The Mina Loy Mysteries

Marjorie Perloff on the poet, playwright, novelist, futurist, feminist, designer of lamps, and bohemian
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Mina Loy
“I was trying,” Mina Loy observed in 1927, with reference to her polyglot, punning, scholastic, asyntactic, unpunctuated free-verse poems, “to make a foreign language, because English had already been used.” So distinctive was Loy’s “logopoeia” (the term Ezra Pound invented to describe this particular poet’s “dance of the intelligence among words and ideas”), that it has taken the better part of the century for her to be appreciated for what she was–one of the central avant-garde poets writing in English. Indeed, Roger Conover’s collection The Lost Lunar Baedeker is more than a new edition of Loy’s poetry; it is the only available edition of her collected (although by no means complete) works. Together with Carolyn Burke’s long awaited biography of the mysterious Mina Loy, the Farrar, Straus collection (subsequently cited as FS) is thus a major literary event.

Burke, a feminist scholar who has already published a number of important essays on Loy’s work and its place in the Modernist canon, has a fascinating story to tell; indeed, Loy’s life is the stuff of Hollywood legend: it would (and probably will!) make a great movie. Born in 1882 to Sigmund Löwy, a Hungarian Jew who settled in London and became a very successful taylor, and Julia Bryan, the lower-middle class small-town Methodist “English Rose,” as Loy herself referred to her mother in her autobiographical narrative poem Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (1925), Mina Lowy (later Loy) never quite “fit” in anywhere. Rebelling against her strict and prudish mother, the stunningly beautiful Mina attended art school, first in St. John’s Wood and then in Munich, where the baronial couple with whom she boarded and who were supposed to be her protectors, put the beautiful girl in the way of a succession of young men in the hopes of “compromising” her and then blackmailing her parents. Fortunately, Mina found them out before anything happened and returned briefly to England before moving on to the art academies in Paris.

At the studio of a friend, Loy met Stephen Haweis, a short and ugly young fellow artist from England who was evidently bisexual. She admired his pedigree more than she did him: his mother had been an arbiter of fashion during the 1870s and 80s and wrote books, among them Chaucer for Children, which Loy had read. In a strange episode in which Loy claimed to have been hypnotized, Haweis seduced the twenty-year old virgin and she found herself pregnant. Marriage seemed the only solution. “Thus it came about,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography [the Loy papers are at the Beineke Library at Yale], “that this weakened creature actually united in wedlock to the being on earth whom she would have least chosen.”

Not surprisingly, the marriage proved to be a disaster. The baby, Oda Janet, born in May 1904 , on a night when Haweis was seeing another woman, died two days after her first birthday. Loy showed some watercolors at the Salon d’Automne and was making some progress as an artist. But she and Haweis separated, and the next year she had an affair with the French physician who treated her for depression, Dr. Henri Joël Le Savoureux. By the time she found herself once again pregnant, the affair was over. Haweis, who knew all about it and needed her income, offered to act the role of father; the couple reunited and moved to Florence. In July 1907 Joella was born and, since Haweis badly wanted a child of his own, in 1909, Loy gave birth to a son, Giles. The children, brought up as was then the custom in their circle, by servants, demanded little of Loy’s attention and she became a very active member of the Anglo-American expatriate colony which included Gordon Craig, Bernard Berenson, Carl Van Vechten, and especially Mabel Dodge, who became Loy’s best friend , and at whose house she met Gertrude and Leo Stein.


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Mina Loy (seated) and Peggy Guggenheim (standing) in Paris, France, ca. 1926. Photograph: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

It is this period, around 1912, that she shifted her primary allegiance from painting to poetry, although, as Burke tells it, there was never a conscious decision to “become a poet.” And indeed, the main “events” of the war years were Loy’s separation from Haweis (who went off to Tahiti in search of new inspiration for his art) and her affairs with both F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini, the two competitive Futurist leaders finally having a nasty falling-out over her. Futurism proved to be a big influence on Loy’s own writing–she wrote, for example, a manifesto “Aphorisms of Futurism” and a “Feminist Manifesto,” using the typography, lay-out, and parole in libertà Marinetti had made famous. At the same time, she found herself disgusted with the patriarchalism and misogyny of her Italian lovers, and when war broke out, she was eager to join Mabel Dodge in the U.S. She had already published in Camera Work, Rogue, and Others and wanted to be where the action was. Leaving Giles and Joella with the servants, Loy sailed for the New York, arriving in October 1916.


 


Now followed the great romance that has intrigued later artists and critics and that is the subject of Albert Guerard’s novel The Hotel in the Jungle, of which more below. In New York, Loy was greeted as the author of the notoriously racy “Love Songs,” published in Others–love songs that dared refer to the “rosy snout” of a “Pig Cupid . . . Rooting erotic garbage,” or to “The skin-sack / In which a wanton duality / Packed / All the completions of my infructuous impulses.” Taken up by the Arensberg Circle, Loy ran around with Marcel Duchamp, the Picabias, and William Carlos Williams, acted in playlets by Alfred Kreymborg, wrote and performed in her own plays, and was in general the gorgeous poet-belle of New York until she met the love of her life, Arthur Cravan, the infamous “Dada boxer” (he had fought [and lost] a match with Jack Johnson, the then heavyweight champion, in Barcelona), whose real name was Fabius Avernarius Lloyd and who was Oscar Wilde’s nephew. A huge, blond, virile and boorish drunk, a draft dodger who came to the U.S. without any papers, Cravan dabbled in poetry and art, briefly edited a little Dada magazine and engaged in every sort of wild exploit until the U.S. entered the war, at which point he was at risk of being deported. He and Loy had fallen madly in love (even their names Loy and Lloyd matched!), and when he decided to escape to Mexico, she joined him. Their Mexican idyll of 1918 (more properly, their bumming around in near-starvation conditions) was cut short when Mina again found herself pregnant. She and Cravan married, but it was decided that she must go to England to have the baby (the war was now over), and she booked passage on a ship from Argentina to London. Meanwhile, Cravan, who had no proper papers, fixed up a sail boat in Salina Cruz, where they were then staying, and planned to pick up a larger boat up the Pacific coast, and sail, with a group of friends to Chile, joining Loy in Europe as soon as possible. On the day that he tried out his new boat, Loy waved to him from the pier. The boat disappeared from sight and Loy never saw him again. [Read More]

This is an extract from Marjorie Perloff’s ‘The Mina Loy Mysteries: Legend and Language’, first published in American Book Review, 18, no. 1 (Oct-Nov. 1996): 16-17, 26. You can read the rest of the article on Perloff’s website at marjorieperloff.com.

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