Mina Loy, the “rediscovered and reforgotten” poet of the early twentieth-century American avant-garde (Burke v-vi), wrote poetry that was characterized by strangeness and so unevenly received. Natalya Lusty points to criticism which took issue with her “intellectual density and difficult syntax” (246). Harriet Monroe, founding editor of Poetry magazine, gave a “notoriously damning” 1923 review which complained that Loy “dilutes instead of concentrates” (Lusty 246). Defending the unusual aspects of modern verse, Loy herself argued that “one should beware of allowing mere technical eccentricities or grammatical disturbances to turn us from the main issue which is to get at the poem’s reality” as “this seeming strangeness is inevitable when any writer has come into an independent contact with nature” (Loy “Modern Poetry” 160).
Loy’s difficulty may be partially explained by her biography. During the 1980s, as part of the critical move to rediscover women writers, Loy came to be understood “as an important American Modernist and feminist poet” (Jaskoski 349), but there is also a strong relationship between her poetry and her internationalism. As Virginia Kouidis observes, Loy was “British by birth” but “has been considered an American modernist poet since her arrival in New York in 1916” (167). Furthermore, Loy’s work was “published almost exclusively” in America (Vetter 48). Born in London as Mina Lowy, her father amended his Hungarian-Jewish name in the context of early twentieth-century British antisemitism (Burke 15). In her autobiographical account of her childhood, Loy describes herself and her father as the “Anglo-Mongrels”, in contrast to her mother, the “English Rose” (16). As a polyglot who could speak English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, she allegedly had “no notion of what pure English is” (Conover 173). She had a “lack of grammatical training” in English, and in a letter to her son-in-law, Julien Levy, she wrote that: “Having no knowledge of rules to go by—I feel there’s something wrong—& at the same time something right” (173) in her use of language. Seeing neither her poetry nor herself as representative of ‘pure English’, Loy instead “intensely [aimed] at pure language” (Conover 173) in which poetry is unhindered by grammatical strictures.
Loy’s linguistic difficulty acts as a marker of her direct engagement with the nature of language itself. This article considers a selection of Loy’s poetry, published in Paris in 1923, in relation to what, drawing on Roger L. Conover’s observation that Loy “dissembled. She canceled. […] She was disruptive” (xiii), I call a poetics of disruption deriving from her interest in linguistic strangeness or foreignness. She was, according to Jerome Rothenberg, “among the first […] to explore ‘the relationship between consciousness, language & poetic structure […]’” (Kouidis 168). This linguistic focus is what Pound termed Loy’s logopoeia, a style which exhibits her disruptive techniques. Her poetry “employs words not only for their direct meaning, but it takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word, its usual concomitants, of its known acceptances, and of ironical play” (Pound, cited in Kouidis 173).
Furthermore, this sense of semiotics of disruption is compounded by a gendered relationship to language itself. Loy disrupts normative expectations of language, “[penetrating] and [shattering] the clichés of experience” (Kouidis 186), thereby more closely approaching the nature of linguistic reality. Linguistic disruption is illuminated by the psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva’s account of the ‘semiotic/symbolic’ model, as postulated in her 1974 doctoral thesis ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’ (1986). Like Loy who moved to France in 1923, the year of her collection Lunar Baedeker’s publication (Burke 326), Kristeva was a “foreigner in Paris, and […] a woman in an extremely male-dominated environment”. As Kristeva wrote: “to labour in the materiality of that which society regards as a means of contact and understanding, isn’t that at one stroke to declare oneself a stranger […] to language?” (Moi 3). Poetry, according to Kristeva, is founded upon this strangeness and composed from disruptions of the symbolic order of language by which the semiotic is drawn into the text (113). In Loy’s poetry, these semiotic disruptions appear in the form of etymological play, empty referents and paradox, for example. These techniques variously disrupt processes of reading and meaning-making, suggesting that an examination of the function of disruption in Loy offers a way through her difficulty and towards a remaking of a new “mongrel poetics” defined against the linguistically ‘pure’.
