Craftswoman: On Mina Loy
Her earliest memory was not of human faces, the touch of a parent, or even the plush hand of a doll. No, her first memory of the material world would be that of a doorway. A doorway which, upon the sunlight striking its stained-glass ornamentation as her infant bundle was carried beneath it, painted her skin with a flaming dance of reds and yellows.
Despite protests from her scandalized mother, Mina continued to make, crafting worlds for herself from anything she could get her hands, finding pixies in wallpaper patterns to making meadows from landscape prints laid on the floor. Beginning with drafting classes at art schools scattered throughout Europe, the contoured flesh of the human body quickly unravel itself beneath her pen. Loy, shedding the confines of Victorian sensibilities, would strip herself not only of corsets, but do away with rigid meters and rhyme schemes of past poetics. What she came to do with the human bodies in her poetry can be described as objectification. Despite its oppressive connotations, this objectification of the painter-poet is more of a (dis)assembling of the world around her, recording the people and places through verbal reconstruction. As a woman who would later model for her male photographers and be the subject of gossip over her appearance and behavior, Loy was always aware of how her body was reduced, scrutinized. Her particular poetics, her ornamentation of language and the fragmentations of bodies (including her own), acts not only as an extension of her work in the decorative arts, but a way for her to reclaim the autonomy of her being.
Loy’s bodies are many things. A body can be a “skin-sack / in which a wanton duality / packed,” “eyes full of kohl,” a “chiffon voice” or “sailing, flailing limbs / of disequilibrium.” She sees young lovers only as their clothing “buttoned up in black / to black / cravat / to the blue powder edge dusting the yellow throat.” She cannot help but ask, “What color could have been your bodies / When last you put them away,” as though they are made of stained glass. As Loy writes, “all the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass,” one becomes unable to differentiate between the lifeless dolls in a shop at the Louvre, or a living woman. As though united in being, a pair of female patrons “see the dolls / and for a moment their eyes relax” in mutual recognition. Loy’s poems are like the reminder that your tongue is sitting in your mouth right now, providing an uncomfortable awareness, an estrangement, from one’s own skin.
Loy’s fragmentation does not just unsettle the way the reader perceives themselves. Her modernist language internalizes the cacophony of urban life in collages of free verse. Living for many years along the impoverished, crowded Bowery, Loy, ever the craftswoman, would liken the masses to jewels, “the infinite facets / of the unique unlikeness / of faces.” She collected trash to assemble collages she would later dub “refusees” — a hybrid of refuse and refugees — likened after the “shuffling shadow-bodies” of “sweat-sculptured” homeless men. One work, Christ on a Clothesline, shows the emaciated savior hanging from a tenement roof. Loy refuses to transcend into abstract holiness by forming him from detritus. Whether language on paper or scraps glued to canvas, Loy’s collaged surfaces are catalogs of fractured bodies.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that she would fall in with Filippo Marinetti and the Futurists in her earlier years. Despite their quasi-fascist, hyper-masculine calls for destruction, Loy found a kinship in their kinetic paintings of machines, their automatons, their radical desires to depict the industrialized, rapidly accelerating material world (like the Futurist’s fascination with cars, her lampshades would be decorated with ship motifs). She would describe Marinetti like something factory-made, “man of absolute physical equilibrium.” While Loy acknowledges a certain frigid quality to these mechanized bodies (“human cylinders / revolving in the enervating dust”) her Feminist-Futurism is one of active female independence and ecstatic expressions of explosive sexuality: “Only the impact of lighted bodies / knocking sparks off each other / in chaos.” Loy’s objectified bodies are living products of the Universe’s fabrications, their parts laid out on the page.
One of Loy’s greatest materials as a painter-poet will always be light. Perhaps, to her, light was the flesh of the universe. Are the figures we see not, after all, just light reflected off surfaces into the lattice of our eyes? With only two books published during her lifetime, her greatest source of income came from her lampshade business. Shaped by the dazzling colors of her childhood, Loy dressed herself and her crafts with reflective surfaces, donning satin and velvet, gemstones, decorating shades with cellophane, noting in her poems how on the street, “the angle of the sun / cuts the whole lot in half.” She made lamps in the shape of swirling globes, stars like “that imperious jewellery of the Universe.” She, too, would furnish her own body with light. Writing of the pain of childbirth, she described herself as “the centre / of a circle of pain / exceeding its boundaries in every direction,” a lamp of human life and feeling radiating outwards. Here we can consider Loy’s body as a home, her interior soul furnished by the light of language. Loy’s poems, echoing the objects she made, makes us question how we furnish ourselves.
In a poem she wrote about Loy, Marianne Moore would ask, “Are these feminine arts ‘weapons or scalpels?’” For Loy, they were always both. As she worked towards documenting and interpreting the material and social conditions of the societies she was a part of. While Loy repeatedly denied being a poet, wanting to be seen as a maker first, her “experiments in junk” — collages not just of objects, but of language smashed together with great intensity — produced many bodies of work that came to fill pages and line gallery walls. Loy’s faceted identities as a female creator were the tools she needed to craft a “laboratory / of vocabulary.”
Quotes, sourced from her book, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (reprinted in 1997) come from the following poems: “Songs to Joannes,” “Three Moments in Paris,” “Hot-Cross Buns,” “Nancy Cunard,” “Mass-Production on 14th Street,” “On Third Avenue,” “Human Cylinders,” “Aphorisms on Futurism,” “Italian Pictures,” “Apology of Genius,” “Patruition,” “Gertrude Stein.” All historical quotations and journal entries from Loy come from Carolyn Burke’s 1996 biography, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy.