Erotic poet, writer of shocking manifestos, accomplished visual artist, modernist “it” girl, stunning beauty, sexually-liberated feminist, tragic and heartbroken wanderer: Mina Loy was all of these things. With hundreds of appearances in the letters, memoirs, and photographs of many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, where did Mina Loy disappear to in the decades between then and now? In her day, Loy was ubiquitous in artistic circles. One of Loy’s poems, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” appeared with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in the November 1922 issue of The Dial magazine. Her visual art was shown alongside Paul Gauguin’s in the 1906 Salon D’Automne in Paris. She acted in the play Lima Beans with a fan of her work, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound complimented Loy’s writing in the same breath as Marianne Moore’s. Gertrude Stein, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, identifies Loy as always “able to understand.” Loy was friends with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, she was inspired by her friend Joseph Cornell’s boxes of found objects in her own work, and she wrote the book Insel about her relationship with surrealist painter Richard Oelze. Encountered today, Loy’s work as a poet and manifesto writer, a painter and assemblage artist, a creator of exotic lamps, moves viewers and readers emotionally and challenges them intellectually. So where has Loy been all our lives?
“I never was a poet,” Loy once claimed. Another time she announced to a Parisian salon, “To maintain my incognito, the hazard I chose was – poet.” These conflicting statements likely resulted from Loy’s habit of self-fashioning, of dramatically reinventing herself as she moved from artistic circle to artistic circle, city to city, lover to lover, until she moved out of the spotlight altogether. Loy’s young adult life was characterized by frenetic globetrotting and outrageous affairs. It was during these young adult years that she befriended most of the people she knew who were making history with their work. Later in her life, although she never stopped writing and creating visual art, Loy drifted out of the avant-garde scenes, giving little concern to her reputation in the present or for posterity.
Born and raised in London, Loy moved to Munich as a young woman to begin her career as a visual art student. She continued her studies in Paris, where she met her first husband, an English painter name Stephen Haweis. Haweis and Loy were unhappily married most of their time together, and as a result, scandal was to characterize most of Loy’s young adult life. This pattern began when Loy was recovering from losing her and Haweis’ first child, Oda, to meningitis just after her first birthday. In her grief, Loy sought treatment for depression from Henry Joel Le Savoreux, and they began an affair through which Loy became pregnant with her second daughter, Joella. Haweis insisted he would assume responsibility for the child and that they must move to Florence for the sake of respectability. A year later in Florence, Loy and Haweis had a son, Giles.
But in Florence, Loy only met more men who interested her. Her first forays into writing came as a result of her affairs in Florence with two major leaders of the futurist movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. Futurism became popular in Europe beginning in 1909 when Marinetti published a first incendiary futurist manifesto which declared that art in the age of technology and industrial capitalism required a new face. Loy’s affairs with these two men created a rather public love triangle, and playwright and columnist George Cram Cook wrote in Chicago’s Evening Post in 1914 that Loy was “the woman who split the futurist movement.”
Inspired by the dynamic energy of Marinetti especially, Loy’s initial writings were vibrant manifestos such as “Aphorisms on Futurism” and her deliberately shocking “Feminist Manifesto,” both of 1914. In “Feminist Manifesto,” Loy writes boldly, “Men & women are enemies, with the enmity of the exploited for the parasite, the parasite for the exploited.” Making a startling break from the misogyny of the futurists, Loy suggests in this piece that women were being oppressed through expectations for virginity and chastity. Women deserved to be treated as individuals with their own desires, ideas, and agendas, she suggested. Shortly after she started writing, Loy turned to poetry. Keeping to feminist themes, Loy’s 1914 poem “Parturition” importantly draws attention to the female body, as Loy did in much of her early work. In it, she writes:
I am the centre
Of a circle of pain
Exceeding its boundaries in every direction
The business of the bland sun
Has no affair with me
In my congested cosmos of agony
From which there is no escape
Probably Loy’s most famous poem, however, is “Love Songs,” which later became “Songs to Joannes.” This long poem of thirty-four sections chronicles Loy’s affair with Papini. It is an erotic poem and was considered dangerous in its day not just for its content, but also for its appearance on the page, with all of its white space and lack of punctuation. This sexy poem tantalized some readers and offended others when it first appeared, and the poem’s initial lines became, upon publication in 1915, her signature lines:
Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
“Once upon a time”
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous-membrane
After Florence, Loy moved to New York in 1916 where she began her great and tragic love affair with Arthur Cravan. A handsome, larger-than-life poet, boxer, and provocateur, Cravan was to remain the object of Loy’s devotion throughout the rest of her life despite his mysterious disappearance at sea shortly after their 1918 wedding in Mexico, where they had gone so Cravan could dodge the draft. Loy was already pregnant with their daughter Fabienne, and the couple was preparing to sail a ship to Buenos Aires. Cravan, having finished outfitting the ship, took it out for a test run. He never returned. In 1929, eleven years after his disappearance, Loy wrote in response to a magazine questionnaire that the happiest moment of her life was “Every moment I spent with Arthur Cravan” and the unhappiest was “The rest of the time.” In her prose piece “Arthur Cravan is Alive!” Loy calls Cravan a “destitute world tramp” and a “biologic mystic.” She writes, “A giant who carried the circus within him, he spanned the divine and the imbecile.” Loy, like many people who knew him, idealized Cravan. In her lovely poem “The Widow’s Jazz,” she writes, “Husband / how secretly you cuckold me with death / while this cajoling jazz / blows with its tropic breath.”