Despite the position now occupied by Loy within American literary studies, she remains a disruptive presence outside nativist and internationalist strains of American modernism. Jahan Ramazani argues that Mina Loy is a poet whose life and career should encourage “transnational” thinking, in opposition to strictly demarcated “national labels” such as ‘American’ or ‘British’ which “serve disciplinary ideological, and pedagogical functions (333). Ramazani counts Loy among a list of “writer-citizens” for whom “critics co-construct…national and ethnic identities” and “routinely [issue] passports” (332). Loy is, Ramazani argues, “multiply alienated” as an “Anglo-Euro-Judeo-American poet”—a “bricoleur [migrant] entangled in, and tensely divided amid, the various cultural affiliations mediated in [her] poetry” (340). Loy’s resistance to linguistic purity in favour of a poetics that embraces language’s propensity to shift is echoed across Kristeva’s critiques of meaning and Ramazani’s skepticism about national essentialism.
Nevertheless, it is this sense of being a ‘mongrel’, as Loy herself put it, that underscores not only her relevance to American studies more generally but what Lara Vetter calls her “valorization” of America (Vetter 48). Vetter considers Loy’s approach to racial difference and hybridity in her unpublished prose in the context of American identity and early twentieth-century eugenicist preoccupations. According to Loy, America’s value lies in its diversity and changeability. As she wrote in her 1925 essay “Modern Poetry”, “while professors of Harvard and Oxford labored [sic] to preserve ‘God’s English,’ the muse of modern literature arose, and her tongue had been loosened in the melting-pot” (qtd. in Vetter 58), a melting pot that Vetter argues “is the ultimate embodiment of difference, a kind of performance of racial, ethnic and national difference that through its sheer excess reveals the fictive nature of its difference” (58). As Joshua Weiner notes, Loy’s work and life provides a wealth of material for research into “the theoretical connections between gender and language, the emergence of the New Woman at the turn of the century, the relation between Anglo-American and Continental modernism, the shift . . . to a modernist aesthetic” (151). Weiner considers her to be “something of the honeybee of early twentieth-century modernism, cross-pollinating the various fields of artistic experiment from Munich to Paris to Florence to New York, later Berlin, and then back again” (155). Loy’s poetry acts as its own multifaceted meeting-point between European and American modernisms, with the dynamism of her life and work driven by transatlantic movement.
This is underscored by her publication in periodicals and little magazines which demonstrated a particularly transatlantic outlook, including the Transatlantic Review and The Dial. Within the transatlantic modernism of the early 1920s, Loy was closely associated both personally and stylistically with Gertrude Stein whose formal innovation she praised as exemplary in a poem and an essay published in a 1924 issue of Transatlantic Review (Conover 203). Edited by Ford Madox Ford, Transatlantic Review was “the story in miniature of the aggressive American victory on the literary and cultural battlefield of post-war Europe” (Henderson, qtd. in Rogers 190). Ford’s magazine was published in Paris, acting as “a neutral territory where British and American could meet on more or less equal terms” (Rogers 190), and alongside Stein and Loy included writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, H.D., Ezra Pound, Dorothy Richardson and Djuna Barnes. As I have argued elsewhere, this association with Stein opens up a connection between Loy and Laura Riding, another transatlantic contemporary (Isherwood-Wallace). Likewise, Christina Britzolakis argues that for the editor of The Dial, Scofield Thayer, the magazine’s primary purpose was to “[set] up a dialogue between US and European cultures” (95). The Dial, which famously published Loy’s poem “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” alongside a photograph of the original sculpture in a 1922 issue, was revolutionary because it allegedly “formally [reconstituted] modernism as a transatlantic project” (Britzolakis 96). Loy’s innovation, as Virginia Kouidis notes, “[culminated] in Lunar Baedeker” (Kouidis 186), her first volume of poetry, published in 1923. Her publication history, however, dates back to 1914 with earlier poems appearing in the United States in Little Magazines publishing avant-garde work, including Camera Work, The Trend, Rogue and Others (Conover 176; Burke 5).
This article focuses on three poems of this period: “Lunar Baedeker” and “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” published in her first collection, before considering “Marble”, published in a 1923 prospectus for Transatlantic Review but not included in the official publication, making it, as Conover observes, “among the most obscure of Loy’s published poems” (202-3). Loy’s poems, I argue, offer analogies for poetic description by operating upon tensions between word, image and sound, disrupting attempts to read or attribute meaning unproblematically. They are preceded by the “Feminist Manifesto”, written in 1914 but published posthumously in 1982 as part of The Last Lunar Baedeker—a period in which “publishing her work felt more like a cause than an editorial occasion” (Conover xviii). Loy presents her “Feminist Manifesto” as a radical semiotic challenge to women, one that calls for a complete overhaul, expressed as a “psychological upheaval”, of the gendered illusions which obscure the nature of reality: “all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go” (153).
