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The Truth Teller

Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy

by Carolyn Burke
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 494 pp., $35.00

The Lost Lunar Baedeker

by Mina Loy, edited by Roger L. Conover
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 238 pp., $19.00

The curious life of the English avant-gardist Mina Loy (1882-1966) is told in detail for the first time in Carolyn Burke’s faithful biography, which should help to renew interest in Loy, her poetry, and her few surviving works of art. Loy was a born writer and a born artist: the frustration of her talent—a frustration due in part to her temperament, in part to her lack of education, in part to sexism, and even in part to her beauty—makes a perplexing tale.

I should say right away that her talent was not entirely frustrated; but her poems do not add up, in my view, to a major body of work. She has partisans among critics and among American feminists, who, because Loy spent the last thirty years of her life in the United States, respond to her as a predecessor in feminism. And indeed, no one can read Loy’s 1914 “Feminist Manifesto” (sent privately to her friend and patroness Mabel Dodge) without responding to its typographical energy:

The feminist movement as at present instituted is Inadequate

Women if you want to realise yourselves—you are on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval—all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go—are you prepared for the Wrench—?….

[B]e Brave & deny at the outset—that pathetic clap-trap war cry Woman is the equal of man—

   for

She is NOT!…

…Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not—seek within yourselves to find out what you are. As conditions are at present constituted—you have the choice between Parasitism, & Prostitution—or Negation

It will be seen, even from this brief excerpt, that by 1914 Loy had learned some bitter lessons about life and (from the Italian Futurists) some vivid lessons about typography; but she was not about to join the suffragists in turning women into a neutral political equivalent of men. Her manifesto was brave in decoupling sex and childbearing from their “moral” location within marriage, and in asserting the necessity of sexual arousal for the completion of personality (“the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother”). And her poetry (which appeared in experimental journals such as Others and Rogue as well as in the one book she published in her lifetime, the 1923 Lunar Baedecker [sic]) proclaims a comparable autonomy.

Yet Loy lived her life not as a self-sustaining feminist but as a person financially dependent on successive men—her father, her first husband, her son-in-law, her son-in-law’s father—and various patrons (among them Peggy Guggenheim). Her few attempts to support herself (by designing lampshades, thinking up patents) failed; her life was that of a child-woman, unwilling or unable to assume responsibility for herself, let alone for her young children, whom she left in the care of servants (going so far as not to see two of her children at all for three years). She makes an uneasy heroine for feminists, especially compared with the many women of the same period who, with far fewer resources and less education than Loy, succeeded in making lives for themselves and their children.

Among Loy’s critical partisans, none is more enthusiastic than Roger Conover, whose new “generous Selected” edition of the poetry, published by Farrar, Straus, repeats, but with textual changes and new annotation, much that he published with the Jargon Society in 1982 under the title The Last Lunar Baedeker. The new collection—confusingly entitled The Lost Lunar Baedeker—is in one sense less valuable than the old one (now out of print), because it excludes Loy’s long autobiographical poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” written in the early 1920s. Of this exclusion, Conover says that “the publisher’s parameters for this edition made it impossible to include” this poem. To include it, he adds, he would have had to drop either his textual notes or half of the poems. I regret the publisher’s decision; to publish Loy without “Anglo-Mongrels” is to delete the very poem that would most immediately introduce new readers to the biographical sources of her art. Conover says he plans to seek separate publication for “Anglo-Mongrels,” but that is no consolation for the new reader who picks up this volume and doesn’t realize its heart is missing.

That heart, the poetic sequence “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” presents in elliptical form the Oedipal strains more fully on view in Carolyn Burke’s extensive biography. Mina Loy thought of herself as an “Anglo-Mongrel” because her father was a Hungarian Jew (named Lowy) who married an English “rose” after he immigrated, as a tailor, to England. He quickly advanced in business in London and became well-to-do, but the blemish of “trade” and the fact of his Jewish origins remained sore points with his wife Julia, who, herself a carpenter’s daughter, sought gentility and daughterly chastity with a frenzy that led—at least according to Loy—to something near to madness. Furious that her eldest daughter was developing breasts, Julia

dressed Mina in childish flat yokes, scolding her as she pinned the offending bodice: “How can I fit you? You nasty girl. Do you think at your age it is decent to have a figure [?]…Your vile flesh, you’ll get no good out of it. Curse you. Curse your father.

