February 5, 2019KR BlogEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

Mina Loy’s Poetics of Rupture & Resistance: A Retrospective

Grammar as Causation and Ideology

During her lifetime, Mina Loy was active as a painter, actress, writer, poet, and proponent of the decorative arts. Although working across genres and mediums, she is most frequently recognized among scholars of Modernism for her poetry and its provocative conflation of the sublime and the grotesque. In his essay, “Mina Loy’s Deconstructions of Modernity,” Grzegorz Czemiel writes that Loy brings to poetry “a greater sense of the range of life and its possibilities, an awareness of the grotesque, of carnival, and of anger, sensuality, and sexuality.”[1] Many scholars have offered similar readings of her poems, among them Peter Quartermain, Rachael Blau DuPlessis, and Eric Murphy Selinger.[2] While Loy’s representations of the physical body, as well as her depictions of female sexuality, are certainly groundbreaking, this intense focus on thematic concerns within the poems has often lead scholars to overlook the stylistic nuances of her body of work.

Throughout The Lost Lunar Baedecker especially, readers encounter what look like familiar grammatical structures. The text is populated by subject-verb-object constructions, which evoke a very particular definition of logic, reason, and intelligibility. As Noam Chomsky explains, subject-verb-object constructions imply a specific kind of causal relationship, as they have the “‘structural meaning’ actor-action.”[3] In other words, this syntax delineates a set of relationships, particularly an active subject and a passive object, which is acted upon. Although often presented within the confines of these familiar linguistic constructions, Loy’s poems unsettle the self/other and active/passive binary distinctions that are implied within grammar. Consider “Moreover, the Moon—,”

Face of the
skies
preside
over our wonder.

Fluorescent
truant of heaven
draw us
under.[4]

Loy’s subversion of grammar in this piece is twofold. First, one should note her use of enjambment to rupture the syntactic unit, as the poetic line exists in tension with the sentence. Her isolation of the word “preside” on its own enjambed line is one noteworthy example of this. With that in mind, Loy subtly questions the primacy of the sentence as the primary unit for creating meaning, offering other possibilities for organizing and structuring language. Even more importantly, she appropriates the familiar subject-verb-object construction for these subversive ends. Within these seemingly well-ordered sentences, the reader encounters a provocative fragmentation of meaning. Words no longer signify what we think they should, nor do they retain the same relationships to other signifiers. Her use of the adjective “Fluorescent” in a discussion of “heaven,” for instance, suggests a breakdown of social, aesthetic, and metaphysical categories.

It is no coincidence, then, that Loy maintained a lifelong friendship with Gertrude Stein, whose earliest salons she attended in Paris.[5] Like Stein, Loy remained preoccupied with the ways that grammar shapes, and circumscribes what is possible within, conscious experience.[6] As Loy herself writes in her 1914 aesthetic treatise, “Aphorisms on Futurism,” “The mind is a magician bound by assimilations; let him loose and the smallest idea conceived in freedom will suffice to negate the wisdom of all forefathers.”[7] Grammar, then, is one of many “assimilations” required by culture that impose limits on thought, creativity, and artistic expression. While somewhat reminiscent of Stein’s “Grammar,” Loy politicizes grammar in a way that Stein does not, particularly as her large-scale social criticisms and her writing became inextricable. As Amanda J. Bradley argues, Loy’s second husband, Arthur Cravan, a poet and revolutionary active in the Surrealist and Dadaist circles, in effect transformed her worldview, particularly as he brought her into contact with a host of other leftist activists, draft dodgers, and expatriates.[8] Indeed, his influence extended well beyond her particular brand of feminism, also encompassing her approach to language.

In this respect, it is Loy’s presentation of purportedly grotesque imagery within these familiar subject-verb-object constructions that is most provocative. Loy’s fixation on the grotesque suggests the consequences of a restricted lexicon, an uncritical mind, and an unwillingness to challenge received approaches to creating, defining, and communicating meaning. These stylistic choices ultimately reflect Loy’s enduring interest in self-realization and democracy. She argues for a linguistic structure that allows for constant revision, by the poet herself and society at large, that does not limit what is possible within the subject’s conscious experience. Which is to say, Loy’s radical politics, and the philosophical influences that came to her through her marriage to Cravan and her friendship with Stein, manifest in her smallest stylistic choices. Loy’s use of subject-verb-object constructions to present subversive, deeply unsettling content may be read as an extension of her readings in Freud, as well as texts derived from the many social reform movements of the early twentieth century. Loy attempts to build the ideal society from its very foundations: the structures of language itself.

 

Loy and Stein: Inferences, Intersections

Mina Loy, although born and raised in London, spent several years in Florence during and after a failed first marriage.[9] Her time in Florence in the early 1910s especially proved to be key for her development as a poet.   As Carol Burke notes in her definitive biography, Becoming Modern, Loy befriended a host of literary and artistic luminaries, including Gertrude Stein, John Reed, Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Brancusi, Peggy Guggenheim, Tristan Tzara, Natalie Barney, Ford Madox Ford, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, among many others.[10] With that said, it was Loy’s lifelong friendship with Gertrude Stein that would expose her to new forms of writing, as well as a wide range of philosophical influences. Burke rightly notes that Stein’s influence would “turn her sights toward the New World and inspire her to write,” also noting that this was when she began to “read Freud, Bergson, and other pioneers in New Thought.”[11] Burke’s discussion of Loy’s time in Florence is useful for understanding the role that new developments in philosophy played in early Modernist literary circles. It was not uncommon for figures like Freud and Bergson to illuminate discussions of contemporary literature, their provocative arguments conveyed through a vast network of literary artists.

