Property of Pigeons (c. early 1940s)

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Property of Pigeons (c. early 1940s)

by Mina Loy

From "Sidewalk Surrealism: Loy's and Cornell's Aviaries"

by Susan Rosenbaum

Note: footnotes have been omitted for this split-screen view; please consult“Sidewalk Surrealism: Loy’s and Cornell’s Aviaries” for the complete version.

The precise composition date of “Property of Pigeons” is unknown; however, in a list of poems that Loy typed on August 21, 1944, she includes “Property of Pigeons,” so we can assume a date of composition in the early 1940s. Along with a number of other poems from this era, the poem was published by Gilbert Neiman in Between Worlds 1.2 (1961). The poem has strong affinities with Cornell’s boxes, his 1949 Aviary exhibition, and his pigeon films. Cornell began making his bird boxes in 1939 with “Fortune Telling Parrot,” followed by a parakeet box in 1941, and a series of owl boxes in the mid-1940s, prior to the parrot-centered boxes exhibited at the Egan Gallery (Solomon 186). Did Loy write “Property of Pigeons” after the consolidation of her friendship with Cornell in 1943, and did Cornell’s early bird boxes influence the imagery of the poem? Did she send or show Cornell a draft of the poem, and if so did the poem influence Cornell’s late 1940s Aviary boxes or his 1950s films featuring pigeons?

We have no record of an exchange about Loy’s poem, and it’s entirely possible that these two like-minded artists independently took the pigeon as muse. Marianne Moore’s “Pigeons” (1935) may be a further influence, and Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” concludes with “casual flocks of pigeons” that “make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink,/ Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Moreover, for Loy both the bird and the aviary were long-standing subjects that preceded her friendship with Cornell: Loy’s unpublished, autobiographical manuscript The Child and the Parent begins “with the metaphor of a bird alighting as a symbol of the soul’s appearance in the world” (Burke 354), and contains a chapter titled “Ladies in an Aviary” that depicts Victorian women as birds trapped in their cages.

If the metaphors of bird and aviary were familiar ones to Loy, her experience of “disappearing” into the shuffling shadow-bodies of lower Manhattan would profoundly transform her perspective on both. That Loy chose the humble pigeon as subject of her poem speaks volumes. Pigeons, looked down upon by many city dwellers as scavengers and vessels of dirt and disease, are part of everyday life in the city, omnipresent yet noticed only when they become a nuisance. In this regard they are much like the “shuffling shadow-bodies” of the homeless that Loy chronicled in the city, eking out an existence in an urban, often inhospitable world. For both pigeons and the homeless population, survival entails an adaptation to a concrete environment, and in several of her late collages, Loy depicts homeless men either asleep on the sidewalk or literally trapped beneath the sidewalk, looked down upon and walked over not just figuratively but literally.

But in “Property of Pigeons” Loy does not depict the pigeons as a simple allegorical figure for the homeless; rather she undertakes a shift in perspective that requires a de-centering of the human, a shift that Cornell would also explore in his films centered on pigeons. The speaker’s careful observations of the pigeons’ actions in the city structure the poem: “Pigeons doze / or rouse” “Pigeons arise, / alight” “Pigeons make irriritant, alluring / music” “Pigeons disappear” “Pigeons …/..appear to reappear.. / … / to peer….” (LB96 120). As the speaker describes the pigeon’s habits and habitat, she emphasizes the limits of human sight and knowledge, which cannot account for the mysterious ability of pigeons to survive in the city.

Loy begins the poem with two stanzas (Italian for room) reminiscent of Cornell’s bird boxes, establishing an analogy between the visual, spatial design of her poem and the pigeons’ environment.

The factory window provides the Cornell-like frame or box in this scene, against which the pigeons make “a living frieze” (a frieze is defined as “a broad horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration, especially on a wall near the ceiling”). Loy aestheticizes the pigeons with this language, even as she draws attention to the aesthetic incongruity of a moving frieze and the backdrop of the factory exterior. Conventionally friezes are found indoors, yet Loy’s stanzas evoke and challenge the ideals of privacy and containment that we associate with domestic interiors. The line break and enjambment between “shallow / sill” forms an edge akin to the shallow sill: as we read up to and over the line break, we experience a spatial analogy for the window sill, whose shallowness is reinforced by the narrow two-line stanza. In contrast to the exotic birds housed in Cornell’s aviary boxes, the shallow window “box” in Loy’s poem is external, open to the elements, and provides a temporary shelter. A lack of property and private space defines the pigeons’ existence, accentuated by their shelter on the edifice of a factory, where the production of goods helps to fuel the human economy.

The subsequent stanzas form a similar “box.” In this “whitened” scene reminiscent of the white, abstract background that Cornell would use in many of his Aviary boxes, Loy pointedly ties the color white to pigeon excrement, commonly viewed as a nuisance but here termed “innocent” and angelic.  As Tara Prescott points out, Loy’s language transforms the pigeons standing on whitened brick into “tiny feathered sculptures” (184), a kind of marble statuary one might expect to encounter in a museum or civic building. In this unexpected juxtaposition of excrement and art, the bodily and the angelic, Loy makes visible and challenges understandings of waste as what must be expelled to make cultural and moral “cleanliness” possible (a challenge akin to that of Duchamp’s “fountain”).

Pigeons and their excrement bring into focus human economies, but pigeon economies are more difficult to ascertain; Loy comments that excrement is “all that is shown to us / of bird-economies, / financeless, / inobvious as the disposal / of their corpses.” Throughout the poem Loy uses the anthropomorphizing language of economy and finance ironically, to emphasize the limits of the human perspective on and knowledge of the pigeons (“all that is shown to us”): the human observer knows nothing of the death of pigeons or the disposal of their corpses.

