On Mina Loy’s Poetry

Laying Out the Exiled Body: Notes on the Spatial Structure of Mina Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”*

Ari Adipurwawidjana

This piece of writing assumes, on the mere basis of the title, that the issue of the historical exile due to race and gender is the underlying notion around which Mina Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” revolve. In the first encounter the poem shows itself to be a labyrinth of words. It demands what any text, be it an advertisement or the utterances of a psychoanalyst’s patient on a sofa demands: to be understood. Fulfillment of such a task entails the revelation of an identity. However, that identity is manifest through the disembodied voice the existence of which can only proven by the existence of the body of the poem.

Despite the aforementioned general assumptions about texts, I will not attempt to interpret the long, three-sectioned poem as such, and therefore, neither will assume that it is in fact semi-autobiographical. Meaning through signification will not be the end of the reading. The project will not be to ask what the poem means but rather what it does. It will attempt to see how the poem operates due to the poem’s resistance to, or at least evasion from, interpretation. Therefore, as a number of writers who have set out to take on the interpretive task in the face of Loy’s poetry, I will initially look at the condition out of which the poem was born, namely Mina Loy’s person and her career as an artist.

First, this condition shows that Mina Loy is a manifest feminist, who declares:

The Feminist movement as at present instituted is inadequate, that women should cease to place their confidence in economic legislation, vice-crusades and uniform education, that they should deny at the outset that pathetic, clap-trap war cry Woman is the equal of man [my emphasis].” (qtd. in Potter “Waiting” 258)

This statement gives some light as to how to approach her poem. Clearly, it suggests that Loy does not trust legislation, the most formal manifestation of the Law, and that she insists on refraining from submitting to the rhetoric of “rights,” which defines the civic place of men. Therefore, one step, which I shall take in this project, is to resign from the task of interpretation, to refrain from assuming that Loy’s poem operates under the auspices of the symbolic procedures of linear patriarchal language. After all, it is a poem, and therefore, I shall assume the semiotic approach to poetic language as proposed by Kristeva.

Furthermore, Potter remarks that in lieu of the “rights-based focus of existing feminist politics,” Loy in her feminist manifesto of 1914 proposes that “women’s liberation would be most effectively consolidated through the surgical destruction of virginity in pre-pubescent girls” (Potter “Waiting” 258). This implies that if Loy were to make a statement, she would do so not by means of the linguistic-symbolic but out of the somatic-semiotic. This suggests that what would adequately serve the field on which her creative forces work is the spatial chora. This is understandable considering the fact that Mina Loy was a visual artist and theatrical performer as much as she was a poet. Therefore, a portion of this task of approaching Loy’s poem prior to any daring attempt of reading is to glance at the general composition of some of her paintings, drawings, and collage and compare them to the way her poem is laid out on the two-dimensional page so as to map out the ideas that come together to form the poem.

However, it would be quite misleading also to assume that the poem is the representation of her body. Though metaphors of physicality are prevalent in the poem, the poem is only a body as it is the body for the voice of the subject in the poem. Nevertheless, this subject is not a unitary consciousness. As the focus and perspectives shifts from Exodus, the exiled Jewish
father; Ada, the imperial rose mother; and Ova, the mongrel-rose daughter, the voice also alters. Neither does each of these figures form any kind of centrality for each section. The father is not the archetypal father. He is an exile begotten out of a gentile mother and consequently also a “disinherited” father (22). Exodus is then doubly disinherited, and as Jew in a European world, he is thus doubly exiled. His mother’s revealing to him that “he was seven month’s child” (210) when he “leapt from the womb” (5) suggests that he still in a way belongs in the womb and is continuously trapped in the imaginary held back from becoming a man.

The poem, both in its sections and its entirety, is decentered in its semantic structure leaving numerous gaps in the textual mesh. On the printed page, the poem clearly shows visible spaces between words. These spases may be seen as an element in the set of visual peculiarities of the poem. In general, these spatial and visual features take the place of conventional punctuations. If it may be assumed that punctuation represents the suprasegmental aspects of spoken language, it may also be understood that punctuation operates under the same linearity as speech, which characterizes
patriarchy. Thus, it can be concluded that the visual and spatial features represent the general breaking away from linearity and therefore also patriarchal language.

