Written by Anna Dolliver
Perhaps the magic stems from the lyrical cadence of her words, the lattice of lines easily read in shifting orders and voices. Perhaps the intrigue emanates from the eccentric clothing she wore, a trash-to-treasure wardrobe filled with knickknacks crafted into composite art. Whatever the source, Mina Loy designs an ethereal, brazen and beautiful dreamscape in the realm of her poetry, inviting readers to question the roles of gender, sexuality, art, and order during the Modernist era in a style whimsically reminiscent of folklore’s rambunctious faeries.
But who, you might wonder, is Mina Loy?
Despite her influential work as a Modernist and Futurist poet, few readers who aren’t specifically Modernist scholars have heard of this Anglo-Jewish woman’s poetry or visual art. Loy worked in the same circles as her more well-known contemporaries; she spoke with Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, and she published poems alongside writers like T. S. Eliot. But just as her poems drive readers to question binaries, explore alternate meanings through ambiguity, and revise and restructure the ways in which they interpret art and poetry, Loy constantly reinvented herself. As Roger L. Conover notes in the foreword to his collection of her work, “[S]he refused identification with many groups and causes that seemed natural for her to adopt … Rather than allowing herself to be fixed by an identity, she interloped, using her various identities to transform the cultures and social milieus she inhabited.” Loy devoted her time to creating art, refusing to censor or pigeonhole her work for the sake of her popularity. She crossed mediums and genres, crafting lamps and jewelry alongside poems and paintings, dabbling in futurism and Dadaism. Many of her contemporaries criticized her work for its brazen and graphic exploration of sexuality, to the point that the poet Amy Lowell refused to publish her work in journals that included Loy’s poetry.
In a time when polarized views increasingly drive people apart, Loy’s binary-bending works encourage introspection and constant reflection for the patient reader or viewer.
Over the past few years, scholars have grown more accepting of women’s voices in the literary canon. As writers create Women Surrealist Survival Kits and local presses reprint books that examine the suppression of women’s writing, more people have sought to recognize marginalized artists of the present and past. While a few writers have published books including or discussing Loy’s work in the last couple of years, her name remains far from familiar to the average reader.
Where could a new reader of Loy start? For a poem that features a mishmash menagerie of her formal structures and thematic content, you could turn to “Songs to Johannes,” her most popular work. Loy’s narrator overlaps her explicit expressions of sexuality with references to feathers and flight, blending her and Johannes’ relationship with a winged sanctity that couples nature with religion. She brings the two together through section X of the poem, which reads “Shuttle-cock and battle-door / A little pink-love / And feathers are strewn,” consummating the couple by the swing of a badminton racket, launching a shuttle-cock that transforms into a living bird in flight. By describing the lovers’ connection with euphemistic and casual allusions to sport and transformation, Loy criticizes the stigmas surrounding overt sexuality for women. Similarly, Loy pairs her descriptions of sexuality with religious iconography, referencing how the pair have “broken flesh with one another / At the profane communion table,” to question how the reader can reinterpret boundaries between sexuality and religion. Instead of separating the two as another poet might, she suggests a correlation between them, coupling the seemingly contradictory concepts through their shared imagery. Granted, she criticizes aspects of organized religion in her word choice, but she encourages a more flexible interpretation rather than disavowing religion entirely. The ambiguous narrator sprawls across her words as both pagan bird-faerie and religious light-angel, fluctuating across identities as she boldly claims her sexuality.
Just as Loy experiments with nature and myth, she encourages a revision of chronology through the course of the poem’s events. Some sections seem like calls toward the past rather than the narrator’s current predicament, as when she describes the “unimaginable family / Bird-like abortions / With human throats” — more images that set the narrator in the company of small animals turned macabre through human appendages (54). Other images, like the hypothetical “birth to a butterfly / With the daily news / Printed in blood on its wings” and the intimate knowledge of the “Wire-Puller” that would set back Time, restructure the story in reference to possible futures (54 – 55). These temporal shifts encourage the concept of a narrator who does not suffer the typical restraints of a human life, a concept that invites the reader to contemplate the influence of the binaries — such as animal and human, past and present, sanctity and sexuality — that humans consider natural. This subversion suggests a liminal space that emerges through thinking beyond the boundaries that physically and socially constrain human life. Rather than anthropomorphizing the machine like her fellow Futurists, Loy breathes life into the fantasies present in nature, incorporating Icarian images and faerie phrasings to speak to Greek myths that transcend time and surpass the limitations of space.
For a shorter poem that incorporates her recurring images of felines and fertility, look into “Parturition.” Loy presents a cat in one brief stanza near the end, unifying realization and resolve as she claims the feline’s identity for her poem’s subject. After beginning the childbirth poem with sensations of her pain, she introduces a human figure: the portrait-painter. The painter sets up the contemporary expectations of women before a subversion in the final line, singing “All the girls are tid’ly did’ly / All the girls are nice / Whether they wear their hair in curls / Or—.” This sudden break from the painter’s song, aside from the more obvious questioning of whether “all the girls are nice” at all, opens limitless possibilities for the visual interpretation of the girls. At first glance, the question may seem limited to the narrator’s hair, but as Loy continues describing the poem’s subject in relation to various animals, she transforms from human to beast and back again, adding nuance to her identity with each new mask she observes. The speaker separates herself from the expectations set for women by the portrait-painter and admits her concerns surrounding childbirth, such as the “blind kittens” who do not yet know of the social structures and stigmas present in living as a human, especially as a women, with her artistic interests. As she couples the concept of a cat — often accentuated with mystical or macabre imagery — with the woman, Loy works to encompass the breadth of women’s experience and capabilities, surpassing the typical human expectations and subverting them through her speakers’ explorations of identity.
Other works of Mina Loy, such as her “Feminist Manifesto” and her “Aphorisms on Futurism,” provide examples of her innovative poetic structures, while also offering a glance into Loy’s social complexities regarding her former affiliation with the misogynistic futurists and her reclamation of their ideas into her own feminist work. Or you may explore the startling, surreal impact of Loy’s visual art, from her Communal Cot collage to her mixed media Christ on a Clothesline. In a time when polarized views increasingly drive people apart, Loy’s binary-bending works encourage introspection and constant reflection for the patient reader or viewer. Though her name is unfamiliar to many — perhaps due to her determination to challenge social and artistic boundaries while being a woman of Jewish heritage and indeterminate genre — Mina Loy continues to complicate the emotions and perceptions of those who engage with her work. Wherever you start with Loy, you will find paintings and poems that challenge, captivate, unnerve, and innovate all at once.
Photo by Man Ray