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On "Love Songs" / "Songs to Joannes"

[Note: The definitive edition of "Songs to Joannes" is in The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, selected and edited by Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996). The most recent and most comprehensive biography is by Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux, 1996), a passage from which is excerpted below.]

[Note: The following excerpts all come from much longer essays, which include analyses of additional sections of the poem. Readers are strongly urged to consult the original books.]

Peter Quartermain

I take Love Songs to be a single work, within which each song is at once a fragment and a whole. It attacks romanticized sexuality as one of the principal means of subjugating women. It explores the damaging myth which creates not love but powerless contempt, and through a variety of strategies, including unresolved ambiguity, approaches knowledge/knowing in an experiential (episodic) rather than a schematized (narrative or linear) way. It understands definition to be imprisonment. As Song 29 puts it, love does not bring "sexual equality," nor even "simple satisfactions"; instead, it brings "own-self distortion." Parodic, comic, angry, scornful, contemptuous, sharp-tongued, occasionally wistful, haughty, ironic, cultivating incohesion and unbalance, it interrogates formally and thematically the dominant male poetic tradition, and seeks to neutralize not only the myths by which women are disempowered, but also the social and psychological definitions of womanhood and the means by which that identity can be expressed. (77)


"These fragments have I shored against my ruins," says Eliot in The Waste Land; "I store up nights against you," says Lay (Love Songs 21), dark and silent. Lacking Eliot's sense of cultural and poetic continuity, in terms of both the tradition and the poem itself, Loy feels the imperatives of poetic discontinuity, and deploys lexical and syntactic strategies in order to achieve it. Wit operates throughout.

Lexical. a) Lay's vocabulary is notable for its reference to body- fluids and to body-parts. There is "mucous-membrane" (1), saliva in "a trickle" (1) "spermatozoa / at the core of Nothing" (9) and "cymophanous sweat" (28), but arms, hearts, eyes and lips, conventional to love poetry, are not beautified. Lips, if they appear at all, are "promiscuous" (3); eyes are "blind" or "steely"; hands carry a "disheartening odor" (11); breath "booms" (12); all, taken together, adding up to a "pubescent consummation" (23); "human insufficiencies" (29) which, added together, sum only a "drivelling humanity" (15). Conventional love poetry, by metaphorizing the body, makes it impossible to be explicit about the body; obliged to metaphorize the world of feeling, it evades male and female sexuality. Love Songs sharply distinguishes the biological from the romantic, the physical from the metaphysical. With great skill,

b) Loy exploits the mixing of vocabularies—especially the clinical or laboratory (scientific) with the colloquial and the conventionally "poetic." This can also be described as a mix of the abstract with the concrete, of the polysyllabic with the monosyllabic, of the latinate with Anglo-Saxon. This affords irony without detachment, and at the same time (combined with Loy's interesting syntax and punctuation) distances the voice (which is hardly "unified"), while affording both judgment and a sense of the absurd. Such idiosyncrasy (what in another discipline might be called an idiolect) affords Love Songs, that is to say, a highly personal voice, and it is difficult to distinguish the voice of the poet from the voice of the poem.

Syntactic. Syntactic strategies operate at both the global and the local level. a) Global: Overall Love Songs displays a number of binaries. Speech breaks in, is loud, drivelling, hiccupping, braying brassily; yet it is also a silent harangue. Binaries include, then, speech/silence; and also body/mind; two-ness as conjoined/severed; dissonance/resonance; day/night, sun/moon, etc; production/destruction, birth/death. These binaries are not resolved, they do not cancel each other out, for two reasons. First, though the overall structure of the poem is episodic, one episode does not stand in contrast to its neighbour—the progression is cumulative or agglutinative. Second, though many of the episodes are double-voiced, and can indeed be read in at least two ways (for example, number 13, number 22), the sheer comedy and bawdy hostility of the opening poems (especially 1 and 2) prevent those two voices from neutralizing each other. The poem, and indeed the whole sequence—despite, or perhaps because of, its rage—is finally a-positional, and refuses to move toward the sort of conclusion binary oppositions customarily offer. It takes quite seriously Whitman's question, "to be in any form, what is that?", and resists the strictures of definition. This is perhaps most apparent at the local level.

             b) Local: I've already mentioned syntax at the local level of the line-break, phrase-boundary, and sentence. The subversiveness of Loy's syntax is liberating, for it denies both linearity and hierarchies of the sort found in the conventional English sentence; frequently, what she writes does not "make sense" in ordinary terms, and her language, as Fanny Howe observes of what she calls poetic language, 

transforms the state of being lost into that of being free, by making judgment on judgment itself. Poetry writes twice, and produces another sound from the ordinary. In this sense it is free out of its longing to escape the cell of syntax. (54)

When the sentences do "make sense," they frequently rely on the syntactic authority of aphoristic and gnomic utterance. As Carolyn Burke has commented, the use of aphoristic patterns enables Loy to play the radical enclosure of the epigram against and with the radical openness of her larger formal (global) strategies.

The subversiveness of Loy's syntax is most readily apparent in the combination of line-break, punctuation (and its lack) and vocabulary, and is part of Loy's recognition that conventional syntax is unavailable to women—like Stein, and like Nicole Brossard some sixty years later, she felt the need to reinvent the language. Perhaps one reason why readers are only now beginning to pay close attention to Love Songs, almost three-quarters of a century after they were written, is our acute awareness of the central discontinuity of experience—there has been a shift in our model: "A central aspect of the writing process for women [now]," remarks Fred Wah, "is . . . dissonance and fracture" (376).


This is clearly visible in Song 13. In earlier Love Songs, phrasal boundaries blurred. Here, the speaker blurs too; we cannot be sure how many voices there are, and the poem moves, in its multiplicity of voice, to exploit ironic doubleness as a major strategy, playing the sheer destructiveness of the romantic myth's definition of woman against the speaker's perhaps helpless rejection of all definition as ye' another illusion. The poem plays with a series of oppositions, setting them against visible silences, gaps on the page which may on one hand indicate a change of speaker, or on the other, enact what cannot be spoken. Line two plays the illusoriness of words and of speech against the silent reality of the gap:

I have got to tell you             and I can't tell.

 The non-verbal, the physical, tells what cannot be told. But the struggle between having to tell and being unable to tell is complicated by the pun in "can't tell," which can mean "don't know." Hovering between speech and silence, between knowledge and ignorance, between the nameable and the nameless "something" (which appears nine times in the first 13 lines), and (possibly) between reason and intuition, the tensions between "I" and "you" are amplified rather than resolved. In the central stanza (line 16), when "I" and "you" (hitherto kept spatially at a distance) apparently resolve into "us," the transformation is intolerable, for the opening stanza's list of what is new (name, dimension, use, illusion) becomes a list of very (jealous, suspicious, conservative, cruel), and the "we" of the following lines (18, 25) separates into the poem's final list, "me you—you—me."

Subject to the male gaze the speaker is caught in a series of contraries and conflicting imperatives which seem actively to seek the dissolution of her identity. Whatever love is, it does not remain inviolate. The tension between desire and the experience of fragmentation which is its companion is reflected in the poem's violent oppositions: push/pull; tell/not tell; shiny/resonant; I must not see/you must not hear; come to me/keep away; only for you/ only for me; ambient [surrounding]/in your eyes [containment]; please give/Don't. The tension is released, though it does not wholly disappear, by the intrusive exclamation, possibly sardonic, "Oh that's right," which draws back from this multivoiced scene into a single voice. It is very difficult, though, to know quite how to speak that line—almost as though, subject to the male gaze, the voice has lost its own hearing. However we say or hear it, though, it is emphatically and unequivocally a solitary voice. It offers a somewhat confused critique of what has gone before, for through its imperatives and its requests it seeks to hand over control to "you," the irony ("Don't let me understand you             Don't realize me") ambiguated and double-tongued. All of this adds up to a vision of love in which "together" means annihilation of the self, yet is illusory, a melding in which, the final line suggests, "me" is absorbed into "you," but "you" remains distinct from "me." But that remains suggestion only; in suggesting the possibility of merging identities, this line severely undercuts whatever position the poem might seem to be taking. . . .

Love Songs is deliberately graceless, and it enacts its own meanings. Rejecting forward linear movement by circling, regressing (the binaries are dropped, picked up, dropped); rejecting utterly the notion of the well-made poem, it seeks to undermine the notion of privileged content. It refuses to privilege any of the poem's given vocabularies and syntactic patterns, it works to neutralize the sense of a unifying central voice. And it rejects the sort of cultural resonance that immediate contemporaries like Eliot cultivate: in contrast to The Waste Land or even Prufrock this is a sparsely populated poem which seeks severely to control connotation and disempower the aesthetic. The overall effect, then, is of a dismissal of conventional literary discourse and of the customary hierarchies of poetic genres, and it questions (albeit tentatively) the conventional relations between author, world, and text. It rejects, that is to say, that literary discourse whose voice "break[s] on the confines of passion," which rejects the explicitly physical and sexual.

from "'The Tattle of Tongueplay': Mina Loy's Love Songs" in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998): 75-85

Eric Murphy Selinger

Here is the first, and most famous of the thirty-four Love Songs: . . .

