Keith Tuma reviews Mina Loy

From Jacket #5 (1998)

Loy at Last
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996)

I HADN’T MEANT TO write anything on Roger Conover’s new edition of Mina Loy’s poems, happy as I was to see it appear. I figured the more interesting approach would be to wait for the reviews of the book and write something about them. I had an inkling that Mina Loy’s time had come, that this Conover edition, given its publisher, would reach a public an earlier Jargon Books edition had not. The nearly simultaneous publication of Carolyn Burke's biography, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, would help to push Loy over the top. I was right, I guess — the books have been widely reviewed in publications as various as Harper’s, Modernism/Modernity, American Book Review, and TLS, and Mina Loy’s name seems to be everywhere. In the week that I type this I've found it in a electronic PostModern Culture review of The University of Buffalo's Electronic Poetry Center and, out of the blue, on a listserv devoted to experimental British poetry, where Loy’s poem “O Hell” was cited by the Australian poet John Kinsella. In London a month or so ago I saw the Carcanet edition of Conover’s book on the shelves of some pretty average bookstores where nothing was stocked by contemporary British poets such as Tom Raworth, J. H. Prynne, Maggie O'Sullivan or anybody else not right down the center or floating behind a mainstream. Reviews of the Loy edition have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, though Helen Vendler is not, it seems, altogether convinced that the gates should be opened and Loy admitted to — to what? The elegant badger is already out the barn door. The predictable response of Vendler and some others breeds discourse, accelerating the name already ineradicably a part of the discourse of modern poetry, feeding the fires of those for whom Mina Loy's work has long been a “cause,” near the center of various arguments about aesthetics and poetics, or gender and modernism. Beyond Vendler others have felt it their duty in life to make ill-informed statements about Loy’s fitness as a mother, sometimes allowing their exhaled righteousness to pollute an evaluation of poems they would rather not read. A few boos to set off the chorus of cheers.

Conover’s edition is surely deserving of praise. It’s meticulously edited and annotated to be of use equally to scholars and readers needing introduction to the personalities and propositions of Italian Futurism and whatever and whoever else enters into the poems. A few changes have been made in the poems also appearing in the Jargon edition, most of which are carefully explained though not all of which equally please. The opening lines of “Three Moments in Paris,” for instance, have been changed from present tense — “Though you have never possessed me/I have belonged to you since the beginning of time” — to past: “Though you had never possessed me / I had belonged to you since the beginning of time.” The breathlessness and consonantal richness of “have never” is deflated to wry narrative, the awkwardness of articulating “had” before “never” seeming of a different order than the metallic stuttering of her best poems, where hard consonants rattle like arcane dictionaries bouncing on the tin roof of a music hall, and verbs (and nouns looking like verbs) are often offered their own line — as if the power to propel a racket of eroticized jargon and ironized poeticisms towards the stony propositions of sentence were a perpetual source of amazement. If the cost of getting towards an accurate, usable and widely available text is one disappointment, that's small cost indeed. And the gains — several previously unpublished poems, the short essay “Modern Poetry” with its remarks on jazz and American speech and the Americanness of the modernist moment in poetry, among others — are cause for another fifty hurrahs. The only unfortunate limitation to the edition is the omission of the long poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” for reasons of space, but it is soon to appear in another book edited by Conover. I’m not sure everyone knows how much the poetry world owes Roger Conover for decades of work on Loy’s behalf; together with Burke and a few other scholars and poets he has brought her back from near-oblivion to the celebrity she knew once briefly in New York. There was something perfect about the page in Harper’s, the sensation become a sensation again as she enters the archive, touching down just once in the glossy pages, beautiful and scandalous in the sheen of sex and fashion.

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