Between 1949 and 1953 Mina Loy was a well-known character around the Bowery, a ghostly figure in white face powder and a wine-red dressing gown, prowling the streets and poking into trash cans for detritus to squirrel away in her single room in a communal household on Stanton Street. Her poetry was out of print and most of her friends were dead or distant. To her homeless neighbors, whom she often paid to run her errands, she was known as the Duchess. Her student housemates, who loved to listen to her stories, knew that she had once lived in Paris and achieved renown as a poet and artist, that she had been married to a man she called “a beautiful poet and the amateur boxing champion of France” until he disappeared (was he murdered, or did he run away?), that the few visitors invited up to her quarters had familiar names: Djuna Barnes, James Laughlin, Marcel Duchamp. Was this woman who lived among rags and egg crates and spent her days staring at the pigeons outside the window utterly mad, or was she a genius?
Born Mina Gertrude Löwy in 1882 in London, she had lived across Europe and America and mingled with international artistic and literary avant-gardes. She had four children (two of whom died young) with three different men. She had gained notoriety by writing poetry full of frank articulations of female desire, which poured scorn on the hypocrisies and hierarchies that governed relations between men and women. Loy’s first—and for a long time only—published collection, Lunar Baedecker, was released in 1923 by Robert McAlmon’s Paris-based Contact Publishing Company, which had issued important works by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. It went out of print almost immediately, due in part to US customs regulations ordering the confiscation of shipments that might violate obscenity laws, a risk commensurate with Loy’s international reputation as a free-verse radical. Between 1931 and 1946 she published no new poems; in the manuscripts that survive from this period, many of which engage with the figure of the wanderer in exile, a word that recurs over and over is “incognito.”
Since her death in 1966, Loy’s work has been periodically “rediscovered” while remaining elusive: editions of her writing are rife with textual inconsistencies, and researchers pursuing her biography have found an archive replete with gaps and contradictions. Her love of disguises dated from a formative experience at the age of eighteen, when she cross-dressed at the Munich Carnival; in the years that followed she changed her name multiple times, along with her aesthetic allegiances (Futurist, Vitalist, Dadaist), which shifted as regularly as her places of residence (Paris, Florence, New York, Mexico).
In addition to writing poetry, she painted, made lampshades, designed clothes, drafted blueprints and sketches for outlandish inventions, and created her own religious-political schema for a postwar society built on “government by creative imagination.” When, in the 1920s, the American writer Natalie Barney reported rumors in Paris that “Mina Loy” was a fictional persona, Loy responded, “I assure you that I am indeed a live being. But it is necessary to stay very unknown…. To maintain my incognito, the hazard I chose was—poet.”
Carolyn Burke’s 1996 biography Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy told, for the first time, the story of a woman constantly in pursuit of the new, with a skill for immersing herself in avant-garde movements just when each was at its height. Mary Ann Caws’s short new book Mina Loy: Apology of Genius is a haphazard eruption of enthusiasm for Loy that leans “heavily and happily” on Burke’s research. It starts from the premise that “Mina Loy the painter and poet was desperately, irretrievably and movingly modern.” Caws never fully draws out the implications of this statement, and her desire to portray Loy as a triumphal heroine, avowedly “odd” but always “brilliant,” risks flattening the complexities—and internal struggles—that drove Loy’s life and work.
