“To You” (1916)

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"To You"

by Mina Loy

from "Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject, or: Who is Mina Loy?"

by Alex Goody

“To You,” a poem first published in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others in 1916, offers a clear intersection between a thematic posing of personal/public identifications and a textual exploration of the construction of the speaking subject. It is clearly, although somewhat ambiguously related to Love Songs to Joannes (1917), currently the best known and most discussed of her work. This article proposes a strategic reading of the apostrophic “To You,” one which reveals a linguistic subject who stands for/as the author herself, both as speaker and addressee, thereby making the subjectivity of her utterance and the attribution of authorial control problematic. This in turn provides a clear example of the more general enunciative instability that Loy deliberately exploits in her double-crossing attitude to modernism. Such a textual strategy is certainly linked to Loy’s presence as a woman in the hegemonic masculinism of modernism, enabling her to stand inside and outside the avant-garde simultaneously…

…By exploring her contingent stance as woman author through her texts themselves, Loy’s poems offer the possibility of liberation from the ideological boundaries of gender and identity without denying or negating the physical actualities of existence (as a woman), and without abstaining from language.

This liberatory effect can be seen in “To You,” a text which inscribes the illusory position of the authorial voice.1 The poem reveals the precarious position of the female modernist interloper as an alien subject and a foreigner to poetic authority, while insisting on the physical presence and articulations of this foreign body. As the title suggests, “To You” serves a dedicatory function and Loy’s own comments on the poem in a letter to Van Vechten suggest a textual relationship to her Love Songs to Joannes:

If you wanted me to be a happy woman for five minutes or more; you would get Songs for Joannes [sic] published for me—all together—printed on one side of each page only—& a large round in the middle of the blank reverse of each page—& one whole entirely blank page with nothing on it between the first & the second parts—(pause in between moods)—the dedication —’TO . YOU.'”2

This letter, in which Loy also, self-consciously and ironically, invokes the example of Sappho for her Love Songs, would appear to establish “To You” as the tributary preface to Loy’s sequence of modernist love-lyrics, and this is the motivation behind Conover’s grouping of the poems in his earlier edition of Loy’s work The Last Lunar Baedeker. However, Conover omits the poem from The Lost Lunar Baedeker and admits that “[Marisa] Januzzi has persuaded me that despite ML’s plea to CVV […] I may have taken this request too literally in LLB. I now find it difficult to read ‘To You’ as a prelude to ‘Songs to Joannes,’ either thematically or structurally.” (LLB 191) Conover’s caution is correct, and it is certainly misleading to read “To You” as a simple “dedicatory poem […] an elusive evocation of the loved one in the context of the city.”3

The address of “To You” does imitate the conventions of the ahistorical, apolitical romantic lyric, in which the loved one (You) is invoked to facilitate an expression of the speaker’s state of mind (I). However, a literal interpretation of Loy s poem and comments ignores the allocutory complexity of “To You.” There is no straightforward beloved, either real or imagined at the receiving end of Loy s apostrophe. As Peter Quartermain highlights, the syntactic drift of this piece, which inaugurates the liberating discontinuities of Love Songs, acts against any singularity or linearity of interpretation.4 The line-breaks which disrupt the semantic groupings of “To You” produce an uncertain grammatical subject, and the prepositions which structure the poem highlight the relational activity of the piece. Thus, not only can we recognise the act of writing as an actual production (rather than representation or deferral of meaning), but we are also witness to a textual production of a relational subject. Although “You” is/are addressed and invoked, this postulated third person (the text, the writing, the subject) of the poem is the writer herself. As in her Love Songs, Loy undermines the egocentric poetic tradition that uses the Other, the addressee, the beloved, the woman, to enable a solipsistic self-exploration. By placing herself as both addresser and addressee, as speaker and silent/silenced listener, Loy offers a textual examination of her unauthorised status as active, literary voice. In its questioning of poetic convention, “To You” introduces the subversive tendencies and equivocal voice of the Love Songs.

