By Mona Sakr
A short grapple with Google demonstrates that, if nothing else, Mina Loy has earned herself a phenomenally large set of labels. She was (according to the internet) a modernist, a postmodernist, a futurist, a conceptualist and a surrealist all at the same time. It sounds impressive. Confusing also, for I cannot seem to get my head around the notion of a poem born from such a twisted terminological mix. Modernist ideals, post-modernist ‘we know nothing’-ness and lobster phones all side by side? I am left with no other choice but to look at one of her poems.
I choose Der Blinde Junge because, despite the intimidating foreign title, it has the least words for which I need a dictionary. It still has rather a lot. Ezra Pound called it ‘logopoeia’, I, at first, want to call it ‘thesaurus-happy’. But the wordiness, the tick-tap-tick of these three-syllable words as they collapse in on themselves like dominoes, soon has a grip on me, and I on it. In the first reading, I see a blind baby being pushed along an Austrian street in its pram. From the second reading, I know that this is birth; the beauty, the fragility, the hideousness of birth. And not from the mother’s point of view. It is just us, our judgment and a baby. We wonder who this creature is to us and to the world we have made. We ask whether it deserves to be anything more than a ‘thing, a ‘virginal nonentity’. Loy refers to the baby as a ‘purposeless eremite’, a self-absorbed recluse who cannot tolerate the realities of social living.
Loy conveys the baby’s self-absorption through its sightlessness. She hounds and stigmatizes it for its lack of vision. It is ‘eyeless’, ‘visionless’ and ‘blind’ and in such a state, it is without ego. To see is to possess. It marks the ability to reach out to others and find a place for oneself among them. Without this ability, the baby is reduced to an unconscious being: ‘void and extinct’. The baby is certainly not senseless; there are potent references to taste, sound and smell. It has a ‘craving throat’, a ‘downy…snout’ and we are begged to ‘Listen!’. But these descriptions are sodden with animalistic qualities. The nose is reduced to a snout and the mouth to its base cravings. The baby is ‘drowned in dumbfounded instinct’, but it is only drowned in relation to us. We are the ‘illuminati’ of the world and so we struggle to find meaning in this newborn tadpole, a creature without achievement or possession. We are blind to its worth because our eyes have been ruined by the light.
The baby’s lack of sight is a subject of anger and distress. We begin to wonder whether it is purely a harmless consequence of the baby’s newness, or whether there is some more ominous underlying factor. There is evidence to suggest that vision was at some point present:
‘since the black lightening desecrated
the retinal altar’
Seeing is worthy of worship, it is a vessel to heaven. But the image also conveys the atmosphere of destruction that lies at the heart of this poem. It is an atmosphere that leads us to question whether this poem really does describe a baby, or whether it instead picks out a war casualty, the Kriegsopfer mentioned in the first stanza. The casualty is the child of Bellona, a Roman war goddess. The poem ends with reference to a ‘concussive dark’, surely a whisper of the Great War through which Loy lived. She describes it as being blown out, simultaneously evoking images of candles and bombs.
‘How this expressionless “thing”
blows out damnation and concussive dark
Upon a mouth-organ’
Whether the invisibility-breeding darkness represents the inexperience of a newborn or the destructive forces of war, it lends itself to beauty and music as it blows ‘upon a mouth-organ’. From the darkness comes musical expression, an epitome of humanness. It is only in accepting the paradoxical notion that death precedes birth, that we are able to apply ourselves to art, to ‘the coloured earth’. Death, in its literal war-beckoned form, and as a prelude to life, drives creation. But the poem also suggests that we are unable to escape death through creation. Hence, while the ‘mouth-organ’ is clearly a musical instrument, it is also a reference to human mouths as organs, as lifeless body parts strewn across battlefields.
Loy manages to confront the minutely small and massively big in one poem. Perhaps that is why a cacophonous mix of tin can labels find themselves attached to her memory. They are a formal way of capturing the daunting breadth and qualitative endlessness of her work. Der Blinde Junge is an endeavour consumed by the social – by our thoughts on consciousness, art and war. At the same time, it is incredibly personal. It marks the birth of the poet Loy from the preceding visual artist. Thus, she mourns the loss of vision, but crumples in pure sensation amongst the primitive calls of language.
Loy. M, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (Poetry Pleiade) (Manchester, 1997)
Burke. C, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York, 1996)
Miller. C, Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schuler (Michigan, 2005)
Der Blinde Junge
The dam Bellona
her eyeless offspring
upon the pavements of Vienna
the spectral day
the visionless obstacle
this slow blind face
pushing its virginal nonentity
against the light
Pure purposeless eremite
of centripetal sentience
Upon the carnose horologe of the ego
the vibrant tendon index moves not
since the black lightening desecrated
the retinal altar
Void and extinct
this planet of the soul
strains from the craving throat
in static flight upslanting
A downy youth’s snout
nozzling the sun
drowned in dumfounded instinct
illuminati of the coloured earth
How this expressionless “thing”
blows out damnation and concussive dark
Upon a mouth-organ