"Once upon a time," this verse suggests, we told love stories, fairy- tale romances, in which sex was kept discretely out of sight. Now Pig Cupid's rosy snout, a displaced and comical phallus, burrows into every sub text, bringing lust to light. The results are dispiriting, at best. The "I" of the poems is not a mystified or sentimental Lady in a Garden—but she is not a free and undeceived New Woman, either, enjoying the fruits of her "fantasies" of sexual freedom. Her fantasies have yielded only a grotesque "spawn," and the speaker herself has been transformed into a "weed" amid Pig Cupid’s crop of wild oats, "white and star-topped" but planted in an oppressively physical ground of "mucous-membrane."

"Swill poetry," readers called this. "Hoggerel." They were not entirely wrong.  It’s clear from the "Feminist Manifesto," "Virgins Plus Curtains," and other poems like "Parturition" that Loy has no nostalgia for what Whitman aptly dubbed "this tepid wash, this diluted deferential love" in which the body stayed unspoken. She, too, dreams of a poetry of "sex, womanhood, maternity, desires, lusty animations, organs, acts" in which biology would speak. But in the Love Songs she hardly finds herself a poet of "the eternal decency of the amativeness of Nature" (Whitman 1334-35). Quite the contrary. In a world where erotic faith has been demystified, reduced to just so much "erotic garbage," and where the free bestowals of value that characterize Whitmanian love have been replaced by accounts of "the appraisable," Nature becomes an "irate pornographist" to whom the lovers, "shedding [their] petty pruderies" may "sidle up" (poem 26). "Loy's poems on sexual love and its consequences were read," writes Burke, ''as if they were the statements of the woman rebel"; they "confirmed the popular view that free verse led to free love" (42-43). The misreading could not run deeper. Far from being liberated by sexual frankness, this speaker chokes on it. When she tries to articulate desires of her own, she gets only as far as "I would"—and then no verb will come. Her "I" becomes "an eye" in an exotic signal beacon ("a Bengal light"), but that momentary dream of ecstatic dispersal gutters out into the abject image of "an ocean / Whose rivers run no fresher / Than a trickle of saliva": an echo of Pig Cupid's naturalist discourse that trails off as the speaker retreats from the "suspect places" of sexuality into a watchful, "virginal" seclusion. Shrunken from beacon to lantern-dweller, she leaves the worlds of realized fantasies and sexual "Experience" behind, dismissing all she sees as "Coloured glass."

As long as Loy's speaker remains in a cool, satirical mood, living in her lantern, she seems quite poised. When she figures sex as a combative badminton match in poem 10, for example—"Shuttle-cock and battle-door / A little pink love / And feathers are strewn"—or when Dawn's Homeric rosy fingers are transformed into a "little rosy / Tongue" that makes the lovers, like heliotropes, "twiddle to it / Round and round / Faster / And turn into machines" (poem 25), the rhetoric is pointed and accomplished, reminiscent of satires like "Virgins Plus Curtains." At such moments the speaker answers the naturalist reductions of Pig Cupidity with detached, mechanical imagery, and her lines echo and displace a more threatening rhetoric of abject biology. Virginia Kouidis has argued that Loy's dismissive reference to "Coloured glass" looks back to the "colored and distorting lenses which we are" in Emerson's essay "Experience": an essay that insists on every subject's noumenal distance from every phenomenal object, including the object which is (or once was) one's beloved (see "From Prison to Prism," passim). From such an ever-"virginal" remove one might well drop lines of satire; both love and sex, with their panting, repetitive, all-but-mechanical promise to cross this great epistemological divide, would be likely objects of scorn.

But Loy's speaker is unwilling to remain at this satirical or Emersonian distance. She repeatedly tries to step forward from her satiric safety and ascribe meaning or value to passionate love, only to have her language gutter out in a sudden shift of diction. In the first poem orgasm promises "Eternity in a skyrocket," but the fireworks fade into a "trickle of saliva" (91). When they lift not their eyes but their "eyelids on Love" in poem 9 the couple sees "A cosmos / Of coloured voices / And laughing honey / And spermatozoa / At the core of Nothing / In the milk of the Moon." Perhaps the word "spermatazoa" is meant to have an exotic beauty, as Loy rejects any "manmade bogey" of diction and decorum, in the manner demanded by her "Feminist Manifesto." But the word sits poorly with the rest of its stanza. It makes "the milk of the Moon" seem a dated euphemism for "semen": the sort of line one would have written "once upon a time."

The failure of love is thus a failure of language: a gesture that links the Love Songs with a number of other modernist poems of unhappy love. In Stevens's "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," for example, one finds a similar split between anxious and ironic reflexivity and a rhetoric that attempts to speak "biologically": a language of "pinched gestures" and punctured bubbles of idealization poised against one composed of "odious chords" booming from the deterministic world that would flower "If sex were all" (Collected Poems 17). But even Stevens's harshest songs are distinctly Apollo's; his most brutal ironies, usually directed against himself, are finally eased by the aesthetic resolution of well-wrought, accomplished verse. Stevens may push his poems to the point of failure, that is to say, but he will not push them past it, make them fail, in order to see what comes next. For reasons that go beyond her allegiance to reformist sexual politics and her dissatisfaction with their twisting into Futurist naturalism—reasons that go to the heart of her speaker's inability to speak her desire or bestow value on love—Loy takes that risk, and her speaker, unlike Stevens's, pays the price in a fracturing of syntax, a clash of incompatible dictions, and a "deflationary rhythm" of amatory aspiration and disenchantment (Kouidis Mina Loy 70) .

What balks the singer of these bleak Love Songs? I have mentioned reasons outside the fiction of the sequence proper, especially its Futurist context: a discourse of love that is less reformist than reductive, and which is characteristic of Krutch's "modern temper." Other contextual reasons would include the whittling away of the lover's selfhood—of anyone's selfhood, at that—by modern psychologies. If the Love Songs can be read, in Kouidis's words, as a "collage of love's failure that rewrites 'Experience' in flamboyantly sexual imagery," mining the Emersonian tradition's "core of doubt" ("Prison into Prism" 130-31), the great and crescive transcendental self that Emerson mourned and relied on, the self whose "rapacious" power consumed the world around us, "supplant[ed] all relative existence, and ruin[ed] the kingdom of mortal friendship and love" is notably absent from Loy's text. No God haunts her bleak rocks, only an "ego's necessity," hapless before unconscious urges and instinctual drives (Emerson 487; Loy poem 12). Written and published in the age of Freud (whom Loy heard lecture shortly thereafter), the Love Songs also appear a full generation after William James deconstructed the self into four component selves, and found that the innermost essential "Self of selves" consists, when examined in detail, "mainly of [a] collection of . . . peculiar motions in the head or between the head and throat," so that "our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked" (92).

With love and the self exposed as ideological or biological constructs, Loy's speaker cannot take refuge in the strength of her imaginative desire, in her longing for Joannes to be simply hers, in vision and in veto; or in the inverse, a dream in which she would be claimed as his. Such dramas of hierarchical idealization, which helped Dickinson out of her own Emersonian isolation, are too risky and reactionary for this New Woman modernist; and although she has clearly tried at some point to idealize Joannes, to make him an idol, a God, Loy is too wary of "romantic thralldom" to hammer out, as does Dickinson, an exultant "Mine. . . / Mine. . . / Mine. . ." (CP #528) or to dabble in "Bondage as Play" (CP #725). "Seldom Trying for Love," Loy recalls,

Fantasy dealt them out as gods 
Two or three men             looked only human 
But you alone 
Superhuman             apparently

 Yet that superhumanity was not his winning feature, finally. Dragging its feet across a line break and through an insult or two, her confession takes an unexpected turn: 

I had to be caught in the weak eddy 
Of your drivelling humanity 
To love you most 
                (poem 15)

 This declaration rings with a lingering Futurist scorn for weakness: a sop to her anger, a slap at his pride. But if the lines can be read as saying that Joannes's humanity eddied away to reveal him as superhuman, and that the speaker, caught in the retreating tide, loves him as he is now revealed in glory, their final undertone of quasi-maternal tenderness suggests the opposite: that it was precisely the weakness and humanity of Joannes that appealed to the speaker. Marking the shift, Loy makes this the first time that love is a verb in the Love Songs. It is also the last.