With that in mind, these philosophical conversations often underwent substantial revisions as they were recounted within literary circles. Burke correctly reminds us of the ways that contemporary continental thought blended with occult influences in Loy’s creative practice, which seems, in some ways, reminiscent of H.D.’s conflation of mysticism, Egyptology, and Freudian thought.[12] The most provocative of Loy’s revisions to the philosophical texts that came to her through her friendship with Stein, however, was her politicization of Freud’s theories of language, consciousness, and sexuality. As Cary Nelson points out in Repression and Recovery, “Her intricate debunkings of English upper-middle class culture link the impoverished ideals of empire with an imperial self whose sexuality is an attenuated caricature.”[13] Nelson rightly underscores the fact that, for Loy, questions of sexuality remained intricately connected to both larger political structures and the rhetoric surrounding them. For Loy, they were all part of a larger cultural mechanism, and therefore, it would prove impossible to separate one from the others.

These ideas come across quite visibly in Loy’s 1915 contribution to Others, a small magazine of innovative literature. Consider the opening lines,

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[14]

Here Loy engages (and revises) Freud’s seminal texts on sexuality and repression, which had appeared, and continued to appear, as Loy wrote. Indeed, such essays as “The Unconscious,” and “Repression” were printed in that same year, with “Family Romances” and The Interpretation of Dreams published well beforehand.[15] Freud’s belief that, as Elizabeth Young-Iruehl adeptly summarizes, “repression turns girls toward femininity,” clearly permeates the imagery in this piece.[16] By juxtaposing the vestiges of a fairy tale (“Once upon a time”) with images of burial and excavation (for instance, the mention of “silting, as well as the pig’s “rosy snout/rooting” and the “wild oats   sown in mucous-membrane”), Loy evokes not necessarily an ideal female sexuality, but a more authentic one, that has been fully submerged by the machinery of culture.

Loy shows, however, us that these concerns remain inseparable from questions of language, grammar, and power. As Susan Wintsch Churchill notes, “Her poems manipulate grammar, syntax, punctuation, and layout, working to dismantle linguistic, psychic, and architectural structures that confine the self, enforce gender limitations, and restrict female sexuality.”[17] Churchill rightly reminds us that the smallest stylistic choices are often politically charged. In the poem cited above, the stakes of Loy’s critique are heightened by her innovative approach to syntax. First, given the poem’s unpunctuated presentation, the sentence is no longer the primary unit of meaning. This choice seems especially provocative, as Loy suggests that a dismantling of the “erotic garbage” that populates culture could not be conveyed within the confines of traditional grammatical constructions. Indeed, such a critique would remain complicit with the hierarchies and assumptions contained within language, the binary subject/object, active/passive distinctions that grammar so frequently presupposes.

It is these very assumptions that Loy challenges by eschewing traditional grammatical structures. By leaving the work unpunctuated, Loy allows individual clauses to carry multiple valances within the poem, rather than maintaining a single clear-cut relationship to another piece of language. For example, the found language within the poem (“Once upon a time”) could be read as both an interruption and an unconventional “subject” within a seemingly familiar subject-verb-object construction (“‘Once upon a time’/pulls a weed”). In this respect, Loy’s experiments with syntax suggest that repression, and the subsequent reification of monogamy, are present within the very rules of grammar itself (e.g., the assumption that a given clause must retain a single clear-cut relationship to other pieces of language within the work). Loy’s purposefully ambiguous and multi-valenced subject-verb-object constructions enact and represent the liberated female sexuality for which she advocated. Loy ultimately implies that in order to create a new social order, a new cultural consciousness, and a new construction of female sexuality within the collective imagination, one must start by re-envisioning language itself.

In this respect, Stein’s influence is visible, but with some crucial differences. Just as Stein shows us that grammar constitutes the very foundations of the social order, Loy suggests that social and political change begins with the rules of language. As Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller explain, “Both Stein and Loy understand patriarchal psychological, economic, and sexual practices as impinging directly on women’s creativity […].”[18] What distinguishes Loy’s work, however, is her intense focus on the grotesque, and its place within the domestic microcosm that so interested Stein. These differences are especially visible in the fourth section of Love Songs, which appeared two years after the 1915 publication of the opening sequence in Others. She writes, for instance,

The starry ceiling
Vaulted an unimaginable family
Bird-like abortions
With human throats
And Wisdom’s eyes
Wore lamp-shade red dresses
And woolen hair[19]

Here Loy, in true Steinian fashion, unsettles the very foundations of language, challenging the implicit logic embedded within grammar from inside of these received linguistic structures. She offers seemingly deductive subject-verb-object constructions, which conjure a vast host of readerly expectations: a causal relationship, a linear progression from one idea to the next, and a sense of resolution. Rather than remaining complicit with these preconceived ideas about how language ought to behave, Loy presents a series of impossible causal relationship by personifying wisdom, for example, and humanizing birds. While reminiscent of Tender Buttons and its subversion of grammar, and consequently, the social order, from within, Loy takes Stein’s interrogation of grammar a step further, suggesting the violence inherent in restricting thought, conscious experience, and our lexicons through the imposition of these grammatical conventions. By presenting “bird-like abortions,” for instance, within the confines of these orderly linguistic arrangements, Loy forges a connection between the physical body, sexuality, language, and the larger structures of power and authority govern them.

