Reading Mina Loy:

    “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”

1. Exodus
Eighteen-year-old Exodus lies under an oak tree in his native “Buda Pest,” having slept there overnight. His family had once been wealthy enough to build a synagogue “for the people,” but he has since “grown/ neglected along the shores of the Danube.” The marriage of Exodus’ father to a woman “of the people” precipitated this fall from grace, “and disinherited/ begat this Exodus.” This class intermarriage/interbreeding introduces the idea of ‘mongrelization’—Exodus is a mongrel in terms of class identification: patrilineally affluent, and matrilinealy “of the people.”
          When “fever / smote the father,” Exodus’ mother remarries into her own social class and apprentices Exodus as a tailor “to such     as garrulously inarticulate / ignore     the cosmic cultures.” Exodus considers emigrating to England:

                        coveting the alien
                        asylum     of voluntary military
                        service     paradise     of the pound-sterling
                        where the domestic Jew     in lieu
                        of knouts     is lashed with tongues

Such breaks. Weary, Exodus drifts back to sleep. Bit by a bug, he awakens to the sound of his own heart beating, seemingly from underground. Uneducated in his own physiology, Exodus fears death:

                        He is undone!     How should he know
                        he has a heart?     The Danube
                        gives no instruction in anatomy
                        the primary
                        throb of the animate
                        a beating mystery

Also: spacing. He clenches his eyes, anticipating his end. Nothing happens. Frustration stirs him to "shoulder his pack." He makes for the harbor. He leaves for England.
          As “the highest paid     tailor’s / cutter in the City,” Exodus proves himself astute in business, though his success is hindered by the rigid class boundaries he finds always already in place. He speaks the ‘jibbering’ tongue of commerce fluently; without it he would be one of

                              Those foreigners
                        before whom            the soul
                        of the new Motherland
                        stands nakedly incognito
                        in so many ciphers

At the English boarding house, he learns English etiquette and leisurely pursuits: “painting     knowing not why / sunflowers turned sunwards.” Lovely. Lovely. Wandering alone among the London Sunday streets: he is dejected, an outcast. Strange as he is, he feels himself more connected to Jewish history:

                        The dumb philosophies
                        of the wondering Jew
                        fall into rhythm     with
                        long unlistened to     Hebrew chants
                             A wave
                        ‘out of tide’     with the surrounding

It is always the way. Memory takes him over: Hungary. The synagogue. The Rabbi, obliged by the generous gift of his grandfather, gives him fare and blesses him. And he had been blessed, at least financially. Suddenly, inexplicably, he remembers how his mother told him he was born prematurely, “And Exodus     feels cold / with sympathy     for that cold thing / that was himself.” The cold thing returns home to paint, to try to make sense of this strange world.
          Painting, Exodus reinvigorates. He attempts to find his pulse, but panics when he can’t and goes immediately to the doctor, medicine being “the only     social science     applied to the outsider.” From medicine he learns that physiology is a unifying, rather than a separating factor; he has the “same osseous structure” within him as is within everyone else in England. This turns his scientific and artistic explorations inward:

                        Exodus     discovers his nerves
                        as once     Mankind
                        in pathological mysticism     believed
                        itself     to have discovered
                        its soul

Yes: soul. He buys his own business, though “some queer / marital independence on the English air” keeps him bachelor. As a Jew, and an outsider, he must reject his own heritage and religion to affect his success in “finance or/ romance of the rose.” This rejection is key.

2. English Rose
The figure of the rose is a paradox, a travesty, a “bloodless,” “grimed,” frigid and oppressive figure of authoritarian self-control. She is repressed—or rather, self-repressed. The rose is a stereotype: like all English women in prudery, ignorance, and compulsive (even compulsory) modesty. Most disappointing of all is how she succumbs to the various discourses shaping the institution of English maidenhood in Victorian England: politics, history, religion, mythology, sacred and, most notably, popular literature:

                        Maiden emotions
                        on leaves of novels
                        where anatomical man
                        has no notion
                        of offering other than the bended knee
                        to femininity

                        and purity
                        passes in pleasant ways
                        as the cows graze

