Vorticist Portraiture in Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose

1 August 2017


In Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, Exodus’s defining element is a sense of perpetual dislocation and unease. This restlessness characterises his actions within the narrative of the poem as he emigrates to England, has trouble reconciling with his environment, and ultimately appropriates his personality and language in an act of self-creation in the context of a foreign culture. The name ‘Exodus’ itself encompasses the essence of the character who is portrayed, from the very beginning of the poem, as one who is actively in transit. Exodus plays various roles: he is a father to Ova, a suitor for Ada; he represents a cultural homelessness, and occupies the place of an outsider to society. The consequence of such role-playing is a constant struggle between irresolvable and irreducible elements from the past and future within his character. Rachel Potter defines Exodus as ‘restless’ (Potter, Salt Companion to Mina Loy, 57) and the language of the poem is in direct relation to this figure, a ‘kind of homeless wandering mongrel’ (ibid., 55), through which Loy reinterprets the trope of the ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘wandering’ Jew. Exodus’s constant movement appears at times to be a brutal and isolating burden, at others to be the mark of self-creation for an artist (Jaskoski, Outsider Artist, 351).

Exodus is born and raised in his home country of Hungary, although Loy refers to him with multiple religious names such as ‘Jehovah’ and ‘Lord of Israel’ in order to tie him inextricably to a Jewish culture. In the first few passages describing Exodus’s childhood, the poem depicts the growing boy as developing strong cultural roots to the people of Budapest. In Budapest Exodus learns the ‘Magyar tongue’ and ‘biblical Hebrew’ (Loy, LLB, 111) at the behest of his father. Exodus is exemplary of intellectual ambition: we are told he is taught the ‘seeds of science / to vindicate his forefather’s ambitions’, and that, as a result of such influences from an early age, the ‘child / flowered precociously’ (ibid., 111-112).

As a young adult Exodus emigrates to England where he meets and marries Ada, the English Rose. Elizabeth Frost provides a compelling reading of the poem based on the power of language as an ‘arm of culture’ to shape an individual’s consciousness (Frost, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 149). By allowing readers to study the characters of Exodus and Ada and their subsequent marital relationship (before Ova’s entry into the narrative), Loy constructs a hybrid and personally-specific culture which births Ova – a land of unique cultural oppressions and conflicts which Ada and Exodus create through their marriage. As Ova reacts to this unique, familial language and its limits within this microcosmic nation where the ‘personal is the political’ (Jaskoski, Outsider Artist, 363), we see that individuality is not culturally determined because the notions of personality and culture itself are made fluid. Whilst Ova inherits a restless need for self-expression from her father, the character of Ada is constructed as the antithesis to such artistic pursuits as she is not only oppressed by her society’s ideals but also lacks the self-awareness to realise her predicament.

Goody notes that Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose ‘emphasizes Exodus’s dislocated Jewish heritage and depicts him through Semitic discourse’ (Goody, Modernist Articulations, 195). He is described as conforming to stereotypes of intellectualism, aesthetic appreciation, sensuality, and cosmopolitanism, and acquires a ‘nervous sensitivity’ (ibid., 195). These are qualities that Ova later inherits. They are also depicted as qualities which cast Exodus and Ova as dislocated from their British context. Exodus’s cultural dislocation is a significant reason for his constant uneasiness and causes him to internalise an ‘otherness’ which fractures the way he considers his identity. Loy depicts Exodus’s fragmented consciousness through a Cubist focus on multiple perspectives as well as a Futurist concern with the need to blur the divisions between a subject’s exterior and interior reality. Exodus’s dislocation engenders in him a constant need to question his identity: issues of culture and belonging are thus a point of ‘maximum energy’ in his changing psyche.

A recurring pattern within the poem follows Exodus’s endeavours to try and understand the changes which occur within his inner, unconscious life as a result of his migration. He recognises his ‘young pulse’ but is scared of its implications: ‘He is undone! How should he know / he has a heart?’. The ‘primary throb of the animate / a beating mystery’ (Loy, LLB, 113), the very essence of its nature – to continue – suggests that its absence is also possible; it is the ever-present meeting point of life and death: ‘his heart beats to slay him’ (ibid., 114). Loy places the most vital phenomenon, the beating of a heart, at the epicenter of this character’s existence, in order to make her exploration of his particular psyche applicable to a wider range of experiences. This choice also communicates that, even in terms of physical survival, Exodus’s identity faces the most extreme question as a result of his emigration.

Loy suggests that one way Exodus appropriates the question of what is most vitally himself is through the use of language to understand and give form to an interrogation which pulsates through his body. He experiences ‘with the instinctive urge of loneliness / to get to ‘the heart of something’’ (ibid., 116). We observe here that the word ‘heart’ makes a transition from something unknown within Exodus to a position of reference within his own speech. The phrase is most likely an everyday English figure of speech Exodus has picked up and uses to bring not an answer but a name and language to his questioning.

Exodus’s choice to begin a new life and thus commit an act of self-recreation is tied by Loy to his figuration as an artist: someone who is an intrinsic outsider to the prevalent society and its norms. Helen Jaskoski suggests that Exodus’s response to external and internalised rejection is an ‘embracing of alienation’ which becomes self-creating.

The London dusk
wraps up the aborted entity
heeding Solomon’s admonishing         spends
circumcised      circumspect
his evenings       doing lightning calculations
for his high pleasure      Painting
feeling his pulse

Incorporeal express trains
from opposite directions
of unequal    lengths and velocities
flash     through his abstract eye
determines instantly       the time
to a decimal        fraction of a second
they take      to pass each other

Under his ivory hands
his sunflowers sunwards 
glow      confuse       with itinerant 
Judaic eyes       peering
through narrow-slim      entrance-arches
the terrestrial trees         shades
virgin bosoms and blossoms
in course of his acclimatization
a hedge-rose

He paints
He feels his pulse

The spiritual     tentacles of vanity
that each     puts out towards      the culture
of his epoch       knowing not how to find
and finding not         contact     he has repealed 
to fumble among his guts.

(LLB, 118-19)

Loy depicts Exodus’s thoughts as verbal assemblages. In their composition, his thoughts resemble the arrangements of analytic cubism, as the typography imbues certain words with multiple meanings and perspectives. The verse attains a strange quality of constant movement as the images we encounter are in some ways dismembered. Loy separates Exodus from his actions: the words ‘Painting’ or ‘determines’ do not follow ‘he’, existing instead as pure actions. Even though we are told repeatedly in the second stanza that the vision of two trains passing each other exists in Exodus’s ‘abstract’ eye – and that these are ‘incorporeal’ and of ‘unequal lengths and velocities’ and thus exist as vague and purely conceptual phenomena – the very precision of ‘Determines instantly    the time    / to a decimal fraction of a second’ brings a definite tangible quality to the sequence, as does the spacing between words which draws attention to their physicality. In this way, Loy brings spatiality and action to the foreground and dislocates Exodus’s agency from its position of centrality within the verse. Following Stein’s principles, the poetic ‘I’ dissolves amongst Exodus’s imaginative thoughts and the self is depicted as a space of accommodation.

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