Poem Guide

Mina Loy: “Lunar Baedeker”

The poet navigates the unknown world.
Mina Loy

Mina Loy is not Myrna Loy. While the actress Myrna Loy starred in the “The Thin Man” films, the Modernist poet Mina Loy was busying herself with the avant gardes of Italian Futurism, Dada, and to a lesser extent American Surrealism. The confusion is recurrent. Yes, their names are similar and yes, they were contemporaries, but the mix-up makes an even deeper sense given the two Loys' shared elegance, and the Platonic rightness of imagining the poet ordering and lining up a sequence of martinis while in the company of William Powell.

In point of fact, Mina Loy was not even Mina Loy. Born in England as Mina Gertrude Löwy, our Loy dropped the “w” and the umlaut early, undoubtedly a step in becoming what Marjorie Perloff calls a “deracinated cosmopolite”—she would spend the least amount of time in the country of her birth, opting instead for Germany, Italy, Mexico, France, and finally the United States. While Myrna Loy played on screen with Asta the pedigreed dog, our Loy played with a mongrel language, and she started those games with her name. In her poems she would call herself Imna, Nima, Anim, Ova, and Gina, and later in life her autograph’s surname read Lloyd. One of her fiercest advocates, Roger Conover, refers to Loy’s “pseudonymania.” The term is aptly inventive; it honors the fact that Loy neologized alongside her self-maskings, making up words alongside names. There is a philosophy here. Names were words, and words were for Loy opportunities. Her dictum seems to have been: no simple words. When she wrote “cymophanous,” she didn’t mean pale; come-hither looks were “amative,” and when she was truly pitching woo, her lover’s body was “etoliate.” This is a poet who seems to have slept with the Oxford English Dictionary beneath her bed.

It's little surprise, then, that the first poem in her first book was misspelled. “Lunar Baedeker” appeared as “Lunar Baedecker” [sic]. In Loy’s lifetime the error was rectified, although it remains a shadow over her strange publication history, for the poem was eponymous (i.e., it was also the book’s title). Thus her first book was Lunar Baedecker, in 1923; the title recurred with correction as Lunar Baedeker and Time-Tables in 1958, followed unswiftly, posthumously, and incorrectly (adverbially speaking) by The Last Lunar Baedeker in 1982; today the most reliable collection of her work is The Lost Lunar Baedeker edited by Roger L. Conover. Baedekers were travel guides, the Frommer’s of the nineteenth century. Intended for the Grand Tour tourist hell-bent on cultural capital, Karl Baedeker and his crew outlined what was worth seeing, demarcating how to get somewhere, what to pay whilst doing so, and, when it came to museums, at what objects one should profitably direct one’s gaze.

Loy’s travelogue is meta-terrestrial. Rather than giving us directions on how to navigate the known world, she redirects our attention to another orb entirely: the moon. While most travel guides are intended to orient readers, readers of Loy’s “Lunar Baedeker” are likely to be disoriented, for the poem throws us into the middle of things (the “Orient” literally appears a little after the poem’s middle), where landmarks are only vaguely familiar. She begins:

A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies

Loy wrote from her ear as well as her eye, and here the primary sense organ appealed to is that of the ear, with the sibilant s’s—“a silver Lucifer/serves—giving over to the jarring consonance of “cocaine” and “cornucopia.” This interplay between hard and soft continues through the poem, and its title should be heard as something like a phonetic bout between consonance and assonance: “Lunar Baedeker”’s gritty end rhymes (“-er”) don’t resolve the jolts it takes to get there. Esses, though, will rule the poem, and it hisses accordingly.

If that’s what the poem is doing, then what is it saying? We are in a place whose inhabitants are up to no discernible good, given the presence of a fallen, drug-dealing angel. The hint of potentially addled senses—cocaine and somnambulism—is tied to excess, through the invocation of “silver” and of “cornucopia”; it’s not too much to say that the self-consciously arty aspect of this moonscape calls up the fact that, as Susan Buck-Morss has shown, aesthetics is tied to anesthetics, with the drugged performance bringing together two faces of the same coin. For whatever it’s worth, my bet is that what we’re getting here is something between a poem about the movies and Loy’s rendering of a tableau vivant, the staging of living pictures that began as entertainment in the Victorian era, and continued with risqué additions through the early part of the twentieth century, as a way of smuggling onstage un- or semi-clad females (burlesque performances move; tableaux vivants are still: the difference was censorship over any signs of animation). Adolescent thighs have their price, and for Loy it is irony, or to employ the poem’s own language, satire.