Loy also uses the diction of private property, domestic economy, and marriage — those pillars of life taken for granted by the middle class — to highlight how pigeons creatively survive in a public, human landscape largely devoid of nature.

The allusions to marriage, altars, upholstery and nuptial furniture generate irony through the disparity between these middle-class foundations and the daily existence of pigeons, whose “property”  is that margin of the urban landscape that is nominally public, where they are barely tolerated, yet in which they survive. The pigeons manage to create “privacy” out of “the slid adjacence of houses,” which Loy describes in a “room”-like stanza. Loy’s poem reveals to human observers the ingenuity of the pigeons who make do in the margins of human culture, transforming these forgotten places into the material of pigeon life, permitting the reproduction and survival of the species.

In describing this life cycle the speaker once again emphasizes the limits of what humans can see and know. As with other “inobvious” features of pigeon life, the appearance of large pigeon infants to the human observer seems “startling” or sudden, a species of “conjury” — inexplicable because unobserved.

The speaker’s close observation of the pigeons and what cannot be seen or known results in a new vision and understanding of the bird, one with spiritual connotations. “Nativity” connotes the birth of Jesus Christ, and can refer to the artistic representations of Christ’s birth. What kind of “nativity” has Loy presented with the baby pigeons? Jim Powell argues that “Loy’s pigeons are figures for the holy spirit” (16) and Carolyn Burke sees them as “the intertwining of body and soul” (417); both critics suggest that the poem alludes to the Sermon on the Mount:  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Maeera Shreiber argues that “Departing from that mystical tradition which endeavors to look into the secret life of things, Loy claims that all things have a life that remains necessarily secret” (474); she adds, “Loy’s visionary poems are located in the small spaces between what can and cannot be known” (475). Whether or not one sees the birds as figures for the spirit, through the pigeons Loy’s speaker seems to acquire an understanding of a new kind of vision. To peer means to look carefully or with difficulty, and Loy’s punning, rhyming language — disappear, appear to reappear, to peer, vast transparency (parents see) — positions the young pigeons’ sight as beyond the visual knowledge of the human speaker.

“Vast transparency” is an abstraction, an undemarcated space that is penetrable by vision (transparent), and connotes a kind of window (echoing the factory window at the start of the poem) but one that lacks an edifice: this abstraction points to the possibilities but also to the limits of human vision and knowledge, allowing one to imagine how or what the young birds might see as they first climb the stairs up to the city street, but also to confront the unknowability of this view. The speaker in an attempt to understand what the birds see, also “peers into a vast transparency.” Loy’s statement about Brancusi and Cornell — “The first is the purest abstraction I have ever seen; the latter the purest enticement of the abstract into the objective” — applies to the conclusion of her poem as well.

The bird has a long history as a figure for the lyric poem and poet, and we can chart the trajectory of the romantic to modern lyric through the changes in its iconic birds: from Keats’ nightingale to Baudelaire’s swan to Hardy’s thrush and Frost’s Oven Bird, Stevens’ blackbird, Bishop’s rooster, and Moore’s and Loy’s pigeons. In choosing the pigeon Loy shifts the location of the lyric from the heights down to the prosaic sidewalk, and like Baudelaire broadens the lyric to encompass the reality of urban life. But she keeps the origins of the lyric as song in mind: as Jim Powell notes, Loy pays attention to the pigeons’ “irritant, alluring / music” and the poem’s subtle use of rhyme and sound mimics the “cooing” of the pigeons (16).

The shift in perspective central to “Property of Pigeons” was also explored by Loy in her visual works from this era. For instance she takes up the perspective of the sidewalk in several assemblages featuring bums on the Bowery.
One assemblage in particular (c. early 1950s) changes depending on one’s perspective. Loy depicts a bum under sidewalk pavement, his hands and head emerging from the pavement: if the work is placed on a tabletop and viewed horizontally, the bum would appear to be trapped beneath the concrete, or emerging from it like one of Loy’s incipient forms. However if the work is hung on a wall and viewed vertically, the bum appears to be hanging, a Christ-like figure (akin to the figure in Loy’s assemblage “Christ on a Clothesline”). Loy played with Surrealism’s “topsy-turvy” perspective in her 1930 painting Surreal Scene (depicting upside-down figures sitting on a ceiling) and in Insel; she commented in “Phenomenon” that “Its theoretic contrivance for somersaulting reasons into an ‘Alicism’ world of topsy-turvy logic greatly entertained me [but] my conclusive reaction to much of it was ‘Black Magic’” (LB82 301).

But in her late assemblages Loy imbues Surrealist “topsy-turvy” shifts in perspective with ethical questioning and spiritual reflection, or what she termed “White Magic.”  Viewed horizontally, is the bum trapped under the sidewalk equivalent to garbage to be trod on, imprisoned by his cement environment? Viewed vertically, does he become a kind of saint? Perhaps Loy uses the vertical presentation of the bum’s horizontal position (lying on the sidewalk) to invite viewers to see this figure with fresh eyes, much as she does with her pigeons. Shifting perspective may enable an  ethical extension of perspective.

Loy’s protagonist Mrs. Jones comments on a similar play with perspective in Insel: “Again I received a strictly lateral invitation to wholly exist in a region imposing a supine inhabitance. A region whose architecture, being parallel to Paradise, is only visible to a horizontal gaze. Should one stand up to it, it must disappear.” “Supine” means lying face upward, or failing to act or protest as a result of moral weakness or indolence. The bum lying on the sidewalk, too easily dismissed as indolent, perhaps searches for or sees “Paradise.”