For Loy, restricting language also circumscribes what is possible within one’s experience of the body. In this respect, Judith Butler’s later feminist responses to Freud and Lacan, particularly Bodies that Matter provide a useful lens for reading Loy’s work, most notably as she argues that the body itself is discursively constructed. Butler elaborates,

Paradoxically, the inquiry into the kinds of erasures and exclusions by which by which the construction of the subject operates is no longer constructivism, nor is it essentialism. For there is an “outside” to what is constructed by discourse, but this is not an absolute “outside,” an ontological thereness which counters the boundaries of discourse; as a constitutive “outside,” it is that which can only be thought, when it can, in relation to that discourse, at and as its most tenuous borders.[20]

Thus one might read Loy’s Love Songs as an attempt to widen the boundaries of discourse, allowing them to encompass alternative definitions of logic, identity, and sexuality. At the same time, Loy renders us suddenly aware that there is a boundary to discourse, and possibilities outside of it, rather than simply allowing the reader to accept discourse and its limits as a given.

In short, Loy’s years in Florence proved to formative for her development as a poet, as they represented a confluences of literary and philosophical influences, which ultimately crystallized in her early work, Loves Songs. Her friendship with Stein, and the texts to which she was exposed during these years, would serve as a foundation for her involvement with the Futurist movement, as well as her later activism, all of which would become inextricably linked over the course of her lifetime.

 

Early Twentieth Century Avant-Garde Communities and the Dissemination of Knowledge 

While Stein exerted a considerable influence over Loy’s work, one cannot overstate the importance of early twentieth century avant-garde communities in Loy’s development as an artist, poet, and activist. As Amanda J. Bradley observes, “She was at home in the futurist circles in Florence; the Arsenberg circle in New York, the Salon d’Autumne, Gertrude Stein’s, and Natalie Barney’s circles in Paris.”[21] Loy’s time in Europe proved especially formative in this respect, as she was exposed to a variety of influences that would later coalesce into her distinctive aesthetic. While some scholars have characterized her relationships to these avant-garde movements as mere “flirtations,” even going so far as to describe her career as “brief, discontinuous, and even unfaithful,” one must remember that Loy did not subscribe wholeheartedly to any one avant-garde movement, but rather, moved fluidly among them.[22] Elisabeth Frost notes that Loy not only “cast herself…as an ethnic mongrel but as a hybrid of male and female traits” and as an amalgamation in terms of her literary identity as well.[23] In many ways, it is this collaging of, and subsequent revision of, the literary and philosophical approaches of her day that accounts, at least in part, for Loy’s innovation. After all, as Roger Conover states, her goal “was simply to become the most original woman of her generation.”[24]

Futurism proved transformative for Loy and her thinking about the subject’s relationship to language, sexuality, and culture. During her years in Florence, which have already been noted as crucial due to Stein’s influence and her initial exposure to Freudian thought, Loy also maintained a complex, ambiguous, and fraught relationship to Futurism. As Rosalind Fursland notes in her article “Back to the Futurism,” Loy’s introduction to Futurism through Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his aggressive promotion of the new artistic movement coincided temporally with her early encounters with Freudian thought.[25] In many ways, the two doctrines would prove to be complimentary, particularly as Loy considered the relationship between grammar and consciousness. Given the content of Marinetti’s early manifestoes, one can see how the movement would seem attractive to Loy as she worked to interrogate, and expand what is possible within, the confines of grammar. Marinetti writes, for instance, in “The Destruction of Syntax,”

He will begin by brutally destroying the syntax of his speech. He wastes no time in building sentences. Punctuation and the right adjectives will mean nothing to him. He will despise subtleties and nuances of language. Breathlessly he will assault your nerves with visual, olfactory sensations, just as they come to him. The rush of steam-emotion will burst the sentence’s steampipe, the valves of punctuation, and the adjectival clamp.[26]

Although one might simply read this passage as arguing for a destruction of the old to make way for the new, Marinetti is making much more ambitious claims about the relationship between grammar, syntax, and the subject’s consciousness. For Marinetti, the immediacy of sensory experience, that “assault to the nerves with visual, olfactory sensations,” is lost when it is mediated by grammar, as the rules of language impose a semblance of order, which Marinetti presents as being just as artificial as it is stifling. While Loy’s poetry certainly exhibits a keen interest in conveying the immediacy of sensory experience, she remained intrigued by what possibilities reside beneath grammar’s semblance of order, “the adjectival clamp” that Marinetti so colorfully describes.

