Becoming Modern

Megan Harlan reviews Carolyn Burke's biography "Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy".

Published July 8, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Her contemporaries considered Mina Loy to be one of the great Modernist poets, as well as perhaps the first "Modern woman." After decades of obscurity, her recent "rediscovery" poses a peculiar challenge for readers of poetry and redressers of history. Will her dazzling and far more easily apprehended legend-in-the-making -- that of a glamorous bohemian chameleon whose friends and admirers included Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp -- overshadow the formidably difficult brilliance of her work?

To read Burke's lush, nuanced biography is to marvel at how aptly Loy served as a "cartographer of the imagination" in the post-Victorian era: her hand sculpted burgeoning movements from feminism to Futurism. She had an impeccable instinct for being at the right place at the right time. Her strict religious upbringing in late 19th-century London gave her cause for rebellion, and she escaped to study art in Surrealist Paris where she married and had children. Later she settled in Florence and had a tumultuous affair with the Futurist theorist F.T. Marinetti.

When she moved to Dadaist New York, her reputation as a "shocking" and even obscene poet preceded her. (That reputation wasn't dented when she followed her notorious true love, the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, to revolutionary Mexico in 1917.) Loy made a living creating ethereal objets d'art in post-war Europe and spent her later years (she died in 1966) living, painting, and writing poetry on New York's Bowery -- with the bums for her muses.

Burke's effort stands on its own as a tract on international Modernist history with one beautiful woman "genius" at its center. But as distractingly attractive as this idea is, there's also an artist's aesthetic to consider: Ezra Pound, in order to discuss Loy's poetry, created the word "logopoeia" ("poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of intelligence among words and ideas..."); Yvor Winters compared her work to Wallace Stevens's and Marianne Moore's as among "the most astonishing." The biography recreates a marvelous legend, but, offering no examination of the poetry except as windows into Loy's personal life, invariably leads to this glaring question: what of the poetry?

In his introduction to her generously annotated selected works, Conover, Loy's literary executor, suggests Loy "should first be apprehended at poem-level." He's absolutely right. Though T.S. Eliot complained of her lacking an "oeuvre," Loy's poems make up in density (and, along with it, a sometimes overwhelming abstruseness) what they lack in quantity. Their effect is very similar to the cut-crystal intellectual and emotional exactitude of Emily Dickinson's -- had the latter's subjects also extended to prostitution, childbirth, and gender battles. Under a veneer of labyrinthine lyric beauty lies a perspicaciousness, honesty and wit of which Denise Levertov has said: "Bite on it, you'll break your teeth." And get out the dictionary, since words like "sialalogues," "glumes," and "phthisis" appear like so many exotic flowers.

Loy is tough. But if ever there were an era ready to decipher her self-described "music made of visual thoughts," visionary confessionalism, and sexual frankness, it's now.

By Megan Harlan

Megan Harlan's writing has appeared in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in New York City.

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