Loy’s father, dominated by his wife’s theatrics (which included frequent faints), retreated into domestic passivity, but finally insisted when Mina was ten that his girls get some schooling. (The younger girls, Dora and Hilda, were to lead unremarkable lives in England; they do not figure in Mina’s story.) After a few years at a girls’ school, Mina ended up at a London art school, drawing Burne-Jonesish figures, becoming briefly engaged, breaking the engagement, and then falling in love with an “art photographer” who turned out to be the lover of another man’s wife.

Seeing the dangers of Loy’s milieu in London, her father sent her off for a year to an all-female art school in Munich. The return home after Munich was predictably unhappy, and Loy’s parents finally agreed to let her go, chaperoned, to Paris, where she studied at a coeducational art school in Montparnasse called the Académie Colarossi and took anatomy classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. An English fellow student at the Académie, Stephen Haweis (pronounced “Hoyes”) seduced her; he was of “good family” and had money, and Mina failed to perceive at that time what she later accused him of—a “parasitic drawing-out of one’s vitality to recharge, as it were, his own deficient battery of life.” She was not attracted to him physically, but after a summer at home in London, she returned to him and to Paris: “The physical horror of [Stephen] did not compare with the mental horror of that family life.”

Finding herself pregnant, Loy married Stephen on December 31, 1903; she was twenty-one. They lived in Paris, Stephen became a successful art photographer, Mina designed her own dresses, and the baby—a girl named Oda, who was to die a year later of meningitis—was born in May 1904. Mina returned to painting, and exhibited six watercolors in the subsequent Salon d’Automne (created in opposition to the more conservative spring Salons). It was at this point that she chose the name Mina Loy (instead of Mina Lowy or Mina Haweis) as her professional name; yet for most of her European life she was known as “Ducie Haweis”—the mocking nickname a condensation of the German “du” and “Sie,” which, when she was learning German in Munich, she often confused.

The Haweis marriage was never happy. After the baby died, Stephen took a mistress, and the couple separated. In 1906, Mina took a lover, the doctor Henry Joël Le Savoureux, who had treated her after Oda’s death; she became pregnant by her lover, who, since he was engaged to someone else, was unavailable. Stephen decided he could not do without Mina’s two hundred pounds a year, and returned. They moved to Italy, and Stephen accepted as his own the girl, Joella (named after her father), born in 1907. A son, Giles, followed in 1909, and Mina, worried over her daughter’s health, took up Christian Science, a connection she maintained to the end of her life. The Haweises frequented the salon in Florence maintained by Mabel Dodge; soon they met Gertrude and Leo Stein and other writers and artists.

In 1912, Stephen took a more or less permanent mistress, an Englishwoman named Amelia DeFries, and in February 1913, he set sail, seeking aesthetic stimulation, for Australia and points west, leaving behind, as he told Mabel Dodge, his “deserted wife & poor fatherless children.” Mina was thirty. She turned for consolation to brief affairs with both Filippo Marinetti, the leader of the Italian Futurists, and with Giovanni Papini, a rival Futurist and journalist. The affair with Marinetti, though brief, was decisive for Loy as a writer; Futurism (though she later repudiated its misogyny) suited her satirical spirit and her desire to shake off the bourgeois shackles of her family upbringing. The heartlessness of Futurism—its love of the technological energy of modern war—provoked some disagreeable consequences in Loy’s poetics. During the war, she volunteered briefly to work in a hospital, “entirely” (as she wrote her friend Carl Van Vechten) “on the chance of getting near a battle-field & hearing a lovely noise!…You have no idea what fallow fields of psychological inspiration there are in human shrieks & screams…. Carlo don’t you sense—what wonderful poems I could have written—round about a battle field!” As Marinetti’s influence dwindled, so did such language in Loy’s writing.

