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Mina Loy’s Nomadic Politics of Pain

Reading Loy in the twenty-first century, after the material turn in the humanities, sheds new light on her writing as particularly attuned to how the material and the incorporeal are embedded in each other. Perhaps today the question is no longer whether Loy’s poetics epitomizes the dance of the intellect or the dance of the body, but how it renegotiates intricate entanglements of mind and matter, spirit and flesh, or nature and culture. A “binarian’s nightmare,” as Roger Conover described her, Loy often interrogated and challenged the above dichotomies, offering a nuanced perspective on the intensity of multifaceted corporeal experience and its significance for our understanding of the self and others.[1] Her ever-shifting poetics illuminates what new materialist philosopher Rosi Braidotti has more recently theorized as nomadic consciousness: “a critical consciousness that resists settling into socially coded modes of thought and behavior” and “[links] body and mind in a new set of intensive and often intransitive transitions.”[2] Loy was a nomad not only in a literal, geographic sense. She was also “living in transition,” “thinking through and expressing the in-between spaces,” which enabled her to conjoin literary experimentation and renewal of the nomadic self as non-unitary, affective, and relational (Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects, 64, 93).[3]

Loy’s writings on embodied subjectivity include evocative descriptions of pain, which is one of the most ineffable corporeal experiences. As this paper argues, pain—closely related to corporeal vulnerability and affective intensity—emerges in Loy’s early and later poetry as that which not only challenges the split between the thinking mind and the sensing body, but also makes the subject refigure her relationship with other humans and nonhuman nature. Since pain is typically viewed as one of the most subjective phenomena, there is a temptation, as Tobin Siebers notes, “to see it as a site for describing individuality.”[4] New materialist and disability studies theorists agree, however, that such representation fails to recognize the power of the embodied selves to transform potentially rigidifying effect of pain into multiple forms of belonging, which might cause political change.[5] Reading Loy alongside Braidotti’s nomadic theory, which proposes that the subject is “fully immersed in and immanent to a network of human and nonhuman relations,” demonstrates how Loy was shifting from an idea of pain as an isolating and individualistic phenomenon towards an affirmative conception of corporeal vulnerability as conducive to becoming nomadically “outward-bound”: capable of moving beyond the entrenched boundaries of the self and interrelating with others (Braidotti, Nomadic Theory, 224).[6]  

Loy was among those modernists who in their articulations of pain pushed the boundaries of the English language to the extreme, attempting to “extract / a radium of the word.”[7] Her 1914 poem “Parturition” constitutes a “laboratory of vocabulary” where the speaker “[takes her] pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other . . . so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out,” to quote Virginia Woolf.[8] While a lot has been said about the ways in which Loy represents the body and voices gender critique in this groundbreaking poem, less critical attention has been devoted to how she nonreductively refigures the embodied subject as enmeshed in the dynamic nature-culture continuum, where a gradual transition from a solipsistic “congested cosmos of agony” towards a collective “was—is—ever—shall—be / of cosmic reproductivity” is engendered by an active reworking of corporeal vulnerability as a liminal space in-between (Loy, Lost Lunar, 4, 7).[9]

The speaker in “Parturition” is a subject in crisis, whose sense of self and response to corporeal vulnerability are evolving in time. She seems to be oscillating between two extremes in her perception of pain: acceptance and negation. Initially, she experiences pain as inescapably her own and locates it inside her body: “I am the centre / Of a circle of pain / Exceeding its boundaries in every direction” (4). Soon, however, she situates herself outside of the “circle of pain,” morphing into an impersonal and disembodied “resisting force” (4).

As the labor progresses, the pain intensifies and “surpassing itself / Becomes Exotic” (5). In response to such “climax in sensibility,” the speaker projects her suffering onto a “crucified wild beast,” whose “gurgling . . . [c]omes from so far away” (5). The “foam on the stretched muscles of a mouth” also becomes abject—no longer “part of [her]self” (5). In an attempt to escape the corporeal, the speaker disavows her own self, since her body and consciousness prove inextricably intertwined.