“The Future is only dark from outside,” Loy wrote in 1914. “Leap into it—and it EXPLODES with Light.” But her “New Woman” posture was a deliberate performance, negotiated under extreme circumstances. From the 1920s onward, as Europe fell prey to anti-Semitism and militarism, Loy spent years recreating herself in a cycle of autobiographical novels and epic poems, fictionalizing her fraught upbringing in London and episodes from her later life: art school, marriage and motherhood, her encounters with the macho Futurists, her travels with her second husband, Arthur Cravan. With the exception of her long narrative poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” composed between 1923 and 1925, her writing remained incomplete and unpublished (though the digitized manuscripts can be read in full on the Beinecke Library’s website).1
Caws is a distinguished art historian, critic, and translator, especially known for her lifetime’s work on Surrealism and the Bloomsbury Group. Like Burke, she tends to treat the manuscripts as sources of information rather than literary texts to be analyzed, but these writings are not straightforward confessions, and they don’t reveal any singular story or self. Rather, they show Loy obsessively revisiting her past, working to assert her creativity in a family, and then in a culture, that sought to stifle it.2
“It is no light task to rid ourselves of our origin in antagonistic flesh,” Loy writes in Goy Israels, probably the earliest of these drafts, referring to her English Christian mother’s attempts to hide Mina’s Hungarian grandfather’s Jewish background. (Her mother was the one who anglicized their surname, Löwy, to Loy.) Loy’s middle-class upbringing was aimed at instilling a conventional femininity: her autobiographical writings feature a “jailor-mother” with an “aura/of sub-carnal anger” who tears up her daughter’s writing and artwork and locks away her volumes of the flamboyant romantic novelist Ouida. Reluctantly, she allowed Loy to study painting, though the more progressive institutions were ruled out because they allowed female students to attend life-drawing classes. Loy was enrolled at St. John’s Wood School, which she came to consider “the worst art school in London,” where she produced Pre-Raphaelite-inspired portrayals of pale, ethereal women.
In 1900 she spent a year at an academy in Munich. Finally released from her mother’s surveillance, and armed with a clay pipe, Loy began to reinvent herself. On discovering that the baronial family hosting her had spent the allowance her parents had sent for her upkeep on their own vacation, and were advertising her company as an enticement to male guests, Loy bartered her silence for a front-door key and, as Caws writes, “exulted in a new kind of freedom.” Her life over the next decade was a painful effort to construct an identity unshackled from the constraints of her youth.
A brief and difficult return to London was followed by an escape to Paris in 1900 and then a marriage, at age twenty and four months pregnant, to the morose artist Stephen Haweis. This marriage lasted, unhappily, until 1917. “Oh God,” Loy wrote in “Marriage Boxes” (part of “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”),
that men and women
having undertaken to vanquish one another
should be allowed
to shut themselves up in hot boxes and breed.
Her 1914 poem “Parturition” expresses something of her fury when she discovered Haweis had visited his mistress while Loy was in labor with their first child, Oda Janet, who died from meningitis two days after her first birthday. “I am the centre/Of a circle of pain/Exceeding its boundaries in every direction,” she writes, later locating herself in a “congested cosmos of agony/From which there is no escape.” The poem is a howl of despair, searching for structure as grammar breaks down and sentences split amid the speaker’s “negation of myself as a unit.”
Loy rebuilt herself in Florence, where she and Haweis moved in 1907 with Joella, Loy’s infant daughter by the French doctor Henry Joël Le Savoureux, who had treated her after Oda’s death. She found “a great salvation” in friendship with the socialite and patron Mabel Dodge, who not only became a confidante (on matters romantic, artistic, and financial) but introduced Loy to the circle of intellectuals who gathered at Dodge’s Villa Curonia. Through her Loy met Gertrude Stein, whose work set Loy’s on a new course. She wrote about Stein several times, calling her “Curie/of the laboratory/of vocabulary”: Stein’s radical abstractions, designed to loosen words from their associations and create literature written in the “continuous present,” gave Loy a model for art that felt to her like “the sanctuary of pure expression.” “There is no Space or Time,” she wrote in her poem “There Is Neither Life nor Death” (1914–1915), “Only intensity,/And tame things/Have no immensity.” Caws reads the poem as “an assault on tameness and bourgeois niceness”; it’s also a Steinian exploration of language’s possibilities, an effort to recreate the sensation of seeing something for the first time.