During her years in Florence, one sees Futurism intersect with Freudian thought, particularly as she considered the myriad ways that grammar limits, and circumscribes what is possible within, the subject’s consciousness. Futurism gave Loy the some of the stylistic resources needed to engage Freud’s ambitious, often abstract, claims on the sentence level.   As Jacqueline Vaught Brogan notes in Part of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry, Futurism exposed Loy to a presentation of language that was no longer guided by conventional syntax and the causal relationships that it often implies. Brogan explains that much of Loy’s work from this time engages the page as a visual field, exploring the “texture and typography of words through the unexpected use of capitals and italics,” as well as their placement on the page itself.[27] This interest in language as visual, tactile and embodied come through clearly in Loy’s poems from this period, as well as her prose. One might read this engagement with the visual presentation of work on the page as an effort to circumvent the gender politics, and seemingly infinite hierarchies, contained within conventional grammar. Indeed, one observes Loy drawing upon the visual qualities of text, its materiality, as she seeks to widen the boundaries of discourse and, in turn, consciousness itself.

Consider “Italian Pictures,”

Oranges half-rotten are sold at a reduction
Horsely 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[28]

Loy’s use of majesculation suggests that fragments of language, and not the sentence or even a complete clause, can function as a self-contained unit. Even more importantly, she utilizes capital letters to mirror the speaker’s experience as she is bombarded with advertisements and other cultural detritus. Here one sees the confluence of Stein, Marinetti, and their respective influences. Just as Stein offers us an experience of language as tactile and embodied, Loy’s use of typography allows the reader an unmediated experience of the street scene, and its advertisements, that is being portrayed. One could easily read the “imitation mirror,” with its artifice and promises of verisimilitude, as the received structures of language itself, which Loy has provocatively circumvented. The mention of religion (“Mary preserve our mistresses…”) suggests that like language itself, the ideologies that circulate within culture have made possible only a heavily mediated experience of the world, the physical body, and the creative imagination. Indeed, Loy’s scorn for ideology, and the repression and mediation that it produces, remains inextricable from the very form of the poem itself. It is Marinetti’s groundbreaking manifestos that make possible this destruction of grammar, and its implicit ideologies, through the fragmentation of received linguistic structures.
As Loy herself writes in “Aphorisms on Futurism,”

TODAY is the crisis in consciousness.

CONSCIOUSNESS cannot spontaneously accept or reject new forms, as offered by creative genius; it is the new form, for however great a period of time it may remain a mere irritant—that molds consciousness to the necessary amplitude for holding it.

CONSCIOUSNESS has no climax.[29]

Here one sees a similarly unconventional use of capitalization and typography as in the last text quoted. These subtle technical choices ultimately heighten the effects of anaphora and repetition. As befits the visual nature of the work, Loy’s piece would later appear in Camera Work, a quarterly publication of photography.[30] Susan Wintsch Churchill rightly compares the visual techniques in Loy’s manifesto to a “self-emancipated process of spatial expansion,” in which Loy considers the relation of the mind to the “traditional spaces we inhabit.” For Loy, the process of spatial expansion proves both “difficult” and “violent” as the subject breaks from the confines of these traditional spaces, whether they be rhetorical, domestic, psychic, or ideological.[31] As much as Loy draws from Marinetti’s writings on style, she substantially revises them, presenting a vision of Futurism that takes into account the myriad ways that domestic spaces, as much as rhetorical or ideological ones, stifle the creative imagination. In many ways, Loy’s exposure to Freudian thought, and its confluence with the stylistic innovations of Futurism, would set the stage for her later work, in which language, activism, and a desire for social justice became even more inextricably linked.

Arthur Cravan: The Politicization of Language, Grammar, and Domestic Spaces

By 1913, Loy was balancing a failed first marriage, motherhood, and her own artistic ambitions, leaving Europe for New York in 1916. She would meet her second husband, Arthur Cravan, when he arrived in New York the following year. In their biographical study, Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia S. Smyers describe his personal history and reputation, “Born Fabien Avernarius Lloyd in 1887, Cravan was a nephew of Oscar Wilde’s wife Constance Lloyd. Known as the ‘poet-boxer,’ he was a ‘fugitive, forger, and master of disguise who had eluded military authorities and conscription officers for two years as he roamed through Central and Western Europe.'”[32] Hanscombe and Smyers’ description, though colorful, remains incomplete. As Lawrence Rainey notes, Cravan was also a known draft-dodger, and to avoid enlisting, fled to Mexico, where he married Loy in 1918.[33] It was Cravan’s activism, and involvement within Dadaist and Futurist circles, however, that would prove to be most generative for Loy’s work. Although Cravan disappeared mysteriously soon after marrying Loy in Mexico City, his influence on her writing would remain undoubtedly lifelong.[34]

Her poems became a recurring site of engagement for the questions surrounding art, politics, and sexuality that surfaced during these formative years. Amanda J. Bradley notes that it was through Cravan that Loy was exposed to the writings surrounding a variety of contemporary social movements, which ranged from “feminists and social purists to eugenicists and the more democratically minded […]”[35] During this time, Loy’s early interest in Freud, and how his beliefs about consciousness, language, and sexuality could be negotiated within her feminist avante-garde practice, would become even more of a political concern, inextricable from large-scale social reforms.

