J A C K E T  # 5
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Keith Tuma : Loy at Last
 
Mina Loy, "The Lost Lunar Baedeker". Ed. Roger L. Conover (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996)

This piece was first published in the Notre Dame Review in 1996
You can read more about Mina Loy in this issue of Jacket.

I HADN'T MEANT TO write anything on Roger Conover's new edition of Mina Loy's poems, happy as I was to see it appear. I figured the more interesting approach would be to wait for the reviews of the book and write something about them. I had an inkling that Mina Loy's time had come, that this Conover edition, given its publisher,f would reach a public an earlier Jargon Books edition had not. The nearly simultaneous publication of Carolyn Burke's biography, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, would help to push Loy over the top. I was right, I guess -- the books have been widely reviewed in publications as various as Harper's Bazaar, Modernism/Modernity, American Book Review, and TLS, and Mina Loy's name seems to be everywhere. In the week that I type this I've found it in a electronic PostModern Culture review of The University of Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center and, out of the blue, on a listserv devoted to experimental British poetry, where Loy's poem "O Hell" was cited by the Australian poet John Kinsella. In London a month or so ago I saw the Carcanet edition of Conover's book on the shelves of some pretty average bookstores where nothing was stocked by contemporary British poets such as Tom Raworth , J. H. Prynne, Maggie O'Sullivan or anybody else not right down the center or floating behind a mainstream. Reviews of the Loy edition have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, though Helen Vendler is not, it seems, altogether convinced that the gates should be opened and Loy admitted to -- to what? The elegant badger is already out the barn door. The predictable response of Vendler and some others breeds discourse, accelerating the name already ineradicably a part of the discourse of modern poetry, feeding the fires of those for whom Mina Loy's work has long been a "cause," near the center of various arguments about aesthetics and poetics, or gender and modernism. Beyond Vendler others have felt it their duty in life to make ill-informed statements about Loy's fitness as a mother, sometimes allowing their exhaled righteousness to pollute an evaluation of poems they would rather not read. A few boos to set off the chorus of cheers.
      Conover's edition is surely deserving of praise. It's meticulously edited and annotated to be of use equally to scholars and readers needing introduction to the personalities and propositions of Italian Futurism and whatever and whoever else enters into the poems. A few changes have been made in the poems also appearing in the Jargon edition, most of which are carefully explained though not all of which equally please. The opening lines of "Three Moments in Paris," for instance, have been changed from present tense -- "Though you have never possessed me/I have belonged to you since the beginning of time" -- to past: "Though you had never possessed me/I had belonged to you since the beginning of time." The breathlessness and consonantal richness of "have never" is deflated to wry narrative, the awkwardness of articulating "had" before "never" seeming of a different order than the metallic stuttering of her best poems, where hard consonants rattle like arcane dictionaries bouncing on the tin roof of a music hall, and verbs (and nouns looking like verbs) are often offered their own line -- as if the power to propel a racket of eroticized jargon and ironized poeticisms towards the stony propositions of sentence were a perpetual source of amazement. If the cost of getting towards an accurate, usable and widely available text is one disappointment, that's small cost indeed. And the gains -- several previously unpublished poems, the short essay "Modern Poetry" with its remarks on jazz and American speech and the Americanness of the modernist moment in poetry, among others -- are cause for another fifty hurrahs. The only unfortunate limitation to the edition is the omission of the long poem "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose" for reasons of space, but it is soon to appear in another book edited by Conover. I'm not sure everyone knows how much the poetry world owes Roger Conover for decades of work on Loy's behalf; together with Burke and a few other scholars and poets he has brought her back from near-oblivion to the celebrity she knew once briefly in New York. There was something perfect about the page in Harper's Bazaar, the sensation become a sensation again as she enters the archive, touching down just once in the glossy pages, beautiful and scandalous in the sheen of sex and fashion.
      While few can regret an available Loy, I wonder sometimes whether the romance of her previously "inobvious" status -- to use a word from one of her best poems -- will leave her most ardent and longstanding admirers shaking their heads at a new world with Loy really in it as a public good. And I wonder what will be made of Loy, and which Loy? It's neither a surprise nor necessarily a bad thing that the life has sustained its fascination, for the life no less than the poems challenges us, less for the earlier years of cosmopolitan avant-garde engagements than for the years in the Bowery, where Loy wrote the poems which now seem the most unassimilable and surprising. They have the ethical and emotional force of someone who has drifted beyond any point at which art and poetry might matter to art worlds for shock or for scandal, for Futurist super- consciousness or satire of the same. The poems exist in nearly the same relationship to modernist poetry as George Oppen's years of silence: they're of another, more desperate world, "unauthorized by the present." Inobviousness was her fate, but it also became her aesthetic as the theatrical, performative self wrestling with its constructedness contracted to a point of pain, and an earlier irony turned to project the miraculous upon a staggering, everyday world of "human rubble." In the scheme of Conover's edition, Loy's last and most critically unscrutinized poems are gathered in a section entitled "Compensations of Poverty." One is glad for the opportunity to think of them as a group, to see what's left of the satirist present in the book's first grouping, "Futurism and Feminism: The Circle Squared," where Loy shows herself to be better at manipulating Futurist conventions in idiom than the Futurists themselves, even as she is skewering the misogynist posturing and rhetoric of the movement.
 
