“Time-Bomb” (1946)

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by Mina Loy

from "Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schüler"

by Cristanne Miller

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.

War Time

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.”

The most surprising word of the poem is “goggle,” with its oddly colloquial and Anglo-Saxon ring among polysyllabic Latinate adjectives and nouns, but the “goggle” is of death. The landscape of this present is so lifeless that even death is not an event but a moment of staring with protuberant eyes, like the “sentinel” “ruins.”
The foreboding lifelessness of the poem seems consistent from beginning to end, yet the poem also suggests contrasts at odds with that pattern. The poem begins with an explosion that would seem to disrupt all momentum toward the future: the present divides past from future rather than linking them. In this sense, the present is unnatural. By making the poem’s subject the abstract “present moment” rather than, for example, August 1945, Loy also leaves ambiguous whether she speaks philosophically or historically: is it the particular present moment of time in the United States in 1945 or all “present,” a concept infinite in reference because every moment is by definition “present” rather than past or future? Consciousness occurs in the present. If each second explodes past from future, there can be little hope for knowledge or meaningful agency: one cannot understand life or time without a sense of sequence, a consciousness of the present in the context of both memory and anticipation or dread, past and future.
Yet the poem’s final stanza implies that the explosion of the present creates some kind of future momentum, or at least allows such momentum to proceed. It is “only the momentary / goggle of death” that “fixes” the movement of time. If one understands “fix” to mean make stationary, the poem implies that the future does continue to move forward in at least a fugitive way, despite the momentary interruptions of death and the “scission” between it and the past. On the other hand, if “fix” means to repair, then it is death that cures or puts back in order the future that is broken by the exploding present. In either case, the poem asserts “momentum” even while apparently denying it. That the sentinels watch “in an unknown dawn” also suggests a continuing future linked with the past at least by prophecy if not by more active and personal memory or narrative: dawn anticipates the coming of day, a new beginning, a world that goes on.

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.

Forms of Momentum and Stasis

The form of the poem, however, suggests momentum as well as stasis. As in some of her early poems, Loy here uses unconventional spacing, in this poem isolating every word and punctuation mark from every other. Words, commas, and periods are “strewn” across the page, blind sentinels, fixed in place. The stanzas occur in a chiasmic pattern: a four-line stanza then two stanzas of three lines, then a final stanza of four. Most lines are approximately five syllables long, and each stanza contains one line of three syllables. The basic pattern from which the others vary seems to be set in stanzas 1 and 3: the first contains lines of five, five, three, and five syllables, and the third of three, five, and five syllables.
The nine-syllables line “those valorous disreputables” most disrupts the syllabic order and provides another clue as to the cause of the present collapse. The disreputable are those without reputation, social standing, respect in the community: calling “disreputables” “valorous” indicates that the speaker disdains dominant social judgment of worth, and finds the disrespected to be courageous, to have strength of mind and heart. In this reading, the explosion of the present isolates as “ruins” those who disregard social conventions or depart from popular beliefs, acting valorously according to their own lights. In some cataclysmic moment, the poem implies, values changed so radically that what once was valorous is now a ruin, and what once was unthinkable now occurs—including world war. Yet because these disreputables stand guard in a landscape containing prophecy (even if as litter), Loy’s poem suggests consciousness of what they witness and perhaps some minimal spirit of protection. It could be their “momentum,” a moment Loy associates with the future, that continues fugitively at the poem’s end.

Sound Schemes

The poem’s sound schemes also suggest connection in spite of exploded distance and difference. There is no rhyme scheme in the poem. From the first line on, however, words are paired by echoing sound patterns—as occurs in many of Loy’s poems and becomes exaggerated in some (the “purposeless peace” of “Photo After Pogrom,” or “lidded with unlisted likings” in “Faun Fare”—both poems also written in the midforties). The repeated –ent and trochaic two-syllable accentual pattern of “present” and “moment” in line 1 lead to the –sion unaccented rhyme of “explosion” and “scission” in lines 2 and 3, accented by the repeated s sounds initiated in “present” and “is.”
“Present” also prepares alliteratively for “past,” just as “future” anticipates by alliteration and assonance the concluding stanza’s “fugitive” momentum, and by assonance the second stanza’s “disreputables.” The second stanza foregrounds ls and rs; the third stanza abounds in ns, especially in the sequence “an unknown dawn / strewn and the final stanza repeats ms and fs; “momentary . . . momentum,” and “fixes the fugitive.” Nearly every grammatically significant word of the poem (and some of the function words as well) anticipates or echoes through soundplay some other word or grouping of words in the poem, suggesting tentacles of connection underlying the poem’s exploded form. The sound echoes also create thematic rhymes, linking disreputables with the fugitive future, for example, or the present with prophecy, and the moment with momentary momentum. The ear can hear what the reader cannot see: language works through aural connections, sequences, patterns, even when apparently most disrupted. In fact, the syntax of the poem is relatively simple, belying the visual disruption of the words on the page. Only the word “goggle” has no sound-partner in the poem, although the chiasmic placement of the present’s explosion and death’s goggle suggest that they may be analogous.

Scissions and Ruins of War

“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.

The poem’s concluding stanza may imply that the war’s casualties alone temporarily reinstate connections of past to present and future: the process of mourning necessarily involves memories of the past and makes one question what kind of future can be born from so many deaths. Loy does not mourn the loss of friends. In fact, the attitude of this poem is found in Loy’s earliest poems: the future is cut off from the past; most people are ignorant spectators, not agents, in the determination of their fate; conditions of being are static, not dynamic. The war did not provoke these conclusions, although it probably confirmed or sharpened attitudes Loy had long held.

A Poetry of Castigation

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.”