22 July 2014

Chana Orloff

"So she stands – nude- stretching dully
Two amber combs loll through her hair
A vague molested carpet pitches
Down the dusty length of stair.
She does not see, she does not care
                              It’s always there.

The frail mosaic on her window
Facing starkly toward the street
I scribbled there by tipsy sparrows -
Etched there with their rocking feet.
Is fashioned too, by every beat
                           Of shirt and sheet.

Still her clothing is less risky
Than her body in its prime.
They are chain-stitched and so is she
China-stitched to her soul for time.
Raveling grandly into vice
Dropping crooked into rhyme.
Slipping through the stitch of virtue,
                           Into crime.

Though her lips are vague and fancy
In her youth –
They bloom vivid and repulsive
As the truth.
Even vases in the making
                       Are uncouth".

-       Seen from the ‘L’  by Djuna Barnes, from The Book of Repulsive Women

Hard boiled.   How a term supposedly coined to describe the cynicism of  men fighting organized crime during the Prohibition Era translated so easily into an unflattering sobriquet for 'the new woman' would make a neat subject for a doctoral thesis.  I can see the footnotes clustering already. I hereby offer a few hints. 
 When the New York publisher A.C. Boni issued The Hard-Boiled Virgin by Frances Newman in 1930, the term was already understood to denote a woman who chose - dared even - to remain single.  Newman's previous novel Dead Lovers Are True Lovers had been published in 1928.  The New Georgia Encyclopedia (where you can read about Newman's life and works) describes her "writing within a feminist tradition of southern fiction that has been nearly forgotten."   I'd say obliterated is more like it.  I read both novels in the Arno Reprints series when I was in college and wondered at her determination, as a translator fighting encroaching blindness, as a woman who saw too clearly and too soon the price and who paid it for misogyny, racism, and their deformations of female sexuality.  Newman died at age fifty, too soon.

Somewhere between the forgotten Frances Newman and the celebrated Djuna Barnes is Mina Loy (1882-1966).. Born in London, Loy's life was restlessness personified (where didn't she go?) and her poetry was agreed to be sui generis from the the moment her Lunar Baedecker (sic) was published in 1923. Sardonic about love and also beautiful, Loy managed to offend many avant-gharde male writers and artists but that seems not to have slowed her down one bit.

 “You should have disappeared years ago: -
so disappear
on Third Avenue
To share the heedless incognito

Of shuffling shadow-bodies
animate with frustration

whose silence’s only potence is
preceding the eroded bronze contours
of their other aromas

through thr monstrous air
of this red-lit thoroughfare.

Here and there
set afire
a feature
on their hueless overcast
of down-cast countenances.

For their ornateness
Time, the contortive tailor,
on and off,
clowned with sweat-sculptured cloth
to press

upon these irreparable dummies
an eerie undress
of mummies
half unwound.


Such are the compensations of poverty
to see –

Like an electric fungus
sprung from its own effulgence
of intercircled jewelry
reflected on the pavement

like a reliquary sedan-chair,
out of a legend, dumped there,

before a ten-cent Cinema

a sugar-coated box office
enjail a Goddess
aglitter, in her runt of a tower,
with ritual claustrophobia.

Such are compensations of poverty
to see –

Transient in the dust,
the brilliancy
of a trolley
loaded with luminous busts;

lovely in anonymity
they vanish
with the mirage
of their passage."
- On Third Avenue by Mina Loy from The Lost Lunar Baedeker by Mina Loy, New York, Noonday Press: 1996.

None of this was met with enthusiasm by the male writers, celebrated or otherwise, of the time.   In The Lady Poets With Footnotes (1924) Ernest Hemingway, under the guise of satirizing the style of T.S. Eliot, took aim at six female poets including Edna St. Vincent Millet ("College nymphomaniac"), Sara Teasdale ("Favorite of State University Male Virgins"), and Amy Lowell ("She smoked cigars all right, but her stuff was no good").

The Book of Repulsive Women by Djuna Barnes was published in 1915, at a price fifteen cents, too much of a bargain as it turned out, for the price soon more than tripled as Barnes' sassy, hard-boiled  vision of female sexuality became an underground sensation.
Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) was a literary modernist whose Collected Poems were reprinted by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2005.  The Book of Repulsive Women remains, as always, a difficult to find gem.
It is readable online here, thanks to Johannes Beilharz. 

Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Robert Haas & Paul Ebenkamp, Berkeley, Counterpoint Press: 2014.
1. Chana Orloff -  Torso of a woman, 1918, Galerie Anne-Sophie Duval, Paris.
Chana Orloff's Torso of a Naked Woman was purchased from the artist  by the American expatriate painter Romaine Brooks in Paris shortly after it was completed.
2. Chana Orloff -private collection, France.


Timothy Cahill said...

Mina Loy writes in saturated colors of intellectual candor and erotic opulence, utterly discomfiting to most males. Not a single precious note to this poem. Thrilling. Thanks, as always, Jane.

Jane Librizzi said...

Spellcheck doesn't like Mina Loy's writing either - it kept trying to correct (!) her. As to the qualities you find there, they may discomfit anyone, I suppose.
But for the ease with which discomfort transforms into outright hostility, it would take a few more decades to find its poet. Pick up any book by Ai (Florence Anthony - 1947-2010) but especially Cruelty (Houghton Mifflin: 1973.