As in: the female-authored English novel. As in: Print culture. As in: Foucault pre-Foucault. Enter Exodus. Because he had been indoctrinated to other discourses, he sees through “the fetish / of the island hedges,” and strikes. Ada is unreceptive to him, however, because she has already been inculcated into proscribed notions of chivalry and romance. After fighting off his sexual advances for most of her section of the poem, they get (anticlimactically) married.
          Mina Loy is said by scholars to have been heavily influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis and much of the language in this section on “the rose” reflect his teachings. It is interesting that this results in what is either an anti-feminist or a feminist position, depending on how you look at it. Consider, for example, her appropriation of Freudian discourse: the elevated diction and decided distance from her subject matter. Antifeminist? Consider also that she uses this performance to critique the normative gender roles of her time. Feminist. But viewing her position as either feminist or anti-feminist requires, of course, that readers make essentializing statements about gender binaries, but isn’t that what she has set up for us at this point in the poem? She associates Exodus with the Orient, the East, the sciences and art. He is an intellectual, aligned with the Angry Jehovah and with Exile. Ada is the Occident, the passive-aggressive Western cold fish, coy and colonized everywhere it goes. Although Exodus aspires only to “warming in his arms / his rose to a maturer coloration,” he becomes the aggressor in her socially-proscribed game of lack and plenty; she “repels/ the sub-umbilical mystery / of his husbandry / hysterically.
          Not surprisingly, Exodus is unfulfilled in this sexual economy and masturbates to fantasies of the mysteries of his own wife. Readers should feel something like pathos here. A good opportunity for Loy to give us a sex talk:

                        For of this Rose[...]
                        it is certain
                        that an impenetrable pink curtain
                        hangs between it and itself
                        and in metaphysical vagrance
                        it passes beyond the ken
                        of men unless
                        of exorbitant incomes
                        And Then—
                        merely indicating its presence
                        by an exotic fragrance

This passage illustrates, if nothing else, the complexity of Loy's social critique, on socio-economic, as well as gendered-sexual axes. Women are far too protective of their virginity in 19-somethings England for Mina Loy. Repression is a fiction, self-inflicted: the curtain hangs, after all, between it and itself. This structure makes symbolic form possible:

                        A rose[…]
                        enwraps itself
                        in esoteric
                        and exoteric
                        the official
                        and inofficial
                        social     morale
                        The outer
                        accepting the official
                        of the inner
                        as a plausible
                        for disciplining the inofficial
                        “flesh and devil”
                        to the ap     parent impecca     bility
                        of the English

                        And for Empire
                        what form could be superior
                        to the superimposed
                        of the rose?

So far ahead of time. What superior form, indeed.

3. Mongrel Rose
The subjectivity thickens. Ova is born and much of the rest of the poem details the formation of her identity: a thinking, learning, thirsting consciousness, denied agency by an oppressive mother, the emblem of institutionalized repression and misogyny. In “Ada Gives Birth to Ova” that consciousness is trapped in a foreign, fatty baby body, in which her soul is not comfortable. Neither do her parents make her any more so, pushing on her their “racial birthrights”—curses of the Jewish instinct to survive as well as the “Jewish Brain”; she is also cursed by socially proscriptive roles for women, maternal neglect having made her sadly “solemn and unsurprised.”
          In “Ova Begins to Take Notice” Ova approaches the open fire’s “colour-thrusts / of [...] quintessent light.” Her mother’s protective arms become “a receding / prison / of muscular authority,” and her hands “ineludable claws of dominion.” Freed, Ova finds a red ball and simultaneously loses it under the bushes. She tries to reconstruct that moment of happiness by fashioning a rose from red thread, “but red- / ness is inadequate / to the becoming of a rose.” Sign ≠ signifier ≠ signified.
          When Ada gets sick, Ova learns the word “iarrhea” and begins to form thoughts around its meaning. Her mother has a second baby, who also has diarrhea, which is described as being “quite green.” She hears “the cerebral / mush convolving in her skull,” and remembers the ball lost in the bushes, looks at “the cat’s eyes horse-shoe” pinned on one of the women visiting the baby and

                        […] instantly
                        this fragmentary
                        of ideas

                                    the word

The Semiotic itself! Her mind races toward melancholy for her lost ball, toward the memory of its disappearance. She crawls “under the white valances / of the furniture / to look for it,” but is pulled out by the leg.
          Skip to “Ova, Among the Neighbors,” in which Loy continues to develop her theory of identify formation:

                        (The drama of)
                        a human consciousness
                        (played to the inattentive audience
                        of the Infinite)
                        on the ego-axis
                        with the cosmic
                        proposition of being IT

Who among us hasn't thought the same thing? Wow. I am IT. Ova learns to observe the structure of her parents’ relationship and sees it mirrored in the rest of society. It's a fractal. She learns variations on this model throughout history and begins to replicate the macrocosmic within:

                        being mostly
                        a microcosmic
                        of institutions