The political position Loy advanced here—influenced by her involvement with the Italian Futurists while living in Florence—lends itself to an examination of the work in terms that draw on theories of the psychoanalytic and the semiotic. In considering Loy’s treatment of the body in Songs to Joannes, Lucia Pietroiusti observes that “Loy’s writing can be usefully rethought alongside the theories of feminists such as Julia Kristeva” (28). Pietroiusti points to Kristeva’s concept of the semiotic chora as an example of an approach to language which “refuses the traditional symbolic workings of the sign” (38). Urvi Majumbar connects elements of the “obscene” in Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose with Kristevan Abjection (2017). Similarly, Sara Crangle considers Mina Loy’s “depictions of the corpse” in relation to Kristeva’s theory of Abjection (277). Other psychoanalytic approaches include Alex Goody’s Freudian reading of Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (“Empire, Motherhood” 72). Elsewhere, Goody links Djuna Barnes to Kristevan Abjection but considers Loy in the context of Lacanian psychoanalysis (“Ladies of fashion” 278) and mobilizes Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity in her work. In her recent publication Kristeva in America (2020), Carol Mastrangelo Bové emphasises Kristeva’s relevance to American studies more broadly. Through an exploration of the ways in which Kristeva’s work has been engaged with by contemporary American critics in response to literature and film across an array of periods and genres, Bové demonstrates the value of Kristevan thought to literary analysis beyond stringent geographical and temporal limits. For example, Bové considers Hortense Spillers’s poststructuralist work on African American literature in Black, White, and in Color alongside Jack Halberstam’s response to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1-24). In doing so, Bové asserts the relevance of Kristeva’s work to America’s wider cultural and critical histories. Elsewhere, critics have recognized the valuable insight offered by Kristevan thought to analysis of early twentieth-century literature. An upcoming collection of essays edited by Maria Margaroni—Understanding Kristeva, Understanding Modernism (2022)—situates Kristeva’s work in relation to the modernist moment, with chapters on writers including Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Rather than addressing Loy’s work through Kristevan models of Abjection as critics have previously done, here I focus on the function of the semiotic as it relates to Loy’s characteristic engagement with disruptive poetic modes. Similarly, to avoid anachronism, I will consider Loy primarily through the lens of disruption but draw upon Kristeva in order to ground my approach. Kristeva’s account of poetic processes posits two interrelating features of language: the semiotic and the symbolic. The symbolic is “formal”, involving “syntax” and the “sign”: letters, words, grammar (90). The semiotic realm of language involves that which would otherwise be dismissed as “extra linguistic” and external to linguistic theory: semantics and pragmatics, the meaning and practical use of language (90). Kristeva’s radical contribution to linguistics was to argue these are “two modalities of what is […] the same signifying process” (92). They are “inseparable within the signifying process that constitutes language, and the dialectic between them determines the type of discourse (narrative, metalanguage, theory, poetry, etc.)” (92). Where traditional linguistic theories deferred “interrogation” of the external, Kristeva argues that the external functions as part of the linguistic process (90). Deferment, she argues, “has always been a particular problem for semiotics, which is concerned with specifying the functioning of signifying practices such as art, poetry and myth that are irreducible to the ‘language’ object” (91). Semantics and pragmatics are particularly relevant to poetry, which involves irony, satire, metaphor, paradox and simile. Kristeva therefore accounts for that which cannot be explained by reductionist theories, as poetic language cannot be reduced to rules of syntax and grammar.
