By Mary Ann Caws

Reaktion Books. 223 pages. £20.  ISBN 978-1-78914-554-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Mina Loy was one of those legendary figures at the heart of modernism in its heyday, but who, I suspect, very few people have read in any depth. They may have read about her, and it could be that, for many who have come across Loy, the life is possibly more interesting than the work. She knew the right people, was in the right places at the right time, and attracted the right sort of attention. Saying that may make her seem like an opportunist, but I don’t think it’s true to suggest she simply hopped on the latest bandwagons. She was far too much of an individual for that.

Loy was born Mina Gertrude Lowy in London in 1882 and was the first of three daughters. Her parents were Sigmund Felix Lowy, “a tailor of Hungarian Jewish heritage”, and Julia Bryan, “a British Methodist”. Mary Ann Caws’ book is not a biography, so I’m doing no more than sketching in some basic details. But it may be worth noting that the description of Loy's father as a Jewish tailor could suggest Whitechapel, sweat shops, and poverty. It wasn’t the case and Loy’s parents appear to have been affluent enough to have lived in addresses in Hampstead. And to allow Mina to attend art school, though they drew the line at the Slade and she went to one in St John’s Wood which she  later described as “the worst art school in London”.

She was also given permission to study in Munich in 1900. It was there she would have seen the notorious and beautiful Franziska zu Revenlow, a countess who had left her aristocratic family to have a child by a man she refused to name, and to support herself and her son by living in Munich’s bohemian quarter and writing. Some of her stories have been published in English under the title, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (Rixdorf Editions, Berlin, 2017). Her independent stance would no doubt have appealed to Loy.

Loy’s childhood was complicated by the fact of her parents’ mixed religions. Her mother seems to have been the dominant one in terms of how the children were educated and which religion they followed. She also had strict ideas about how they had to conduct themselves in daily life. Keeping up appearances was seen as of key importance. A full account of Loy’s early years can be found in Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1996) should anyone want further details.

From the point of view of Caws’ book she refers to lines in Loy’s poetry which touch on the relationship between her father and mother. And, in fact, this is largely her approach throughout Apology of Genius. She draws heavily on The Last Lunar Baedeker, the collection with its free verse techniques and structures on which Loy’s reputation rests, to show how her writing followed the events of her life. There is a poem, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”, originally published in The Little Review in Spring 1923, which is about Loy’s parents and the England they and she inhabited. I’m looking at a copy of the magazine as I write this, and the lines in the poem about “Sundays when/England closed the eyes of every/commercial enterprise/but the church” amuse me. It wasn’t much different when I was growing up in England in the 1940s.

It was inevitable that Loy would go to Paris, where she studied with Whistler and it was there that she met the free-spirited bohemian painter and photographer Stephen Haweis, who seduced her. She was four months pregnant when they married in 1903. He proved to be unreliable, and Caws quotes from a poem, ”Parturition”, which has references to “The irresponsibility of the male” and “He is running upstairs”, which, according to Caws, was to be with his mistress while his wife gave birth to a girl who died a few months later. The marriage does seem to have been one of convenience more than anything, and Loy had an affair and a daughter with the wonderfully named Dr Joël Le Savourex, who “treated her neurasthenics” after her first child died.

Loy and Haweis moved to Florence, where she came across Italian Futurists like Marinetti (“a bombastic superman”, though she was impressed by his energy) and Giovanni Papini, with whom she had an affair. And she mixed with the people who gathered around Violet Paget (described by one of her admirers as “deeply learned and eloquent”) who wrote erudite supernatural fiction under the name Vernon Lee. Loy’s spiritual inclinations were often to a higher, if not supernatural, form of existence, though a strain of realism runs through her writing.   It may be relevant that she maintained a strong allegiance to Christian Science throughout her life, something that enabled her to form a close friendship in America with the artist, Joseph Cornell.

In order to make money Loy designed magazine covers and created theatre sets, as well as producing lampshades and dress designs. Some of these activities were to provide a source of income for much of her life. She eventually had enough money to take her to New York where she fell in with Walter Arensberg’s coterie. It was said of Arensberg and his wife that they “not only collected art, but the artists as well”. Marcel Duchamp was one of their friends, and so was Arthur Cravan. There is a painting by André Raffray spread over two pages of Caws’ book and it shows an assembly at the Arensberg’s apartment which includes, among others, Picabia, Joseph Stella, Cravan, Loy, and the eccentric Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, whose appearance and antics are described in memoirs and histories of the period. But it was Arthur Cravan that Loy was interested in.

Cravan, a nephew of Oscar Wilde and sometimes given to imitating him, had used a variety of names and had a variety of adventures, though it’s not always possible to know for sure just who he was and what he had done. One thing that is a fact, however, is that he had a well-publicised boxing match in Spain with the black fighter, Jack Johnson, one-time heavy-weight world champion. Was it a publicity stunt with a fake sixth-round knock-out by Johnson, by then past his prime, and just designed to make money for him and Cravan?  

Loy and Cravan married in Mexico in 1918 and planned to live in Buenos Aires. She travelled by ship, and he set out to make his way there in a small boat. He never arrived, and it has always been assumed that he must have drowned. Loy searched for him but neither he nor any evidence of what had happened ever turned up. Given his past record some people might have wanted to assume that he’d deliberately organised a disappearance. But if so it’s more than likely that he would have resurfaced somewhere, if only under another name. He never did.

