Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Body and the Text/body of the Text in Mina Loy's Songs to Joannes

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Body and the Text/body of the Text in Mina Loy's Songs to Joannes

Article excerpt


This essay advances a close reading of Mina Loy's Songs to Joannes, a sequence of poems dedicated to her failed relationship with the futurist Giovanni Papini and published in 1917. Through a close analysis of the typographical complexities by which Songs to Joannes is characterized, I attempt to draw explicit connections between Loy's radical approach to physical existence and sexual activity in the poems, and her equally radical departure from the conventions of poetic form. In the systematic tension between form and content, then, I illuminate the ways in which Loy's poetry redefines the familiar concept of the 'body of the text' through a re-evaluation of two acts of reading: a 'horizontal' reading and a 'vertical' one. Drawing on the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, I argue that Songs to Joannes--as both a long poem composed of various fragments, and a self-standing unit--might be placed in the position of the 'sign'. In support of this, I read Songs 'horizontally', drawing attention to the narrative and generic aspects of the poems as they unfold in time, and in succession. I then propose a 'vertical' approach to the Songs, in which theories of lexical semantics play a pivotal role. Finally, I consider the metonymical aspect of the Songs, making particular reference to the ways in which they problematize the concept of the 'sign'. Given that the term 'feminism' is now applied to a multitude of contradictory theoretical and socio-political positions, a special effort will also be made to define Loy's own peculiar brand of feminist thought, and to identify the nature of its influence upon her creative praxis.

Keywords: Poetry; feminism; embodiment


In 1909, Marinetti's 'Futurist Manifesto' stated: 'Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man' (41-42). A few years later, in 1916, Hugo Ball declared in his 'Dada Manifesto': 'How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness' (221). These two exemplary statements illustrate the immense difference between pre- and post-war consciousness, and the gap separating the two ideologies (represented by so radically altering an event as the First World War) seems impossible to bridge retrospectively. Yet, puzzlingly, Mina Loy, poet, painter, designer of clothes and lampshades, and the friend of nearly every primary figure in early and late modernist artistic movements, is alternatively described as a Futurist, a Dadaist, and even a Surrealist, and also, very importantly, as a feminist. Her written work in particular illuminates--and to a certain extent justifies--the difficulty encountered in identifying, if not her aesthetic and conceptual concerns, at least the responses she proposes to them. If her 'Feminist Manifesto' of 1914 declares that 'there is nothing impure in sex--except in the mental attitude to it' (156)--a statement which demonstrates Loy's apparent theoretical allegiance to sex radical feminists such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger--earlier on in the same manifesto Loy also makes a claim for every woman's 'right to maternity' (155), an assertion that would be criticized by the very same sex radicals, who supposed that the liberation of sex would depend precisely on the rejection of motherhood, patriarchy's long-assigned role for women. In a parallel way, her 'Aphorisms on Futurism', also of 1914, mark her allegiance to the movement insofar as stylistic techniques are concerned (149), yet in 'Three Moments in Paris' the speaker works to undermine futurist principles, asking, 'Anyhow who am I that I should criticize your theories of plastic velocity' (15).

In this light, I would like to focus on Mina Loy's Songs to Joannes, her 1917 composition dedicated to her failed relationship with the futurist Giovanni Papini. …

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