During this time, Loy continued to engage these ideas in the form of manifestoes, one of the favored forms of the Dadaist and Futurist movements. In “Psycho-Democracy,” which appeared in The Little Review in 1921, Loy calls for humanity to “move away from all fixed concepts in order to advance,” and more specifically, to establish “government by the creative imagination.”[36] Here Cravan’s influence comes through most visibly, but one also sees his thinking intersect with Loy’s early readings in Freud. Consider this passage, “The aesthetic contour of a race is formed by its habits. Man’s evolution through his circumstances has resulted in his point of view.”[37] One hears echoes of Freud in passages like this one, situated in a novel sociopolitical context. As Frank Cioffi writes,

There are […] habits of mind which it is natural to refer to Freud. One is the tendency to see a large segment of human life as comprising the pursuit of ends of which the agent has no cognizance, even to the point of seeing as instances of purposive activity what would have formerly been considered happenings and of redrawing the customary boundary between what we undertake and what we undergo. Another, the pursuit of hidden meanings, the readiness to see a wide range of phenomena, from dreams, errors, and the symptoms of neurotics to works of art and the anonymous productions of culture—like legend the notion ofand myth—as the distorted manifestation or symbolic gratification of unconscious impulses.[38]

Cioffi’s adept summary of Freud’s seminal writings is especially useful for understanding Loy’s ambivalence toward formal structures of government in “Psycho-Democracy.” For instance, the notion of the agent who engages in means, yet “has no cognizance” of ends, clearly informs Loy’s description of humanity as being led mostly by certain “habits of mind,” which precede the individual agent and remain inextricable from the larger machinery of culture. In manifestoes like this one, Loy is not seeking to create new habits of mind, but rather, to promote self-awareness through introspection and the “creative imagination.”

Loy’s poetry from this period reads as an enactment of these ideals, both thematically and stylistically, as she considers the role of language and creativity within a democracy on the level of her smallest stylistic choices. Consider “O Hell,” a poem composed in 1919 and published in Contact the following year,

To clear the drifts of spring
Of our forbear’s excrements
And bury the subconscious archives

Under unaffected flowers

Indeed—

Our person is covered entrance to infinity
Choked with the tatters of tradition[39]

Loy’s provocatively draws a comparison between Freud’s notion of the “subconscious” and an archive, suggesting that the mind is populated by vestiges of the various cultural ephemera that we encounter. In some ways, this passage evokes Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he compares the mind to a text, populated by recurring imagistic motifs, which are frequently borrowed from literary and cultural texts.[40] With that in mind, Loy’s decision to majesculate these lines of verse implies that each line is self-contained, the text of the poem (and the speaker’s mind) an amalgamation of the borrowed cultural symbols, myths, and images that she has encountered. For example, the “tatters of tradition” appear alongside vestiges of the very tradition that is being critiqued, particularly the “unaffected flowers,” which seem more conventionally poetic than other language within the poem. Passages like this one evoke the same sentiments as “Psycho-Democracy,” offering a vision of culture populated by subjects who essentially lack self-awareness, or any awareness of the origins, or implications, of the cultural detritus that populates their minds.

At the same time, one might read this poem as proposing alternative possibilities for culture, particularly in its final lines. Loy writes, “Goddesses and Young Gods/Caress the sanctity of Adolescence/In the shaft of the sun.”[41] Unlike the previous lines of the piece, which are replete with imagery of burial, the end of the poem evokes the idea of excavation—of personal identity in its most formative stages (“the sanctity of Adolescence,” repressed sexuality, and a more authentic state of being (which seems apparent in the imagery of nature, “the sun,” etc.). For Loy, the burial of these ideas within the depths of a consciousness remains inextricable from the policing of language. By dismantling the sentence as the primary unit of creating meaning and coherence, offering self-contained fragments which do not strive for completeness   or intelligibility in the traditional sense, she suggests that such excavation is possible. As Suzanne Winsch Churchill rightly states, “Loy presents New York as a portal to the unfolding of personal identity, one that removes the choking ‘tatters of tradition.'”[42] While Churchill reads the poem as specifically evoking New York, the piece could also be more broadly construed as an argument for the crucial role of the creative imagination in creating a liberated consciousness for the subject and the ideal society.
Other poems from this period present similar claims about the relationship between language, consciousness, sexuality, and larger structures of power and authority. She writes, for instance in “Perlun,”

The education of “Prince Fils á Papa”
How men lie
How women love—
The rituals of Dempsey and Carpentier

PERLUN
asks “Do the flappers of the
millionaires
think I’m a doll for anyone to
pat?”[43]

Here Loy continues to present gender as a social construct, one that is surrounded by a vast mythology, and that precedes the subject. By underscoring the vastly different “education” that men and women receive within culture, Loy calls our attention to the ways that gender is learned, and can be unlearned. Passages like this one may certainly be read as a revision of Freud’s thinking, in which unchangeable facts about the physical body ultimately determine the way gender is constituted in the cultural imagination. As Sander L. Gilman observes in Freud, Race, and Gender, “What was real in the biological sense of nineteenth century was what was of the body, not what was inscribed on the body.”[44] Indeed, Freud’s work represents the intersection of essentialism and constructivism. Loy shows us that what is real, however, is what is inscribed onto the body, particularly as Perlum resists culture’s attempts to interpret and dictate what sex means in terms of gender. Much like her work in “O Hell,” Loy’s “Perlun” imbues the individual with greater agency than we see in much of Freud’s writing. One should also note that in Loy’s presentation, the individual does not partake in psychoanalysis as a cultural institution, but rather, attains self-awareness through the creative imagination.