The poem mixes Biblical and mythological references: Lucifer is followed by Lethe, and some evil Persian fairies:

Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues

Whether Lethe is a nymph or the more famous river of forgetfulness that flows through the underworld, the theme of altered states continues. From cocaine to sleepwalking to forgetting one’s self and “hallucinatory citadels,” Loy’s poem is a tour of the ways, places—such as the moonscape—and times—for it is night—in which we are made strange to ourselves.

Loy’s lunar world is an urban one. Hence, the Peris are dressed in the accoutrement of servants, and attend upon some recent arrivistes, who however recent their arrival on the social scene, have shown up too late, for they are posthumous. In short, dead. This is Loy being post-humorous, for it makes a certain kind of sense that the beverage one would serve a dead arriviste is amnesia: parvenues can arrive on the scene by obliterating the past. The urbanism of this place is pronounced by its “Delirious Avenues,” “eye-white sky-light / white-light district /of lunar lusts” and even “Stellectric signs,” a neologism that portmanteaus the words “stellar” and “electric” and invokes the impact electricity had on reshaping the landscape of cities at night. (By the 1920s, New York’s Broadway, which Loy would have seen in one of her stays in the city (1916-17 and 1920-21), was known as the “Great White Way” because of its use of many electric bulbs on marquees.)

But while Loy’s world here is lunar, it’s also a fresh sort of hell—remember the allusions to the underworld with Lucifer and Lethe. It's perhaps this combination that makes "Lunar Baedeker" a distinctly Loy poem. In bringing the idea of the moon above together with the underworld, she in effect wreaks havoc with any idea that top and bottom, or up and down, are discreet matters. (For Loy, directions aren’t directives.)

“Lunar Baedeker” is at once a rebuke to and invocation of the material world. We see this in two ways. First, the poem is something like a satire of personification, turning the basis of the trope on its head. Personification is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities, or even ideas, as when for example a poem apostrophizes death by telling it not to be proud. The players in Loy's drama are however almost exclusively non-human: Lucifer is an angel, Peris are either fairies or elves, and we see Eros zoom overhead (not that the poem cares):

Onyx-eyed Odalisques
and ornithologists
the flight
of Eros obsolete

We see another instance of Loy's play with personification in the leanest stanza that the poem offers:

A flock of dreams
browse on Necropolis

Dreams are here not quite personified—instead they’re metaphorized as sheep through the metonymic association of dreams with sleep achieved by counting sheep. Loy’s choice of a slightly archaic use of the verb “browse,” which first meant “to feed on the leaves and shoots of trees and bushes” or to graze, does operate at a literal level sheepwise. By the time the twentieth century gets hold of the word, though, browsing transforms into flipping through a book at once aimlessly and concertedly. Thus Loy is either exploiting the metaphor of a book having leaves, or—tastier still—the idea that when a British student was rusticated (think Milton), he was temporarily expelled from college and returned to the countryside. The image of sheep grazing on a hillside is stripped of any trite pastoralism, however, because these dreams feed on the dead.

However small the word, “on” matters deeply for Loy, because it speaks to the give and take between the metaphorical and the literal to which we are typically immune and to which Loy reawakens us. The dreams (qua sheep) are on Necropolis—that is, they are standing on top of a cemetery, which is right, in a deeply uninteresting way that only Loy would be suspicious of. They are also feeding “on” in the sense that they are consuming the contents of the city of the dead; this is the “on” of “dining on caviar.”  They are eating the dead. It’s not just that you’ll never look at a sheep (or a dream) the same way again; the point is to realize that we all live on the dead: at once archeologically (the modernists were consumed by Egyptology) and philosophically: to be human is to be mortal and aware of mortality, if only by virtue of the fact that we have been preceded and will predecease. By extension, to be a human who reads is to be an extreme version of a ghost-eater; to read is to ingest the past and its progenitors. (Forget worrying about the sheep; it’s libraries you should be afraid of.)