Furthermore, Kristeva posits “a precise modality in the signifying process” (93) she calls the ‘semiotic chora’. Kristeva’s conception of the chora is grounded in Freudian psychoanalysis. It is articulated by deep psychological “drives”, and is a “rhythmic space” involving “gestural and vocal play”. The chora is the “rupture” all discourse both depends upon and refuses (93-4). According to Toril Moi, the chora is “untheorizable” (13). It is aligned with the “maternal” (Kristeva 94), and so once the subject has been individuated from the mother “the chora will be more or less successfully repressed and can be perceived only as pulsional pressure on or within symbolic language: as contradictions, meaninglessness, disruption, silences and absences” (Moi 13). The chora “constitutes the heterogeneous, disruptive dimension” (Moi 13) of language, the dimension, I argue, with which Loy’s work engages.
Kristeva’s conception of the semiotic and symbolic is complex but we may interpret her account as one which “highlights the semiotic’s disruptive and transformative potential in a socio-symbolic order defined as phallocentric” (29). Likewise, Birgit Schippers argues that the semiotic “encapsulates feminist aspirations towards social and political transformation” (23). Following Schippers, it is possible to identify moments in Loy’s poetry in which the symbolic order, coded as masculine, is disrupted by a feminine semiotic. Loy presents a poetics of disruption provoked by “denigration of women in favour of masculine intellect and reason” and “offers a disruption of the destiny of anatomy” by rejecting “essentialist aesthetics and masculinist formulations of genius and creativity” (Goody, “Ladies of fashion” 266-80).
For Kristeva, the disrupting influx of the semiotic chora is poetry’s defining feature. The poet “does not suppress the semiotic chora but instead raises the chora to the status of a signifier, which may or may not obey the norms of grammatical locution” (Kristeva 109). Modern poetry “transgresses grammatical rules”, thereby subverting “the symbolic” (109). These transgressions allow the semiotic to break open the symbolic order (113), challenging inherited linguistic structures developed over centuries of patriarchal hierarchy. Kristeva praises Mallarmé, who “calls attention to the semiotic rhythm” as a “space underlying the written” which is “rhythmic, unfettered, irreducible to its intelligible verbal translation” (97). Quoting Mallarmé, Kristeva notes that syntax is “an extraordinary appropriation of structure, limpid, to the primitive lightning bolts of logic” (97). Loy is not alone in calling attention to this space beyond the written, but her use of linguistic disruption and strangeness perhaps more immediately evokes these primitive lightning bolts. She resists the imposition of structure onto the semiotic chora, drawing choric disruption directly into her work.
“Lunar Baedeker” (hereafter “LB”) offers a map to Loy’s poetics of disruption. Jessica Burstein notes that “Loy’s travelogue is meta-terrestrial”, a guide to the unknown moon rather than “the known world”, and “[w]hile most travel guides are intended to orient readers”, this poem’s readers “are likely to be disoriented” (2009). Loy disrupts syntax, grammar and referential processes with paradox, silence, absence and strangeness. LB is a poem of short, fragmentary stanzas formed around repeated sounds:
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies (81)
Loy moves gracefully between internal rhyme, sibilance, consonance and assonance throughout the poem: “in the Odious oasis / in furrowed phosphorous” (81). These syllabic modulations generate a sense of rhythm, in tension with the complicated images described. The reader’s attention is equally split between unravelling the aural complexity of the language and visualizing the strange images described by this language. Crucially, by grouping sounds by stanza, Loy’s poem is formed, both aurally and visually, upon the shape of the spoken word. Insistent internal rhyme (“eye-white sky-light / white-light”) is intensified by the visual appearance of this triplet of hyphenated compound nouns. As Kouidis notes, “sound patterns replace meter as the regulating device” of Loy’s work (174). Dense sound patterns take precedence, interrupting easy visualization of the images described.
The poem’s vowel repetitions shift most noticeably between ‘o’ and ‘i’ sounds:
in furrowed phosphorous———
the eye-white sky-light
white-light district (81)
Loy’s use of repeated vowel sounds emphasizes the poem’s orality. When read aloud, these lines establish a physical interplay between body and text in which the body produces language while language inhabits the body. These shifts contort the mouth into the moon’s shape as it “waxes and wanes” (82), reproducing the poem’s subject matter within the physical act of reading. The poem moves between ‘o’ as the image of the eye, and ‘i’ as its sound. Pietroiusti notes Loy’s enduring interest in these letters, describing a toy designed by Loy in 1940 in which letters are broken “into their smallest components” (38). Citing Susan Gilmore, Pietroiusti points to a letter Loy wrote to the Schwartz toy company in which she remarked: “All letters are made of I and O and pieces of I and O”. Pietroiusti comments that due to her “extensive contact with Italy”, Loy would have known that ‘Io’ is Italian for ‘I’ (38). The self is broken in two, alternating between symbolically masculine phallic and feminine yonic parts, disrupting the self-referential function of the first-person pronoun.