When considering “Perlun,” though, one must not overlook the other similarities to “O Hell.” First, the early lines of the poem describe Perlun as “the whipper snapper child of the sun,” making a similar gesture toward a more authentic state of being, which becomes buried in the shared narratives, symbols, and mythologies of culture (particularly the “education” that the speaker mentions in those later lines). As Loy undoes this vast webs of collective narratives about gender and identity, she makes comparable use of small technical choices to convey ambitious philosophical claims. In the lines cited previously, Loy utilizes the page as a visual field, unsettling our preconceived ideas about how lines of poetry ought to be arranged. The sentence is no longer the primary unit for creating meaning, nor are the individual clauses or syntactic units, as Loy enjambs many of the lines mid-clause. By breaking the line after “the,” for instance, and after “to,” she subtly suggests that when dismantling these shared narratives, mythologies, and symbols that circulate within culture, one must begin with the very foundations of the language that is used to disseminate them.   As Peter Quartermain notes,

The subversiveness of Loy’s syntax is liberating, for it denies both linearity and hierarchies of the sort found in the conventional English sentence; frequently, what she writes does not ‘make sense’ in ordinary terms, and her language, as Fanny Howe observes of what she calls poetic language, transforms the state of being lost into that of being free, by making judgment on judgment itself.[45]

One may even take Quartermain’s argument a step further and say that Loy offers a critique of language itself, and the hierarchies, judgments and assumptions that are implicit within its structures, without finding herself complicit with these values. While Loy’s work remains provocative in its thematic content, these daring claims about gender, identity, and sexuality are heightened by Loy’s stylistic innovations, which frequently bridge the gap from mere critique to an even more revolutionary presentation of new possibilities for inhabiting (and interrogating) language.

 

Reason, Grammar, and Sexual Difference 

In 1922, Scofield Thayer arranged for Loy to meet with Sigmund Freud in Vienna.[46] This meeting came on the heels of Loy’s conversations about Freudian thought in the Walter Aresburg apartment in New York, as well as her sessions with Roberto Assagioli, one of Freud’s many young adherents.[47] According to Sarah Crangle, the editor of Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, Loy’s meeting with Freud was brief, and consisted of Loy sketching Freud and giving him a copy of her story, “Hush Money,” which would remain fragmented and incomplete.[48] Although such a meeting in its own rite proves little about Loy’s relationship to psychoanalysis, Crangle’s description proves revealing for several reasons.

Crangle’s account is consistent with such earlier poems as “Perlun,” in which psychoanalysis serves as a tool for critiquing grammar and it’s limiting effect on the imagination, but also the subject of critique. In much the same way that the speaker in “Perlun” serves as both analyst and analysand, offering a more democratic model of psychoanalysis, one that is exempted from hierarchies and power structures, Loy herself blurs the roles that analyst and analysand inhabit. Her story makes psychoanalysis as a cultural institution the subject of investigation, just as she reverses the gaze usually inherent in psychoanalytic practice by sketching Freud, rendering him both subject and object, viewer and viewed. Like “Perlun” and other earlier pieces, Loy’s poems from the early 1920s suggest a breakdown of boundaries between subject and object, as well as a fragmentation of the conceptual infrastructure imposed by grammar. For Loy, psychoanalysis had been, in some ways, caught up in cultural machinery produced by grammar and its discontents.

As Loy challenged and dismantled the various limitations imposed upon the imagination, in true Futurist form, one observes her constant search for a viable alternative, a syntax that would also allow for shared knowledge, exchange, and community. Indeed, Loy tested and interrogated the various frameworks set forth by her contemporaries, offering concise and biting assessments of their efforts to re-envision literary tradition and the conventional grammar that confines it. More importantly, Loy assessed and weighed the possibilities (and impossibilities) afforded by each for consciousness, and in turn, the creative imagination.
Consider “Gertrude Stein,”

Curie
of the laboratory
of vocabulary
she crushed

the tonnage
of consciousness
congealed to phrases
to extract
the radium of the word[49]

Loy utilizes many classic Steinian devices, particularly repetition (which proves most visible in her use of anaphora, repeating “of” three times in quick succession), as well as her engagement with the sonic qualities of language through alliteration, assonance, and consonance. Even more revealing, though, are Loy’s adjectives. By describing consciousness as being “crushed” in order to extract “radium,” Loy evokes the myriad ways that imagination and its possibilities become buried in the detritus of culture, the various myths, symbols, and narratives that circulate and eventually populate the mind itself. By ending the poem with the word “word,” which has been excavated over the course of the narrative, Loy gestures at the ways culture also obscures the tactile sensory embodied qualities of language. Her presentation of these sonically charged fragments within a more conventional narrative structure than one sees in Tender Buttons is also notable, as Loy strives to negotiate freedom from received structures of thinking with the necessity of community, shared knowledge, and intelligibility.