I call the tenderness of these lines quasi-maternal primarily to draw attention to the greatest barrier the speaker faces: this time one native to the fiction of the sequence. Evidently Joannes has refused to have a child with her. Their sexual "consummations" were merely "pubescent," she resentfully declares, since unlike adult unions that would lead to a new birth, these bear only "irredeemable pledges" that "Rot / To the recurrent moon" while "the procreative truth of Me / Peter[s] out / In pestilent / Tear drops" (poems 23-24). It is no accident that the first thing the speaker sees through her "coloured glass" is a reduction of her former lover to his sexual apparatus, which she mocks, with no great pleasure, as "The skin-sack / In which a wanton duality / Packed / All the completions / Of my infructuous impulses" and a "clock-work mechanism / Running down against time / To which I am not paced" (poem 2). Given the references to "Birdlike abortions" and "abominable shadows" in which the speaker "Swe[pt] the brood clean out" in poem 4, it seems likely that Joannes has not only withheld his "completions" but forced or made it necessary for the speaker to have an abortion. At the center of the sequence, two poems after the appeal to Joannes's "drivelling humanity," lies a poem of toneless denials and stunned repetition which may look back to that act:

I don't care 
Where the legs of the legs of the furniture are walking to 
Or what is hidden in the shadows they stride 
Or what would look at me 
If the shutters were not shut

Red a warm colour on the battlefield 
Heavy on my knees as a counterpane 
Count counter 
I counted             the fringe of the towel 
Till two tassels clinging together 
Let the square room fall away 
(poem 17)

Those two tassels cling to one another as the couple no longer do—hence, perhaps, the speaker's exhausted faint as she watches them. The poem never mentions a specific source for her pain, and the referent of ''as a counterpane" is deliberately obscured. In the second stanza it is unclear whether the speaker is looking at something red and heavy on her knees, say a skirt or lap-blanket; or, more likely, she is on her knees watching the chair-legs, the shutters, something blood-red cradled by a fringed towel. But the impact of the loss is unmistakable: not a deconstruction of the self into Jamesian or Freudian component parts, but its evisceration; its hollowing into a "round vacuum / Dilating with my breath" (poem 17).

The lost child haunts the Love Songs to Joannes. It peeps out from a "padded porte-enfant" in poem 4, for example, and waits in the street in poem 5 as a frail and human cupid tainted by the speaker's self-disgust: "a boy / —One wing has been washed in the rain / The other will never be clean any more. " His absence is one reason why sex in the sequence always seems a failure. The "I" attempts to see intercourse as something grander than the simply physical embrace where, in the words of the "Feminist Manifesto," "the interests of the sexes merge" (269); but these efforts seem grim, abashed, inadequate. In the prayer that makes up poem 29 we find a plea for the naturalist deity "Evolution" to "Breed such sons and daughters" as will settle for (and be able to find) a "simple satisfaction" in one another, rather than searching for some deeper connection. "Let them clash together / From their incognitoes / In seismic orgasm," the "'I" prays, that they might achieve "far further / Differentiation" afterwards. The alternative, which she has presumably endured with Joannes, would be not a clash but merely contact, not an encounter between two incognitoes but one between two subjects who might have known one another with true intimacy. The couple has not gone through orgasm and differentiation, the prayer indicates, but rather only an unsatisfactory intersubjective friction that faltered and failed, revealing itself as not intersubjective at all, but a warped mirroring of the sort that Emerson called "ascription," and that Lay describes in poem 29 as "Own-self distortion / Winc[ing] in the alien ego."

In what Kouidis might read as a distant echo of Emerson's "Experience," or at least a fourth or fifth cousin of Robert Frost's "Home Burial," the loss of the child thus signals and enforces the epistemological separation of Lay's speaker from her beloved—how could one I thought I knew and loved do such a thing?—and it results in a deep wound to the speaker's sense of self as well. A paralyzing and multiple deprivation, stripping the speaker of the child, of any certainty in her knowledge of Joannes, of the self-as-imagined-child, and of the self-as-mother, the abortion thrusts her face to face with lack: the "loss of something" which Dickinson was too canny to name any more specifically, but which she "ever felt"; the loss of the beloved other half that Plato's Aristophanes, in the Symposium, locates at the heart of love; the loss of maternal presence that the Freudian mythos finds at the origins of selfhood. Even in poems that do not mention this absence, poems that seem primarily focused on the speaker's failed search for passionate fusion with her beloved (what Georges Bataille calls "erotic continuity," which plucks us out of discontinuous selfhood), I hear the counter-mutter of this enforced return to the pain of individuation: . . . .

With their repeated representation of the lovers' failure to fuse, as with their linking of the failure of love and the failure of language, the Love Songs can be read as representative texts of modernist love. . . . The sex Loy's speaker dreams of, grounded in a "procreative truth". . .would have enacted and proven, at least to her, the connection of the soul to other souls, a material connection accomplished in the flesh and given form in the baby thereby born. The "something taking shape" of her halting overture to Joannes would also have brought the two together into an intimate co-presence that her ironic figures (a welding, a terrific Nirvana) and her plaintive ones (an understanding, a realization) fail to capture: a co-presence that might have been accomplished through language, but not in this ironic context. If the "I" mocks her lover throughout the poem, for his anxious separateness, his priggish impulse to remain inviolate, it is because she does not find their separateness the outgrowth of some existential solitude. . .(36-37)

[A] loss of a child, whether aborted or never conceived, lies at the bitter heart of the Love Songs to Joannes, and . . . this loss throws the "I" of the poems into a narcissistic crisis. It returns her to that archaic trauma which a number of theorists and poets sense at the start of individuated selfhood, and her efforts to salve that wound through sexual and linguistic connection with Joannes all fail--in part because of his desire to remain "inviolate"; in part also, however, because the speaker is so wary of her own amatory figures, thanks to her "modern temper." Sensing that co-presence should be possible, Loy's speaker . . . refuses to settle for the surrogate satisfaction of signification, identifying "no longer with the lost object," as Kristeva explains, "but with a third party--father, form, schema" in order to "triumph over sadness" by shaping sorrow into art (Black Sun, 23; see also 206-16). (38)

from  "Love in the Time of Melancholia" in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998): 19-43

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

"Love Songs" opens with one of its two most frequently cited sections, in which "Pig Cupid" presides over the writing and instigates the erotic and its critique. "Pig" makes a greedy, lurid, Id-filled muse, rooting "erotic garbage" rather than shooting arrows, a drastically anti-conventional figure with neither the whimsy of echt Cupids nor the possible transcendences of Amor. Pig Cupid is the "Spawn of Fantasies"—the ova from which fantasy arises, or the offspring of reproductive encounters. He is as well a phallic or lusty disturber of the peace, sticking his snout into "erotic garbage"—those nice narratives of "'Once upon a time.'" Pig is, in short, a fusion of male-female-child, an erotic-satyric holy family in which there is a female writer. Loy calls attention to the fictive or scripted nature of the love plot in an arch, ironic, and bitter way. . . .

"Love Songs" is not a narrative poem in the normal discursive sense of that word, but it does "make a progression of realizations," and hence sequence is vital to it (Kouidis 1980, 62, citing Loy). Loy traces the course of a love affair, involving open sexual desire, and her active, somewhat shamed pursuit of an apparently flagging partner, the complex of satisfactions and dissatisfactions centering on a split between sexual urge and suspicious analysis, an apparent break from her lover about which she is both cynical and wounded, and finally a passionate consideration of sexuality and reproduction. The early part of the poem shows the "Loy" figure enthralled and pursuing her lover, travelling to him, even stalking him through city streets at night, at once exhilarated by her passion and debased by it. In one of these sections, the female figure is a marionette of passion who "knows the Wire-Puller intimately" (LLB 94). . . .The poem negotiates the separate pulls toward sexual pleasure and emotional danger. (50-51)

["Love Songs" is] filled with sex-radical evocations of pleasures both sexual and intellectual, and the equal meeting of the partners on a sexual terrain. The poet enters into her consideration of the "wild oats / Sown in mucous-membrane" with the clear admonition "These are suspect places" (LLB 91). "Sowing wild oats" comes from a proverbial expression; "mucous-membrane" is a medical term. The mixture of dictions in this logopoeic style has its origins, as I have argued elsewhere, in the feminist critique of a foundational cluster of materials about romance in poems. . . . The main character assumes various postures for this investigation, among them a "wise virgin" pose, holding an investigatory lantern aloft so it will not be blown out by "the bellows / Of experience." For this lantern show (like a slide show, the sections of the poem offer individual moments of quasi-narrative montage), the poet takes her own cool, analytic "eye" as the source of light, but that analytic "lantern" is involved with inflammatory orgasmic imagery: "An eye in a Bengal light / Eternity in a skyrocket" (LLB 91). Negotiating sexual and analytic passions, the poem often presents impacted and intellectualized languages of wit graphically describing sexual moments and apparatuses. The gaze of power (narrator's eye as illuminating lens) rests on the man. And even--in the first view we have of him--on his genitalia as a metaphor for him: "The skin sack / In which a wanton duality / Packed / All the completions of my infructuous impulses / Something in the shape of a man . . ." (LLB 91-92). Despite this lucid female gaze, her completions are inside his testicles: the sperm to make her fruitful. But the "wanton duality" is not simply an abstract portrait of his genitalia, but of her double impulse toward licentious, rebellious sex and desire for male fertilization. (54)

[. . . .]