So, you see, that “on” bears a great deal of weight. If the metaphorical is the spirit of an idea, Loy is waking us to the body of an idea, for she is repeatedly literal, or material. This speaks to the second mode of materialism in Loy’s world, how the poem takes ways of thinking or ways of knowing things and concretizes them. In so doing, Loy makes strange the ways we think, for she casts those tendencies as aspects of the material world. In that sense, “Lunar Baedeker” takes a swipe at the poetic tendency to be metaphorical—personification is an Ur-metaphor that Loy resists. In one of her Italian poems, “Giovanni Franchi,” she writes, “Firenze is Florence / Some think it is a woman with flowers in her hair /But NO       it is a city with stones on the streets.”

Yet “Lunar Baedeker” does not in the end repudiate personification. Instead it remarks upon its inevitability with its closing lines:

Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes

If personification is the bestowing of life on the non-living, the poem here reverses the process, ending with an image of a non-living thing that was once alive (a fossil), wrapped in a cloud of metaphor. The metaphor of the moon as a virgin draws from the mythic association of Diana/Artemis as a goddess of the moon, who famously remained virgin—a topic and a politics Loy would remark upon extensively in, among other places, “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots.” The syntax is fierce, but Loy begins and ends with things up in the air.

“Lunar Baedeker” takes as its mission orientation, as I’ve said, but it does this, as we’ve seen, by disorienting. In the end the poem asks us what it is we expect when we are certain. I said there’s a philosophy to Loy’s approach to words, and I think that there’s also an ethics to her way of confusing us. She is reminding us of what we once knew but forgot, pre-Lethe: that we move through our world by telling ourselves that we know where we are, when in fact the world is immune to our cartographies.

A lesser poet would leave us at the level of alienation, but Loy suggests that there is something to be gained in the mutual recognition of strangeness. However chilly her landscapes, Loy’s poem is in the end intended for a reader, writ as a traveler. Loy lived her life as an expatriate, and the experience of being in a strange place finds a recurrent, uncanny place in her work, and should be recognized as a social ethic. Each human is, for lack of a better word, unique, and Loy’s poem dedicates itself to showing us how alien, how foreign, we remain to each other. She is in that sense a deeply social poet, invoking as her work does the fact that society is an uneasy aggregate of wholly distinct individuals.  The repository of strangeness in Loy is a reminder of the fact that we do not know where we are, and that at the moments in which we come together—let us call that conversation—we overlook something major when we forget to remember that the other person is not us. Loy’s society brings together individuals who do not match or mirror. The fact that Mina Loy is not Myrna Loy is one thing (or two things); equally incontrovertible—important to recall, and impossible to forget as we read her work—is that we are not Mina Loy.

Originally Published: November 18th, 2009
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  1. November 25, 2009
     Kimberly Richardson

    Thank you for this well written article. I had never heard of Mina Loy until today; I will be purchasing her works very soon.

  2. November 28, 2009

    This is a fantastic article on a mind-blowing book. Moy was a sensualist and pushed her language to express a dreamy, but shard-bright worldview. So many of the poems feels like throw-aways, yet she was profoundly trying to express something and the reader can feel her effort as a sort of nightmare, both hers and theirs. Try reading her in the bathtub while drinking champagne-makes you want to hit the gym again! Yo 204Manitoba represent!

  3. November 30, 2009
     Helen Cox

    Just a short comment really, to say how much I both enjoyed and was informed by Jessica Burstein's article on Mina Loy. I was delighted to experience at what felt like first hand, her razor sharp insight, warmth, clarity and humour. It has reawakened in me a love of this art form. Thank you.Please, more from this exceptional academic!
    Helen Cox, London

  4. December 5, 2009
     Ed Herrmann

    Thank you for this insightful article on a
    writer who deserves wider recognition. For
    those interested in Mina Loy, her
    "Aphorisms on Futurism" can be heard
    near the end of the "Futurism and the New
    Manifesto: Part I" podcast, from the
    Poetry Lectures podcast series.