The loss of Cravan was an incredible blow to Loy, and she drifted for five years from Buenos Aires to Geneva to Florence to New York back to Florence and then to Berlin before tragedy struck again. In 1923, Loy’s son Giles died of cancer at the age of fourteen when he was with his father, Haweis, in Bermuda. Disconsolate, Loy spent her first year in Paris in a horribly depressed state of mind. And perhaps this was the turning point for Loy, where she began to care less for the turns her career as a poet and visual artist would or should take.
Loy stayed in Paris for a long while, from 1923 to 1936, and during these years she wrote a series of homage poems. Like many modernists, Loy and Cravan had been taken with the concept of artistic genius, and around 1922, Loy wrote a poem called “Apology of Genius.” This poem signals the beginning of the sequence of portraits Loy was to write in the twenties celebrating artists and works she admired. The sequence included the poems “Gertrude Stein,” “Joyce’s Ulysses,” “Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” “’The Starry Sky’ of Wyndham Lewis,” “Nancy Cunard,” and “Jules Pascin.” Also written in the twenties, Loy’s lengthy poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” candidly explores being raised a “mongrel” in London by her English-Anglican mother and Hungarian-Jewish father. In a portion of that poem, Loy refers to her infant self as a “clotty bulk of bifurcate fat,” and her descriptions of her parents throughout the poem are no less irreverent. The poem’s tone is unflinchingly satirical, attacking British middle-class values, and although tenderness creeps in periodically, most of the poem makes for a brilliant and belligerent family elegy.
When Loy returned to the United States for good in 1936, she ended up living in New York’s Bowery district for several years, where she became known affectionately as “Mama Mina” and the “Duchess” among her poverty-stricken neighbors. Loy became reclusive and even more eccentric in these years, and her poems became more spiritually inflected. She wrote about what she called the “compensations of poverty.” In her 1949 poem “Hot Cross Bum,” Loy describes her companions in the Bowery as “raffish saints” and “blowsy angels.” The poem refers to the disenfranchisement of her neighbors and friends:
crowds of the choicelessly corrupted
The Bowery sanctuary’s
invasion by the vanquished
. . . in lazy anguish
Loy’s poetry in these years addresses some of the difficulties, such as alcoholism and mental illness, behind the poverty she witnessed and experienced herself. From an early age, Loy was suspicious of mainstream comforts and ideologies, and she remained so even when her life began to take prickly twists and turns. Loy went from an artistically energetic, financially secure, high profile identity to a much lower profile and less stable financial situation in later life. Heroically, she used the shift to write some very accomplished verse about the gritty side of New York City at mid-twentieth century, as well as verse which shows an appreciation for humility of perspective in life.
And so we begin to see how this artist of such great stature in her young adult life could fall into obscurity for decades. Loy allowed herself to drift out of the mainstream of avant-garde circles in her own time, living in her Bowery haven for many years before retiring to Aspen with her two daughters for the last thirteen years of her life. She died in 1966. Loy may have slipped out of the limelight, too, because her body of work, while certainly significant, is not extensive. Finally, people tend to have an intense response to Loy; she inspires either great admiration or serious disdain. Helen Vendler, for example, is a detractor, calling Loy an “uneasy heroine for feminists” in a 1996 New York Review of Books piece on Loy’s biography. Vendler suggests Loy led the life “of a child-woman, unwilling or unable to assume responsibility for herself.” Critic Reno Odlin suggests in a 1984 Antigonish Review article that Loy’s work is too autobiographical: “[W]hen we are not, at least provisionally, interested in the welfare of Mina Loy there is little to attract us in her work.”
That said, it seems that praise for Loy’s work and fascination with her life will ultimately prevail. The champions of her work in her heyday were numerous and legendary, and later in life she counted Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, and Thomas Merton among her fans. Fortunately, Loy’s admirers today are fierce enough to bring her back to the position she deserves as an important modernist. Roger Conover released collections of Loy’s writings in 1982 and 1996, and Carolyn Burke wrote a stellar biography of Loy, which also appeared in 1996. Due to the efforts of these and other editors and critics, it is possible to find copies of not only Loy’s poetry but also her stories and essays, and there are at least two collections of critical essays about Loy’s work available. Loy, it seems, is finally returning to the inner circle of modernism.
Loy was full of paradoxes. She wrote poems widely considered difficult and even dangerous, yet many readers found them meaningful. She has been eclipsed by the very luminaries who once championed her work. Her significant contribution to progressive feminism in her early work was overshadowed by the lack of feminism in her later work. And while her poetry pushed boundaries and makes for challenging, worthwhile reading to this day, she never developed a body of work as extensive as many of her contemporaries. It can certainly be said, though, that Loy was an original, likely because she prized originality so highly. She crafted herself as an individualist, always striving for innovative thoughts, writings, actions, dress, visual expressions, and she usually succeeded in achieving this novelty. You’d know a Loy poem when you read one; you’d recognize her art work as distinctively hers. And maybe that’s the mark she would have most cared to leave on the world – literary and visual art made, unmistakably, by a true original.