I CAN SAY THAT this last Loy seems the oddest and most challenging only because of the now seemingly secure status of "Songs to Joannes" as a definitive modernist poetic sequence, a poem every bit as important as "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" but more interesting for the emotional range and complexity of its diction and the polyvalent relations among its condensed sections. Less burdened than "Mauberley" by its historical moment, its real competitors among the modernist poems of its era are Pound's "Propertius" and maybe this or that by Stein and Williams. The shorter poems with the lengthiest critical pedigree, having attracted comment from Yvor Winters and other poets and critics among the few who kept her name alive across long years of neglect, are primarily gathered in this edition's "Corpses and Geniuses." Here one finds the poems for Poe, Stein, Lewis, Joyce, Cunard, and Pascin, plus others such as "Apology of Genius" and "Der Blinde Junge," which Thom Gunn thinks Loy's finest:
 
 
Sparkling precipitate
the spectral day
involves
the visionless obstacle
 
this slow blind face
pushing
its virginal nonentity
against the light
 
Pure purposeless eremite
of centripetal sentience
 
 
 
One can hear those plosives in the couplet popping with the anger and unsentimental studiousness of William Blake spitting on the fire; the language intrudes upon our social indifference like the blind youth it describes, defining postwar pavements. It's Blake I sometimes find myself reading Loy beside lately, more than Laforgue, Stein, and her closest peer stylistically, Wyndham Lewis, largely because I know of few other bodies of work manifesting such an idiosyncratic admixture of lexicons and traditions. The most esoteric modernist discourses in art and psychology mingle with a still more esoteric mysticism crossed by Christian Science and locked in a struggle with the mind-body dualisms she found responsible for most of the evil done to women and others in the world, the blindnesses of religion and poetry both. Beyond Bergson and Laforgue there are a host of forgotten utopian socialists, post-Freudian psychologists, and writers on religion whose influence on Loy will be a matter of some speculation for years to come in the wake of Conover's and Burke's work.
 
BUT TO CUT SUCH FORMAL CLARITY from such a muddle -- that's what's remarkable. She did it, I think, by dragging all these discourses across the simplest of grids -- neo-skeltonic leash rhymes irregularly deployed, as Marjorie Perloff has noted, words and phrases allowed the tactile resistance of a gob of paint on the canvas, begrudgingly pursuing the proposition which is to be, as it were, extracted like an impacted wisdom tooth. She wrote what one might call "Songs After Experience" for a world purportedly beyond fable but more often than not incapable of understanding what was right in front of it glimmering in painful and ecstatic opacity, a world where the automobile and the skyscraper and jazz music had stolen the iconic force of tigers and lambs. For all of her vocabulary, hers remains a populist work in form and sometimes in sentiment, aimed at initiates and hypersophisticates who'd lost sight of their surroundings, sometimes documenting her depression at what had become of the woman who'd wanted like most everybody else early in the century to leap electrically into possibility. A feminist materialism made to absorb the pressures of the desire for transcendence. I don't imagine that she'll disappear again soon, if only we can find her. The work, at least, is now here, and once again Roger Conover deserves our thanks for that.
 

 

This piece was first published in the Notre Dame Review.
 
Keith Tuma 
Keith Tuma is the author of numerous essays on modern and contemporary British and American poetry and culture and your odd poem and performance text. Two books are forthcoming in November: Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern British Poetry and American Readers (Northwestern University Press) and a collection of essays co-edited with Maeera Shreiber, Mina Loy: Person and Poet (National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine).
 
Photo: copyright © Tom Raworth
 
 

 
 
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