Loy’s question of balancing autonomy with community also surfaces in “Nancy Cunard.” She writes, for instance,

Your lone fragility

of mythological queens

conjures long-vanished dragons—

—their vast jaws

yawning in disillusion,

Your drifting hands

faint as exotic snow

spread silver silence

as a fondant nun
framed in the facing profiles
of Princess Murat
and George Moore[50]

 

Much like “Gertrude Stein,” “Nancy Cunard” negotiates experimental forms with more conventional narrative and syntactic structures.   Unlike Loy’s earlier work, neither poem makes use of majesculation, a subtle choice that prove revealing, as fragments are no longer presented as self-contained units. Rather, phrases like “as a fondant nun” and “faint as exotic snow” remain dependent (grammatically at least) upon the surrounding clauses for meaning, however multi-valenced and complex.

Additionally, one cannot help but note Loy’s persistent return to female figures of the avant-garde, testing and assessing the various possibilities presented for a uniquely female experience of language. This interest in how sexual difference informs one’s relationship to received grammatical structures, in many ways, drives Loy’s disruption of conventional syntax. As Linda A. Kinnahan notes in Poetics of the Feminine,

Although a disruption and indeterminacy of syntax certainly characterize experimental works by male writers, Fraser ties her language strategies to a female identity and particularly a female experience with language. Visualizing, in the structure of the sentence or the narrative, ‘that marginal and unspoken region [contemporary women poets] claim as difference,’ Fraser conveys the ‘resistance’ that she calls ‘the ongoing condition-of-being’ for most women poets.[51]

 

Kinnehan’s discussion of common language strategies in feminist poetry proves useful for thinking about Loy’s work for several reasons. As Kinnahan aptly notes, Loy shares a keen interest in not necessarily dismantling existing grammatical structures, but finding a way to inhabit them that does not render one complicit with the hierarchies, judgments, and assumptions so frequently embedded within grammar. Indeed, this uniquely female way of inhabiting language, in which “resistance” remains an “ongoing condition of being,” resonates with Loy’s depictions of women of the avant-garde, whose presentation, for Loy, remains inextricable from a rhetoric of both opposition and commonality. This ambivalence seems most visible in lines like “Your lone fragility,” which evokes both resistance and interdependence, isolation and a need for community, as well as in Loy’s in most minute stylistic choices. Lines are not majesculated, suggesting the promise of continuity and narrative cohesion, but at the same time, readers find within this semblance of neatly constructed sentences and clauses a provocative fragmentation of meaning.

It is this commitment to working within received grammatical structures, if only to expand what is possible within them, that makes it easy to situate Loy within a constellation of female writers that includes figures like Stein and Cunard. At the same time, Loy draws a parallel between the boundaries of discourse and the limits of conscious experience, which, in many ways, distinguishes her from these other female figures. While Stein undoubtedly explored the relationship between grammar and consciousness, one should note that Loy’s presentation of Stein in “Gertrude Stein” remains markedly apolitical. The comparison of words to “radium” and other chemical elements and this metaphor certainly evokes objectivity, even a sense of clinical detachment. This politicization of the boundaries of discourse, how they are drawn, and who draws them, is perhaps what Loy seems to add to the existing conversation, as it also represents a politicization of conscious experience and what is possible (or impossible) within it.

In a much later poem, “An Aged Woman,” which is dated 1984, language appears as something that wholly subject to change, and ongoing revision by its constituent users, and so too memory, history, and sexuality become changeable. She writes,

The past has come apart

events are vagueing

the future is inexploitable

 

the present                   pain.

 

Not even pain that has precision

with which it is struck in youth-time

 

More like moth

eroding internal organs

hanging or falling down

in a spoiled corset […][52]

Here Loy’s choice of a marginal figure, the “aged woman” already situates the readers at the very edge of the social order, and consequently, the boundaries of discourse. In this respect, Loy prompts us to consider Freud’s metaphor of the mind as text, populated by the recurrent language, motifs, and narratives we encounter, and the structures imposed upon language, as having deeply political implications. For Loy, the social order, like conscious experience, is discursively constructed, and so too, it is subject to revision. In much the same way as the “past comes apart,” the grammatical structures that govern language, those familiar subject-verb-object constructions, are unmade as the poem unfolds. Loy presents us with clauses that drift in and out of orderly sentences, as punctuation appears and disappears throughout the piece. Consider Loy’s placement of a period after “pain,” which seems at first dissonant with the lyric fragments that comprise the other quoted lines. For Loy, grammar offers us a framework that allows for shared culture, narrative, and exchange, but it is a structure that should be persistently interrogated, revised, and made more inclusive.

 

Conclusion

In short, Mina Loy’s work has attracted increasing attention among scholars of Modernism in recent years due to her provocative conflation of the sublime and the grotesque. Yet such thematic readings of Loy’s work overlook many of the stylistic nuances of the poems, and even more importantly, their sociopolitical implications. Loy frequently utilizes familiar grammatical structures, particularly subject-verb-object constructions, and in this respect, her work may not seem, at first glance, to politicize grammar and its underlying discontents. With that said, Loy subtly and persistently interrogates the logic, causal relationships, and binary distinctions that grammar nearly always presupposes, working within the rules of langauge to expand what is possible within them.

For Loy, this notion of rendering grammar more inclusive, encompassing myriad definitions of logic, reason, and coherence, remained at once deeply personal and intricately connected to the larger social order. It was her extensive readings in Freud, as well as texts derived from the many social reform movements of the early twentieth century, that allowed her to see the connection between grammar and what is possible within consciousness, grammar and what the social order will or will not accept. Loy presents us with a social order in which grammar is the very foundation, structuring and determining what is possible within our thinking, and in turn, the world at large.

