The Lost Lunar Baedeker:Poems
Farrar Straus Giroux
IF THE WRITER Mina Loy is remembered at all, it's as a kind of shadow figure. There she is, scratching around in the margins of Gertrude Stein's memoirs. Or Marcel Duchamp's. Or Djuna Barnes's. Or in some of the many romans a clef that came out of Greenwich Village's expatriate bohemia during the Great War era. It was the heyday of Cubism and Futurism, of radical feminist manifestos, Freudian psychoanalysis, and fly-by-night playhouses. And with all that, around 1916, came the incursion of free verse poetry, American style, the likes of which no one had imagined even a decade before. Little hand-set zines cropped up in the Bowery's back rooms, with names like Others and Rogue and contents that, to the critical ear of the literary old guard, sounded like boiled static. Loy's poems back then--full of cerebral eroticism and slangy pig latin--were first on the blacklist. But it was a short-lived kind of fame.
Why some writers survive in the canon while others are blotted out may have as much to do with luck as talent. Loy was unlucky, in love and in legacy. Her various husbands tended to run off with their mistresses or drown at sea, leaving Loy, by age 35, with a flock of kids and a smeared reputation in an age when virginity and female virtue still mattered, even for an avant-garde artist. Academic critics tended to despise her, as much for what they viewed as her wanton conduct as for the manner in which Loy translated this autobiographical material into verse. On the other hand, Ezra Pound believed at the time that Loy, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams were the only poets in America doing anything worth noting. But like Emily Dickinson, Loy published only a smattering of her work: two obscure books and a couple dozen poems in her lifetime. By 1930, the volumes were out of print, other manuscripts were lost, and Loy had retreated into the history of shadows.
So why resurrect her? Lord knows we've had enough of hack critics and their pet projects, trying to breathe new life into forgotten writers better left forgotten. Roger L. Conover, who's been fighting to bring Loy into the modern-day canon since the early 1980s, and has selected and edited a new edition of Loy's poetry, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, puts the argument for her revival best in his introduction: "I believe there are certain guidebooks we should take with us as we navigate our way toward the next century, and that Mina Loy's is one of them. I think her poems have a relevance to the formation of a new modernity, and that she might yet prove to be the poet of her century."
Reading through the collection, it's not difficult to understand why, though Loy's poems are themselves difficult. The diction seems delivered from on high, in archaic phrasings. Her lexicon is like a curio cabinet stuffed with odds and ends--jazzy slang and black vernacular, rare vocabulary and variant spellings, nonce words that sound convincing but couldn't be found in any dictionary. Metrically, these poems sound like the blowing of a wrecked tuba; though her later verse (particularly after 1940) makes clear that lyricism was always optional. For Loy, writing against it was of both political and artistic significance.The effect, as it must have been in her day, is stunning. Take "Songs to Joannes," a series of 34 love poems from 1917. In Loy's signature voiceprint, the cycle collapses two strains of imagery--the grotesque and the gorgeous--into a sort of unsolvable riddle: "Pig Cupid his rosy snout/Rooting erotic garbage" it begins. The poem then fidgets and toys with its lovers' bodies, trying them on for size, knocking sparks off their union, and teasing them finally into the shape of gross machines. No pretty sentiments here, which is what annoyed her critics most: neither the poems nor their author behaved very properly. Announcing, in a poem titled "Joyce's Ulysses," that "The Spirit/is impaled upon the phallus" didn't help Loy's standing.
Even after 80 years, time hasn't succeeded in taming Loy's poems. While the collection isn't complete or definitive, it does include four rebel essays and all but ten poems published in her lifetime--about two-thirds of her total work. (And a more complete picture of Loy's life comes from a new biography also published by FSG, Carolyn Burke's Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy.) Until now, no record had existed for many of the poems but the few remaining, dog-eared zines, and many of those were never typewritten or proofread. Even her first book, Lunar Baedecker, had a misspelling. Loy's intended use of blank spaces, dashes, indentations, typography--all essential to both function and form in the poems--has been long lost, if any coherent method ever did exist. Likely it didn't, given Loy's faith in the dadaesque credo of railing against convention and consistency.
What does survive is a poetry imagined and written before its time, and whose influence on Loy's contemporaries can't be measured. (Many of the dead who do well in today's anthologies, including Pound, Williams, and Eliot, conceded their debt to her.) In "Aid of the Madonna" Loy writes, "a moment is Time surrounded by itself." And in that, she may have predicted a future, long after her momentary star blazed and burned out, when readers would cast back in time and retrieve her work from its undeserved exile.