In Loy’s verse, the material aspects of language, such as its sonic quality and visual arrangement of words on the page, play a significant role, affecting, extending, or even subverting the meanings of her poems. An attunement to the workings of form in her poetry can, in turn, “[open] avenues for comprehension and appreciation at the very moments when [her] texts seem most inexplicable, whimsical, refractory, or outright meaningless,” to quote Craig Dworkin’s description of the functions of materiality in poetic language.[10] In “Parturition,” Loy thinks through the poetic form to articulate pain. This is manifested, for instance, in the speaker’s struggle to draw a cartography of her pain sensations. The stretched out, disjunctive lines are disrupted by the white space, which marks the ineffability of her experience:

Locate an irritation        without

It is                      within


It is without

The sensitized area

Is identical with the extensity

Of intension (Lost Lunar, 4)

The spatial arrangement of the words on the page reflects the dauting process of mapping elusive pain. Its unbearable intensity becomes not so much expressed as enacted through experimental typography as well as through sound. “The sensitized area,” phonetically close to “desensitized,” signals the speaker’s intention to numb the acute pain. Intensity, extension, intention, and tension—all constitutive of the speaker’s corporeal experience—are blended together in the neologisms “extensity” and “intension” (4). In addition, the use of spatio-temporal expressions such as “exceeding its boundaries,” “surpassing itself” or “traversing myself” seems suggestive of the speaker’s struggle “to move beyond the boundaries of [her] own body into the external, sharable world” and communicate her experience of corporeal vulnerability to others (4–5).[11]

Vulnerability, as Erinn Gilson notes, “presents us with the reality of fallibility, mutability, unpredictability and uncontrollability,” to which one might respond with “fear, defensiveness, avoidance, and disavowal.”[12] The subject in Loy’s poem neither eagerly embraces her pain nor instantly accepts the forces and intensities outside her control. On the contrary, as the boundaries of her body painfully extend and become blurred, she fears dissolution of her identity—a “negation of [her]self as a unit / Vacuum / interlude” (Loy, Lost Lunar, 6). Kristeva explains such defense mechanism by arguing that in labor an “abyss . . . opens up between the body and what had been its inside” and that, as a result, the subject might experience a “staggering vertigo,” where “[n]o identity holds up.”[13] Confronted with such abyss, the speaker in “Parturition” intuits that in the act of giving life, she “should have been emptied of life” like a “dead white feathered moth / [l]aying eggs” (Loy, Lost Lunar, 6). Nonetheless, as her “consciousness in crises races / [t]hrough the subliminal deposits of evolutionary processes,” a radical shift in her thinking takes place:

A moment

Being realization


Vitalized by cosmic initiation

Furnish an adequate apology

For the objective

Agglomeration of activities

Of a life. (6)

Intensely vulnerable, she is moving away from the ego-centered perspective towards a new vison of the embodied subject as fully immersed in the material world. In addition to being what Alex Goody calls a “linguistic enactment” of childbirth, “Parturition” also enacts what Braidotti theorizes as a “transformation of one’s sensorial and perceptual co-ordinates,” which makes it possible to “acknowledge the collective nature and outward-bound direction of what we still call the self.”[14] The speaker in Loy’s poem undergoes a “cosmic initiation” and becomes intermeshed with “the elements through which all living beings are born and live, a cosmological element,” to quote Elizabeth Grosz (Loy, Lost Lunar, 6).[15] Her “leap with nature” into “unpredicted Maternity” marks her unexpected openness to the world of interconnected entities:

Rises from the subconscious

Impression of a cat

With blind kittens

Among her legs

Same undulating life-stir

I am that cat

Rises from the sub-conscious

Impression of small animal carcass

Covered with blue-bottles


And through the insects

Waves that same undulation of living (6, 7)