Like many of her female contemporaries, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and Nancy Cunard being prime examples, Loy does not discard grammar and the arguably masculine definition of reason and logic that it presents. Rather, she recognizes the value of grammar for enabling community, dialogue, and shared experience, yet works within its confines to re-imagine it not as an absolute, but as a beginning and a multiplicity.

 

[1] Grzegorz Czemiel, “Mina Loy’s Deconstructions of Modernitiy,” Redefining Kitsch and Camp in Literature and Culture, Ed. Justyna Stepien (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2004), 96.

[2] See Mina Loy: Woman and Poet edited by Maeera Schreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998), particularly Peter Quartermain’s “‘The Tattle of Tongueplay’: Mina Loy’s Love Songs” pages 75-85; Erin Murphy Selinger’s “Love in the Time of Melancholia,” pages 19-43; and Rachel Blau Duplessis’ “‘Seismic Orgasm’: Sexual Intercourse and Narrative Meaning in Mina Loy,” pages 45-74.

[3] Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), 94.

[4] Mina Loy, “Moreover the Moon—”. The Academy of American Poets. 5 August 2015. <http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/moreover-moon>

[5] Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia S. Smyers, Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Women, 1910-1940 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), 112-128.

[6] Carol Burke, Becoming Modern (New York: Macmillan, 1996), 213-214.

[7] Mina Loy, “Aphorisms on Futurism,” The Poetry Foundation. 5 August 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237878>

[8] Amanda J. Bradley, Extravagent Poetic, Exaggerated Life. Proquest. 5 August 2015. Page 43.

[9] Megan Simpson, Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women’s Language-Oriented Writing (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), 200.

[10] Carol Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 1996), 2.

[11] Ibid, 249.

[12] Ibid, 250.

[13] Cary Nelson, Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 73.

[14] Mina Loy. “Songs to Johannes.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 75.

[15] See Alexander Grinstein, Sigmund Freud’s Writings: A Comprehensive Bibliography (New York: International Universities Press, 1977).

[16] Sigmund Freud, Freud on Women: A Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Young-Iruehl. (W. W. Norton and Company, 1992), 22.

[17] Suzanne Wintsch Churchill, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry (New York: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 181.

[18] Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. “Feminist Approaches to Poetry.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Eds. Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, Paul F. Rouzer, Harris Feinsod, David Marno, and Alexandra Slessarev. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 481.

[19] Mina Loy. “Songs to Johannes.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 76.

[20] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[21] Amanda J. Bradley, Extravagent Poetic, Exaggerated Life. Proquest. 5 August 2015. Page 3.

[22] Sandeep Parmar, Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 14.

[23] Elisabeth A. Frost, The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), 32.

[24] Natalya Lusty, “Sexing the Manifesto: Mina Loy, Futurism, and Feminism.” Women: a cultural review. Vol. 19. No. 3. Page 1.

[25] Rosalind Fursland. “Back to the Futurism.” Apollone Journal. 13 August 2015. <http://www.apollonejournal.org/apollon-journal/2014/9/5/back-to-the-futurism>

[26] F. T. Marinetti. “The Destruction of Syntax.” Futurism: Manifestoes and Other Resources. 15 August 2015. <http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/destruction.html>

[27] Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, Part of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 15.

[28] Mina Loy. “Italian Pictures.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 32.

[29] Mina Loy. “Aphorisms on Futurism.” The Poetry Foundation. 17 August 2015. < http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237878>

[30] Suzanne Wintsch Churchill, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry (New York: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 182.

[31] Ibid, 182.

[32] Gilliam Hanscombe and Virginia S. Smyers, Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Women, 1910-1940 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), 112-128.

[33] Lawrence Rainey, Modernism: An Anthology (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2005), 417.

[34] Ibid, 417.

[35] Amanda J. Bradley, Extravagent Poetic, Exaggerated Life. Proquest. 9 August 2015. Page 53.

[36] Mina Loy. “Psycho-Democracy.” The Modernist Journals Project. Brown University. 9 August 2015.

< http://modjourn.org/render.php?id=1299778543125002&view=mjp_object>

[37] Ibid.

[38] Frank Cioffi, Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (New York: Open Court Publishing, 1998), 93.

[39] Mina Loy. “O Hell.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 93.

[40] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Macmillan, 1913), 471.

[41] Mina Loy. “O Hell.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 93.

[42] Suzanne Wintsch Churchill, The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry (New York: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 193-194.

[43] Mina Loy. “Perlun.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 97.

[44] Sander L. Gilman, Freud, Race, and Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 52.

[45] Peter Quartermain, Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013), 150.

[46] Maeera Schreiber, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1998), 181.

[47] Keith Tuma, Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 143.

[48] Mina Loy, Stories and Essays of Mina Loy. Sarah Crangle, Ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 160.

[49] Mina Loy. “Gertude Stein.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 116.

[50] Ibid, 125.

[51] Linda A. Kinnahan, Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 200.  

[52] Mina Loy. “An Aged Woman.” The Lost Lunar Baedecker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Macmillan, 2015), 167.