This split echoes Kristeva’s model of the feminine semiotic chora and the masculine symbolic sign, which constitute the subject’s experience of language. The ‘o’ shape is repeated in the descriptions of circular imagery: “Cyclones”, “oval oceans”. Mentions of “Onyx-eyed Odalisques / and ornithologists” invite the eye into the poem—they “observe” (82). On display “in the museums of the moon”, the “Nocturnal cyclops” becomes a viewed object characterized by its seeing eye. “Cyclones” and “cyclops” are etymologically linked by the circular, deriving from the Greek for “moving in a circle” and “circle-eyed”, respectively. “Odalisques”, the sexually magnetic female figures of the poem, gesture back to the feminine receptacle shape, the ‘Oda’ that is Turkish for ‘chamber’. Loy would likely have been cognizant of this etymological origin, as she gave this name to her first child (Burke 96).
Loy’s visual arrangement of the poem on the page creates a disjointed reading process, embedding disruption in the form of the text. Sudden line-breaks and short lines demand careful focus:
Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues (81)
Syntactic flow is interrupted, drawing attention to each individual word and highlighting their etymologies. “Lucifer” and “phosphorous” express the same meaning (‘light-bringing’) in Greek and Latin, drawing lines across the poem in a field beyond the immediate symbolic level. Loy evokes the sense of something beyond the word itself: a semiotic modality accounting for historical associations. This idea of something lying ‘beyond’ the immediate is emphasized by the language of veiling: “draped / in satirical draperies” (Loy 81). Drapes obscure on a visual level as the satirical obscures on a textual level. By referring to the “satirical” within a poem which itself functions as satire—it “takes a swipe at the poetic tendency to be metaphorical” (Burstein 2009)—Loy points to the extra-linguistic functions of language that might ordinarily be obscured beneath double entendre or hidden meaning. By “[calling] attention to the semiotic rhythm” (Kristeva 97), Loy figuratively draws back the curtains on this subtextual level of poetry.
The poem contains numerous references to the transgression of boundaries between waking and dreaming, reality and delusion. Loy references movement between states of consciousness combined with images of travel both geographic and social: “somnambulists”, “Delirious Avenues”, “hallucinatory citadels”, “shores / of oval Oceans”, “parvenues” (81-2). Furthermore, the figure of “Lucifer” suggests transgression against and disruption of order: the fallen angel moves between realms and disobeys the patriarchal law of God. Breaking boundaries between cultural mythologies, Loy draws together the Western Lucifer and Eastern “Peris”: “elves descended from evil angels and barred from Paradise until they have served penance for their forebears’ sins” (Conover 199).
Transgression and inheritance are further explored by Loy’s treatment of historical legacy:
with the chandelier souls
from Pharoah’s tombstones (81)
By referring to “infusoria”—“microscopic organisms found in decayed organic matter” (Conover 199)—Loy considers the body’s posthumous use. Here the body is that of a “Pharoah [sic]”, linking the legacy of patriarchal rule with decay and ancient history. Goody argues that Loy associates “the ruling elite” with “decay and death” in her criticism of colonialism in Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose: “British Empire-made pot-pourri / of dry dead men” (“Empire, Motherhood” 67). As the father in Anglo-Mongrels “embodies patriarchal control over language, identity and economics” (66), the Pharaoh figure of LB suggests a fixed order represented by solid, hard “tombstones” (Loy 81). Loy uses Orientalist, imperial language to map the moon: “Pharoah”, “citadels”, “concubine”, “Orient”, “Odalisques”. However, as Conover notes, her poetry is “Trojan verse”, which “deliberately [hijacks] Victorian vocabulary and conceptual posturing in order to subvert the values and expose the mechanisms such constructions were meant to euphemize” (xv). Loy ironically subverts patriarchal legacy by attributing beauty and selfhood to the creatures harvesting on its decomposition: “lit / with the chandelier souls” (81). These living organisms are contrasted with the dead Pharaoh in the sounds of their descriptions: the sibilance and musicality of “chandelier souls / of infusoria” is flattened by the plodding rhythm and muted ‘m’ and ‘f’ sounds of “from Pharoah’s tombstones”. Loy breaks static, patriarchal order by giving precedence to the living things that burrow within it, disrupting structures while invisible to the naked eye, just as she gestures beyond the phallocentric symbolic level of language to the untheorizable, feminine, semiotic chora.