While the language of the Law regulates the symbolic function, the chora lays out the field for the body to dance in. In Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” spaces between words and lines indicate that the poem operates within the semiotic function allowed by the spaces provided by the chora. In conventional syntax, words occupy a one-dimensional line which uncompromisingly regulate words into a series. The spaces in this particular poem of Loy’s—not many show this characteristic\—open additional levels of space into which the word can slip out of linearity and obtain a oblique relationship with other words in the poem, revealing a visually apparent collocative and associative relationship. In lines 64 to 72, the words in a line are separated into spaces, which in a way creates two columns. The columns create a space for words to relate to each other in addition to the line:

 

An insect from an herb
errs on the man-mountain
imparts its infinitesimal tactile stimulus
to the epiderm to the spirit
of Exodus
stirring the anaesthetized load
of racial instinct frustrated
impulse infantile impacts with unreason
on his unconscious

 

If forced into a linear syntactic structure, the lines would read: “An insect from an herb errs on the mountain-man[,/and] imparts its infinitesimal tactile stimulus to the epiderm, to the spirit of Exodus, stirring the aenesthetic load of racial instinct, frustrated impulse, [and] infantile impacts with unreason, on his unconscious.” My attempt to provide appropriate punctuations and conjunctions shows that the conventional mechanics of linear language would impose a singular understanding of the relationship between, for example, “errs” and “imparts” by either appropriating a comma or an “and.” However, the choral space, which the poem has opened, makes it possible for the two verbs to have a harmonious ambivalent relationship. This is characteristic of the whole poem’s being “heterogeneous to meaning but always in sight of it or in a negative or surplus relationship to it” (Kristeva 133). In other words, it resists meaning but its resistance recognizes the impending weight of meaning in language, albeit poetic, allowing either complete denial of any kind of linguistic significance or a variety of possibilities for meaning. It variably and simultaneously terminally disables and infinitely enables the interpretive act directed toward it.

 

It is important to observe that the spaces also form a framework of lattices, which resemble the way lines grid the space in her visual art. Consider Le Maison en papier.

While the bodies of the six characters overlap and intertwine, the segmentation of the paper wall of the bathhouse helps configure the spatial relationship between them. The frame simultaneously connects them into the whole of the space and emphasizes the individuality of each body.

Also, the creation of that extra space allows the second column to collocate vertically developing the allusion of “man-mountain” to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels down to “the tactile stimulus,” to finally “his unconscious” implies that even the minutest violation of the body is a numbing of consciousness. What is more important is, however, that the breaking of linearity with a possible logic perpendicular to it\suggests Loy’s surgical renting of the textual hymen as the seal of the Law’s ownership of the individual body.

Unlike the number of critics which tend to lean too exclusively toward a feminist interpretation in the sense that Loy’s poetic resistance solely voices the damaging impact of patriarchy on the female subject, I see that “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” depicts the Law to enforce its power in a trinity of mutually fortifying avatars: patriarchy, capital, and empire.

The poem does not focus singularly on the feminine-gendered subject. It begins with the fractured identity of Exodus as well as both his parents suffering the marginalization of an oppressive social structure. Exodus, despite his being male, is not depicted to be inheritor of the masculinity of the Law. He has

 

[…] grown    
neglected      along the shores of the Danube
on the Danube in the Danube
-or breaking his legs behind runaway horses-
      with a Carnival quirk
      every Shrove Tuesday (6-11)

 

Exodus’s surrounding element is fluid and his relationship to it is varied. He is associated with the carnival, which Kristeva, with reference to Bakhtin, identifies as the opposite of linear narrative (88). The spatial placement of Exodus’s location in relation to the Danube is also interesting. The participle “neglected” is flushed to the left margin in line with “on the Danube in the Danube.” This spatial collocation suggests the exiled quality of being neglected with locative fixity. On the other hand, the implied choral festiveness of the Carnival and Shrove Tuesday is aligned with the fluid aspect of the Danube. Thus, in parallel simultaneity Exodus’s non-location outside the Law is presented as both being denied it and free from it.