Those institutions create viable English subjects, who breed and give birth to “suburban children” who have, perhaps, always already been colonized. Those children, who are “integral / to that removed yet irremovable / rose,” are rejoiced in by their parents “only symbolically.” Parents dutifully control their children in all things, including ignorance, innocence, “fresh air and milk.”
          In “Ova Has Governesses” we learn that a woman’s education is meant to keep her stupid. Ova, with her spectacular Jewish intellect, is hyperbored, jaded and caught in an inescapable cycle of unimaginatively regulated education, in which she learns to sustain through drudgery. She blames God for not having created England in Eden.
          Ova enters the unnatural commercial world in “Jews and Ragamuffins of Kilburn”. She goes shopping with her governess, who reinforces rigid class boundaries and racial stereotypes. Off-put by the poverty of children around her, she feels “horror for this child / caught in a novel hell / of immovable metal / which is eternal.” When her nurse tells her to stand up straight--“you begin/ to walk like a horrid ragamuffin”--she misunderstands, believing that these children, though they wear rags, get to eat muffins. They therefore “have the best of her.”
          Miss Bunn comes to the Exodus household in “The Surprise” with (guess what!) a surprise in her basket. Ova and her father conspire to look inside to see what she has brought. They vow (at his suggestion) not to tell. When Miss Bunn asks Ova if she had looked in the basket, Ova lies and says no, but her father promptly sells her out:

                        She is turned into a liar
                        by father
                        they push her
                        out the front door with their hands

Ova finds herself outside, utterly confused. She does not know how to be among “these big bodies / who hustle her through demeaning duties / in humiliation” and, like her father, decides to run away. Just as she does so, a hand (presumably her mother’s)

                        jolts her
                        with mocking laughter
                        bolts her
                        to smoulder
                        once more
                        behind the door

Again. Listen: R. R. R. R. R.
          In “Illumination” Ova gains an awareness of herself in the world. Notably, her “Illumination” occurs while she is alone. She self-actualizes in relation to “space”, not to people or society and this “indissoluble bliss” is her defense, to be carried with her “into the long nightmare” of life. If only I.
          “The Gift” continues the process of self-actualization, dramatizing the family economy, which played out for young Ova on the stage of her father’s pockets

                        from whence spring riches
                        and a sullen
                        economic war

                        Houses and food and fire
                        proceed from them

Ova is still too young to understand money, “which magically / IS life.” Just as Exodus maintains sovereignty over financial matters, so too does he reign over their relationship:

                        He tells her
                        he is a good Father
                        his child must obey him
                        should he choose to do so
                        he can bestow
                        upon her whatever she pray him

And this holds true when she asks him for a sovereign to buy “a circus universe.” He instead gives her a farthing, an embarrassment when she tries to spend it: “How evil a Father must be / to burst a universe.”
          In “Ova Accepts the Popular Estimate of Humanity” our heroine gives in to the pressures of society, accepting Christ, whom her mother, “the maternal Christian,” inflicts upon her in the form of “a spiritual bludgeon.” More importantly, she also accepts proscribed notions of sexuality, the body, and its function:

                        […] the vaguely disgusting
                        inquietudes of the flesh surrounding
                        her she also accepts
                        as she is bidden
                        as hidden
                        that ripen
                        for divine destinies

Note the combined effect of her having surrendered her body to the “higher power” of religion, while her body also becomes a mystery to itself; it is both a ‘vaguely disgusting’ sexual function and a house for the mysterious and invisible Christian soul.
          “Religious Instruction” puts the blame for such imposition of ideology squarely on the shoulders of her parents. Ova’s only option is to “arise and walk / [her] innate straight way / out of the accidence of circumstance” and begin her own education, “trusting to terms of literature." As an act of self-preservation, she tries to run away, making for the “magnetic horizon of liberty / with the soul’s foreverlasting / opposition / to disintegration.” But she is caught and returned:

                        the very
                        street corners of Kilburn
                        close in upon Ova
                        to deliver her
                        into the hands of her procreators

Thwarted again.
          The final poem, “The Social Status of Exodus," ends the work on a queer note, beginning with a retelling of the Genesis story, moving through history to return to Exodus, the Tailor, “the stitches of whose seams / he is unworthy to unloose.” He nevertheless dresses everyone “in the ‘latest thing in trouserings,’” despite which “he is despised," perhaps for having chosen “an occupation all too feminine.” The return to Exodus in the “Mongrel Rose” section of the poem is a move I don’t fully understand. How can I form thoughts on this?

4. Thank You Mina Loy

                        have I not
                        somewhere got
                        a yellow-finned fish
                        laying eggs
                                  such chaos to
                        a fat cat sleeping
                        on the bed
                                  always has been
                                            never kitten
                        never knew her
                        undulating life stirs
                                  I am that cat

©2008 Dr. Lacy M. Johnson All Rights Reserved.