It was not until June 15, 1917, well after her affairs with Marinetti and Papini, that Loy divorced Stephen Haweis, charging adultery. By this time she was in New York, seeking to escape the war in Europe and to find a new life in the American art world. She was awarded child support and custody of the two children (who were, as usual, in Europe with a nanny), and gained the court’s permission to resume her maiden name, “Mina Loy.” By January 1918, she was married, in Mexico, to her British lover “Arthur Cravan” (a poet-boxer and nephew of Oscar Wilde, whose real name was Fabian Avenarius Lloyd). In Mexico because he feared the American draft (for which even foreign-born men had to register), Cravan disappeared at sea while testing a boat he was repairing, leaving Mina stranded and once again pregnant. Her mother bailed her out, and Mina sailed back to England, where she gave birth in April 1919, to her fourth child, a girl called (after her father) Fabienne, who was, of course, subsequently deposited with the Italian nanny already taking care of Joella and Giles.

Stephen Haweis, meanwhile, ended up in the Caribbean, and later, in a brief visit to Florence in 1921 while Mina was in New York, he took their son Giles back to the Bahamas with him. Two years later, the fourteen-year-old Giles, estranged from his mother (who would not answer his letters, enraged that he was with his father), died of cancer. Because the house the Haweis had lived in in Florence was in Stephen’s name (though paid for by Mina’s father), he threatened to sell it. Mina turned for support to the heiress and art-patron Peggy Guggenheim, who staked Mina to a business in Paris making lampshades, which, though it succeeded for a time, could not turn out the delicate hand-made shades fast enough to make money.

Only when Loy’s daughter Joella married the relatively rich Julian Levy (an American art-dealer and experimental film-maker) in 1927, did Mina feel once again she had someone to turn to for money. In Paris, she tended absentmindedly to little Fabienne, sending her to boarding school and, in holidays, to board in the country. From 1929 to 1931, Mina stopped sending Fabienne to school at all, instead taking her to the lampshade atelier to keep her company. At twelve, Fabienne took charge of her own life and demanded to be sent to the school of her choice, a respectable lycée. Yet in 1935, before “Fabi” could take the baccalauréat, Mina sent her to live with Joella and Julian in New York; in 1936, with the war imminent, she herself followed. Joella and her husband set Mina and Fabi up in an apartment; Fabi (like Joella, denied an education) went to work. Mina became increasingly incompetent, forgetting to pay bills, oblivious of Fabi’s twenty-first birthday. In 1944, Fabi married, and Mina moved in with the new couple; but in time Joella and Julien divorced, and Fabi and her husband separated. Both daughters subsequently acquired new husbands and went to live in Aspen, Colorado. Mina, wanting to remain in New York, moved to a boarding house near the Bowery. From 1948 to 1953, she lived as an eccentric recluse collecting street trash—out of which she assembled her last works of art. In 1953, her daughters moved her to Aspen, where she died in 1966, at the age of eighty.

So much for the life—a series of wanderings as Loy sought out places where she could be in the company of other artists. With her exceptional beauty, her gaiety, taste, and wit, and her susceptibility to artistic men, she never had difficulty being accepted in the company of writers, musicians, and artists. She refused to be the decorative wife, the pliant mistress, or the attentive mother. Something—her intelligence, her will to create works of art, her sardonic social acuteness, her desire to compose poems—drove her to accomplishment in spite of the desperate insecurity caused by the internalized critical “Voice,” as she called it, of her mother. It is fairly astonishing that a woman who began as a painter of willowy decadent watercolors, and who created fragile lampshades for rich clients, should have been able to achieve, in her seventies, a moving series of assemblages representing Bowery bums.