The above images illustrate how the speaker now relates to nonhuman nature. “I am that cat,” she states, reimagining herself to be part of a collective “chain of bodies, from which we come, a genealogical or maternal element” (Grosz, Nick of Time, 2). Asserting that she is now “knowing / All about Unfolding,” she also develops a new understanding of life, which anticipates posthumanist theorizing in that it unsettles the boundary between bios, which is a conception of life “traditionally . . . reserved for human beings” and zoe, which encompasses “the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life” (Braidotti, The Posthuman, 60).[16] The speaker “grasp[s] the elements of Life” as an indivisible whole: the “same undulating life-stir” and “the same undulation of living” that permeate human and nonhuman nature in Loy’s poem correlate with the concept of zoe as a “transversal force that cuts across and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains” (Braidotti, The Posthuman, 60).[17] In a similar vein, Margaret Ronda argues that both H.D. and Loy “offer visions of feminine sexuality that explore what Stacy Alaimo calls ‘transcorporeality,’ where the discretely bound self gives way to strange entanglements” (Ronda, “Gender and Environment,” 226).[18] Loy’s conceptualization of the vulnerable self as outward-bound is distinctive insofar as it breaks away from the socially coded, hierarchical ways of thinking the subject in relation to matter. Although she was far from consistent in her approach towards materiality, her nomadic repositioning of the subject constituted an experimental intervention into how the relationship between humans and nonhuman others was commonly conceived, also within the historical avant-garde. In that respect, the term en dehors garde (proposed by Suzanne Churchill, Linda Kinnahan, and Susan Rosenbaum), which translates into “toward the outside” or “turning outward” more accurately describes her nomadic mode of experimentation and its ethical and political implications.[19] “[T]o constitute affirmative assemblages,” writes Braidotti, “requires the sensibility to and availability for changes or transformation which are directly proportional to the subject’s ability to sustain them without cracking” (Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge, 124). Loy’s bold renegotiations of the self might be retroactively read as an instance of zoe-driven ethics of affirmation, which “emerges from engaging with and processing pain and vulnerability” and positively rethinks the subject’s capacity to turn outward and interrelate without losing herself (123).

These early articulations of interrelationality are further explored in Loy’s works from the 1940s. Although her late modernist poetics is also grounded in the material, its focus shifts from the specificity of the female body to the vulnerability of bodies at war, destitute bodies, aging bodies, and bodies in pain. Loy’s poems composed between 1942 and 1949 are grouped in Lost Lunar Baedeker under the title “Compensations of Poverty.”[20] Taken together, they form a poetic assemblage that foregrounds various forms of individual and collective suffering, bringing into focus Loy’s heightened sensitivity to politics of pain and ethics of vulnerability in times of crisis. One of these poems, which like “Parturition” probes the body in pain, is “An Aged Woman,” first published in Last Lunar Baedeker as “An Old Woman” (Conover, “Notes,” 214). In contrast to agonizing yet temporary pain of labor, the pain the eponymous aged woman endures is “[m]ore like moth / eroding internal organs / hanging or falling down / in a spoiled closet” (Loy, Lost Lunar, 145). Persistent and chronic, it devours her entire reality, which is again evoked typographically through the use of white space:

the present   pain. (145)

The speaker’s struggle with pain is part of aging process, which affects both her memory—“[t]he past has come apart / events are vagueing”—and her appearance, “enabling the erstwhile agile / narrow silhouette of self / to hold in huge reserve / this excessive incognito / of a Bulbous stranger” (145). Again, the speaker’s habitual response to corporeal vulnerability is negation. Like the “crucified wild beast” in “Parturition,” the “[b]ulbous stranger” represents a disavowed self. Interestingly, the poem is postdated and signed with Loy’s name:

Mina Loy
July 12

On the one hand, this textual strategy might illustrate how the speaker’s cognitive impairment affects her ability to locate herself in time. On the other hand, it can symbolize the poet’s leap into an “inexploitable” future aimed at exploring how dementia affects one’s sense of reality (145). In each case, by integrating her name into the poem, Loy personalizes pain expression, accentuating the connection between herself and the speaker.

