If you were around Paris in the 1920s, you might have heard of one Mina Loy travelling in the same circles as the likes of Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. You might also have heard that she was a fictional person, and, despite her stern denial of this rumour, if you were looking at her reception as a Modernist writer you could be forgiven for believing it.
I’m writing of Mina as a poet, but she was also an author, artist, and a decorator of lampshades. A model, a sculptor, and a designer of dresses. A feminist, a Futurist, and an inventor. Attempting to compartmentalise her would be simultaneously impossibly frustrating and fruitless. Certainly, critics and compatriots alike took issue with her, with even her at-the-time-husband Steven Haweis warning her “keep writing that way and you’ll lose your good name” (showing fairly decent sense, she instead lost his name.)
There is no Space or Time
And tame things
Have no immensity.
Early on, in the 1910s, Mina Loy fell in with the Futurist movement, with her first published work, the “Aphorisms on Futurism,” appearing in 1914. Yet she quickly realised that for women, there was no future in Futurism. She made her opinion known, with some of her poems being scathing critiques of prominent Futurists like Filippo Marinetti or Giovanni Papini (with whom she also had relationships.)
His adolescence was all there was of him
Whatever was left was rather awkward
His adolescence tuned to the tops of trees
Descended to the fallacious nobility
Of his first pair of trousers
Though she was unflinchingly critical of their flaws, her works (for example, “The Effectual Marriage”) drew both the attention and commentary of prominent Modernists like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. They found it worth both publication and praise (though in complimenting it also took a chance to put down the work of Marianne Moore, to keep competition between women alive in the Modernist sphere.)
In the evening they looked out of their two windows
Miovanni out of his library window
Gina from the kitchen window
From among his pots and pans
Where he so kindly kept her
Where she so wisely busied herself
Pots and Pans she cooked in them
All sorts of sialagogues
Some say that happy women are immaterial
Mina’s place in the world, and in the tradition of modernisms, is an interesting and contested one. Born in England, Loy visited and lived in many different parts of Europe throughout her life, and eventually called America home for a substantial portion of her life. Pound (pictured here with Loy and Jane Heap) even introduced her work to her first American audience as “something which would not have come out of any other country [than America]”, despite the poet herself coming out of England. And, despite her adoption of America, the gesture was never quite returned. Often British and American Modernisms are spoken of a different, though related, movements and despite straddling both Mina is often included in conversations about neither.
We English make a tepid blot
On the messiness
Of the passionate Italian life-traffic
Throbbing the street up steep
Up up to the porta
In the stained fresco of the dragon-slayer
I don’t want to reduce Mina to her relationships, but they’re an incredibly important part of her poetry. She was willing to express her love, her heartbreak, and her disdain. Mina was never one to fit neatly into the standards of femininity expected, as I’ve mentioned. She wrote in her early “Feminist Manifesto” that “there is nothing impure in sex – except in the mental attitude towards it.” Mina was not bound by traditional expectations of her gender and had many notable relationships, including two marriages.
Her first was to Steven Haweis in 1904, from whom she became quite estranged after their move to Florence in 1907. After this estrangement, she began her involvement (both artistic and sexual) with the thinkers of the Futurist movement, though she distanced herself from them quite quickly. She eventually moved to New York in late 1916 (leaving her children with Haweis with a nursemaid), where she met her eventual second husband, Arthur Cravan, who she married in 1918. Arthur was a Dadaist poet and boxer, and their relationship was strong. The marriage took place in Mexico (where Arthur was avoiding conscription.)
Vegetable criples of drought
thrust up the parching appeal
cracking open the earth
and hunch-backed palm trees
belabour the cinders of twilight. . . .
They lived an impoverished life in Mexico until Mina became pregnant: they then resolved that they had to leave. Arthur sailed away to Buenos Aires where Mina planned to join him, but he vanished without a trace. The damage of this disappearance hurt Mina, who struggled to accept his death at sea. Though she remained active throughout her life, producing art, poetry, and prose, the loss of Arthur is something that hurt her deeply.
the substitute dark
rolls to the incandescant memory
of love’s survivor
on this rich suttee
seared by the flames of sounds
the widowed urn
She had three children – Oda, Joella, and Giles – by Haweis, though Oda did not make it past infancy, and when Arthur vanished she was pregnant with their daughter Fabienne. Childbirth and motherhood was an important theme in Mina’s work from her earliest days as a writer, and though she left Joella and Giles in Florence when she first went to New York, she was not distant from her children. Indeed, she would go on to work with Joella’s husband, Julian Levy, representing his art business in Paris. She also ended up moving to Aspen to join her daughters in her 1953, living there until her death in 1966.
Mother I am
With infinite Maternity
I am absorbed
Of cosmic reproductivity
Rises from the subconscious
Impression of a cat
With blind kittens
Among her legs
Same undulating life-stir
I am that cat
Mina’s life included a conflicted relationship with the title of poet: she even declared “I was never a poet.” However, in dispelling the rumour of her fictional nature she declared “I assure you I am indeed a live being. But it is necessary to stay very unknown… To maintain my incognito, the hazard I chose was―poet.” As a woman poet, she was lauded as the height of modernity and an example of the new woman; a critic and compiler of Loy called her “poetry’s deviant daughter” following on from Dickinson’s “queer aunt” in introducing her work in The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Conrad Aiken, however, reviewing the magazine Others in 1919, said that readers should “pass lightly over the… tentacular quiverings of Mina Loy,” deeming them inferior to “the manly metres” of contributors like T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens. Though she exemplified la femme nouvelle, her reception was not exactly warm. She did not back down in the face of these criticisms.
In the raw caverns of the Increate
we forge the dusk of Chaos
to that imperious jewellry of the Universe
While to your eyes
A delicate crop
of criminal mystic immortelles
stands to the censor’s scythe.
That she attracted criticism with attention did not mean that Mina stood alone against the crowds – in defending offering her the title of great poet, Conover points out that not only did the commonly acknowledged “great” modernists “praise her work…some even conceded their debt to her.” Marcel Duchamp, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Wallace Stevens, and more counted themselves among her friends and contemporaries. And for a long time, all she was remembered was as a friend to them. Active in Stein’s famous salon, even when her work was out-of-print and as difficult in practical terms to read as in poetic, friend and artist Mina was still remembered.
of the laboratory
congealed to phrases
a radium of the word
She produced work until her death, not only poetry, but prose (including her only novel Insel), and art. She exhibited, and sought publication, but became steadily more reclusive later in life, largely unknown to the wider world prior to Carolyn Burke’s biography Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy appearing in 1997. She once remarked that she did not deem herself able to comment on her own work’s quality, and instead would “leave that to my post-mortem examination.” She perceived, perhaps even foretold, the fate of her work to remain buried under more lauded and prominent fellows for some time. Optimistically, she also foresaw the possibility of later critics uncovering – or even just publishing – her work and exposing it to audiences anew.
Loy had an audience as a modernist poet, but also had critical eyes turned on her, both as a woman writer and a member of new avant-garde artistic movements. She has received a revival of sorts through the attention of critics able to bring her work to new audiences, but remains footnoted as a cameo in the stories of other writers’ lives more often than not, remembered as a character or compatriot more than she is in her own right.
“As once you were”
with-hold your ghostly reference
to the sweet once were we ― ―
O leave me
my final illiteracy
of memory’s languour
to drift in lenient coma
an older Ophelia
All poems in this piece are by Mina Loy, from Roger L. Conover’s collection of her work The Lost Lunar Baedeker.
Biographical information from the work of Conover and Carolyn Burke in studies of Mina Loy’s work and life.