Loy thrived in the company of other artists and was thrilled when, in the winter of 1913, artists and writers began to flock to Florence, hoping to find themselves near the man known as “the caffeine of Europe.” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had published his first Futurist manifesto in 1909, expressing his desire to throw off tradition and create new forms of art imbued with machinelike dynamism. Under Marinetti’s influence, Loy came to believe that society required a collective psychic rebirth, an idea she outlined in “Aphorisms on Futurism,” published in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work in 1914, which marked her first appearance in print. “THE Future is limitless—the past a trail of insidious reactions,” she wrote. “DIE in the Past. Live in the Future.”
Yet these confident assertions masked a deeper ambivalence. Marinetti’s first manifesto had declared “contempt for women” one of Futurism’s foundational principles; he argued that women posed a distraction from the purity of vision to which he aspired, and compared them to animals “wholly without usefulness.” Loy later told Carl Van Vechten that “Marinetti influenced me—merely by waking me up.” Her indignation at his disdain—and the thorny power struggles unleashed by her overlapping romantic relationships with Marinetti and his fellow Futurist Giovanni Papini—helped shape Loy’s first explicit formulations of feminist politics.
Loy drew on these relationships for her poem “The Effectual Marriage” (circa 1914), which Ezra Pound—who coined the term “logopoeia” for Loy’s unsentimental, wry style—described in 1932 as one of the most memorable poems of the past thirty years. It’s the story of Gina and Miovanni, an ill-fated couple based on Loy and Papini, and is part of an angry cycle of poems lambasting Futurist posturing. Another is “Lions’ Jaws,” a satire voiced by “Nima Lyo, alias Anim Yol, alias/Imna Oly,” a “secret service buffoon to the Women’s Cause” who comes to realize that in being treated as an “excepted woman” she is complicit in upholding the double standards of a “flabbergast movement” of “impotent neurotics.” In her treatment by “these amusing men”—who fought bitterly over possession of her yet made her feel like a pawn in their personal rivalry rather than an intellectual equal—Loy was working out her own burgeoning feminism. As she put it in “Giovanni Franchi,” a poem based on Papini, she was learning not to be “faithful to a man first” but “to be loyal to herself”—although, crucially, “she would have to find which self first.”
Loy’s poetry often explores the texture of psychological control, adopting an ironic stance characterized by braggadocio. Her first major splash was in July 1915, when her poem “Love Songs,” a multipart exploration of unequal sexual relationships and the danger of pathologizing or ignoring female desire, was published in the first issue of Alfred Kreymborg’s Others magazine. The poem’s opening swiftly attained notoriety:
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
The poem was attacked for its mockery of the lyric tradition, Loy’s disassociation of eroticism from love, and her audacious disregard for grammatical conventions. But Loy was now committed to “shedding our petty pruderies,” in both her life and her art.
In 1916 she departed Florence for New York, leaving behind her two young children, Joella and Haweis’s son Giles, in the care of friends and servants. There she was welcomed as a fellow radical by the circle of European expatriates who gathered at Walter and Louise Arensberg’s duplex to play chess and discuss psychoanalysis, art, and feminism. In an interview with the New York Evening Sun the following year, Loy explained how her daily life informed her work, with its collage-like buildup of images and its intuitive, often idiosyncratic use of language. “The modern flings herself at life and lets herself feel what she does feel,” she said, “then upon the very tick of the second she snatches the images of life that fly through her brain.”
Loy was never quite comfortable being held up as the poster girl for New Womanhood. She omitted most of “Love Songs” from Lunar Baedecker and never published the highly provocative “Feminist Manifesto” she composed in 1914 and sent to Mabel Dodge, addressed to women “on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval.” “There is no half-measure,” she insists. “NO scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition, will bring about Reform, the only method is Absolute Demolition.” As in “Aphorisms on Futurism,” there’s a sense that Loy is trying out poses for shock value. Recommending everything from the elimination of sexual jealousy to the “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity throughout the female population at puberty” and the eugenicist suggestion that women reproduce in proportion to their intelligence, Loy places the onus on women to engineer their own liberation.
Caws hardly mentions this troubling work, calling it simply “a rough draft, but fascinating.” Its ideas, if not its rhetoric, appear again in Loy’s preoccupation with genius, her discomfort with her own mixed Jewish-Christian heritage, and her lingering interest in godlike individuals, even as part of a quest for broader social change.