With "laughing honey / And spermatozoa / At the core of Nothing / In the milk of the Moon," and continuing for six sections, Loy composes precisely on or alluding to (hetero)sexual intercourse with a striking frankness of diction, and in a great variety of registers, including terror, danger, pleasure, resistance, lust, controlling wit (LLB 94-97). These are not, it appears from their tonal differences, narratives of one erotic encounter, but rather six separate, distinct, and precisely noted representations of activities and attitudes that go with sex, with special attention to the similarities between the partners at the moment of pleasure when (according to Loy) male-female distinctions dissolve, yet a moment whose social and psychological context is precisely the dangers of that difference: "seismic orgasm" (LLB 105). For instance, the obliteration of gender distinctions seems especially keen in "humid carnage / / Flesh from flesh / Draws the inseparable delight / Kissing at gasps to catch it," and then to "welded together" and "knocking sparks off each other" (LLB 95-97). "Welded" with its sparks puns on and rejects the more familiar phrase "wedded together" with an industrial metaphor. But even Loy's most distinctive phrases—"humid carnage" or "seismic orgasm"—combine pleasurable words and dangerous words. "Carnage" reaches etymologically for "flesh" and connotatively for "carnal," with a historical pun, "dying," but denotatively for "mass slaughter." In "seismic," also, pleasure and danger contend; the technical term for earthquake is far fiercer than the sentimental notion that in orgasm "the earth moved."  

Charming and alarming is this haiku, allusively complete in just three lines:

Shuttle-cock and battle-door 
A little pink love 
And feathers are strewn
                     (LLB 95)

 The shuttlecock of badminton bears irresistible double overtones, and the battledore, a flat wooden paddle (and the old word for badminton itself), is provocatively re-spelled "battle-door," to suggest site of penetration. This first line emphasizes the physical difference between the sexes, yet the sport that can be made of these differences. "Pink love" smacks of a fond eros of knowing possession, rather than unconsummated yearning. The "feathers" signal a comic devastation of the "birdie" or cock, a triumph perhaps of the woman, or perhaps mutual release in plucking. Sex becomes. a game, a sport, a cartoon.

Mina Loy’s "Love Songs," then, contains a unique representation of sexual intercourse, and many also imaginatively graphic descriptions of specifically sexual apparatuses. Of thirty-four sections, fourteen (comprising about forty percent of the poem) are arguably centered on different occasions of/acts of sexual intercourse, or may be said prominently to mention sex. And this representation is drastically a-conventional, a challenge to prudes, and, more interestingly, to the hegemonic romance narratives of the lyric genre, but equally well a challenge to modernist libertarian thinking. For there are aspects of this urgency—the turn to reproductive sexuality at the end—which could be seen as radically conservative.

[ . . . ]

As she represents sexual intercourse, the loss of individual gender binaries was an advantage and a pleasure, the place where disparate gender interests merge. But there is danger: a lust for orgasm necessarily overrides a sense of ego or boundaries. So the "Nirvana" is terrible / terrifying and terrific / exhilarating, as they "tumble together / Depersonalized / Identical / Into the terrific Nirvana / Me you—you—me" (LLB 97). A woman could fear that "depersonalized" erosion of identity. These metaphors of chaos or annihilation in sexual bliss show the dangerous loss of identity, perhaps reversion to a "femininity" of dissolution and passivity, defined by stereotypical gender ideas which Loy has staked herself upon resisting. The pleasures and dangers of merging boundaries are in unresolvable circulation in the poem.

In the end "seismic orgasm" has yet another function. It is necessary to the utopian building of a new female gender identity—one in which "mistress and mother" are not distinct (LLB 269, 270). For Lay, autonomous sexuality and her "freewoman" brand of autonomous feminism still involved a deeply felt claim to maternity. The argument toward the end of the poem ("Evolution fall foul of  / Sexual equality / Prettily miscalculate / Similitude") strongly suggests that "sexual equality" and species meliorism are at odds (LLB 104). When one factors in Loy's rejection of a feminism of equal rights and equal access, the phrase suggests that mainstream feminism is going to fall foul of natural forces, but that her eugenicist feminism, proudly set forth in the "Feminist Manifesto," will not. To build better species, the sexes should remain, in certain of their aspects, strongly differentiated—(intelligent) womanly women meeting (intelligent) manly men. And yet, at the same time, the linking of sexual activity with reproduction was a potentially conservative position, when the whole history of modem struggles for the acceptance of sexual practices (whether contraception, abortion, homosexual expression, or masturbation) has been to valorize non-reproductive sex, what Richard Brown wittily dubs "copulation without population" (Brown 1985, 63).

from "'Seismic Orgasm': Sexual Intercourse and Narrative Meaning in Mina Loy" in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998): 45-74

Maeera Shreiber

With these poems, Loy in effect diagnoses an end to love poetry in the light of historical circumstance, anticipating that poststructuralist line of inquiry which urges a rereading of "lyric" as a culturally responsive construct. Instead, her poetry constitutes a critique of the very demand that lyric expression be viewed apart from the social world. (87)

Loy rarely uses terminal punctuation to mark endstops or line breaks. Nor does she enjamb lines to modify semantic or syntactic significance. Unlike Gertrude Stein, Loy does not seem preoccupied with unlocking words from their conventional meaning. Appearances to the contrary, most of her lines are recognizable syntactic units. But it is the voice and not the eye that makes this discovery. By doing away with most punctuation, and using dashes to give the poem the look of broken or truncated speech, Loy suggests how the written word signifies and perpetuates separation. But in the performing voice, an aural manifestation or metonymic representation of human presence, there is contiguity. Loy's form makes manifest what is worked out thematically: writing both signifies and enacts separation--a condition remedied in the "presence" of human speech.

The kind of tension between the ear and the eye that I have been describing is evident in the first stanza of the opening poem:

Love Songs to Joannes

Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid
His rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
"Once upon a time"
Pulls a weed
White star-topped
Among wild oats
Sown in mucous-membrane

Typographically, the series seems to open with an incomplete utterance, a fragmented noun phrase--"Spawn of Fantasies." But if one starts from the beginning, with the title, "Spawn of Fantasies" becomes the second line and we understand it as an appositive of "Love Songs to Joannes." Referring self-consciously to the artificial nature of her own composition, the speaker gives an ironic twist to the conventional metaphoric linking between children and texts. With this image the speaker alludes to this traumatic loss of a child through abortion--a crisis which . . .is the epicenter of this romance gone wrong. The relationship has failed to realize its reproductive potential, and the speaker refuses to represent the texts "born" out of this loss as adequate compensation or substitution. Instead she speaks derisively of that which is bred out of illusions--the off-spring of what exists only in imagination. (90-91)

from "'Love is a Lyric / Of Bodies': The Negative Aesthetics of Mina Loy's Love Songs to Joannes" in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998): 87-109

Janet Lyon

[W]hat I am calling Loy's "parallax vision" is the shaping force behind her iconoclastic conceptual and visual sensibilities. . . . The notoriously difficult Love Songs puts this vision to a particular intellectual use: Loy trains it on the gaps in meaning produced by Futurism's gendered and polarized discursive field. Many of Love Songs' themes, if not its network of images, are developed through the heterogeneous vantage points of the poem's restless parallax vision. Significantly, the putative addressee of the poem, "Joannes" (modelled on Loy's onetime Futurist lover, Giovanni Papini), appears not to have access to the poem's multiple vantage points; his blinkered conceptual apparatus limits his field to just a narrow strip of the poem's physical and emotional territory. Irony in this sense is structural to the poem: Joannes sees little of what the reader sees, and what the reader sees is subject to parallax shifting. In a series of short irregular poems, we are shown the fragments of a discontinuous sexual and intellectual relationship; but we are also shown alternative fragments, equally discontinuous, of a relationship that might have been. In short, we are made to see, almost immediately, that "what is" is only one of several sets of charged fragments, the presence of which undermine any definitive claims to comprehensive representation. Furthermore, the "meaning" of all those fragments is shaped by a kind of negativity, and constructed through invocations of emptiness or void, or by suggested absences frequently indicated in the poem by blank or white space, or by verbal images of whiteness or blankness.

I offer poem #18 as an example of how negativity works in Love Songs. This short imagist poem foregrounds the meaning of "night" as something that is positively rendered only by its relation to the negative space of a landscape:

Out of the severing
Of hill from hill
The interim
Of star from star
The nascent
Of night

Structural and constitutive meaning inheres between stars, between hills, and in the contradiction of "nascent / Static." The poem is generated by a powerful indeterminacy which equates "severing" with an act of creation: night (a matrix unto itself) is birthed out of the sluice of its own making, and in that act of self-creation, night produces the contours of its own context.

Although this kind of meaning holds little significance within any field of positivist discourse (such as Futurism's), here and throughout Love Songs it is the matrix that bears the weight of meaning. A textual matrix produces the poem's various concrete configurations; equally important, the foregrounding of the matrix in the poem relativizes the value of those various configurations. Put still another way, the dialectical movement of negativity, perhaps most familiar on the level of interpretation as a species of différance, is the focal point of the poem's parallax vision . . . (390-91)

[. . . .]

