Loy published no poetry between 1931 and 1946. Perhaps what spurred her return to poetry was a combination of her return to New York and the war in the Europe, which the United States entered in 1941. Loy wrote “Time-Bomb” in 1945 and it comments directly on a bombed-out world.
Words like “explosion,” “valorous,” “ruins,” “sentinels,” “strewn,” and “death” (as well as the title’s “bomb”) echo reportage of the times and suggest that Loy sees every aspect of life as subsumed into this or some war. The poem gives no hint, however, of the nature of the conflict or who battles whom. The moment itself explodes. People are mere “disreputables,” “ruins” that act as “sentinels” without having anything to look out for. They do nothing active. Moreover, both the fact that the sentinels are “ruins” and the reference to death in the final stanza suggest that the prophesied future contains little hope.
We do not know when in 1945 Loy wrote “Time-Bomb” but it registers a shock like that felt by many when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August, with its image of the “goggle”-eyed living or dead human “ruins,” who look on in horror or appear to watch because death left them open-eyed.These strangely terrible beings look toward a dawn filtering through atomic fallout, “strewn” with prophetic comments like those Loy heard in Paris in the mid-1930s about the anticipated war’s bringing the end of the world. The poem “Photo After Pogrom,” also written in 1945, articulates far more direct emotional response: its “Arrangement by rage / of human rubble” expresses open shock. The speaker of “Time-Bomb” seems numb.
While this poem’s title suggests cataclysmic motion through its references both to “time,” which never ceases, and “bomb,” which will at some moment explode, the poem projects stasis. It contains only one active verb—“fixes”—and that verb asserts a continuing state. The words suggesting movement or change occur in grammatical forms of substantive or participial event: leaving, strewn, goggle. The present does not cut past from future but “is” a scission; the ruins do not watch but are “sentinels”; the future does not move but has “momentary . . . fugitive / momentum.”
In her notes on “extended consciousness” Loy writes both of “the intellectual consternation, stunning as an explosion, before the unprecedented inhumanities of Axis warfare” and of her conviction “that human existence is not the meaningless ‘accident in bewilderment’ it sometimes seems to me” (B Box 7, folder 187). Explosion can echo actual warfare or suggest the intellectual consternation of observers. According to Loy’s notes, a spiritual experience of consciousness can counteract the cataclysm of both event and confusion, persuading people that neither inhumane warfare nor death marks the end of life. In “Time-Bomb,” Loy provides no such reassurance, presenting instead the frozen moment of explosion.
“Time-Bomb” suggests that World War II has had an effect on the structures and perception of time that no conclusion to the war can mend: the past has categorically disappeared; it has been vanquished, blown apart, divided forever from the present time with the force of the fission that divides atomic particles—perhaps an implied rhyme in Loy’s “scission.” Consequently, those like Loy, whose lives were by and large defined by the decades before this war, exist as “ruins,” like the bombed-out cities of Europe Loy would have seen in newspaper photographs—cities where she had lived: Berlin, Paris, London. They commemorate a bygone era. These sentinels are perhaps like sentries, standing guard at the passageway between past and present, but their function seems to be merely to watch rather than to combat the incursions of an enemy.
Loy’s is a poetry of castigation; catastrophe lurks in its revelations of the underbelly of the relations it observes. In “Der blinde Junge,” written about World War I, Loy describes the youth as an “expressionless ‘thing’ / blow[ing] out damnation and concussive dark // Upon a mouth-organ” (LLB 84). And yet Loy believes in the powers of the spirit beyond those of destruction. Her call in “Der blinde Junge” to the “illuminati of the coloured earth” to “Listen!”—like her representation of “ruins” as sentinels in “Time-Bomb”—suggests that consciousness endures and that people can hear something new. As she writes in “Ephemerid,” “The Eternal is sustained by serial metamorphosis, / even so Beauty is” (LLB 116). Although “Time-Bomb” depicts no moment of change, its “dawn” and mention of “momentum” suggest the possibility.
Loy presents the present moment through division. There are no friends or place whose passing the speaker mourns, and there is no power or person to appeal to. In fact, there is no acknowledged speaker. The isolated spacing of each word and the abstract reference to event, make the poem resemble a proclamation of fact on the basis of some impersonal authority rather than an elegy, a political commentary on the state of modern warfare or inhumanity, or any other kind of personal expression. “Time-Bomb” does not even contain the momentary acknowledgment of idiosyncratic aesthetic perspective suggested in “Photo After Pogrom”: there a woman’s body is seen as “hacked to utter beauty / oddly by murder” (LLB 122). This is indeed an “odd” way to conceive the scene, as is the concluding assertion that “corpses are virgin.” Such phrases insert a subjective presence into the poem. “Time-Bomb” contains no such phrases. Everything remains at arm’s length from a particular consciousness.
In a View questionnaire conducted during the 1940s, when asked “What do you see in the stars,” Loy responded:
Our need of an instrument analogous to, yet the inverse of a telescope, which would reduce to our focus the forms of entities hitherto visually illimitable, of whose substance the astronomical illuminations are but the diamond atoms and electrons (Becoming Modern 394).
Marianne Moore, in contrast, answered the same question with one word: “Hope.” This claim, like many of Loy’s poems, foregrounds language as such and minimizes its connection to audience or agency.
In “Time-Bomb,” language is disconnective, almost mechanical. The poem does not address an audience or trust its powers of communication. It lays out a design, as one would for a future age cut off from the present one and barely understanding its mode of communication. Loy’s poetry suggests Constructivist event more than communication: it exposes the energies of making, the powers of craft, and the devastation or, sometimes, intense beauty of its isolated moment. And while it frequently critiques a modern world incapable of love, incapable of accepting “disreputables” (scything “immortelles” because it does not understand them, in “Apology of Genius”), or without sympathy for outcasts like “Der blinde Junge” or the woman of “Chiffon Velours,” hers is not a poetry of sympathy.[note]Marjorie Perloff writes that in Loy’s verse “structures of voice and address take precedence over the ‘contestation of fact,’ as Pound called it, of the Image” (“English as a ‘Second Language” in Mina Loy: Woman and Poet, ed. Maeera Schriber and Keith Tuma, National Poetry Foundation 1998; 144). While I agree that Loy takes no primary interest in “contestation of fact,” her poems do not seem to me structured as address, despite their emotional charge: illocutionary features are almost absent and the presence of an interlocutor seems a matter of indifference.[/note] When asked in a questionnaire to name her “weakest characteristics,” Loy responded “Compassion” (LLB82, 305-6). Loy’s critique of her world is articulated through distance, satire, and language-play, which often seems to distrust the force of its own communication, as it does here. The “momentum” promised in the final stanza remains part of an “unknown dawn.”
Reading of “Time-Bomb” by Cristanne Miller, slightly revised from Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schüler. Gender and Literary Community in New York and Berlin (University of Michigan Press, 2005) 193-200.