoramus’ (c 1915) is written from the perspective of its titular homeless subject:
In the lining
Of your pocket
Between the perpendicular and the horizontal
The subject is enclosed within the half-rhyme of ‘lying’ and ‘lining’, pocketed between ‘the perpendicular and horizontal’. Like this unnamed and compromised figure, Loy’s critical position occupies a liminal space ‘in the lining’ of a male-dominated literary tradition.
Loy’s hybrid relationships with other female avant-gardists, such as Stein, often translates into a collectivised critical legacy. Sandeep Parmar suggests that Loy remains vulnerable to critics who lend ‘credibility and glamour to literary reputations by mapping real and imagined artistic constellations, by drawing up bloated lists of like-minded literary allies’. Parmar’s link between ‘artistic constellations’ and ‘bloated lists of like-minded literary allies’ gestures towards the metaphor of literary criticism as a galaxy , canon as constellation. Loy imagines her own metaphorical constellation in part nine of ‘Love Songs’ (1917). The ‘cosmos’ becomes a metaphor for intertextuality in a literary galaxy:
When we lifted
Our eye-lids on Love
Of coloured voices
The same metaphor appears in Loy’s essay ‘Modern Poetry’ (1925) which describes Ezra Pound as the centre of a modern literary constellation: ‘to speak of the modern movement is to speak of him… for without [his] discoveries… this modern movement would still be rather a nebula than the constellation it has become.’
Pound’s view of Loy, however, was not as generous; he saw her as a meagre star in the large constellation of female avant-garde poets, and set a precedent for her critical reception. His first review of Loy’s work adopts the gendered language that she challenges in ‘Love Songs’. When reacting to Marinetti’s distinction between masculine/heroic and feminine/pessimistic types of writing in Il Mare, Pound discusses Mina Loy, one of the three women he mentions by name: 'MINA LOY holds her position in Anglo-American poetry of my decade, perhaps the most spontaneous, perhaps the most original, a bit absent-minded, who sometimes succeeded and sometimes didn’t.'
Peter Nicholls has suggested ‘reciprocal influence at work’ between Pound and Loy, arguing that Pound’s discovery of Loy was pivotal to the development of his own work. Pound included Loy’s ‘The Effectual Marriage’ in his 1932 anthology Profile, which he described as ‘a collection of poems which have stuck in my memory and which may possibly define their epoch’. However, he renamed the poem ‘The Ineffectual Marriage’ in a review section for the magazine Future. This was not Pound’s only alteration. He cut Loy’s original by four fifths, from 125 lines to 25. Pound’s version begins with what was formerly the first line of stanza four: ‘So here we might dispense with her’. His editing dispenses with Loy’s bitter opening, which places Miovanni (based on Giovanni Papini) leaning ‘out of his library window’ and Gina (a stand in for Mina herself ) ‘from the kitchen window / From among his pots and pans / Where he so kindly kept her’. While Miovanni dominates the intellectual space, Gina is confined to the domestic.
These editorial interventions have persisted into modern collections of Loy’s work. In Roger L. Conover’s edition of Loy’s works, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (1996) – a guidebook for travellers – he depicts Loy’s oeuvre as chaotic: ‘invisible texts behind texts, lost spelling behind corrections, secret erasures behind revisions’. He concludes that ‘one can only clean up the site’. Conover’s voice spills over beyond his introduction, becoming integrated with, and indistinguishable from, Loy’s works. He notes that ‘in the absence of authoritative texts for many poems … editorial discretion was required in developing this text’, that he has ‘adopted certain principles’, but ‘applied them flexibly’.
But such editorial interventions do not only appear in the absence of authoritative texts. Loy’s ‘Three Moments in Paris’ (1914) survives in two different versions. Conover copies the text from Rogue, but replicates the spacing from the manuscript, thus creating a new text. While Conover plays with Loy’s spacing, the first poem ‘One O’Clock at Night’ employs a spatial language to describe the relationship between two lovers: ‘sleepily I sat on your chair beside you / Leaning against your shoulder’; ‘Arguing dynamic decomposition / Of which I was understanding nothing’. Conover’s notes outline ‘male posturing, female dependency’, yet these binaries are precisely what the poem challenges. The speaker argues for the ‘dynamic decomposition’ of these binaries; the disintegration of a rigidly gendered spatial landscape where one lover leans dependently on the other.
Conover’s editorial amendments throughout The Last Lunar Baedeker are even more alarming. In this first edition, Conover alters almost every sentence of Loy’s original ‘Feminist Manifesto’. Loy writes with irony:
The advantages of marriage are too ridiculously ample—compared to all other trades—for under modern conditions a woman can accept preposterously luxurious support from a man (with-out return of any sort—even offspring)—as a thank offering for her virginity.
Conover’s version alters the tone of Loy’s argument:
The advantages of marriage are too ridiculously ample compared to all other trades, for under modern conditions a woman can accept preposterously luxurious support from a man without returning anything—even offspring—as an offering of thanks for her virginity.
Conover deletes the dashes which frame Loy’s tongue-in-cheek comparison, ‘compared to all other trades’, thus removing the scepticism towards the ‘advantages of marriage’. In Loy’s original, women marry ‘without return’ from their husbands; in Conover’s version, women marry ‘without returning anything’ to their husbands. The switch from noun to participle (‘return’ to ‘without returning’) diminishes Loy’s irony.
Similarly to the way in which Man Ray’s portraits framed Loy’s identity, Conover’s editorial intrusions frame her critical and poetic legacy. However, such male framing is fading. Since the Beinecke library digitised Loy’s previously unpublished works in 2017, Loy studies have reached new heights. The online collection contains drafts of six unpublished autobiographical novels: three works trace Loy’s childhood in England; another two explore her affairs with Papini and Marinetti. The collection of short stories includes a parody of Papini’s work in ‘Pazarella’, as well as the plays ‘The Pamperers’ and ‘Sacred Prostitute’. Loy’s essay on Joseph Cornell – who framed the second Man Ray portrait – was not published in her lifetime. Titled ‘Phenomenon in American Art’ (1950), the essay compares Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures (1923-40) to Joseph Cornell’s Aviary series (c 1940-50). Musing on Brancusi’s bird, Loy questions: ‘Is not the serial content of a bird partly of the sky?’ In previous decades, Loy’s flight through the literary galaxy was lost amongst her contemporaries. But, as Loy herself suggests, we must recognise how a subject is defined by its wider context. Only then will Loy become more than a small bird amidst the expansive sky.
KATIE MEYNELL is a recent English graduate from Trinity College, Oxford. She is an aspiring writer, working at Culture Whisper and Frieze London.
Art by Anna Covell