Disruption is elsewhere created by gesture towards emptiness. “Stellectric” (81) is a neologism pointing to an empty referent, and therefore a failed signification. The moon itself is cast as a symbol without meaning. It is “[p]ocked with personification” (82), diminished by the process of metaphorical identification and so damaged by being placed within a human-attributed symbolic system. LB presents an ironic comment on the impossibility of describing or mapping the moon, even as the poem itself paradoxically identifies it with the feminine “fossil virgin” (82). While this brings to mind the empty womb, the non-reproducing feminine figure remains as a “fossil”, leaving a bodily record unmarred by “infusoria” and decay, unlike the patriarchal Pharaoh. In this attempt to resist personification, “Lunar Baedeker” closes with the moon as it “waxes and wanes”, the most prosaic moment of the poem. Like the semiotic chora, the moon exists beyond human understanding as an untheorizable site of rhythm and rupture. The moon, now seen from an earthly perspective, is characterized by movement but is ultimately indescribable: the poem concludes with repeated dashes “————”, suggesting flow and continuation beyond speech.
These dashes are key to understanding Loy’s intentions. Conover details how, in preparing Loy’s work for publication, he “tried to reproduce the graphic effects of blank spaces, dashes, indentations and inflected capitalizations as found in Loy’s publications and manuscripts” (174). Her holographs include “indeterminate cursive flicks” without “typographic equivalents” (174). Conover notes that these dashes are “imprecise and variable in cursive form”, and so made the editorial decision to express these marks as em-dashes (174). It seems, by using unreproducible graphic marks, Loy attempted to express something that could not be achieved within the limitations of standard language. The fluency with which she moves between linguistic and visual modes of representation even within one line—often a literal ‘line’—is unsurprising given her prolific and diverse artistic practice. Over her lifetime, Loy produced paintings and sculptures, and designed dresses and lampshades (xvi). By using punctuation to represent the expression of something beyond words, LB provides a notable example of an aspect of poetry Kristeva calls “[raising] the chora to the status of a signifier” (109), disrupting processes of reading and meaning-making and gesturing to what lies beyond the written word.
Likewise, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” (hereafter “BGB”), from the same collection, offers an exploration of tensions between sound and quiet, word and image in the art-object and poem. Loy draws out these tensions by aligning the poem with the work of art: “[as] Brancusi shaped in brass, so Mina Loy in the poems on art shapes and polishes language to achieve exquisite verbal sculptures” (Kouidis 182). The poem immediately reveals its concern with the “aesthetic archetype” (79). Loy evokes the imagery of Platonic Forms to describe the process by which art is created:
some patient peasant God
had rubbed and rubbed
the Alpha and Omega
into a lump of metal (79)
In referring to Alpha and Omega Loy evokes universality and totality, suggesting the art-object described contains all. It is notable that Loy uses letters (“Alpha and Omega”) to signal universality and perfection. The symbolic word is employed to shape an artistic representation of the world; art and poetry are symbiotic. The juxtaposition, and simultaneous combination, of lofty definition (“Alpha and Omega / of Form”) and quotidian amorphousness (“lump of metal”) reduces the sculpture to its essential components. Loy presents the work of art as being predicated upon a tension involving the co-mingling of oppositional terms. Just as the sculpture is described in terms of visually apparent lack (“naked”, “unwinged”, “unplumed”) Loy applauds the artist for paring away the unnecessary to leave “the nucleus of flight”, the underlying energies of the object the sculpture represents, making the work a “bare” bringer of “revelation”. As LB gestures towards the semiotic chora which lies outside the realm of the symbolic yet pulses into it, BGB offers a reaching to that which lies beyond the visual, here defined by movement: “flight”.