“To You” proposes a complex apostrophe emanating from the site of modernism—a dislocated metropolitan space:

The city

Wedged between impulse and unfolding


By diurnal splintering

Of egos


The aerial news-kiosk

Where you



With a nigger

And a deaf-mute

Of introspection

“The city,” a reflection of the modernist situation itself, offers both confusion and clarification. The individual addressed from this ambivalent site of potential and uncertainty shares in the condition of the city, and is clearly identified with the dispossessed inhabitants of this cosmopolitan zone: “a nigger/And a deaf-mute/Of introspection.” The “nigger/deaf-mute” association establishes the addressee as the equivalent of these underclass subjects, pointing to the rhetorical stance of the poem. Loy is addressing her own authorial presence, characterising her unsanctified interlocutory role by appealing to tropes of “Otherness”; i.e., she invokes emblems of cultural dispossession and denial to signal her presence as outsider. Using the colonial figure of “blackness” Loy represents her (un)authorised role as one of transgressive intervention:

Plopping finger

In Stephen’s ink

Made you hybrid-negro

By usurping authorship from the male she becomes a racially mixed Other, the blackness of the (unauthorised) written word (as black ink) metonymically referring to the blackness of race. Thus, she is stained by crossing the boundaries of (male)subject-(female)object (of self and other).

The name “Stephen” represents masculine authority with a nexus of autobiographical and cultural implications. Stephen is Loy’s first husband (Stephen Haweis) who resented and restricted her development as an artist and writer. But he is also Stephen Daedelus, the prototypical modernist artist of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-15), or his mythical precursor Saint Stephen, the original martyr. In appropriating authority from “Stephen,” Loy establishes herself as “hybrid,” offering a defiant doubleness which exceeds the restrictions of dualistic ontology or oppositional aesthetics. The “You” of the poem violates the boundaries of purity and control, offering, instead, a blurring of the distinctions between subject and object, self and other, author and audience. Thus, the cross-breed also crosses borders, trespassing on the traditional prerogative of (male) authority, and infringing the self-containment of the authorial voice.

The “hybrid-negro” is also an early gesture towards the mixed heritage that Loy explores in her sequence Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose: a linguistic, intellectual, and cultural hybridity that comes to form a fundamental aspect of her aesthetic. In Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (first published between 1923 and 1925) Loy poses her “auto-mythological” self Ova as a “mongrel—girl of Noman’s land.”5 As the offspring of the “English Rose” and Exodus, the “wondering jew,” this “composite Anglo-Israelite” has a heritage as well as artistic aspirations which transgress the boundaries of culture and ideology.6 Here and elsewhere the trope of the hybrid and the textual identification with racial and social outsiders undermines the supposed “purity” and superiority of Western culture and its artistic expression. This is not simply a rhetorical stance but lies at the heart of Loy’s aesthetic vision. Hybridity results, for Loy, in a re-invigoration of culture. Against the paralysing purity of form and expression Loy offers her own multilingual poetic vocabulary, celebrating the “composite” “living language” of America in an article on “Modern Poetry.”7 Indeed, the lexical hybridity of Loy’s writing has served some critics as the defining element of her work. In this context Perloff notes Loy’s “curious polyglossia” and finds it to be a distinct mark of her modernist poetic, one which foreshadows the current multiplicities of “English” throughout the world.8 This echoes Jim Powell’s earlier assessment of Loy and Basil Bunting which points out that

English is a hybrid, born of the mingling of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman French, further complicated by ecclesiastical, scholarly and literary infusions from Latin, Greek, and the literatures of the continental Renaissance and after, and more recently by imperial imports from throughout the world. Loy and Bunting have created poetic voices which can draw comfortably on all the registers of English, from the earliest slang to the most abstruse or mandarin locutions.9

The tactic of polyglot or hybrid articulation can also be interpreted, from the position of authority, as a failure rather than a challenge to tradition and certainly some aspects of Loy’s work have been seen as “clumsiness” exhibiting a lack of “technical mastery.”10 Such comments highlight the hazards of the poetic stance that Loy takes when textual doubleness is read as poetic inadequacy rather than excess or multiplicity.

Loy herself is aware of the textual difficulties of her aesthetic vision of hybridity and multiplicity; eg. in “To You” the interloper-writer is both licensed (by transgressive powers) and dispossessed (by convention). As traditional outsider she figures as a silent/silenced individual, the victim of editorial impediments or textual unreliability:

A couple of manuscriptural erasures

And here we have your deaf-mute

Beseech him

He will never with-hold so


As the tattle of tongue-play

Or your incognito

In an oxymoronic oscillation between silence and “tattle,” Loy illustrates the uncertainty of the text. Such textual ambiguity, or the disguise of authorial personae, can empower the outsider, but can also function to regulate the modernist transgressor and impede the communication of his/her specific individuality. This precarious position can produce a dangerous indeterminacy as well as a liberatory one—the difficulty of identifying an affirmative voice in Love Songs perhaps.

