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

1 August 2017

In such moments of revelation, Loy’s writing aligns itself closely with Stein’s: the poetic ‘I’ dissolves to emphasise rhythmic continuities between the self and the world. It seems as though linear arguments and attempts to apply consequential logic to a problem often lead Ova to further despair and confusion (as in her attempt to justify lying with an understandable loyalty to her father). A necessary frustration eventuates from Ova’s repeated attempts at understanding all that is around her. Rather than knowledge progressively unfolding for Ova, the tension that arises from her confused observations consolidates to allow (in moments such as the one described here) for an intuitive decision or change to be made: an epiphany that refuses to be reduced to an equation of cause and effect. The lines accumulate sporadically to produce: ‘She has left behind her forever’ and ‘She decides to travel’ – statements which unexpectedly assert Ova’s agency.

Unfortunately, despite her decision, Ova is inevitably pulled back into her original position. The last stanza of the passage contains an even more intensified rhyming scheme with five end-rhyme lines in a row concluding with a rhyming couplet:

a hand upon her shoulder
jolts her
with mocking laughter
bolts her
to smoulder
once more
behind the door

(LLB, 163)

The cumulative effect of this repeated sound-patterning is a sense of overwhelming suffocation in contrast to the calmness of the previous stanzas. Frost states that Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose is a mock-epic due to Loy’s subversion of the epic plotline: ‘Loy’s ‘epic’ leads to inconclusive flight’ (Frost, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 173). Frost notes that ‘unlike Joyce’s Stephen, Ova will find escape impossible’; however, this ‘imprisonment’ becomes a ‘potential source for poetics’ (ibid., 176). Likewise, Goody explains: ‘instead of escape, Loy shows that Ova must negotiate the repression and hostile confines of her Victorian childhood in her search for artistic self-expression’ (Goody, Empire, Motherhood and the Poetics of the Self, 70)1. Frost’s argument that Loy’s characters embark on ‘inconclusive flight’ is most applicable to Ova in a metaphorical sense. Rather than a flight away from her predicament, Loy figures Ova’s life-narrative in general to be ‘inconclusive’. A constant irreconcilable struggle is the very essence of Ova’s character – in a sense, Loy suggests there is nothing to escape from: no division between here and there, only one all-encompassing trajectory.

Thus Rachel Potter seems correct when she asserts that ‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose fails to produce a positivistic description of modern female autonomy. Instead it skeptically ironises any such straight-forward image of individual freedom’ (Potter, Obscene Modernism, 66). Similarly, Roberts observes that Loy’s aesthetics are ‘unlike the Poundian Periplus (the unfolding horizon of constant movement). Whereas Pound moves towards the unity of recovered origins, the self-represented in Loy’s poetry often seems a nomadic one, always moving on into the non-identical’ (Roberts, Salt Companion to Mina Loy, 110). Ova has inherited Exodus’s restless nomadic nature, although she is unable to escape in any absolute sense. Loy seems to suggest that the failure to do so is what aids Ova in finding artistic expression. Suzanne Hobson in ‘Mina Loy’s ‘Conversion’ and the Profane Religion of her Poetry’, presents some interesting facts on what Loy herself viewed as propitious conditions for artistic creativity2. Hobson quotes Loy’s statement that the artist ‘must aim for the absolute and miss; this foredoomed attempt is the ‘only possible creative gesture’’ (Hobson, Salt Companion to Mina Loy, 252)3. Ova matches Loy’s model for an artist with her ambition as well as her repeated downfalls. Hobson places Loy alongside Hulme, Nietzsche and Wyndham Lewis in their conception of a ‘God-like artist’, but Loy also differs in her ‘representation of the artist body’ as ‘broken or troubled’ (ibid., 260). It is a mixture of these qualities that characterises Ova’s actions throughout Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose and defines Loy’s poetics in a more general sense. As Frost suggests, Loy ‘embraces not violent rebellion but evolution; re-touching the social fabric by re-spinning the material world’ (Frost, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 177).

In the concluding stanza of ‘Religious Instruction’, the final section of Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose in which Ova makes an appearance, the verse depicts a compositional landscape where Ova’s agency is radically challenged.

So on whatever day
she chooses ‘to run away’
the very
street corners of Kilburn
close in upon Ova
to deliver her
into the hands of her procreators
Oracle of civilization – 
‘Thou shalt not live by dreams alone
but by every discomfort 
that proceedeth out of
legislation’

(LLB, 171)

The verse is crucially dynamic as tensions arise from conflicting motions. Ova’s motivation to escape is blocked by the very ‘street corners of Kilburn’ closing ‘in upon’ her. Simultaneously, whilst Ova recedes into the ‘hands of her procreators’, she is met by ‘every discomfort’ that rises or proceeds out of the ominously powerful ‘legislation’ which dictates her life and thoughts. Indeed, her own voice – ‘to run away’ – must compete with that of the ‘Oracle of civilization’. Thus the passage accommodates multi-directional and irresolvable motivations and points of conflict. Importantly, Ova’s will is forced to compete with the intentions of the social conditions which constitute her situation. Her voice is one amongst others.

  1. Loy reforms the traditional Künstlerroman (or artist-novel) narrative which saw a rising popularity in the 1920s with Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Lewis’ Tarr. Whilst such narratives offered a level of autonomy for art, placing it as a sacred social practice and the artist as the ‘touchstone of value’ (Miller, Late Modernisms, 209), Loy’s construction of the artist deliberately places her amongst the ordinary and refutes any easy way to escape to a higher realm. In fact Esau Penfold’s inability to create a more complex and nuanced understanding of art in relation to the world is ridiculed. Susan Gilmore argues that Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose presents Ova’s story as refuting the Künstlerroman narrative by documenting her repeated attempts to run away. The circular shape of her wanderings and the poem’s overall non-linear structure show Ova’s resistance to narrative progression (Gilmore, Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, 292).
  2. ‘Among the unpublished texts in the Mina Loy archive at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is an undated article titled ‘Conversion’’ (Hobson, Salt Companion to Mina Loy, 248)
  3. Hobson provides evidence for Loy’s postulation by reference to the ‘bum-like’ characters of Loy’s later poetry, such as the dwarf acrobat in ‘Crab-angel’ (1923) and the ‘lepers’ in ‘Apology of Genius’. She concludes that ‘a contradictory bundle of angelic gifts and bum-like incapacities is Loy’s model for the artist’ (Hobson, Salt Companion to Mina Loy, 253): ‘Blessed with an ambition that is God-like, yet simultaneously restricted by the limitations of his all-too-human body, the artist-angel-bum reaches for the Absolute and invariably misses’ (ibid., 259). Although the specific characters Hobson refers to are physically deformed, they share with Ova a position amongst society’s marginalised. Her femininity also alienates her in the male world of artists, as is shown in the comparison with Esau Penfold. Hobson notes, ‘if value was to be measured in terms of capital or the ability to play a productive role in civil society, then bums, women and artists were all to differing degrees, open to the same charge of worthlessness’ (ibid., 259).
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