The speaker of Love Songs sees sex as an act of pleasure, for example, but also as an act of potential conception, potential dissolution of egos, potential procreation, potential entrapment. If Joannes seems to understand sex as "Only the impact of lighted bodies / Knocking sparks off each other / In chaos" (LLB 97) or as the perfunctory conjoining of the rigidly separate entities of "Desire Suspicion Man Woman" (LLB 95), the broader fabric of the poem, by contrast, offers multiple vantage points on sex. Seen from a certain perspective, the rich signifiers of sex may together compose, for example,

A cosmos 
Of coloured voices 
And laughing honey 
And spermatozoa 
At the core of Nothing 
In the milk of the Moon (LLB 94-95)

The fattened language of fertility—milk and honey and sperm— suggests the endless products of the physical act of sex. Spermatozoa (the most obvious agent of reproduction) is just one ingredient in this cosmogony of fecundity whose center is Nothing, and whose circumference is marked by the products of what was once Nothing: feast, baby, orgasm, love, and any number of other manifestations of sex's potential. The improvisational language of the fertile cosmos signifies in a register sharply different from the oft-repeated Futurist insistence on "life freed from sentimentality and lust." In the latter view, men who "go through life almost without love" are to be emulated through "swift, casual [sexual] contacts with women." The scrotal "skin-sack" in Love Songs' poem #2 is an appropriately instrumental image for such a doctrine: the man to whom it is attached understands his own sex organ "More [as] a clock-work mechanism" (LLB 92) than as a repository of potential. Love Songs' method, by contrast, employs a kaleidoscopic field of vision to suggest the breadth of that potential.

In fact that field of vision in Love Songs includes more than the spatial and disjunctive aspects of the poem's canvas. It also includes a temporal component which calls upon us to "see time" cinemagraphically: to watch events unfold diachronically and synchronically and even retrochronically. This latter form of vision—seeing events backwards—seems especially antithetical to the Futurist valorization of forward velocity, but it is integral to the images in the first two stanzas of poem #12. The poem develops the creative (because unstable) meaning that inheres between the landmarks of gender:

Voices break on the confines of passion 
Desire     Suspicion         Man         Woman 
Solve in the humid carnage

Flesh from flesh 
Draws the inseparable delight 
Kissing at gasps       to catch it (LLB 95)

In this scenario, the sound of intruding voices parses cosmic, undifferentiated passion into discrete identity. In the second line desire reverts incrementally through bourgeois possessiveness into gendered identity: ultimately man and woman "solve"—i.e. reverse the process of dis-solving—and as they do, the barriers between monolithic, naturalized genders materialize in the midst of sex. The film continues to run backwards, and we see figures morphing out of the "humid carnage" created by sex and kisses; by the end of the second stanza we understand the wrenching force of the desire and suspicion that issue in "man" and "woman." The lovers' physical disentanglement from cosmic fusion—kisses drawing apart—severs sexual delight as the "flesh from flesh" of their brief Holy Communion becomes the flesh of man and woman solving into bourgeois roles. When these stanzas are read alongside the speaker's sarcastic harangue in poem #13, it becomes clear that the speaker aims to accuse Joannes of cleaving to those bourgeois roles, and of doing so with precisely the same conservative suspicion that Futurists ascribe to women:

Don't let me understand you             Don't realize me 
Or we might tumble together 
Into the terrific Nirvana 
Me you—you—me (LLB 97)

At the same time that the image of sexual Nirvana threatens the carefully fortified subject position of Joannes, the poem's larger vision of negativity—like the Nothing of the Moon and "Clear carving / Breath-giving / Pollen smelling / Space" (#19)—asserts itself as the superior, not to say the more avant-garde vision.

Love Songs' approach to deferred meaning equips it to investigate the phenomena of conception, fertility, birth—the topics ignored in all but a few works of Loy's contemporary avant-gardists. The allusions to abortion that my students always notice—the images of failed births and strewn feathers of fetuses, the round, dilating vacuum and the bloody knees, the "petering out" of a "procreative truth"—suggest that in this poem sex is inseparable from a complex of social, political, and organic issues. The experience of maternity (in both its fruition and its "infructuous" disruption)—is shown to be coterminous with a vision of potential experience in this poem, which displays many possible outcomes at once, and offers the meaning of fetuses aborted or sperm gone astray as deferred meanings occupying the freighted spaces of "what might be" between "what is."

This reading of Love Songs does not aim to reduce Futurism to the figure of a straw man. To merely "decode" the poem as a covert polemic against a contemporary avant-garde movement is to simplify the breadth and nuance of its intellectual and lyric achievement, and, equally, to underread the irony embedded in Futurist misogyny. In the first place, the poem is after all a Modernist long poem, aggressively fragmented and non-narrative in structure, experimental in its spatialized lyricism. In the second place, while it is true that Loy's Florence writings are filled with blatant parodies of Futurist sex roles, it must also be said that Futurism was neither the source nor the predominant disseminator of the sexual conventions against which Loy struggled. Loy knew well, from her own parents' disastrous Victorian marriage, that sexual unhappiness was written into the codes of patriarchal matrimony.

from "Mina Loy's Pregnant Pauses: The Space of Possibility in the Florence Writings" in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998): 380-401

Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas

Invariably attention focuses in the first stanza on "Pig Cupid," usually taken to be an ominous phallic figure who threatens the "I" of the second and following stanzas. It is further noted that the first two stanzas both peter out in images of "mucous-membrane" and "a trickle of saliva," so that in the latter part of the poem the speaker retreats into a self-protective "virginity" to strengthen her sense of selfhood. Such a reading is plausible enough, yet is troubling in that it relies on a rather conventional aesthetic and moral framework. What struck the first readers of this poem was the provocation of the graphic sexual imagery; Loy is not only forcing sexuality upon the reader but quite literally sex in the gutter. The barely euphemistic suggestions of sperm "sown in mucous-membrane" and of oral sex and an orgasm that dies off in a "trickle of saliva" force upon the reader the physical fact of sex—that sex is, after all, a bit messy. This is a direct challenge to Victorian morality and punctures the saccharine euphemism of Eros imaged as a mischievous chubby cherub with bow and arrows. The "erotic garbage," undoubtedly the "rubbish heap of tradition" mentioned in the "Feminist Manifesto" (269), appears to be the junk pile of romantic language and cliché—"Cupid," "rosy," "'Once upon a time,"' "sown wild oats"—now useless for the speaker's purposes.

The first song moves from the extreme collage-like structure of the first stanza to an apparent recuperation of balance in the last. This can and usually has been read as a necessary and positive retreat from the threat of male predatoriness and dissatisfying sexual experience to a protective "virginity" (Kouidis 72, 78; Burke, "Getting Spliced" 109). Yet the pivotal line, "These are suspect places," suggests conventionally moralistic overtones that are strengthened by the following imperative: "I must live. . . / Virginal." Indeed, the "I" insists she must live cut-off from "the bellows / Of Experience" and instead busy herself "Trimming subliminal flicker" of erotic desire. Aside from the fact that Loy frequently repudiated the Victorian fear of sex and the body, the pervasive ironies of the Songs must make us wary of too readily accepting such a reading. Indeed, the relative syntactical conventionality of the last stanza, which comes close to being a proper quatrain, might suggest not so much a positive stabilizing of the speaking self as a timid fall back into conventionality. Are we to read this stanza as the rhetoric of sincerity, or is it precisely this demure lyrical "I" that is to be critically examined? The "I" seems to have backed off in shame from the ecstasy of orgasm and internalized the patriarchal law of female self-denial. In fact, as so often in the Songs, we cannot be certain, but then this very uncertainty indicates that the "I" cannot be entirely trusted. If we recognize the second stanza as describing a visionary experience, however momentary, then the overtly broken or truncated syntax of the first line suggests the straining beyond the given conventions of language toward new articulations. Just as modernist paintings bring to consciousness in the viewer the formalist qualities of the work, thus freeing or forcing her to actively and self-consciously engage with the space the work offers or constructs, so Loy's Songs with their radical constructivism and destabilizing ironies compel the reader to engage with complexities that short-circuit centered representational interpretations.

Having said this I do not want to cancel out the reading of the last stanza as expressing the need to pull back into a protective subjectivity since there certainly is this underlying current running through the Songs. If Loy is intent on purging the sense of "the impurity of sex," nonetheless she also is acutely aware that sexual desire endangers her efforts to achieve non-dependence—Pig Cupid is a real threat. Yet I want to urge that we not impose stability and closure on this song, and to argue that Loy persistently leaves readers on their own. This perhaps is indicated formally by the hanging and split last phrase, "Coloured glass," which has been interpreted in a number of different ways. Yet what seems most obvious is its curious undecidability: is it in apposition with "Experience"? Is it related to the lantern? Is it more debris in the pile of "erotic garbage"? Or, as some have suggested, a metaphor for the various songs of the sequence? (Kouidis 63, 78; Burke, "Getting Spliced" 109-10). A number of commentators have pointed out the suggestion of a kaleidoscope, which in turn suggests a regressive view of the world or, on the other hand, a radical reorientation of perspective to new possibilities. The image never reappears in the Songs, and there seems no means of deciding definitively how we are to translate it. . . .