“An Aged Woman” is not the only later poem rooted in Loy’s experience. In “Letters of the Unliving,” the speaker addresses her deceased partner to articulate pain that his sudden disappearance caused her: “As erst my body and my reason / you left to the drought of your dying: / the longing and the lack / when the racked creature / shouted / to an unanswering hiatus / reunite us” (129–30). Loy wrote this poem while rereading old letters from her husband Arthur Cravan, who mysteriously disappeared and, most likely, died at sea in 1918.[21] Like mind and matter, emotional and physical pain emerge in this text as intertwined, affecting the speaker’s sense of self. Read in isolation, both works might be categorized as portraits of solitary and passive sufferers with a “documented terror of dementia” and “preference / to drift in lenient coma” (Loy, Lost Lunar, 130). When placed alongside other “Compensations of Poverty” poems and in the context of Loy’s life, they demonstrate, however, how Loy’s nomadic poetics evolved into a more socially committed poetics of crisis, grounded in the poet’s own pain and vulnerability, yet attuned to “the pain on the streets,” to quote Adrienne Rich.[22]

In the 1940s, Loy was living near New York’s Bowery. Struggling with aging and financial hardship, she grew more reclusive and distanced herself from the avant-garde circles she was loosely affiliated with in the early twenties. Instead, she put down roots in her immediate urban environment and became “part of pedestrian ecology, part of the communal street” (Conover, “Notes,” 208). She befriended impoverished people living on the street and documented their lives in a sequence of Bowery poems, which, as Kinnahan argues, “stand in interesting parallel and relation to the ‘documentary impulse’ of the 1930s and its reliance upon the camera as a visual tool of social responsibility.”[23] This turn to documentary forms in Loy’s later poetry might be also read as “affective opening-out” (Braidotti, The Posthuman, 166). Suffering “remains alien, opaque,” as Cynthia Hogue writes.[24] Loy, however, sheds light on the invisible even though publicly displayed suffering of the Bowery outcasts and bums. She shifts away from the “I” towards the “eye” and bears witness to public pain of dehumanized others. Instead of assuming a safe position of a detached observer, she interfuses with her surroundings, as the poem “On Third Avenue” illustrates:

“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’ only potence is

respiration (109)

The status of “you” in the opening statement is unclear. Although enclosed in quotation marks, this invocation might be the poet’s note to self: a call to decenter, or dissolve, her ego. This theory seems more plausible when looking at the drafts collected in Loy’s archive. As Rosenbaum notes, in an earlier version of this poem, titled “Gloria Populi,” Loy handwrote “I disappear” (emphasis added).[25] She replaced this line with “so disappear” in the process of manuscript revision, literally removing the “I” from the picture to paint “portraits of the poor” (Kinnahan, Mina Loy, 146).

Paper with handwriting on it
Fig. 1. Draft of “On Third Avenue” for The Last Lunar Baedeker by Mina Loy, 1942, held in the Mina Loy papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Permission granted by Roger Conover, Literary Executor of the Estate of Mina Loy.

Such erasure, which signifies moving beyond what Loy calls “Ego’s oasis,” enables the speaker to “share the heedless incognito” of the destitute (Lost Lunar, 129, 109). In “Parturition,” the subject interrelates with nonhuman nature (“I am that cat”). Here, she metamorphoses into one of the “shuffling shadow bodies / animate with frustration,” disappearing with them into Third Avenue. In addition, through the use of light-related vocabulary (“effulgence,” “aglitter,” “luminous,” “red-lit,” or “neon-signs”) and emphasis on sight in the twice-repeated line “Such are the compensations of poverty, / to see—”, she brings their socioeconomic deprivation into focus, helping the reader to see through the opacity of “hueless overcast / of down-cast countenances” of the dispossessed (109–10, 129).

Loy documented her encounters with Bowery bums not only in her poetry, but also in her visual artworks, which include a series of three-dimensional assemblages. A poet-ragpicker, she collected trash to make collages that render tangible the collective suffering of those rejected by society and perceived as abject, whom she referred to as refusées (Burke, Becoming Modern, 420). One of those collages, titled “Communal Cot” (1949), for instance, depicts vulnerable bodies of the bums wrapped in rags and lying on the pavement. In Republic of Exit 43 (2016), Jennifer Scappettone asks if it is possible “to mobilize the disgust provoked by encounter with what has been cast off, to transform a wasteland from an abject repository of undifferentiated filth into an archive?”[26] Loy’s 1940s debris constructions exemplify such reworking of the abject, famously theorized by Kristeva as that which “[shatters] the wall of repression,” “[taking] the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away.”[27] Since the abject poses a threat to one’s imagined unity, it might activate a defense mechanism, “anchored in the superego,” which solidifies ego boundaries (Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 15). Loy, on the other hand, through her empathic co-disappearance, engages with the pain of others, transforming what is commonly regarded as abject into the archive of Bowery suffering. Through recycling and reassembling the discarded material, she maps the Bowery’s “pulverous pastures of poverty,” where the destitute are represented as angelic and beatific.[28] “Whole in their fragmentation,” her constructions constitute an ecological and inclusive art practice, which exposes the workings of abjection and sheds light on the pain of refusées (Levy, “Bodley Gallery invitation”).

