AUGUST 13, 2017
MINA LOY WORE many modernist hats, both literally and figuratively. She wrote poems, fiction, plays, and feminist manifestos, made paintings and collages, and could rock the hell out of a fedora. She hung out with Gertrude Stein in Paris, F. T. Marinetti in Florence, and Marcel Duchamp in New York. She performed in a play with William Carlos Williams, and designed and sold lampshades in a shop funded by Peggy Guggenheim. She had several children by several men, and lost the love of her life, poet and boxer Arthur Cravan, to the sea.
Loy’s life and her relationships with some of the most important figures of modernism have fascinated many, but it is not until fairly recently that her extraordinary writing has received as much attention as her extraordinary life. Tara Prescott’s Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy, one of only a few book-length studies focused on the writer, helps to correct that omission. Noting that the hallmark of Loy’s poetry is her esoteric and daring diction, Prescott announces that her aim is “to help readers gain access to Loy’s poetry by investigating the nature of these words, the source materials that inspired them, and the ways in which these unusual words are a part of Loy’s aesthetic.” Prescott’s Poetic Salvage delivers on this promise: it’s a wonderfully clear and precise set of close readings and contextualizations of Loy’s unruly work.
Ezra Pound famously described Loy’s poetry as “logopoeia, or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among word and ideas and modifications, of ideas and characters.” Her poems are filled with uncommon multisyllabic words that regularly send me running to the Oxford English Dictionary. Her long poem “Song to Joannes,” for instance, features phrases such as “cymophanous sweat” and “foetal buffoons,” and refers both to the “climacteric / Withdrawal of your sun” and “ego’s / Eclosion.” (For those playing along at home, “cymophanous” means “having a wavy light; opalescent”; “climacteric” refers to “a critical period or event”; and “eclosion” is “the act of emerging from the pupal case or hatching from the egg.”)
Throughout Poetic Salvage, Prescott explicates Loy’s cryptic verse with patience and care. Take, for example, her reading of “Lions’ Jaws,” in which Loy alludes to her relationships with Futurist artist F. T. Marinetti and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio. (In the poem, the “flabbergasts” “Raminetti” and “Gabrunzio” compete over a woman who is clearly meant to stand for Loy herself.) Prescott’s analysis hinges on her analysis of a single phrase: Loy’s speaker characterizes herself as the “excepted woman” of the Futurist movement. Prescott unpacks the many possible meanings of the phrase handily. Loy’s use of “excepted” may mean that “the men leave the woman out of consideration (‘excepted’)” or that they “paradoxically include her (the homophone ‘accepted’).” Or perhaps “the woman particularly stands out as in ‘exceptional’”?
Another standout interpretation in Poetic Salvage is Prescott’s take on “Parturition,” arguably one of the first poems in English to graphically describe the process of childbirth. Prescott explains that the poem “celebrates the act of parturition as an experience worthy in and of itself,” and suggests that the work is radical for not focusing on the result of the parturition process — i.e., the child. Loy is interested, instead, in her experience of “elevated consciousness” while giving birth. The poem begins with the lines “I am the centre / Of a circle of pain / Exceeding its boundaries in every direction,” a reference both to the expanding cervix and the speaker’s expanding consciousness. The poem is in constant flux between the organic and the cosmic, speaking of “unifying the positive and negative poles of sensation / Uniting the opposing and resisting forces” at one moment and “deposits of evolutionary processes” the next. Toward the end of the poem, Loy’s speaker reflects on how she came to be pregnant in the first place:
A leap with nature
Into the essence
Of unpredicted Maternity
Against my thigh
Tough of infinitesimal motion
Stir of incipient life
Precipitating in me
The contents of the universe
It’s remarkable, as Prescott notes, that in 1914 Loy was writing both “frankly and beautifully” about “postcoital fluid.” For Loy, sex is “a leap with nature,” the experience of which ultimately absorbs her speaker into “[t]he was—is—ever—shall—be.” She is creating “the contents of the universe” within her own body.
Prescott chooses not to write much about Loy’s most famous poem, “Anglo-Mongrel and the Rose,” or her “Feminist Manifesto,” which is often anthologized and taught both in literature and gender studies classrooms, presumably because many other critics have already discussed them extensively. Omitting readings of these works seems an unfortunate oversight, even if they have received attention elsewhere, as Prescott writes so precisely about Loy’s representations of gender throughout the rest of her book. Prescott does include a number of helpful resources, though; the first appendix of Poetic Salvage contextualizes the first appearances of Loy’s poems in little magazines and small presses, and the second provides images from Loy’s archive that offer a glimpse into Loy’s composition process. (Loy liked a good word list.)
Difficulty, of course, is a feature of much modernist poetry, and while poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound built their reputations on allusive and elusive verse, Loy’s obscurity has long been an impediment to a more widespread recognition of her work. Historically, difficult poems about the fall of Western civilization have been seen as more worthy of elucidation than difficult poems about the cervix: no surprise there. Poetic Salvage, however, insists that this need not be the case. It places Loy’s poems, which marry formal innovations with an unapologetically feminist voice, at the center of the modernist universe, where they belong.