In her struggle to acquire eyes that see beyond the given structures of heterosexual love, Loy finds it difficult to shake off the sense that the definition of the self is forever entrapped within the "Spawn of Fantasies," which at bottom is "the desire to be loved" (271). Song XIII is an elaborate enactment of such difficulties. The song opens with the sharing of lovers' intimacies, even playfully suggesting that the secret is an announcement of pregnancy: "Something taking shape." However, quite obviously this "Something" is a new consciousness or awareness, "A new dimension" which, as the following stanzas make clear, separates rather than brings the lovers together. The second and third stanzas suggest a fundamental dichotomy between male and female modes of knowing: in the case of the male lover it is located in the rational, mastering eye, whereas for the speaker it is in the ear, resonating through the body. However, if this knowledge is positive in the sense that it is clarifying and demystifying, Loy characteristically puts such knowledge into question by suggesting this "new dimension" is also a "new illusion"—still trapped within essentialist gender dichotomies. Even a demystifying awareness is recognized as imposing its own mystifications, which in this case rule out any possibilities of moving beyond a skepticism that becomes outright cynicism:

Let us be very jealous 
Very suspicious 
Very conservative 
Very cruel 
Or we might make an end of the jostling of aspirations 
Disorb inviolate egos

 Here the gravitational force that keeps their egos orbiting around each other are only the most negative feelings or acts of the relationship, which leads into the bleakly mocking final stanza:

Oh that's right 
Keep away from me Please give me a push 

Don't let me understand you Don't realise me 
Or we might tumble together 
Into the terrific Nirvana 
Me you—you—me

Although the possibility of "the terrific Nirvana," the "welding" of the lovers in a cosmic orgasm, is perhaps desired by the speaker as an expanded sense of self or "entrance to Infinity" (281), the ironic hyperbole by which it is named cancels any such possibility and transforms the desire into an image of "depersonalized" oblivion. The singer of the songs finds herself desiring the dissolution of the ego into a larger sense of self; however, she is also acutely aware that this leaves her vulnerable such that dissolution of the ego turns out to be subordination to the lover. In fact, there is no possibility within the songs of such letting go on the part of the speaker precisely because of this acute self-consciousness that always turns back upon the ego and never allows it to let down its guard of bristling ironies. 

Song V is highly suggestive in that it seems to turn outward to narrative possibilities tangential to the love relationship that is presumably the central thread of the sequence:

Midnight empties the street
Of all but us
I am undecided which way back
                To the left a boy
--One wing has been washed in the rain
    The other will never be clean any more--
Pulling door-bells to remind
Those that are snug
                To the right a haloed ascetic
                Threading houses
Probes wounds for souls
--The poor can't wash in hot water--
And I don't know which turning to take
Since you got home to yourself--first

The final lines seem to tie this poem back into the speakers relationship with "you"--yet perhaps not. Is the "I" looking for the lover who has abandoned her, or does she simply feel lost and uncertain which way to go next? The lover has withdrawn from the "I" and "got home," presumably retreated into himself, but the hanging placement of the terminal word suggests that the "I" is actually berating herself for not having "first" done the same herself. If we read it this way so that the speaker comes to the recognition that she has allowed herself to become dependent on the lover for a sense of direction or even to be lulled into the desire for stability ("home"), then the curious characters that appear in the central part of this song are quite suggestive. These two males might be taken as possible new or alternative lovers to compensate for the speaker's abandonment. However, what is more striking about these figures is that they anticipate the angelic bums so central in Loy's later poetry of the 30s and 40s but by no means characteristic of her early work, with the possible exception of the devastating "Der Blinde Junge." written probably half a dozen or so years later. These figures seem to open up an entirely different direction as the speaker is jolted out of the egotism of romantic love, with its entanglements in the narcissism of sexuality and the need to be desired by and to orbit around a single other. These fallen angels represent alternative streets, other relationships with men in which compassion rather than Eros is foremost, and in this sense they seem prophetic of Loy's later life and work. Integral to this compassion is her recognition of class differences--"The poor can't wash in hot water"--also clearly evident in such early works as "At the Door of the House" and "Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots": the recognition that romantic love is a luxury for the privileged, although literature and popular culture would have us believe otherwise: "Love -- -- -- the pre-eminent literateur" (XXXIV). (122-23)

[. . . .]

Linguistically speaking, the Love Songs are Loy's most audacious assault on the language and genre of the romantic lyric that would define and fix heterosexual relations. In this assault she not only manages to ironically dismantle the genre's sentimentality, its privileging of emotional dependency, but transforms it into a tentative exploration of new possibilities of relations between the sexes.

from "'Little Lusts and Lucidities': Reading Mina Loy's Love Songs" in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, edited by Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998): 111-128

Carolyn Burke

[The "Love Songs"] are haunting not only for their exploration of sexual dissonance but because they are drenched in the atmosphere of World War I. They are a peculiar kind of war poetry. Their range of attitudes--the tonal shifts from hopefulness and anticipation through wariness and suspicion to vexation and bitterness--may all be understood as those of the outsider, the nonparticipant, the woman whose life is put on hold yet deeply affected by the collapse of civilization around her. Similarly, what now seem like hallmarks of modernist style--the ironic swerves, the impossibility of resolution, the emphasis on shards, fragments, and flickers of meaning, the distortion of time and the closing off of the future--are all historically based, in a period when Italy temporized and Europe fought its "machine war." . . . Contemporary readers of "Love Songs" were disturbed by this hovering preoccupation. . . . Progressives and nonconformists were troubled by the poems' eccentricities, but without doubt, what upset readers most was their diagnosis of sexual love as yet another casualty of war. (208)

from Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)

Carolyn Burke

Where Marinetti rejects romantic love as a "passatista" idealization of sexual relations, Loy writes instead of the psychic and social disconnectedness that results from a love affair come apart at the seams. With none of the Futurists' modernolatria (worship of the modern), Loy nevertheless incorporates the imagery of the modern city as the cultural context of this failed attempt at union. But like the love affair that unravels in "Love Songs," these urban images also prove unstable in their new configurations within the poems. Although Pound appears to have had faith in the image, or artistic form in general, as numinously given, Loy, a trained artist, knew that images were inherently unreliable and no more numinous with meaning than anything else. She also knew that images could dissolve, shatter, break into their components, fade out, or prove unrecognizable from different angles of vision. Her contacts with the Futurist painters Carra and Balla, who broke images and figures in motion into a painterly version of the successive frames in a cinematic sequence, demonstrated that the poetic image was what the mind determined it could be: it had no fixed objective reality. . . . For Loy, [as illustrated by "Love Songs,"] images partook of the other reality that in "Aphorisms" she called "mental spatiality," an autonomous realm quite unlike Pound's model of intellectual activity. While Pound's critical writing in these years emphasizes the energizing consciousness of the artist's mind, her "mental spatiality" suggests, rather, a model more like a painterly version of the Freudian unconscious, in which images and meanings lie dormant yet accessible to the artist through a creative process that is a kind of self-analysis. (40-41)

from "Mina Loy's 'Love Songs' and the Limits of Imagism," San Jose Studies (xiii, 3) fall, 1987, 37-46.

Marisa Januzzi

[Note: Januzzi provides an exhaustive annotated bibliography of Loy's published works, "in order of appearance, including artworks in reproduction and significant posthumous publications," as well as a magnificently comprehensive bibliography of critical writings on Loy. It is from the latter that we have drawn the following three excerpts, beginning in 1980 with Kouidis's book-length study of Loy. Note, however, that Januzzi's critical bibliography goes back as far as 1914.]

1) Virginia M. Kouidis, Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.

"Chapter two, 'The Modernist Vision,' explores the ways in which Loy's poems were notorious not just because they were sexually frank but also because they were 'first-hand assimilations of current structural and technical experiments by European painters and writers, especially the Futurists.' . . . Kouidis gives an extended reading of the 'Love Songs,' which she refers to as a 'kaleidoscopic' long poem, a 'Futurist collage of thirty-four perspectives on failed love,' a 'surrealist link' forged between 'sexuality and the psyche.' She situates the poem in a biographical context, but sees in it a Bergsonian 'organic relation between subject and structure.' Kouidis also explores some of the similarities of this work to Eliot's 'Prufrock,' bringing out the mutual ancestor of the 'I' in each poem: Laforgue's Pierrot." (Januzzi, 566-67)

2) Virginia M. Kouidis, "Prison into Prism: Emerson's 'Many-Colored Lenses' and the Woman Writer of Early Modernism," The Green American Tradition: Essay and Poems for Sherman Paul, ed. H. Daniel Peck. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989, 115-34.

