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

1 August 2017

It is as if Ada’s Vorticist ‘vitality’ is found in a negation because she is always twice removed from the self-consciousness that someone like Exodus possesses. Loy manipulates this distance to inject into the verse a sharp satirical humour. Frost states that Loy’s is a poetry of ‘effect rather than affect’, as it has a ‘double consciousness that inhibits and maintains an ironic distance from poetic language and the heritage it represents’ (Frost, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 150).

Exodus and the English Rose enter into a relationship for reasons they cannot communicate to one another across the gap of culture which separates their individual values and languages.

Although Ada, as a Vorticist portrait, is similar to Exodus in containing an ‘unknown’ space of conflict at the core of her character, crucially, Exodus has a self-awareness which allows him to identify and attempt to bring form, through language, to what is unknown within him. Ada, on the other hand, experiences the consequences of centering herself around a vacuum of negation but never reaches a deeper self-consciousness with which she may be able to question herself. Instead we are told:

For this Rose
Wherever it blows
It is certain
That an impenetrable pink curtain
Hangs between it and itself

(LLB, 128)

The image perfectly captures the essence of Ada’s psyche. The ‘impenetrable pink curtain’ metaphorically suggests the hymen which in Victorian culture, and Ada’s mentality, holds immense symbolic power for the definition of purity and femininity. The phrase ‘it and itself’ simply reduces the subject’s consciousness (‘it’) and works to further emphasise the division made by the ‘pink curtain’. Ada’s consciousness is permanently fractured: she is the character of whom Loy is most critical, for her inability to recognise, understand, and thus to express.

Ova, the ‘Mongrel Rose’

In Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose Ova is defined by her need for artistic self-expression, and elements of both her parents’ personalities and concerns inform her struggle. As Potter describes the process: ‘This poem is acutely sensitive to the question of how the self is formed through a complex identification with and dissociation from existing discursive structures and limits’ (Potter, Obscene Modernism, 51). Whilst Ova struggles to experientially understand her body as being one with her mind, she is also forced to embody hybridity as the meeting point of cultural conflicts. As a ‘mongrel’ ‘Anglo-Israelite’, Ova struggles to live freely in the environment that English values provide for her, whilst she is denied on the other hand opportunities to make any authentic escape from oppressive forces. The poem explores Ova’s developing consciousness through her interaction with words and the relation they share with both the world of her imagination as well as her corporeal reality.

Through Ova, Loy reconstructs the figure of the artist by combining Stein’s principle of displacing the subject’s centrality to the text with Ova’s own primarily Vorticist concern with artistic expression. The poem suggests, in opposition to Lewis’ conception of the ‘superhuman’ artist, that creative expression is most clearly located in the relation between a creative individual and their equally creative environment. Art becomes a play of forces: what enables the artist is not just will, but an awareness of these forces.

As critics such as Lara Vetter, Potter and Frost agree, Ova is the primary character in the poem whose existence and thought exemplifies Loy’s argument against cultural determination. The Jewish and Christian cultures she is a product of provide a matrix or landscape for Ova’s thought, but none of these elements are portrayed as static. Ova is consistently required by the text to radicalise binaries. Her condition of cultural hybridity and the position she occupies as the meeting point of various, conflicting, social and familial ideals, allows Loy to portray this radicalisation as a Vorticist ‘permanent metaphor’ within the narrative of Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose. Reconciling her Jewish and Christian heritage is shown to be a defining struggle for Ova’s life directly after the birth sequence:

The destinies
Genii
of traditional 
Israel and of Albion
push on its ominous pillow
its racial birthrights

(‘Curses for baby
 from its godmothers’)

Till the least godmother
pipes     in her fairy way
‘Perhaps you know my name
      Survival?
Curse till the cows come home
Behold my gift
The Jewish brain!’

(LLB, 131-32)

As Frost puts it, ‘adopting the story of Genesis, Loy posits a disinheritance bequeathed to Ova’ (Frost, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 158). Instead of an abundance of traditionally wholesome traits and strength, Ova is granted, by the most important of her ‘Genii’, an intellect passed on from her paternal, Jewish family. The way that ‘Survival?’ is positioned makes the word apply both to the name of her ‘least godmother’ as well as a name given to the child. In this way ‘survival’ is inextricably linked to the gift of the ‘Jewish brain’, and combined, they are the founding characteristics which will define Ova’s childhood experience. Jaskoski notes that Exodus and Ova share a ‘pursuit for individual integrity’ and that Ova’s ‘saving faculty is not intellect or passion, but will’. In registering the will as the ‘highest human function’, Jaskoski argues that Loy aligns herself with Futurist values, although Loy is always ‘in service of a humane ideal of self-realisation and artistic creativity’ (Jaskoski, Outsider Artist, 366). It is also worth noting that the name ‘Ova’ itself suggests the female reproductive cell which is inherently scientifically creative. By naming her protagonist ‘Ova’, Loy imbues her with the very initial origin of potential – at once awe-inspiring and succinctly physical.

Although Ova uses her intellect in verbal consciousness later in the text, the earliest interactions between the world in her young imagination and material reality are patterned with initial poetic motifs which play a formational role for her consciousness.

The staring baby
stumbles to the fire

Her consciousness
sluggish      to the raucous surfaces
of necessities

quickens
to colour-thrusts
of the quintessent light

     until a woman’s 
ineludable claws of dominion
lift her above the Elysian
fields of flame

in a receding 
prison
of muscular authority

(LLB, 136)

The motion that Ova embodies in her will to explore is the antithesis to her mother’s instinctive reflex to obstruct or ‘recede’ – a negation she has used to construct her own life, and one which she exercises on her daughter’s actions repeatedly throughout the poem. Ada’s refusal to encompass an expansive mentality, one which is capable of making new relations, defines her within the text as lacking any artistic or generative spirit. The lines ‘quickens / to colour-thrusts / of the quintessent light’ enact, through their fast-paced alliteration, the type of mental movement Ova’s newly inspired consciousness is leaping towards and capable of. In forming her mind, Ova finds a natural fascination with colour, and here especially the phenomenon of light. Her first vision of fire is animated as ‘quintessent light’ and ‘Elysian / fields of flame’, and at this stage in her development her attraction to light suggests a vivacious spirit which her mother suffocates with her ‘ineludable’ ‘prison / of muscular authority’.

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