If she could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?
– Alfred Kreymborg on Mina Loy
As Mina Loy began her flirtation with the Futurists, she joked about her identity as a writer with her friend, Carl, declaring, “I am so interested to find that I am a sort of pseudo Futurist. Couldn’t I become an absolutist or something as I evolve?” Loy never stopped resisting limiting categories as she pursued her creative work, yet critics frequently depict her using the very binaries she bucked. Although critics often describe Loy’s work, language and even typography as masculine, Loy was not simply defining herself by negating her femininity; instead, she was actively re-defining gender identities—particularly feminine identities—through the content and form of her poetry. Her poems “Parturition”, “Lunar Baedeker”, and “Gertrude Stein” are just a few of her texts that attempt to re-contextualize famous cultural figures, familiar symbols, and traditional forms in order to explore a more fluid construction of gender identity, but her exploration of gender construction becomes most transcendent in “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”. While Loy frequently espoused the modernists’ troubling views on eugenics in regards to gender, her stances on gender also promoted a notion of active femininity. As she outlines in her manifesto, Loy advocates a woman with an “indomitable will, irreducible courage, & abundant health the outcome of strong nerves”. By revisiting Loy through a close reading of “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”, we can better understand the development of modern(ist) feminism by reclaiming the chorus of forgotten voices like Loy’s.
We often examine the works of female writers to see how the texts represent the subjected subject, and our examination consistently circumscribes the texts through gendered language–even as we proclaim liberation. But like male writers, female writers cannot be reduced to a monolith defined by gender, and so by continuing to apply notions of what it means to write like a woman, we continue to ignore many of the techniques women writers have long employed. Although critics such as Carolyn Burke, Susan Stanford Friedman, and Natalya Lusty have done significant work for feminist interpretations, they have also continued to analyze the techniques of writers through a strict gendered binary; consequently, scholars continue to refer to the voices of female writers like Loy as masculine or masculinized, ignoring the feminine attributes she instills throughout her works. This and similar approaches to Loy’s texts erase the important work Loy accomplishes not to simply emulate traditional masculinity but to synthesize the male and female through language. While Ezra Pound referred to Loy’s approach as “logopoeia or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters”, we can also understand Loy’s wordplay as gender play.
Loy’s logopoetic fusion of the gender binary flourishes in “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”. It is in this poem that Loy moves from masculinizing feminine symbols to feminizing masculine symbols. Loy opens the poem with an “aesthetic archetype” as a pseudo-thesis statement for the poem. Although many of her contemporaries “shuddered” and “derided” her grammatical choices, Loy’s refusal to conform to grammatical regulations allows her first lines to operate on multiple levels: “The toy/ become the aesthetic archetype.” The toy becomes both singular and plural, allowing the golden bird to become a metonym for artistic creation. Those familiar with the poem’s inspiration, Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space”, might immediately imagine the looming golden crescent which penetrates the air—an archetypal phallic symbol. The sculpture became the focus of a U.S. legal case which attempted to challenge the official definition of ‘art’ for tax purposes. Instead of being categorized as a work of art, the sculpture was initially taxed as a “Kitchens and Utilities” item. As the case raged on within the courts, the “Bird in Space” became a stand-in—or archetype—for all modern art and its purposes.
Loy expands upon her initial thesis throughout the poem. As the “patient peasant God” “rubbed and rubbed” the bird, the poem takes on a masturbatory quality before Loy begins her transformation of the bird in flight. The masculine form (its beak-like form taking on a penetrative quality in Brancusi’s interpretation) is first stripped of its ornamentation–“unwinged unplumed”—de-gendering the “lump” into pure act, “a nucleus of flight”. Loy then pivots and feminizes the bird by turning it into a breast, a curve, and a gong—feminine circles—before it completes as an “immaculate/ conception”—the ultimate female act without any male influence. The unproductive male sexuality is represented as a generative female, and so the previously masculine “archetype” becomes a feminine representation of artistic formation. Consequently, Loy creates a space for the modern(ist) female artist and feminine creation within a space that was commonly defined as explicitly and inherently male.
Feminine creation has historically been erased or reduced to the margins, but recent attempts within feminist criticism, gynocriticism, and modernist scholarship to reclaim forgotten texts have been slow to recuperate Mina Loy. As Loy explored feminist theories and texts by Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis, Loy admitted, “what I feel now are feminine politics—but in a cosmic way that may not fit anywhere”. Loy’s feminism was frequently an effort to see where the modernist woman fit. Loy countered reductive notions of femininity and used her works to counter assertions of male superiority. By deconstructing these limiting roles, Loy opened the world for female writers to take center stage. Writers like Loy—Gertrude Stein, Nella Larson, and Marianne Moore—endeavored to operate outside binary identities, and so they, too, incorporated their own variances of Loy’s notion that to be a modernist woman in the early twentieth century was to be a creator.
About the author
Margaret Mauk is a doctoral student in Florida State University’s literature program. She studies 20th-century British and Irish literature with a particular focus on modernism, motherhood, and identity formation. She is the recipient of the May Alexander Ryburn fellowship. Her work has been presented at Feminisms and Rhetorics, the North American James Joyce Conference, and University of Portsmouth’s Orphan Identities Symposium. She is currently blogging her prelim process while sometimes tweeting as @QuestionMauk