Caws’s book is based on an assumption rarely made about Loy: that she possessed “unquestionable poetic genius.” Genius, a word Caws applies to her several times, was a significant concept for Loy, who was convinced it was frequently and fatally ignored by those in power—from parents to government leaders. Her poem “Apology of Genius” (1922) was a riposte to the censoring of Ulysses and a criticism of any limitations placed on artistic freedom: “A delicate crop/of criminal mystic immortelles/stands to the censor’s scythe.” The poem portrays the artist as a divine figure, “ostracised” and misunderstood, yet who hopes—as she put it in a 1930 addendum or sequel to the poem—to “survive with god.”
To Loy, who wrote many more poems and essays on the subject, genius was not merely a characteristic you could possess but a structuring force for society, a conduit by which a person might transcend her own experience and approach the divine. Loy’s ongoing search for her own creative origins and her growing engagement with Christianity show her conviction that genius was rooted in infant consciousness: many of her autobiographical works feature child prophets. Her pamphlet Psycho-Democracy (written in the aftermath of World War I and published in the Little Review in 1921) diagnosed a “cosmic neurosis” in contemporary society and attempted to lay out the conditions under which creative minds might flourish: investment in the imagination—and a new order based not on militarism but on “redemption of the Intellect”—might be the avenue on which the world could be healed.
She found an archetype for genius in her second husband, the enigmatic Arthur Cravan, a nephew of Oscar Wilde who had raised money for his transatlantic passage by challenging a reigning champion to a boxing match and beating him, who slept on park benches, and who sold copies of his literary magazine Maintenant? from a cart. She met Cravan in New York in 1917. Within months she followed him to Mexico City, where their life together, she wrote, “consisted entirely in wandering arm in arm through the streets.” They married there in January 1918. In November of the same year, having vowed to sail to Argentina to escape the secret police pursuing him as a draft dodger, Cravan disappeared. Amid rumors that he had fled to Tahiti or was languishing as a spy in a Mexican jail, Loy sent telegrams to the intelligence services until she ran out of money and composed poems that ache with grief.3
She traveled to Buenos Aires, pregnant with their daughter, Fabienne. She sought solace in Christian Science, to which she had converted in 1909. From there she returned to England to give birth, then continued with the baby to Florence. In Italy she reunited with Joella and discovered, to her horror, that Haweis had taken Giles with him to the Caribbean, where the boy died from cancer in 1923, aged fourteen. Loy, devastated, returned with her daughters to Paris, where she opened a shop selling her own lampshades and illuminated glass sculptures, an enterprise financed by Peggy Guggenheim in the hope that the income would allow her friend time and space to write. In 1936, exhausted by the administrative burden of retail, Loy moved back to New York. She continued to write, make art, and grieve Giles and Cravan.
Although Caws’s evaluations of Loy tend to the hyperbolic—“a heroine of art for the ages,” with “one of the most astoundingly open panoramas of a brain ever evolved”—she dismisses Loy’s only published novel, Insel, with unexpected vitriol, claiming to get “a bit lost” in the “last late and heavy fragments and satires and treatises of this poet’s mind.” She condemns Insel as “next to unreadable,” an “enormously bizarre and un-worked-over attempt at a novel.” Not only is Insel eminently readable—featuring a deliciously cheerful con man named Insel, based on Loy’s “superweird” (Caws’s word) friend Richard Oelze, who tricks the narrator, an older woman, into bankrolling the art he never produces and becoming his biographer—it’s a fascinating document of Loy’s ideas on memory, genius, and authorial perspective. In the narrator’s growing alertness to language’s possibilities, conveyed through Loy’s sensuous, baroque prose, something lasting is forged; the narrator’s disillusionment with Insel’s talents also suggests Loy’s pessimism, following Cravan’s death and her own social and artistic isolation, about art’s place in a harsh and unforgiving world.
