In a short essay on Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy writes: “You never hear anyone say: ‘I have read such and such a book by Gertrude Stein.’ People say: ‘I have read some Gertrude Stein.’ ” This some bespeaks a lack, a desire to know more, securing her on a tentative, pencilled list of 10 people who are dead that you’d invite to a dinner party.
The same could be said of Loy: To read a poem or story of hers, to glance a brief essay, to swallow a play — it’s really only to help yourself to a taste of a bountiful, unreachable feast. The dialogue she invites with her writing seems to largely be enjoyed by herself, but, with the publication by Dalkey Archive Press of the Stories and Essays of Mina Loy, we can now read some Mina Loy.
Many writers are palpably anxious that they will not be read, or that their work will be misconstrued posthumously, or that they will be lauded for something other than what they felt truly deserved recognition. No such anxiety is present in this volume. Being acknowledged as a writer was never at the forefront of Loy’s mind, and yet she couldn’t help being one, as few can be described.
Loy is known, if at all, for her poetry, though among other things she was an inventor, artist, lamp maker, mother, wife, and nurse, as well as a Christian Scientist. Born on December 27 in London in 1882, Loy spent her life in Paris, Florence, New York, Mexico — the cosmopolitan list of locales frequented by the literati of the 1920s and ‘30s. Her most well-known works — her “Feminist Manifesto” and the Lunar Baedeker series — aren’t misrepresentations of her complicated mind so much as they are slim offerings from a much larger body of work. Publishing and writing were separate matters for Loy, and she clearly did not give much time to the former. She found life preoccupying enough to not act as her own promoter.
It is no surprise then that Loy participated in the thick of modernism’s greatest bouts of activity. She was a close friend of Gertrude and Leo Stein and their salon milieu in Paris; she befriended and then bedded Filippo Marinetti, the guru of Futurism; she was close with Tristan Tzara, a central figure in Dadaism; she was championed by no less than Ezra Pound and James Joyce for her poetic prowess, later becoming friends with William Carlos Williams and Djuna Barnes. Certainly, she was admired by the proponents of these disparate -isms, but she never identified solely with one group. Instead, as her work attests, Loy drew inspiration from many movements without ever entirely committing to any of them. And yet, just as literary and artistic movements often coalesce only retrospectively, so does Loy’s work, most of which was published after her death.
The dearth of published material by Loy has prevented a greater appreciation of her range, so it’s a happy fact that more of her work is coming to light through the toil of zealous research through her archives. Stories and Essays is the elegant result of voyeuristically gleaning Loy’s papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale and comprises her “shorter prose,” according to editor Sara Crangle.
While many of the pieces are indeed brief, others evoke brevity with a quick sketch of character or a sharp turn of phrase, or simply through the tone. In her stories and plays, she customarily shows a surprising lack of sentiment for her characters, who are often obliterated by epithets, sentences that reduce worlds of wonder into a pithy syntax of perception:
“She lay where the general light pouring over the top marked a new aspect of elation on her face, as she continued in her womanly way, the epic of her virtue.” (“Transfiguration”)
“They became like people about to go to the theatre.” (“Three Wishes”)
“I sometimes think great failure makes more fascinating men, than great success.” “They have more time.” (“Three Wishes”)
“Her blind eye floated like a decaying fish in the dregs of her lucidity. There must have been parts of her even more terrifying than those that were exposed——— in “out of use” there is ugliness.” (“The Stomach”)
Loy’s writing has a streak of ridiculousness and absurdity, which sometimes seems hyperbolic and sometimes poignant, as when she names a group of children in a story 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, or when she ends a play with the words “THE END OF THEM ALL.” But when Loy writes directly of characters, she often seems detached, as though she doesn’t trust individual people enough to imbue them with sympathetic traits. The people Loy writes are often flat and dull. In one play she appropriately names the characters Somebody and Somebody Else. But if Loy’s characters fail, it’s because her strength lies in registering a mood. Her flippancy is rooted in humor. In her play The Pamperers, Diana declares, “I am Woman,” to which a subordinate allegorical character responds, “Look, here, you woman-as-you-may-say, strikes me I’ve wasted a lot of theoretic sympathy on the submerged … you don’t look half sorry for yourselves.” Indeed, Loy isn’t looking for sympathy, through her characters or her ideas. She’s petulant and fierce and ready for dismissal at every turn, which makes her a more appetizing precursor to the sidelines clarity of 1960s radicalism. She’s ridiculous rather than righteous, and she owns it beautifully.
