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

1 August 2017

Although a gendered hierarchy exists in the world of ‘Colossus’, introduced later in Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, Loy posits a God-like persona onto Colossus, who is able to create mischief and humour to undercut relations between objects and their symbols – realising at an early stage that ‘all words are lies’. Colossus’s skepticism toward the power of language itself resembles the tenet of the ‘Dada’ artistic movement1. In relation to Ova, this revelation is a paradoxically disconcerting consolation for the fact that acquiring language inevitably means she must enter into a gendered, social and cultural hierarchy. Although Ova does not direct her thought to such an anarchic extreme, ‘all words are lies’ is closer to her mentality in a pre-linguistic state, before ‘all words’ carried with them a pre-determined social connotation. Ova’s agency in her own artistic practice is an attentive and organic one which allows for creative associations between what Esau separates into static and distinct binaries: Ova’s ‘muck’ and the culturally established ‘artistic’ artefact. Because, for Ova, ‘Beauty’ is not defined, it can be ‘coerced’ or found in various manifestations. Esau does not resemble Vorticist dynamism because he insists that ‘Beauty IS nowhere’, and thus makes static all that is inherently in motion around him.

Ultimately, as Frost, Goody and Roberts2 have stated in various ways, Loy complicates Ova’s urge to escape her family and her home-town Kilburn by making such an incisive action impossible for her protagonist. The following excerpts from the sections: ‘The Surprise’ and ‘Religious Instruction’ are taken from towards the end of Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, and each passage documents alienating experiences and realisations for Ova – stemming essentially from a discordance between her imagination and reality.

In the second half of the sequence, ‘The Surprise’, Loy describes Ova experiencing a betrayal of trust in her father:

She brings
a surprise basket
full
of Japanese fishes      of cotton wool

‘We will not tell Miss Bunn’
says father ‘what we have done
peeping in the basket’

In the evening
the armored towers are sitting
round the surprise

They look as if they will not be sitting there long – 
They ask it
‘Have you peeped in the basket?’

Ova looking
partakingly at the father
anxious not to do wrong
‘No’

‘Ho’ snaps the father
‘you opened that surprise 
under my eyes’

Jumping out of chairs
‘Liar’
makes a lot of noise

(LLB, 161-162)

The exchange of Ova ‘lying’ by uttering ‘No’, followed promptly with ‘‘Ho’ snaps her father’ is an instance of simple rhyme being used to imply a much larger accusation. ‘Ho’ connotes ‘whore’: Loy’s word-play evokes the traditionally pseudo-religious and misogynistic culture of affiliating women with sin, as Ova is unfairly ostracised for being a ‘liar’ despite her attempts ‘not to do wrong’. Goody describes this exchange as Exodus embodying ‘patriarchal control over language’ which ‘denies and oppresses Ova’ (Goody, Empire, Motherhood and the Poetics of the Self, 66). This is an accurate observation as Exodus is shown to have complete authority over the fate of Ova’s identity:

She is turned into a liar
By father
They push her
Out the front door with their hands

(LLB, 162)

Whilst her father’s power over Ova’s being is most potently associated with morality, language and economy, as well as a grasping at faith throughout the poem, the power of her female authorities is almost always expressed through physical imagery. Her mother and Miss Bunn are presented as ‘armored towers’, and in the excerpt above they push her ‘with their hands’. In ‘The Surprise’ both bodily and mental / spiritual forces from mother and father are shown to work together against Ova. Loy intricately weaves bodily cues through Ova’s thoughts of morality so that both are equally important in registering empathy in readers. Moreover, this technique shows that at a crucial point within the narrative, Ova embodies a paratactic relation between the physical and mental. For example, the motif of ‘thunder’ is introduced early in the passage, and a play between bodily heating and cooling tempers the latter parts. When she is forcibly sent outside, Ova’s ‘head expands’, but a ‘coolness rising / from the rainy gravel … allays her sudden fever’, before she is again brought inside to ‘smoulder’. Thus Ova’s moral alienation is also physically realised.

A pivotal change in imagery and sound is presented in the following stanzas:

A coolness rising
from the rainy gravel
damp-smelling friendliness of the dark
allays her sudden fever

She has left behind her forever
Liar        whatever
it is
and Japanese fishes

She decides to travel

(LLB, 163)

Compared to the rest of ‘The Surprise’ these lines express a moment of realisation and peace for Ova, and are also relieved of the intense rhyming scheme found elsewhere in the passage. Where there is rhyme in this excerpt – ‘forever / Liar whatever’ – it is spaciously scattered, as if to enact how Ova’s thinking is winding down after her dizzying experience. The first stanza of the excerpt is strangely calming, perhaps because it disperses energy and agency over a general environment instead of concentrating confusion purely internal to Ova: ‘there is nothing / she knows how to expect from these big bodies’ (Loy, LLB, 162). Rather, in the four lines presented, motion comes from what surrounds Ova – ‘coolness’ rises from the ‘rainy gravel’, and the ‘dark’ is imbued with a comforting ‘friendliness’.

  1. Loy encountered the Dada movement when she moved to New York in 1916. Initially she was on friendly terms with Marcel Duchamp and other members of the movement such as Walter Conrad Arensberg. Arthur Cravan was a Dadaist-poet and the nephew of Oscar Wilde. Although Loy did not affiliate herself with the Dada movement for long, she admired their absurdity and satirical rebellion against societal norms. Januzzi argues that the character of Colossus conveys ‘a trope, a diagnostic or metasemiotic comment, infinitely reproducible, on ‘all words’ especially civilised ones, as ‘lies’ (Januzzi, Women and Dada, 587). Even though ‘Ova is more vulnerable to viral institutions (race, gender, nationality)’, Januzzi suggests that ‘in desirous identification and difference, homage and sabotage, Loy discovers and frames Dada, even as Dada threatens to break the narrative frame’ (Januzzi, Women and Dada, 590)
  2. In ‘Mina Loy’s ‘Mongrel’ Poetics’ (page 173), ‘Empire, Motherhood and the Poetics of Self in Mina Loy’s Poetry’ (page 70) and ‘Rhythm, Self and Jazz in Mina Loy’s Poetry’ (page 107), respectively.
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