Stories and Essays of Mina Loy
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
Best known as a poet, the English-born writer Mina Loy (1882 – 1966) was one of the great, eccentric, and under-sung geniuses of cosmopolitan modernism. She knew everyone—not only the major Anglophone poets of the period (Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams, Stein, Barnes)—but also such pivotal Continentals as the French Dadaist Arthur Cravan and the Italian Futurists Filippo Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. As these affiliations suggest, her significant poetic output might best be located at the intersection of American modernism and the systematic derangements of the European avant-garde. Her long poem-sequence “Songs to Joannes” (addressed, presumably, to a composite figure consisting of her former lovers Marinetti and Papini) remains the great (anti)-love poem of its period. Eros, in Loy’s anti-sentimental vision, is a mere “Spawn of Fantasies / Silting the appraisable / Pig Cupid his rosy snout / Rooting erotic garbage…”
With the exception of a posthumously published Künstlerroman called Insel and a handful of short essays, Loy’s extensive body of prose, unpublished in her own lifetime and after, has remained shut up in archives and unavailable to most readers. No longer. With the publication of Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, ably edited and comprehensively annotated by Sara Crangle, the full breadth of Loy’s achievement outside of verse—comprising short fiction, plays, essays, and even the précis for a ballet—becomes evident.
In her prose no less than her poetry, Loy is a violent manipulator of the harsher sonorities available to the English line. Though she loves Latinate diction, her sentences maintain a strange, spasming rhythm, and a consonantal hardness, which can sound peculiarly Anglo-Saxon. Her stories are typically brief character sketches, nearly plotless, proceeding by the accumulation of vicious little images. It is a pleasure to quote them. A weak mouth is a “shapeless snare, thin; contractile as a sting.” Conversation between a married couple is “like a game of tennis in which the husband served the ball gallantly to his wife—the wife retaliating with a lump of coal or a potato.” A deteriorating old woman’s “blind eye floated like a decaying fish in the dregs of her lucidity.” As one unnamed character has it in a story called “Lady Asterisk,” “Art is a grimace of creation,” which could serve as Loy’s motto. The superb cruelty of Loy’s language participates in what the scholar Lesley Higgins, borrowing the phrase from Pound, has referred to as modernism’s “cult of ugliness”; for Loy, the aesthetic eye renders the world with a forcefulness at once grotesque and entrancing.
The modern cult of ugliness was also, often, a cult of masculinism, as attested by the he-man histrionics of fascist Futurist bombast. Loy’s erstwhile Italian comrades were not notably good on women, and two of the most revealing pieces in Stories and Essays, a longish story called “Pazzarella” and a play called “The Sacred Prostitute,” give us Loy’s rather affectionate satire on the misogyny of the Italian avant-garde. “The Sacred Prostitute” features a character named “Futurism” engaging in Marinettiean bluster, reducing the language of the famous 1909 manifesto to a stuttering joke: “I—dynamic—plastic—velocity—stop—!” For Futurism, “women are only animals—they have no souls,” an attitude which doesn’t prevent a chorus of adoring females from begging to “write our names with our life-blood in your autograph album!” Loy would not leave her name buried in the Futurist guestbook. She may have derived aspects of her oppositional aesthetics from Marinetti and company, but she possessed far too critical an intelligence to drink the Kool-Aid.
Loy’s critical intelligence is everywhere in evidence in the essays that make up the last third of the volume. These include brief sketches on other writers and artists (Stein, Williams, Brancusi), a philosophical dialogue on the nature of creativity, and several suggestive statements on aesthetics. Her pithy take on artistic abstraction in “The Metaphysical Pattern in Aesthetics” is especially rich: “The moderns present the map of their individuality without the secondary reconstruction of the pictorial coherence of our customary vision.” Loy’s own individuality is unmistakable; she defies our customary vision at every turn. She sounds like no one else, and what she writes of William Carlos Williams is true also of her: she practices that “ultimate exactitude which alone refreshes poetry with unexpected marriages of words.”