Loy is not easy to read. There’s something continuously taunting about Loy, and it can get the better of the most patient reader. She has a marked disregard for grammar, the standard use of the dash or comma, and basic adherence to forms: She’ll create a poem out of an essay, write blocks of text meant to be a ballet, fragments rendered ingeniously as statements. Loy works against the reader to create a rousing friction that wakes you up, makes you frustrated at her, if only for a moment of comprehension.
Despite her contrariness, it’s rewarding to keep reading her to see her preoccupations unfold across different dimensions, from different angles. She returns to her upset and struggle with language (the asterisk, abortion), or the impossibility of sex equality (women are not equal to men, they are apart), or the chimerical quality of women, or brazen and often self-righteous reflections on poverty and social justice. That she emphasizes the same themes from different entry points reminds us that we are dealing with a mind in the throes of ideas, one which commits itself to some form of expression only as a last resort.
The ability to read a range of her work in different forms allows us to see Loy’s great sense of humor, almost a cheekiness, come through. It’s interesting to see how widely read works like “Feminist Manifesto” or “Aphorisms on Futurism” could have their tone misconstrued without the context of her other writings. Loy’s ability to laugh at her contemporaries with an ambiguous amount of derision may have come from her floater status between the various –isms, as well as her being a woman among a male-dominated avant-garde.
The sparseness of her prose — particularly in the essays — bespeaks that grating tendency of assuming that everyone already gets where you are coming from because it’s pure and true, and thus forgoing the actual effort, the essaying. In their shorthanded nature, they require previous familiarity with the subjects and would be better described in some cases as commentaries to unspecified texts.
Some of her longer pieces, like “History of Religion and Eros” and “Universal Food Machine,” can stand alone. “History,” which ends with the prescient sentence “Freud is unnecessary to the future,” handles the question of our physicality versus our spirituality with a determination that is bracing and fair:
A true mystic genius would never have snubbed the Creator with derogation of “the Flesh” — for also our desire, not of our own contriving, is from the Creator broadcast to us — He had merely ceased to function within range of our desiderata. He would have no more imposed chastity on the common man than would Bach have forbidden him to play the concertina. […] Between the brain and the spirit lies some intermediary sentience receiving the broadcast of our instincts.
True to form, Loy never allows words, or her sex, to estrange her from the preoccupying force field of questions. It would be easy to dismiss her as a mystic or even a pagan, but “History” deals on so many levels with the contradictory nature of knowing on which science is hollowly based. As abstract as “History” is, “Universal Food Machine” provides an outlet for her more concrete anxieties about the “electric Age.” Loy wrote this piece as a pamphlet, distributed in New York City during World War II. In it, she bemoans the “collective human organism” as paralyzed by the injustices of the age. Loy remarks on the crumbling of society all around her, attributing it to the same evils she pinpoints in “History”: An age ofscientia, logos, and experimentation is always dangerous to human beings “if we cannot succeed in evolving an ethical antidote.”
Perhaps Loy’s essays resound with me because they are so straightforward relative to her other work, and because they illuminate how she dealt with the preoccupations and anxieties of her time. Hers was an intellect that is particularly feminine, though this does not elevate nor imprison her. She is free from the identity politics that would compress all instinct, intellect, and intuition into slogans. Her feminism is always without derision or quotation marks. It is an ur-feminism. Inequality exists, bodies are at play, and, definitively, she exhorts “we shall come to realize that the body is merely an instrument.”
Loy once proclaimed she “never was a poet.” That may have been her attempt to eschew categorization, but it may have also been an admission that she never submitted herself to anything less than ideas, and that their eventual manifestation was not a cause for celebration. She attributed her poems to various names — Imna, Nima, Ova, Gina —causing Roger Conover, one of her editors, to note her raging “pseudonymania.” She was not a poet, she was Mina Loy. Perhaps this explains her indifference to critical reception and public recognition. Anonymity and declassification allowed her to be anything and nothing.