Two assemblages are reproduced in the 1982 Last Lunar Baedeker. In “Communal Cot” (from the early 1950s), Loy arranges the cloth figures of ten sleeping derelicts on a two-foot by four-foot cardboard background imitating gray pavement; the swathed and huddled figures with their upward-looking faces have, oddly, almost an air of Boddhisatvas; Loy’s son-in-law called them her “angel-bums.” Joseph Cornell, appropriately enough, was the last artist Loy came to know well; their friendship meant a great deal to both of them, and Loy wrote an appreciation of Cornell’s work. Since most of Loy’s paintings and lampshades have not survived, and since her late assemblages were in such shaky condition that Joseph Cornell knew his dealer would not show them, there is no adequate way to judge her as an artist.

We do, however, have a sizeable body of her poetry and prose, patiently edited and annotated by Conover; and since her fame as an associate, hanger-on, or friend (of Pound in London, Gertrude Stein and the Futurists in Italy, of the expatriate Americans in Paris, of the Others group in New York, which included Williams, Stevens, and Moore) has tended to obscure her work as a poet, it is good to have a serious biography like Burke’s, which summons up very capably the successive artistic milieus in which Loy found herself, and gives a decent amount of attention to her writing (while not attempting to whitewash Loy’s frequently appalling irresponsibility toward her children).

I originally read Loy in 1982, when Conover’s first collection of the poems appeared, and was not convinced—am not yet convinced—that the claims he made then, and makes now, for her work are merited:

In memoir after modernist memoir, she has been granted a forceful personality, a cerebral bearing, a perfect complexion, and a sexual body. But not a voice. First and last, this book is an attempt to restore a great poet’s lost voice. I use “great” advisedly, mindful that Loy has never been called great before.

Perhaps it does not matter whether Loy is great or not; her oeuvre is small, but it does have substantial interest for cultural history. In Loy’s work, we see one of the early episodes of what can be called, in retrospect, revolutionary Modernism; and if other Modernists made greater and more lasting poems (after all, nothing of Loy’s equals “The Waste Land” or “An Octopus” or “The Snow Man” or “Home Burial”), Loy was making poetry into new tones and shapes more eagerly than most writers of her time. In that sense, she was part of the general ferment out of which the greater Modernist poems came into being.

What was Loy’s chief aim in poetry? Above all, savage truth-telling—about family life, about sex and giving birth, about one’s face in the mirror. All the truth-telling in the world doesn’t make a poem, but it’s certainly better to write with the intention of blasting through genteel cliché, as Loy did, than to echo the politeness of enervated female verse. “Parturition,” published in 1923 in Lunar Baedeker, took up the unspeakable subject of giving birth:

I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony….

Something in the delirium of night-hours
Confuses while intensifying sensibility
Blurring spatial contours
So aiding elusion of the circumscribed
That the gurgling of a crucified wild beast
Comes from so far away
And the foam on the stretched muscles of a mouth
Is no part of myself
There is climax in sensibility
When pain surpassing itself
Becomes Exotic

If the current booklets for expectant mothers mentioned “the gurgling of a crucified wild beast” and “the foam on the stretched muscles of a mouth,” young women might be less surprised by what many of them encounter in the labor room. Yet it is possible to be grateful that Loy broke taboos seventy-five years ago without necessarily thinking “Parturition” an accomplished poem. It goes on too long (four pages), it loses steam as it goes, and it begins to be both sentimental and fussily mannered:

Mother I am
Identical
With infinite Maternity Indivisible Acutely I am absorbed Into
The was—is—ever—shall—be
Of cosmic reproductivity

And it ends in bathos:

I once heard in a church
—Man and woman God made them—
   Thank God.

It is easy to forget how thrilling free verse still was in 1923, and how bold a one-word line was, and how “obscene” it was for a woman to write nakedly about the hours of childbirth. Today, these are all familiar, but one can recover some of Loy’s own excitement about her writing if one reads her historically.