Images of containment are applied to both language and art. Like LB, this poem reads as a comment on the nature of poetry itself:
The absolute act
to continent sculpture
—bare as the brow of Osiris— (79)
A binary is set up between “art” and “sculpture”, suggesting ambivalence over the success of artistic venture. The sculpture is containing, restricting and linked to bodily death via reference to Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld associated with rebirth and resurrection (Leeming 21). Art is linked to the “absolute” (Loy 79): that which is beyond death. By describing its generation as an “immaculate conception” (80), art is aligned with the persisting virginal feminine. A pattern of repeated ‘a’, ‘c’ and ‘b’ sounds disrupt alphabetic order, earlier suggested by “Alpha and Omega”. Loy hints again at the disruption of patriarchal ancestral lines, already shown to parallel semiotic breaks in the symbolic order. In poetry, the thing described is “conformed” to language, as the semiotic is brought into the symbolic order of language. Art-making is aligned with spoken poetry. It is “the ultimate rhythm” which has a visual effect upon appearance: “lopped the extremities / of crest and claw” (79).
Demonstrating her comfort with paradox, Loy observed in her essay ‘Modern Poetry’ (1925) that reading poetry is like “listening to and looking at a pictured song”, it is “a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea” (157). For Ashley Lazevnick, Loy’s use of assonance, alliteration and consonance produce a sound which “is at once hard (like metal) and soft (like a bird)” (196). Lazevnick notes that this use of sound “recalls the origins of enargeia in oration, speeches that were meant to transport the act of listening into the world of seeing” (196). In this poem, art provides a catalyst for the collapsing of sound and image as boundaries between the visual and musical are disrupted:
of polished hyperaesthesia
shrills with brass
as the aggressive light
its significance (BGB 79-80)
Loy’s identification of poetry with sound is reminiscent of Kristeva’s thoughts on music and the semiotic. According to Kristeva, the semiotic “requires the symbolic break to obtain the complex articulation we associate with it in musical and poetic practices” (118). As Kouidis observes, Loy’s poetry is “sound-vibrant”, thereby “[saving] her metaphysics from the mists of speculation” (1980: 173). Like Loy’s disruptive grammatical difficulty, her use of semiotic musicality within the text is fundamental to her approach. By marrying the aural with the visual, Loy disrupts the symbolic order of the text and points to that which lies beyond the written word: music.
However, Loy’s treatment of sound is not unproblematic. The poem pulls between sound and quiet as the gong is silenced by the final stanza:
of the inaudible bird
in gorgeous reticence . . . (80)
Despite lauding the Alpha and Omega, words prove inadequate. They are incapable of instantiating silence, disturbing the quiet they seek to represent. Loy draws attention to this by finishing the poem with an unpronounceable ellipsis extended by extra space (“. . .”). Loy literally brings emptiness into her poem, gesturing towards that which cannot be described and disrupting the symbolic functioning of language. “[R]eticence” is rhymed with “significance”, disrupting the word’s meaning by emphasizing its aural qualities. As Lazevnick notes, in describing his sculpture Loy produces “a shifting and loosening of signification that allows her to embrace Brancusi’s complex play of abstraction and representation” (199). Inadequacy and disruption are underlined by contradiction: the sculpture is both an “inaudible bird” and a “gong” that “shrills” (Loy 79-80).
To finish, I will briefly consider a lesser-known poem by Loy as it relates to the questions raised by LB and BGB. Like BGB, “Marble” is concerned with art and silence, and like LB it considers history and paradox. The first line is one of visual paradox, immediately disrupting visualization by invoking the impossible. Actor and object-acted-upon are separated by an expanded space:
Greece has thrown white shadows
their eyeballs with oblivion (93)
The line itself is disrupted; Loy invites semiotic emptiness into the symbolic order. This use of spacing suggests interruption in causal chains across time. In the context of a consideration of Ancient Greek artefacts, this interruption demonstrates Loy’s interest in the disruption of patriarchal and racial order as suggested by the decomposing Pharaoh in LB. Similarly, “sown” suggests planting, reproduction and growth. However, the negating “oblivion” creates paradox, disrupting reproductive processes and calling back to the “fossil virgin” moon of LB (82) and the immaculately conceived sculpture of BGB (80).