Nevertheless, this exiled character constantly portrayed to have the desire to penetrate the limitations which separates him from the realm of the empire similar to the ambivalent relationship he has with the Jewish community:

Imperial Austria taught the child
the German secret patriotism
the Magyar tongue the father
stuffed him with biblical Hebrew and the
seeds of science exhorting him
to vindicate
his forefather’s ambitions
Kouidis remarks, seemingly likening Loy’s use of spaces to Dickinson’s dashes, that “[t]he internal spaces reflect pauses of the intuition and leaps into the subconscious” (181). I would agree insofar that intuition is associated with the chora. However, to suggest that the spaces represent pauses would be indifferent to what I think is Loy’s effective use of space in the act of writing. Though obviously the poem comes into being as an enactment of Loy’s creative imagination and her imaginings of her own coming to being, the poem on the page at the moment that it is manifest on the
page becomes a separate entity detached from its authorial origin. Mina Loy afterwards merely functions as the author as a textual aspect. According to Foucault, “author” functions as a “figure” to which the text points and is attributed, but understood to be “outside it and antecedes it” (Foucault 264). It is characterized by the contemporary conventions about “[t]he form of ownership from which [texts] spring,” about the “types of texts [requiring] attribution to an author,” about the author’s being “the result of a complex operation which constructs a certain rational being that we call ‘author,'” and about notions of origin and authenticity (Foucault 268-270). In short, the author function is just a convenient personification of the voice of the text itself. It is quite obvious that Ova is the parallel of Mina Loy, and her relation to Exodus and Ada resembles that of Loy’s to her parents. However, the whole structure of the poem points to a voice attributed to a personage known as Mina Loy. In that sense, not only Ova but also Exodus and Ada are poetic incarnations of Mina Loy.

This is the main problem with Mina Loy criticism so far. It is too preoccupied with her person, partly because the text’s evasiveness directs the interpretive enterprise toward the more stable, more centered figure of the writer’s person and because Mina Loy herself is somewhat a text. Her range of aesthetic endeavors forms a spectrum consisting of her body in one extreme, and in the other her photographic performance as a model, her visual art, and her poetry. It must be kept in mind that the aesthetic form with which Dickinson works is quite different from Loy’s. Dickinson was not a public speaker, nor was she a well-developed visual artist. Her explorations with possibilities of writing were thus limited to whatever cracks and loopholes language provided.

More importantly, the development in and prevalence of print technology made it possible for Loy to play with more typographical variants than Dickinson, whose dash is really just the printer’s interpretation of obscure markings (definitely the sign of the chora) on her manuscripts. Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrel and the Rose” is virtually bereft of punctuations in the conventional sense. The poem retains the function of the capital letter as the sign for the beginning of a sentence, but, reasonably enough does away with periods to mark the end. It also keeps the conventional usage of double quotes, which marks direct speech, and single quotes, which signifies unique word usage. There are special typographical characters commonly used as punctuation, which in “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” function in a different way from their normal utilization, namely hyphens (in sets of one, two, three, and five) and multiplication signs in sets of three. The latter set always functions as a marker separating certain stanza units from another. The former, however, are situated in the poem in a variety of ways suggesting a similar diversity of functions.

In most instances, the markings fill in spaces much in the same way as words. They may function as signifiers for a language with no signifieds. Or, they may represent signifiers for signifieds lay in the poem’s own subjectivity. Either way, the poem indicates that non-linguistic elements are in play and causes the breakdown of linguistic integrity. Such a textual instance occurs when Exodus as the intruder of the empire first meets Ada as the feminized, perfect form of the empire:

And the rose

rises

from the green

of a green lane

rosily-stubborn

and robustly round

– – – – –

Under a pink print

sunbonnet

the village maid

scowls at the heathen

Albion

in female form

salutes the alien Exodus

staring so hard—

warms his nostalgia

on her belligerent innocence

– – The maidenhead

drooping her lid

and pouting of her breast

– – forewarns

his amity

– – – – –

Amorphous meeting

in the month of May

– – – – –

(449-473)

Amorphous it is. The poem underlines the destructiveness of the event both by its self-referential comment and the disintegration of its syntactic structure. The hyphens open an entrance to the poetic chora
as the ambiguity of physical gestures initiate the collapse. The maidenhead offers the ambivalence which mixes the untouchable, immaculate image of the Virgin Mary and the forbidding hymen/tempting vagina, that is both impenetrability and invitation. Similarly, the “pouting of her breast,” in itself neutral, becomes double-edged: either disapproval or affirmation. In the moment of crisis, her initial stately appearance and threatening looks upon the trespasser succumbs to Exodus’s “staring so hard.” It is not a sudden defeat either. Something happened between line 454 and 455, as indicated by the five-hyphen intrusion. Then after line 458, her position shifts with indentation, while the stable post of the left margin is taken over by Exodus with his penetrating gaze. This violent moment on woman’s body as the seal of the authoritative purity and grandeur of the empire resemble the crushing effect of decorum for the interest of the male gaze as displayed by Loy’s drawing “Consider Your Grandmother’s Stays.”