Caws states early on that her interest is primarily in Loy’s “mesmerizingly present” poetry, and that her visual art will be addressed only “in passing.” But it’s impossible to approach Loy, especially as a “modern” artist, without exploring how those disciplines converged. Across forms, Loy’s chosen mode was assemblage; she collected her material from shards of experience (in writing) and scraps of refuse (in visual art). In New York, two of her closest friends were Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, whose work, like her own, explored the possibilities of found objects and unexpected juxtapositions. Cornell shared Loy’s love of relics and faith in Christian Science, and described his method as “a type of image search akin to poetics”; Loy’s writing and visual art reveal the same sensibility, and her experiments across media—her search for an ideal form—are an essential aspect of her modernness.
In 1953 Loy left New York to live in Aspen, near her daughters. She left behind several artworks in the care of a local bar owner. Then, for the first time, her friends saw what Loy had been making throughout her years on Stanton Street. Her mixed-media constructions—created from what she’d collected off the streets—elevated Bowery life to a celestial plane. Among the collages were No Parking, at its center a butterfly arising from a trash can; Communal Cot, a depiction of the twelve apostles as hungover street sleepers; and the haunting Christ on a Clothesline, his disembodied face and limbs held up by pins. In 1959 an exhibition of her artwork, curated by Duchamp, was held at the Bodley Gallery in New York, though Loy did not travel to the opening.
“forget that you live in houses that you may live in yourself,” wrote Loy in “Feminist Manifesto.” Her assemblage Househunting, which Peggy Guggenheim bought after the Bodley show, was displayed at the 2022 Venice Biennale, alongside work by predominantly female contemporary artists and midcentury Surrealists. A woman’s head dominates the composition, with a basket on it held up by putti and containing garbage bags, a teapot, a ball of wool, and a ladder leading up to a washing line. Stuck to the backdrop as if floating around her are cut-out, painted images of buildings: like dream visions, perhaps, of the places she has lived.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s a new generation of readers discovered Loy and made efforts to prevent her from sinking into obscurity. In 1957 a young publisher named Jonathan Williams wrote to her asking permission to gather her collected work in a new edition. Loy was surprised, though pleased, at the attention: “I never was a poet,” she told him. In 1958, after months spent seeking out early poems in back issues of defunct little magazines, Williams’s Jargon Society published a new selection of poems titled Lunar Baedeker and Time-Tables. The poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth, who had praised Loy in an influential 1944 essay for Circle magazine, hailed the release as “a real EVENT, like the opening of King Tut’s tomb.” Among the late works included was an uncanny sequence of Bowery poems, full of disdain for the authorities’ lack of compassion toward “the heedless incognito//of shuffling shadow-bodies/animate with frustration.”
Loy died in 1966 in Aspen. Since then her work has become more widely available. In 1982 Roger Conover edited The Last Lunar Baedeker, containing more of her prose manifestos and the entire text of “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” followed in 1996 by The Lost Lunar Baedeker, a (confusingly titled) slimmed-down selection of her poetry and prose. Stories and Essays of Mina Loy was published in 2011, while Insel was republished in 2014. And an expansive exhibition of her artwork will be on view from April until September at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
In her late writings, the figure of the nomadic exile blends with, or supplants, that of the genius; her own life had been a series of temporary refuges, each one liable to collapse. Caws, toward the end of her biography, writes, “It turns out to be of major importance for me, my writing and my living—that she went right on, exclusive in herself, reclusive in herself, being herself.” Loy kept inventing herself to the end: “This excessive incognito/of a Bulbous stranger/only to be exorcised by death.”
An edition titled The Lost Novels: The Child and the Parent & Islands in the Air, edited by Karla Kelsey, is forthcoming from Yale University Press. ↩
For a full discussion of these texts, see Sandeep Parmar’s fascinating Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (Bloomsbury, 2013). ↩
Daniel Saldaña París’s novel Among Strange Victims (2013; translated by Christina MacSweeney, Coffee House Press, 2016) features a character obsessively struggling to write a biography of Cravan. ↩