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Yasna Bozhkova, Between Worlds: Mina Loy’s Aesthetic Itineraries

Susan Rosenbaum
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Yasna Bozhkova, Between Worlds: Mina Loy’s Aesthetic Itineraries, Clemson, Clemson University Press, 2022, 308 p., ISBN 978-1-949979-64-0, $150, GBP 87.60.

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1Artist, poet, playwright, novelist, designer, and entrepreneur, Mina Loy (1882-1966) moved in the circles of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism and migrated among major metropolitan centers of avant-garde and modernist activity, including Paris, Florence, Rome, New York, London, and Berlin, from the 1910s to the 1950s. Yasna Bozhkova’s Between Worlds: Mina Loy’s Aesthetic Itineraries approaches Mina Loy as “one of the most interstitial figures in modernism” (4): a cross-media artist who was involved with a number of avant-gardes but forged her own “aesthetic itinerary,” Loy avoided “the inevitable transformation of innovative aesthetic searches into dogmas or dead-end ideologies” by pursuing an aesthetics of “travel between different aesthetics” (6). Bozhkova argues that Loy “saw her own shifting artistic allegiances as a series of ‘constellations’ in constant reconfiguration” (6-7), and the book proceeds chronologically, tracing Loy’s critical engagement with a number of modernist figures and movements, illuminating “the evolution of Loy’s idiom at each stage of her career” (11).

2The structure of the book and Bozhkova’s understanding of Loy’s ambivalent relationship to the avant-garde is familiar from recent scholarship that charts the history and dynamics of that relationship, including Sarah Hayden’s Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood (2018); Laura Scuriatti’s Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism (2019); and Suzanne Churchill, Linda Kinnahan, and Susan Rosenbaum’s “Scholarly Baedeker” for Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde (2020). These studies, along with a number of scholarly essays on Loy and the avant-garde, variously explore Loy’s critical engagement with successive avant-garde circles, figures, and movements; the ways in which Loy used her writing and visual art to theorize modernist experiment and her relationship to the avant-garde; Loy’s reworking of ideas and techniques shaped by Cubism, Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism throughout her career; and Loy’s lifelong aesthetic preference for a liminal, “en dehors garde” position. This tradition of scholarship is indebted to Carolyn Burke’s biography Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996), the first work to document Loy’s travels, chart her navigation of diverse modernist circles, and illuminate her critical, feminist lens on avant-garde experiment.

3While Bozhkova’s commitment to fully tracing Loy’s career results in some repetition of this earlier scholarship, Between Worlds breaks new ground in Bozhkova’s attention to Loy’s intertextual poetics, unfolded through perceptive, detailed close readings of Loy’s writing as it engages other literary and visual works. Loy emerges as “a far more allusive and intertextual author than has so far been suggested” (8); Bozhkova points out that “the intertextual potentialities of [Loy’s] dense and often cryptic work have so far been underexplored since she did not document her reading, sources, and influences as extensively in essays and letters as other more canonical poets” (9). Throughout the book Bozhkova supplies these “intertexts,” providing new perspectives on often-read works while illuminating lesser-known poems, and concretely demonstrating the importance of intertextuality to Loy’s aesthetic techniques and experimentation.

4Bozhkova argues that Loy establishes her intertextual poetics, and specifically, “her technique of condensing a multiplicity of oblique allusions into enigmatic fragments” (22), in her early poetic sequence “Songs to Joannes” (1917). While a number of scholars have emphasized the importance of Marinetti’s manifesto “Destruction of Syntax—Imagination Without Strings—Words-in-Freedom” (26), Bozhkova persuasively connects Loy’s experiments with punctuation, typography, syntax, imagery, and the space of the page to Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” (A Roll of the Dice) and to the “idea of the poem as a constellation” (28); Loy, like Mallarmé, challenges “linear ways of reading” by creating “new, infinitely complex spatial relationships between words” (29). Mallarméan visual poetics contributed to the Songs’ “dense nexus of oblique allusions, contradictory associations, and discordant echoes [­…] deliberately constructed so as to challenge the possibility of a single interpretation” (23). In addition to Mallarmé, Bozhkova discusses Freud’s influence on “Songs to Joannes.” The poetic sequence, she suggests, unfolds according to “the logic of dream” (36), and Loy’s “polyvalent constellations of images may be understood through Freud’s idea that a single image may have multiple meanings in a dream, and that two or more images are conflated in one in the work of condensation” (40).