The woman seems to be squeezed by the overwhelmingly space-occupying dress until her arms and head appear to dangle out of her disappearing torso. Ironically, Loy herself had had the experience of being constricted by the male gaze. In a photograph taken by her husband Stephen Haweis, the image of Loy’s body more closely resembles the falling apart of Ada’s presence in the poem than her drawing:

In the picture Loy’s identity “is reduced to a voyeuristic fetish, her body is exposed as the object of the violence of the male (gaze)” (Goody 278). Like the “maidenhead | drooping her lid,” Loy cannot return the gaze of the male camera.

However, it is Exodus that penetrates the emblem of the empire. This Exodus earlier in the poem is sent to live with “Sinister foster-parents | who lashed the boy | to that paralysis of | the spiritual apparatus | common to | the poor” (40-45). And later on in his life he joins “voluntary military | service paradise of the pound-stirling [sic] | where the domestic Jew in lieu | of knouts is lashed with tongues” (56-59). Each character within their respective sections is marginalized and victimized, but bring about the eventual violence of another. The marriage of Exodus and Ada results in the birth of Ova. Her birth is not a miracle:

Her face
screwed to the mimic-salacious
grotesquerie of a pain
larger than her intellect
– – – – They pull
A clotty bulk of bifurcate fat
out of her loins (674-680)
Again the hyphens appear in the liminal instance upon the coming to existence of another body within the choral space. It a transitional space between the grotesqueness of giving birth and being born, the sheer physical labor, where the rigid strictures of language cannot function. It is the Kristevaean abject. Out of this indescribable event outside the realm of the law is the image and voice of the artist, in whose person “Jesus of Nazareth | becomes one-piece | with Judas Iscariot in this composite | Anglo-Israelite” (725-729). As she is born out of this in-between space, through it also she squeezes into the symbolic order:
And instantly
this fragmentary
simultaneity
of ideas
embodies
the word
A
lucent
iris
shifts
its
irradiate
interstice
Mina Loy’s “Anglo-Mongrel and the Rose” is not a labyrinth after all. Its non-linearity, ambiguity, and ambivalence indicate its exhaustion of the potentials of poetic language and extensive exploration. Her use of non-letter typographical characters and space “creates a dense, multi-layered text which elaborates and synthesizes connections among personal, cultural, social, and moral” (Jaskoski 351). It is the same explorative spirit which she seeks from shifting from one media to another, much in the same way her poetry moves up and down the page. Unfortunately, it is her exploration in the spaces of the chora in various fields that she disappeared from the memory of academic scholarship, until her rediscovery by Virginia Kouidis. For Loy poetry is the process of “defining her own place within the ‘spatiality’ of poetry” (Burke 137). In her lifetime, she had expanded that poetic space into the realms of various media, which the ever-changing subject of “Anglo-Mongrel and the Rose” has found through the crevices of rigid linear language.

References

Burke, Carolyn. “Becoming Mina Loy.” Women’s Studies 7 (1980): 137-150.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Eds. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer. New York: Longman, 1989: 263-275.

Goody, Alex. “Ladies of Fashion/Modern(ist) Women: Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes.” Women: A Cultural Review 10.3 (1999): 267-282.

Jaskoski, Helen. “Mina Loy Outsider Artist.” Journal of Modern Literature 18.4 (1993): 349-368.

Kouidis, Virginia M. “Rediscovering Our Sources: The Poetry of Mina Loy.” Boundary 2 8.3 (1980): 167-188.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Nicholls, Peter. “‘Arid Clarity:’ Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, and Jules Laforgue.” The Yearbook of English Studies 32 (2002): 52-64.

Potter, Rachel. “At the Margins of the Law: Homelessness in the City in Mina Loy’s Late Poems.” Women: A Cultural Review 10.3 (1999):253-265.

—. “Waiting at the Entrance to the Law: Modernism, Gender, and Democracy.” Textual Practice 14.2 (2000): 253-263.

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