"Kouidis argues that Loy 'most tantalizingly hints at an Emersonian ancestry in Love Songs to Joannes (1915-1917), a thirty-four poem collage of love's failure' that 'spatializes the traditional narrative of failed love' by refiguring the failure repeatedly and 'kaleidoscopically' as "pieces of Coloured glass"'; ML thus 'rewrites "Experience" in flamboyantly sexual,' compressed, fragmented modernist imagery." (Januzzi, 586)

3) Jacqueline Baught Brogan, Part of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1991.

"[In 'Love Songs'] Brogan sees 'increased attention to the visual impact of the verse.' When the songs appeared in their entirety in 1917, they demonstrated an advance in technique: 'By song VII, for instance, Loy has introduced a series of dashes as signs for missing words, thereby inverting the cubist play in the visual medium when words are pasted or painted onto canvases as signs of themselves.' Thus the songs represent 'the first sustained American cubist poem to move beyond the relatively simple analysis of form to something more on the order of synthetic reintegration (25).'" (Januzzi, 592)

from "Bibliography: The Criticism, 1914-1996," in Mina Loy, Woman and Poet, eds. Maeera Shreiber and Keith Tuma (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1998), 541-606.

Mary E. Galvin

The cycle comprises a powerful critique of heterosexual love and romance as a textual creation of the phallocentric-centric discourse, even as this discourse was being subjected to modernist revisions. In the first poem, Loy inverts the usual conception of romance as the great elevator of base feeling into an ennobling transcendence. In Loy's view, romance in itself is debasing, and belief in it keeps one bound to a narrow and constrictive consciousness:

[No. 1, lines 1-7]

While these opening lines of the cycle may indicate Loy's encounter and agreement with the futurist credo of antisentimentalism, she questions the role she, as a female, will be cast in (or will cast herself in) while "Pig Cupid" sows his "wild oats" in the anatomically described "mucous-membrane" of the female body. She concludes this first poem with her suspicions:

[No 1, lines 13-18]

The image of fragmentation (Coloured glass) with which she "ends" this first poem is both an ongoing theme and a symbol of her poetic technique enacted throughout the rest of the cycle. As Virginia Kouidis has pointed out in her study of the poem, the phrase "Coloured glass" is a kaleidoscopic image that Loy introduces early on, and the poem itself comprises a kaleidoscopic view of her romantic/sexual experiences. Arranged in a collage format, each poem deals with a fragment of her experience. It is through rough juxtaposition of seemingly disparate pieces that she presents the reader with a full view of her engagement with internalized forms of romanticism ("Trimming subliminal flicker") on the one hand and the sometimes crude antisentimentalism of the modernist male on the other.

The form Loy creates in order to accommodate and express the complexity of her vision deserves much more detailed attention than I can give to the work here. Throughout the cycle, Loy weaves a complex of images involving "symbolic colors...cosmological images (sun, moon, stars), time images (day, noon, dawn, midnight, clockwork), animal and biological images and terms, images of light, vision, vegetation, flight, deity, the house, and mechanization" (Kouidis, 63). The complex interrelation of these images recalls and expands on the complexity of Loy's notions of consciousness, language, identity, and sexuality found in "Parturition."

As in "Parturition," the speaker of "Songs to Joannes" seeks to rewrite the "book of love" in order to heighten consciousness and liberate it from the narrow strictures of conventional morality .In doing so, the scope of her consciousness can range freely and without reservation through the entire span of human existence, from mundane life on the street to the expansive mysteries of the human's place in the cosmos.

Even as she embarks on this futurist's deconstruction of romantic love as nothing more than a fantasy built around the physicality of sex, Loy's speaker of the "Songs to Joannes" can't help but wonder whether this deconstruction doesn't have vastly different implications for the male and female modernist. While for the female, such a deconstruction may involve a difficult reassessment of the ways in which romantic beliefs have been internalized and clung to as a false form of self-fulfillment, Loy's speaker is compelled to wonder whether some secret, well-hidden fear might underlie the male antisentimental attitude toward sex.

Perhaps attempting to undo the bonds of romanticized sentimentality through reconstructing sex in a more mechanical way results in a loss of passion that would convert sex too easily from the overwritten sentimentality of romance to a completely meaningless act of cosmic vapidity.


Throughout the cycle of the "Songs to Joannes," Loy is walking a fine line in her exploration of a failed vision of a (modernist) love affair. On the one hand, she wants to join with her male counterpart in describing sex in new and potentially liberating ways. On the other hand, she is suspicious of the male's readiness to throw off any obligation to human feeling in his sexual encounters. The freedom from sentimentality he seeks may in fact prove to be nothing more than an expansion of the conventional double-standard that allows the male to carelessly sow his "wild oats" and ignore any interaction of human consciousnesses that may occur there:

[XIII, lines 146-154]

In poem XIV of the cycle, Loy tries on the futurist vision of humans as machines caught in the mechanical workings of an indifferent universe. . .

Counterpoised to the potential emptiness of this vision, Loy cannot simply abstract herself away from the fecundity of Nature, even if Nature has been used in service to the metaphors of repressive romantic love.

[XXII, lines 238-241]

Even as the lovers' resist these images of meaningfulness in sex, they are still drawn to them:


Ultimately, Loy's speaker finds her initial suspicions confirmed:

[XXVII, lines 298-304]

She finds that her questioning of the futurist antiromantic agenda leads to her "Crucifixion" as "a busybody /Longing to interfere so /With the intimacies /Of your insolent isolation" (from XXXI). In the penultimate stanza, she identifies herself as


Loy's conclusion here, of the unreasoning evolution of human consciousness out of the chaos of biology, flings us into her final stanza, only one line long. . .

Loy's final lines are often heavily ironic in their meaning and tone. Returning us to the beginning, where the gross "Pig Cupid" is the "Spawn of Fantasies," she has covered several attempts at disengaging from these romantic mythologies, only to understand in these final stanzas that in her attempt to expose romantic love as a creation of the phallocentric literary discourse, she herself has contributed to the use of "love" as a central topic for her own literary endeavors. Along with the irony of this self-reflexive interpretation, Loy is also implying that her futurist lover, presenting himself in his sexual and intellectual vitality, is actually positioning himself in the role traditionally held by "Love" in our cultural mythologies, and, as such, wants to take over as "the preeminent litterateur."

from Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Mary E. Galvin

Elizabeth Majerus

Though most contemporary readers received the poems that ultimately became Songs to Joannes as brazenly sexual and irreverently antisentimental, Loy herself perceived them as both sexual and sentimental, perhaps dangerously so on both counts. In a letter to Carl Van Vechten in 1915, she expresses uncertainty about whether to publish the Songs she has written thus far, calling them “‘rather pretty -- rather mawkish -- probably a little indecent’” (qtd. in Burke 185). Far from being merely tough, merely “mawkish,” or simply sexual, the poem sequence is all of these things at once. From its opening stanza, Songs to Joannes draws together a complicated mix of images and tones, its argument shifting and fracturing when viewed from different angles:

Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
“Once upon a time”
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucus membrane

Loy draws together a number of clashing figures that simultaneously reflect the base and the elevated, the desired and the rejected: “spawn of fantasies,” “Pig Cupid,” “erotic garbage.” Just as Pig Cupid, Loy’s buffoonish hybrid of crude lust and idealized love, “roots erotic garbage” to find the “weed... among wild oats” he cares to sow, Loy begins her complex poetic process of “silting the appraisable,” sifting through various elements of love and sex to find those that illuminate some aspect of her speaker’s evolving consciousness. She alludes to the fairy-tale beginning “once upon a time” with ironic distance, but although the poem bears out the critique that this quotation implies, it also engages the emotions that such an ideal may stir. Loy’s poem will not have a happy ending, but neither will it have a wholly dark or ridiculous ending, because it will keep all its conflicting elements and perspectives in active circulation.

Like “Parturition,” Songs to Joannes continually shifts in time and perspective, and this shifting accounts for Loy’s ability to bring in irony and sentiment without favoring or negating either. At times this is a shift from positive to negative, idealized to deflated, but at other points the movement is more complex, with more than one direction to its dynamism. We see this in poem I, which presents an indeterminately wishful or willful image of light, color, and eternity:

I would an eye in a Bengal light
Eternity in a sky-rocket
Constellations in an ocean
Whose rivers run no fresher
Than a trickle of saliva

But observing that “These are suspect places,” the speaker continues, presenting a more limited scenario:

I must live in my lantern
Trimming subliminal flicker
Virginal to the bellows
Of Experience
Coloured glass

The poem at first moves from idealized, grand images to a physical, sexual image. This could be read as a deflation. But given that the entire chain is connected to “I would” (which can be read as “I would if I could” or “I wish”), an equally available reading would connect the bodily “river” to these grander images and read the speaker as equating them, thereby elevating the physical image by introducing it through the celestial images.