Disrupted relations between past and present are again combined with the imagery of emptiness in the seemingly impenetrable final stanza:
Apollo haunts Apollo
with the shade
of a lost hand (93).
Double meaning and a lack of punctuation complicate the reading process, suggesting a variety of interpretations. Loy disrupts understanding by resisting easy links between what is said and what is meant. One interpretation may be that “colonnade” refers to the setting in which Apollo haunts himself. Alternatively, “colonnade” (with its imagery of rows of columns suggesting multiplicity) may act as an adjective, and so the statue of Apollo haunts the ‘real’ Apollo. Apollo’s status as a god of “patriarchal law and moral order” particularly in relation to the arts, in which he personifies “moderation, balance and form” (Leeming 23), emphasizes the poem’s engagement with decaying patriarchal Furthermore, the broken statue of Apollo acts as a visual suggestion of modernism’s Dionysian transgression of order. Just as the dead god returns imperfectly through the broken statue, Loy’s poem—in naming Apollo—invokes the patriarchal linguistic order he is associated with in order to resist it.
This interpretation is clarified by a consideration of materiality in the poem. The title itself recalls the “lump of metal” of BGB (80), conveying Loy’s interest in materials and formation—physical in the case of visual art, textual in the case of poetry. Material substance is conceived of with contradiction: the statues are both “white shadows” and “stone / Gods” (93). The divine and the material coincide oxymoronically in “idol substance”, the represented Apollo is signified by the statue’s form. This dualism of substance evokes the inconceivable, like Kristeva’s untheorizable semiotic chora, lurking beyond the surface. “Haunt” leads to an interpretation of “shade” as a synonym for phantom, and so the statue, missing a hand, haunts the Apollo represented with its imperfection.
This subversion, in which the physical haunts the ideal, disrupts expectations of dualistic spirit-body relations. And yet Loy’s placement of the already paradoxical “white shadows” in the opening line of the poem is recalled here, pointing us towards this other meaning of “shade”. “Marble” subverts Apollo’s position as a patriarchal “god of light and sometimes specifically the sun” (Leeming 23). Loy’s association of Apollo’s light with obscuring “white shadows” (93), rather than with illumination or clarity, disrupts patriarchal and racial order within the poem. Paradox is compounded as Loy challenges us to visualize the shadow of a missing thing, drawing emptiness into the poem. Loy’s skillfully posits multiple meanings within one short clause and resists straightforward interpretation. This supports a reading of this poem as, like BGB, a comment on the tensions between idea and form underlying works of art, and between word and image (and semiotic and symbolic) underlying language. Just as the action of the final stanza rises from the imperfection of Apollo’s statue, it is the break in the symbolic/visual order which constitutes the poetic. The semiotic “haunts” (93) Loy’s poetry; emptiness is referred to and drawn into the symbolic order of the text, disrupting expected word-image relations.
This Kristevan approach to Loy’s disruption opens up further possibilities for explorations of Loy’s wider career in which she continued to develop a disruptive aesthetics. Kristeva’s theory of the chora is conducive to a study of how Loy posits a relation between gender and disruption in her poetry. The title of “Moreover, the Moon———” (146) includes the same gesturing dashes used in “Lunar Baedeker”. Likewise patriarchal religious order and ancestral lines are challenged in her autobiographical Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose. According to Kristeva, “the very practice of art necessitates reinvesting the maternal chora so that it transgresses the symbolic order” (115). Loy makes this reinvestment and transgression explicit on the level of the written word; her logopoeic poetry is concerned with the functions and processes of language itself. The disruptive nature of Loy’s ‘mongrel’ language aligns with her views on America. It was, in her opinion, “naturally, the birthplace of modern poetry and the inevitable site of radical modern literature” (Vetter 58). Loy’s poetics of disruption make her a prescient example of Kristeva’s poetic theory. Like Kristeva, she may have been a “post-structuralist avant la lettre” (Moi 3). Loy disrupts on a symbolic level, thereby drawing our attention to the semiotic. By making explicit the tensions inherent in language, her poetry reads like a self-aware “Baedeker” to poetry itself. Like the Golden Bird, Loy’s poetics of disruption reveals language to be:
an incandescent curve
licked by chromatic flames
in labyrinths of reflections (BGB 79).
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