Loy’s next move was to Paris and encounters with the expatriates, including Robert McAlmon, who she had previously met in New York.  Carolyn Burke says that his short sketch, “A Poetess” (included in A Hasty Bunch, first published in 1922 and reprinted by Southern Illinois University Press in 1977), is most likely a prose portrait of Loy.

She also met up with the Surrealists, though I doubt that she ever really connected closely with them. She knew the leading figures in the movement, and the rest of the art world of Paris, and was photographed with Djuna Barnes by Man Ray. She had an affair with a German Surrealist artist, Richard Oelze, though she didn’t speak kindly of a character based on him in her novel, Insel, which only saw print many years after her death. It has been said that her intention in Insel was to “banalise the Surrealist milieu of 1930s Paris”. She had done something similar with her comments on Futurism some years earlier. Caws does not have a high opinion of the novel, describing it as “not worth the time of reading”, and that “It becomes well nigh impossible to understand some paragraphs”.

By 1936 Loy was back in New York, and it’s from this point that she started to drift into obscurity. The social and political atmosphere of the Thirties was vastly different to that of the 1920s. It’s difficult to imagine Loy in a world of proletarian novels, radical magazines, and paintings which emphasised protest and left-wing opinions. A good-looking. well-dressed woman might have been out-of-place in a strike meeting or on a picket-line, though to be fair some did turn up in such circumstances to demonstrate their affinity with the working-class. But not Loy who began her withdrawal into the almost-solitary life that often marked her late-years. Only a few people – Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott – knew where she was and tried to keep in touch, and only one or two others – Kenneth Rexroth, Jonathan Williams – continued to draw attention to her work. But it was years before it was reprinted. She appears to have survived with support from her daughters and friends.

I said that it’s difficult to envisage Loy identifying with striking workers or political dissidents, but likewise she continued to stand aside from bourgeois manners and morality. She lived in close proximity to the Bowery area of New York and mixed with its drunks and down-and-outs. Her poem, “Hot Cross Bums”, celebrates them in its idiosyncratic way: “So wonder why /defeat/by dignity of the majority/oft reveals/in close-up of inferno faces/a nobler origin/than practicality’s elite”.

Loy’s two daughters were living in Aspen, Colorado, and when it became obvious that she could not continue to live comfortably and safely in New York she was persuaded to move closer to them in 1953. The rise of interest in the 1950s in the Beats, Black Mountain Poets, and others, with their precursors in earlier avant-gardes and bohemias, brought about a revival of some older poets like Walter Lowenfels and Mina Loy. Jonathan Williams reprinted work by both of them, including The Last Lunar Baedeker, and in 1961 and 1962 Gilbert Neiman used some of Loy’s poems in issues of Between Worlds, a magazine he edited from the Inter American University in Puerto Rico. They were the first opportunity I had to read her work, though I knew her name from accounts of Paris in the Twenties. Loy died in Aspen in 1966.

I’m not going to claim that I’ve always found Loy’s poems easy to read and understand. But there has usually been something there that has continued to draw me to them. She had a love of words and their sounds and sometimes the meaning is almost lost as the sounds take over. But then there is a return to reality which anchors the poem. I hadn’t looked at Loy’s work for some time, and Caws’ enthusiastic comments on her poetry caused me to find my old copies of Between Worlds and refresh my memory of first coming across it.   

Caws’ enthusiasm carries her book along, and it is hard to resist it. She doesn’t restrict herself to looking at the poems. There is Loy’s art work, which admittedly I’ve overlooked because, apart from some reproductions in the book, I haven’t had an opportunity to see it. She views Loy as “unusual, to put it mildly, but admirable”, and her “very peculiarity was priceless”. “She was never ‘striking a pose’, but rather inhabiting her own personality”. There’s also a passage, a little too long to quote in full, where Caws   refers to Loy’s “usual ease and elegance” when seen in photographs. The selection in the book by photographers like Man Ray and Lee Miller, points to the truth in what Caws says.

Some people might object to this focus on Loy’s physical appearance and ask what it has to do with her poems? Is it a case where the life and looks take over from the literary accomplishments? Our own age, with its shallow emphasis on celebrity, doesn’t ask much from people it admires other than to look good. But Loy did a lot more than simply dress well and catch the eye. Caws is as affirmative about the work as she is about Loy’s appearance. She is, in fact, occasionally carried away to the point where words and phrases like “poetic genius”, “epic”, and “Mina Loy had one of the most outstandingly open panoramas of a brain ever evolved” are scattered around the text. And she claims that Loy and Tristan Tzara were “two great poets”.  I have doubts whenever I see the words “great” and “genius” used too often, no matter who they’re applied to. It seems to me enough that someone’s work is of interest and I find pleasure in reading it.

But I don’t want to detract from the very real and readable qualities that Mary Ann Caws Mina Loy: Apology of Genius has to offer. It’s refreshing to read something by someone who doesn’t lay claims to total detachment, and is prepared to perhaps stand open to criticism by being outspoken in her admiration for Loy and her work.  I can forgive the occasional lapses into hyperbole. They’re sincere and well-meant. The book has notes, a short but useful bibliography, and is well-illustrated with photos and reproductions of art works. Also, and it’s a virtue in my opinion, it doesn’t need to extend beyond its 223 pages when making a convincing case for Mina Loy as a poet worth reviving and reading.