Loy’s “To You” offers the pseudo-certainty of the text as a “tight-rope stretched above commotion” that “Frays to tow,” emphasising the instability of the written word and presenting “Truth” as a balancing act. Loy chooses not to mourn the passing of absolute truth and authority, so that her carnivalesque figuring of the crisis of representation is in stark contrast to the parsimonious edifice against chaos that Eliot constructs in The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.”11 What Loy suggests is that the writer occupies a performative space from which a variety of authorial poses can be presented, poses which often seek to disguise the contingency of their origins in an assertion of complete agency and control. Rather than adopting the armour of personae, as Pound and many other modernists do, or writing with a customary detachment, a dis-acknowledgment of self which is the tactic of much of Marianne Moore’s work, Loy “seems to reject any coherent model of the self as something both imaginary and conventional, as Peter Nicholls describes it, reformulating “modernist irony” so that the “reflexivity of her style turns the force of the critique back upon the self.”12 In “To You”, as elsewhere, Loy seeks to expose the masquerade of the author through her own modernist performance which inserts itself into, and subverts, the dominant discourse of the avant-garde. With an incongruous blurring of reality and metaphor that parodically re-enacts the literalising metaphors of racism, sexism, and masculinism, the addressee of the poem, Loy as writer, presents her own equivocality and textually situates herself within” y[/]our mask of unborn ebony/And the silence of y[/]our harangue.”

It is the city, as the form of the modern, which offers a depersonalised audience to the performance and reinscribes the doubleness of the text. In Love Songs Loy metonymically presents the simultaneous internal/external perception of self (self as observer and observed) through the eye/I homonym, which is also crossed with physical-spiritual enlightenment (eye/light/enlightenment). In a similar nexus of associations, the city presents an illuminated/illuminating vacuity from/in the reflecting windows/eyes of its gaze: “Lit cavities in the face of the city/Open their glassy embrace to receive you.” The self is both confirmed and dispersed in the soul(lessness) of the metropolis.

In the final lines of “To You” Loy restates her position as silenced alien, offering it as an inevitable product of the crisis of modernity. The poem returns to the “stain” of race, but also suggests the equalising power of miscegenation as racial and textual uncertainty. The ambivalence of origins destroys hierarchy as it destroys legitimacy, producing an unbounded potentiality which Loy implies both linguistically (“levelling”) and typographically, with the openness of a final dash:


In the shattering city

Alien as your aboriginal

In the levelling dirt—

What “To You” offers is a dedication from and to Loy the writer, addressing her self as (a) speaking subject. The poem breaks boundaries and orthodoxies and accepts an alien nature that is paradoxically both a disadvantaged state and an inevitable and enabling role. …What her work productively explores are the contingencies of language, expression, and (modern) culture, enabling the outsider to speak (through) the arbitrary relations of modernity. The incongruous gap in the text of modernism that so many writers attempt to fill or bridge with models of linguistic precision, impersonality, stylistic self-sufficiency, gender ideology, and so on, is the inter-zone that Loy explores and exploits. This inter-zone is uncertain and duplicitous, and here the transgressor risks annihilation while resisting co-option into the realms of authoritative/authoritarian “Truth.” But, for Loy as artist, Anglo-Jewish expatriate, mother, modernist, woman, it is the fertile space from which and of which her complex, exceptional, uncompromisingly modern writing “speaks.”

NOTE: Grateful appreciation to Alex Goody for giving us permission to reprint this close reading, which was originally published in How2 (Vol. 2: No. 1, March 2001) as part of a full-length article entitled “Gender, Authority and the Speaking Subject, or: Who Is Mina Loy?” It is one of only a few scholarly efforts to engage with Loy’s appropriation of racial signifiers in fashioning her hybrid artistic identity.

For further discussion of racial tropes, see Susan Rosenbaum’s “Surrealism & Race” and Meredith Foulke’s “Manifesto for Reading Whiteness in Songs To Joannes” & Beyond.”