5Bozhkova adapts her interpretive method to Loy’s “polyvalent” style, suggesting many possible allusions and intertexts rather than advancing one “key” to the poem’s meaning. For instance, she reads the famous juxtaposition of “Pig Cupid” in the third line of “Songs to Joannes,” as “the nucleus of a dense cluster of interwoven references” (46) which she carefully unravels, exploring Apuleius’s story of “Cupid and Psyche” from Metamorphoses, an allusion that “telescopes a whole tradition of visual representations, such as Giuseppe Crespi’s Amore e Psiche”; the Italian fairy tale “Re Porco” by Giovanni Francesco Straparola; the painting Pornokratès, La Dame au Cochon by Félicien Rops; and Valentine de Saint-Point’s “Futurist Manifesto of Lust” (40-47). Bozhkova’s insightful discussion of this array of sources clarifies how Loy condenses the poem’s guiding “thematic motifs” into a “single hybrid image” (46): her analysis advances interpretive possibilities, enriching the reader’s engagement with this difficult poem.

6Bozhkova sees Loy’s allusive poetics as a key to her “dialectical” practice of layering images, allusions, and aesthetics “in tension with one another” (279), a practice similar to Walter Benjamin’s use of the “dialectical image” (7-8). Although “Songs to Joannes” is commonly read in relation to Futurist aesthetics and to Loy’s affairs with the Futurist leaders Marinetti and Papini, Bozhkova persuasively demonstrates that many of the poem’s central figures and motifs (including the figure of Joannes and the personification of the moon as a woman) can refer simultaneously to Futurist and Decadent aesthetics, generating a “violent clash” that advances the poem’s “attack against the Futurists’ ideal of masculinity and their misogyny” (63). This reading demonstrates Loy’s “travel between disparate aesthetics” (10) and “the subtle ways in which, with her characteristic irony, her work confronts the most revolutionary avant-garde aesthetic projects with the spectral memory of artistic tradition” (8, 71).

7A second important intertextual technique that Bozhkova traces over the course of Loy’s career is her use of the literary portrait: “Loy’s texts often combine the technique of the literary portrait with an ekphrastic appraisal of individual and group aesthetics” (131). Beginning with the poetic collection Lunar Baedecker (sic) (1923), Loy’s poems and essays occasioned by other figures and their art serve not only to illuminate their aesthetics, but also Loy’s, doubling as a form of ars poetica (168). Loy uses literary portraits to generate a “very personal pantheon bearing the traces of her own artistic encounters” (131, 241), and Bozhkova’s study of these portraits clarifies the importance of little-studied poems. For instance, Bozhkova brings welcome attention to the poem “Joyce’s Ulysses.” Carefully analyzing drafts alongside the published poem, Bozhkova unpacks complex allusions to Joyce’s literary texts and reveals an affinity between Joyce’s and Loy’s technique of blending “various strains of imagery” (142). Bozhkova also demonstrates the importance of the overlooked poem “Jules Pascin,” establishing striking parallels between Pascin’s and Loy’s lives, visual art, and careers, emphasizing their Jewish origins and their shared status as “figures of hybrid identity and intercultural wandering” (196). She finds in Loy’s elegiac poem for Pascin a shift in the “portrait of the artist motif” from “celebration of genius” to the “spectral poetics” of the 1930s and 40s marked by the “increasingly difficult material conditions for artists and the rise of anti- Semitism” (197).