Loy’s characteristic poetic moves, visible in “Parturition,” are several:

1)a tendency to rise from the sensual immediacy of experience into a generalization phrased abstractly—from the saliva on the groaning mouth to “infinite Maternity” and “cosmic reproductivity”;

2)a notion that if a sound is good, doubling or even tripling it will produce a poetic effect: “The sensitized area/Is identical with the extensity/of Intension”;

3)a fondness for epigram: “The irresponsiblity of the male/Leaves woman her superior Inferiority”;

4)a Steinian attachment to “naive” word-arrangements: “I am knowing/ All about/Unfolding”

5)an inclusion of domestic decor: “Each woman-of-the-people/Tip-toeing the red pile of the carpet/Doing hushed service.”

6)short lines, avoiding the usual English norm of tetrameter or pentameter;

7)jagged rhythms, affronting the expectation of regularity and musicality in utterance.

In “Parturition” these strategies don’t quite know what they are doing in each other’s company. But we can see them recur, far more successfully integrated, in a striking poem of Loy’s late years, in which the erstwhile beauty, accustomed to her “narrow silhouette” in youth, looks at her aging self in the mirror and feels herself possessed by a demon, the “Bulbous stranger” she has become:

AN AGED WOMAN

The past has come apart
events are vagueing
the future is inexploitable

the present pain.

Not even pain has that precision
with which it struck in youth- time

More like moth
eroding internal organs
hanging or falling down
in a spoiled closet

Does your mirror Bedevil you
or is the impossible
possible to senility
enabling the erstwhile agile
narrow silhouette of self
to hold in huge reserve
this excessive incognito
of a Bulbous stranger
only to be exorcised by death

Dilation has entirely eliminated
your long reality.

Loy’s familiar techniques are all here: the zoom from actuality to abstraction, the ostentatious repetition of sounds (“is the impossible/possible to senility”), the epigram with which the poem ends, the short lines, the jagged rhythm. Yet a more fully realized self is present, both in memory and in the mirror, than the young Loy could manage in “Parturition,” and, best of all, the metaphors are more heartfelt and original. The idea of the aged female body as a “spoiled closet” with moth-eaten organs falling down inside it is a fiercely perceived figure. Some of Loy’s poems have strengths of this kind; some are merely boring, some are failures.

It is not clear to me that Loy was innately a lyric poet. Had she kept a diary, like Virginia Woolf, her sharp eye and sharp tongue might have given us something memorable. She was not by temperament a novelist. A narrative, Insel, about her acquaintance with the painter Richard Oelze, which has been excerpted from her autobiographical manuscript Islands in the Air, reveals no sense of momentum. But if Loy had had the energy to keep up, in prose as well as in conversation, her original wit, we might have had more self-revelatory pieces in a genre other than lyric.

It is tantalizing to read Loy’s responses to a rather silly questionnaire for the last number of The Little Review, sent out by the editor, Margaret Anderson, when Loy was forty-seven:

1.What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (in case you are not satisfied)

Quite satisfied.

2.Why wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?

No room.

3.What do you look forward to?

The release of atomic energy.

4.What do you fear most from the future?

Fear.

5.What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (if you care to tell)

Every moment I spent with Arthur Cravan. The rest of the time.

6.What do you consider your weakest characteristics? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?

Compassion. My capacity for isolation. My eyebrows. My inability to live without sleep.

7.What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will)

Everything once. I never dislike—I forget.

8.What is your attitude toward art today?

I never take such attitudes.

9.What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)

I am reasonable and the scheme may catch up with me.

10.Why do you go on living?

Inevitably—as time and space are an intellectual hoax.

Loy closed her response by saying,

I am frightfully looking forward to your last number, it ought to be electrifying if everyone has been as truthful as

Yours faithfully
MINA LOY

The woman who wrote those answers was not boring: she had a mind of her own, and she knew her mind. What is disappointing is that she was unable to go beyond poems that were, for the most part, brittle, jittery, digressive, and unmusical.

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