Loy’s speaker returns to the world of necessity as she realizes that she's exploring “suspect places.” Her wishful “I would” collapses into a realistic “I must,” and her visions of exploding color and light reduce to the mere flicker of a lantern that encloses her, cutting her off from experience. The multiple perspectives in this poem reveal deflation of hopes on one level, elevation of sexuality on another, and reflect back on the opening stanza, complicating the potentially antiromantic image of “Pig Cupid...rooting erotic garbage/ ‘Once upon a time.’” There is a critical tone in poem I, perhaps akin to Loy’s criticism of conventional gender and marriage roles elsewhere, but there is also an element of hope and disappointment connected to a celestialized sexuality. The deflation in the last stanza comes from the speaker's “virginal” confinement, cutting her off from the “bellows/ Of Experience” that might feed her little flame. Her wish for the “Eternity in a sky-rocket/ Constellations in an ocean,” which the sexuality of a mere “trickle of saliva” might offer her, has been foiled. Thus the ironic quotation of “Once upon a time” does not merely critique conventional narratives of romance for confining the speaker, but suggests that they actually bar her from experiencing true romance in the celestialized sex that she imagines. Loy scholars often read the final image of “coloured glass” as deflationary or bitter, but in the context of Loy’s lifelong fascination with colored glass and her use throughout her poetic career of images of cheap material and mass-produced replications of beauty as potentially sublime the image is unstable, possibly a compensation in the beauty of the mundane after the speaker returns from fantasy to reality.

Discussing the multiple perspectives of the speaker in Songs to Joannes, Rachel Blau DuPlessis finds that Loy's “fictive-evasive-ironic” perspective seems to inform more open moments in the poem sequence: “the urge to ‘sincerity,’ being just one of the possible positions of this subjectivity at work, irremediably ironizes even open confession” (268). DuPlessis identifies an important aspect of Songs -- that different and seemingly conflicting perspectives bleed over into other moments in the poem -- and I would argue that this effect is multi-directional. In poem XVI we find skepticism creeping into the speaker's “what if?” bringing in a note of impossibility, while the potential hopefulness of the last line simultaneously casts the poem as wistful. Conversely, scathingly ironic moments in Songs turn out to be equally unstable, revealing ambivalence, desire, or vulnerability. In poem XIII the speaker begins by urging closeness (“Come to me There is something/ I have got to tell you...Something only for you”) and commands distance (“Let us be very jealous/ Very suspicious/ Very conservative/ Very cruel”). She ends with a sarcastic pushing-away that sounds fed-up and belittling but is also internally conflicted:

Oh that's right
Keep away from me Please give me a push
Don't let me understand you Don't realise me
Or we might tumble together
Into the terrific Nirvana
Me you---you---me

“Or we might” bears the heavy incredulity of sarcasm, but as the stanza continues the sarcasm drops away. The lines become harder to read -- potentially ambivalent, potentially rhapsodic. The speaker begins to understand that this dissolution of individual identities is a real possibility if connection occurs, and “the terrific Nirvana” of “Me you” could be as scary to her as it seems to be to the “you,” or it could be absolutely desirable. Or both. As Peter Quartermain observes, the poem accomplishes a perpetual “syntactic drift” that precludes the resolution of any of its multiple ambivalences (79).

Much of the uncertainty in Songs to Joannes arises from the poem’s shifting temporal perspectives -- alternating shards of past-tense memories, present-tense descriptions, conditional “might haves,” and moments of direct address. Out of this temporal flux the poem creates alternative perspectives on the same story. One past-tense depiction of the love affair is lyrical, fertile, full of pleasure and communion:

When we lifted
Our eye-lids on Love
A cosmos
Of coloured voices
And laughing honey
And spermatozoa
At the core of Nothing
In the milk of the moon (IX).

Another is cold, distant, unproductive, life-negating:

The contents
Of our ephemeral conjunction
In aloofness from much
Flowed to approachment of----
There was a man and a woman
In the way
While the Irresolvable
Rubbed with our daily deaths
Impossible eyes (XXVII).

These short poems echo one another, but each presents a strikingly different perspective. In IX, the lovers' eyes perceive the bounty of all that their love produces, while in XXVII the eyes are closed, rubbed with death and the heavy impossibility of this relationship. In IX, surrounded by body fluids associated with life, “Nothing” signifies potential space; in XXVII, “NOTHING” is the absolute measure of the barrenness of this union, sexual, emotional, and social. In the continually circulating verbal collage of Songs to Joannes, both of these stories are the “truth,” along with innumerable other conflicting moments, imaginary and real.

The sense of pathos available in moments of Songs to Joannes -- sometimes due to the speaker's expressions of loss or grief, sometimes created by a juxtaposition between irony and disappointment, or hope and deflation -- creates moments of sublimity similar to those that Loy effects using fragments of “muck” and mass culture elsewhere in her poetry. Jean-François Lyotard observes that the concept of the sublime has developed from its roots in the late seventeenth century into an avant-garde aesthetic in modern experimental literature. He locates pathos as a central component of the sublime, along with discourse that evinces an “incommensurability between thought and the real world” (94-5). His understanding of the avant-garde sublime as “concerned... with a sensation of time” and “allud[ing] to something that can't be shown or presented” (89) resonates with Loy’s Bergsonian shifts in time and the ways her poetry resists a resolved sense of representation. Loy achieves an avant-garde version of the sublime through her refusal of narrative coherence and resolution and her representations of attachment to and suspicion toward sentiment in her verbal montage.

Peter Bürger also alludes to a quality of sublimity in avant-garde art when he suggests that its political impact arises in part from artists’ refusal to resolve the unrepresentability of their experience with the means of “shaping reality” available to them in the form of linguistic conventions. According to Bürger, avant-garde artists do not strive for an “impression of wholeness” and a forced resolution of cultural conflict, but create a work of art which “proclaims itself an artificial construct, an artifact” (73). Bürger sees montage as the most effective means of achieving this self-conscious disunity in avant-garde art. Although Bürger’s main focus is visual montage in the historical avant-gardes, Loy’s verbal montage achieves many of the same effects, particularly insofar as her poem sequence resists “creat[ing] the semblance of reconciliation” that characterizes autonomous art in bourgeois culture (78).

Loy's refusal to reconcile these various and contradictory perspectives on sex and love is a crucial strategy of gendered political practice within her poetry. Her fragmented montage of cynicism and sentimentality avoids complicity with either side of a gendered cultural conflict, both sides of which represent a losing proposition for women in modernity. Raymond Williams succinctly describes this double-bind, also reflected in the conflict between free-love feminism and social-purity feminism, in terms of a critique of the bourgeois family. Williams argues that the basis of this institution, “propertied marriage, [and] the inclusion within it of male domination over women and children,” arises from a hybrid of feudal forms of property and lineage and a distinctly bourgeois conception of morality that elevates marriage and the direct care of children to a religious importance (56). The elements of suspicion and cynicism toward romance and sentiment in Loy's poetry are in part a critical response to these bourgeois conventions of love. Modernist and avant-garde critiques of romantic love and its role in the bourgeois family, however, often amount to “a critique and rejection of all social forms of human reproduction” not necessarily felicitous for women. According to Williams, “the ‘bourgeois family’... is often in effect a covering phrase for those rejections of women and children which take the form of a rejection of ‘domesticity’” (57). Futurist rhetoric, with which Loy was intimately familiar, provides a particularly nasty example of an avant-garde critique of bourgeois love devolving into outright misogyny: a “hatred... for the tyranny of Amore we express in a laconic phrase: ‘scorn for women’” (Marinetti 72).

Loy’s fragments of yearning, pathos, and melancholy, mediated by cynicism and suspicion, resist reconciliation in Songs to Joannes. But these moments of sentiment enable her to critique bourgeois love conventions while at the same time resisting the total negation of cultural and rhetorical spaces available to and equated with women. Thus Loy declines to engage in the rejection of sentimental and “feminine” discourses often associated with experimental modernist literature. Instead Loy engages with the sentimental at the same time that she criticizes conventional expressions of sentiment and romance; in doing so she creates a sublime that is simultaneously a critique. As with “Parturition,” Loy is able to enact a critique of social conventions without foreclosing the possibility of social connection and to challenge traditional gender roles without negating the complexity of people who are shaped by those same roles. By creating a verbal collage that uses avant-garde strategies but incorporates aspects of life which many modernist and avant-garde artists held as “suspect,” Loy accomplishes a form of art that resists autonomy by engaging with life but also resists the complete negativity -- “grasp[ing] the present only as a moment of destruction” -- that Peter Nicholls sees as a risk in avant-garde art (109). Carolyn Burke says of Loy’s late-career bum-themed constructions (which were made up of trash and found objects): “her refuse was recombined not to assail artistic convention, as Duchamp had done, but to make it more responsive” (420). Loy also incorporates culturally marginal materials into her poetic collage in order to simultaneously expand the boundaries of art and make social critiques and connections.

from “‘A Cosmos of Coloured Voices’: Connection and Critique in Mina Loy’s Hybrid Poetics” © 2000 by Elizabeth Majerus

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