8In this context, Bozhkova approaches Loy’s loosely-autobiographical novel Insel, begun in the 1930s and likely completed in the years following her 1936 move to New York, as both a literary portrait of Insel (based on the German painter Richard Oelze) and as a Künstlerroman (237). Bozhkova’s reading brings to light some new intertextual and intermedial references, and emphasizes the importance of Colossus, a figure based on Arthur Cravan, Loy’s husband who disappeared in 1918 in Mexico. Bozhkova convincingly argues that Insel “is a chronicle of a period of stasis, emotional, spiritual, and creative nadir” (204) that conjoins Loy’s “enduring melancholia” over the loss of Cravan “with a proleptic glimpse into the impending collective catastrophe of the war to come” (205). Bozhkova’s reading of Mrs. Jones’s relationship with Insel as “an attempt to come to terms with the devastating loss of Cravan” (224) clarifies why “the oneiric world of Insel fuses the features of Oelze together with the spectral image of Cravan in a series of ‘trompe l’oeil’ effects,” and why the narrative’s resolution hinges on Mrs. Jones “becoming aware of her subsconscious blurring of the two figures” (233).

9In a short chapter that follows, Bozhkova intriguingly argues that “the spectral presence of Colossus’s photograph in Insel is emblematic of the way in which Cravan’s ‘colossal’ shadow looms large in Loy’s later writings,” resulting in a “veritable poetics of melancholia” (241). Tracing Loy’s treatment of Cravan (Colossus) in the poems “Mexican Desert” (1919/20), “The Widow’s Jazz” (1927), and “Letters of the Unliving” (1949), Bozhkova finds “an increasingly pronounced preoccupation with silence, absence, and memory’s failure” (242). In an elegiac twist on the literary portrait as self-portrait, Bozhkova demonstrates how “these poems create a palpable mirror effect between the spectral presence of the absent Colossus and Loy’s own poetic voice,” illuminating Loy’s “poetic strategies of withdrawal and silence” (242), also evident in her late Bowery artwork and writing explored in the book’s final chapter.

10This study is at its strongest in Bozhkova’s astute close readings that illustrate Loy’s intertextual techniques while untangling and explaining the many allusions packed into images “of staggering complexity” (144). Bozhkova tends to emphasize the ideas and techniques that Loy adapts from her “pantheon of modernist luminaries” (13), the artists and writers with whom she felt some affinity; she is less interested in analyzing Loy’s critical engagement with her source material or artistic models, or in exploring how Loy’s writing and art not only drew from, but influenced and transformed, the modernist and avant-garde circles in which she moved. While this is a legitimate choice of emphasis, at times a deeper engagement with how and why Loy mixed criticism with adaptation of innovative techniques would enrich Bozhkova’s analysis. Loy’s interest in avant-garde experiment was shaped by her progressive attitudes on feminism, gender, and sexuality, but Loy’s feminist ideas do not figure prominently in Bozhkova’s study. For instance, in her analysis of “Songs to Joannes,” Bozhkova claims the importance of Freud’s theories, and argues that “the Freudian notion of Eros informs the universe of Loy’s poem” (39). However, by the early 1920s, Loy had written an essay (“Conversion”) criticizing Freud, psychoanalysis, and the “inconscious,” and in the “History of Religion and Eros” she would later call Freud’s concept of eros “blind” (Loy 227-229, 237-252). How did Loy’s ideas articulated in her 1914 “Feminist Manifesto” complicate her reception of Freud’s understanding of dream, the unconscious, and eros in “Songs to Joannes”? A more integrated assessment of how Loy’s ideas about gender and sexuality informed her intertextual aesthetics would help support Bozhkova’s claim that “what is at stake here is Loy’s construction of the complex identity of a female poet” (153). While this study would be enriched by greater engagement with Loy’s feminism and her critical adaptation of her sources, Between Worlds offers a valuable new frame for understanding Loy’s difficult poetic style and intertextual techniques.

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Bibliographie

BURKE, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

CHURCHILL, Suzanne W., Linda A. KINNAHAN, and Susan ROSENBAUM. “Mina Loy Baedeker: Scholarly Book for Digital Travelers.” Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde. University of Georgia, 2020. https://mina-loy.com/chapters/. Accessed 15 October 2023.

CRANGLE, Sara, ed. Stories and Essays of Mina Loy. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.

HAYDEN, Sarah. Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018.

SCURIATTI, Laura. Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019.

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Susan Rosenbaum, « Yasna Bozhkova, Between Worlds: Mina Loy’s Aesthetic Itineraries »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21230 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21230

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Susan Rosenbaum

University of Georgia

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