Picture of puppets in black and white
Fig. 2. Bodley Gallery invitation, 1959, held in the Carolyn Burke Collection on Mina Loy and Lee Miller at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Permission granted by Roger Conover, Literary Executor of the Estate of Mina Loy.

Recent theoretical approaches towards corporeal experience in new materialist and disability studies both illuminate and complicate Loy’s conceptualizations of vulnerability, while her experimental en dehors garde poetics offers such articulations of pain that demonstrate “the capacity to open up to . . . other-than-human forces” and help us recognize “the intensity of the discomfort as a motor of change” (Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge, 19). Loy’s nomadic politics of pain neither moves beyond nor romanticizes suffering. Instead, it experimentally works through pain to open up new, more ethical, possibilities of being in the world, which are marked by nomadic shifts “from a melancholy and split to an open-ended weblike subject,” from “Ego’s oasis” to transformative encounters with others (Loy, Lost Lunar, 129; Braidotti, Nomadic Theory, 290).


[1] Roger Conover, “Introduction,” in The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), xiii.

[2] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 26–28, 64.

[3] Braidotti’s new materialist conception of nomadic subjectivity is rooted in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, particularly in his theory of “nomadology” proposed in Difference and Repetition (1968) and further developed in Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980), both written in collaboration with Félix Guattari. Braidotti both foregrounds those aspects of Deleuzoguattarian philosophy that were often ignored in a strictly socioeconomic or poststructuralist interpretation, exposing at the same time some limitations of their thought for feminist and postcolonial theories.

[4] Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 60.

[5] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 314.

[6] Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2019), 116. Braidotti, Nomadic Theory, 228.

[7] Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 94.

[8] Loy, Lost Lunar, 94; Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill,” in Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 101–10, 102.

[9] In recent years, however, there has been an increased effort to discern unobvious connections between women’s avant-garde poetics and the environment. See, for instance, Margaret Ronda’s essay on Mina Loy and H.D., among other poets, titled “‘At the Edge of What We Know’: Gender and Environment in American Poetry,” in A History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry, ed. Linda A. Kinnahan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[10] Craig Dworkin, Radium of the Word: Poetics of Materiality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 7. The expression “radium of the word” in the title of the book comes from Loy’s poem “Gertrude Stein.”

[11] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 5.

[12] Erinn Gilson, The Ethics of Vulnerability: A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2014), 3.

[13] Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 178–79.

[14] Alex Goody, Modernist Articulations: A Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 47; Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2013), 126.

[15] Elizabeth Grosz, Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 2.

[16] The verb “unfold” is an English equivalent of the Latin “e-volvere,” from which the word “evolution” is derived.

[17] In her “Aphorisms on Futurism” (1914) Loy exhorted the readers to “UNSCREW [their] capability of absorption and grasp the elements of Life—Whole.” See Loy, Lost Lunar, 115.

[18] As Alaimo argues, “all creatures, as embodied beings, are intermeshed with the dynamic, material world, which crosses through them, transforms them, and is transformed by them”: Posthuman Glossary, ed. Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova (London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 435–38, 435.

[19] For a detailed discussion of this term, see Suzanne W. Churchill, Linda Kinnahan, and Susan Rosenbaum, “Theories of the Avant-Garde & En Dehors Garde,” in Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, ed. Suzanne W. Churchill et al. (Athens: University of Georgia, 2020),

[20] This title corresponds, as Roger Conover clarifies, to the working title Loy herself developed for some of these poems, now collected in the same folder at the Beinecke. See Roger Conover, “Notes on the Text,” in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, 207.

[21] Carolyn Burke, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 415.

[22] Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems 1950–2012, ed. Pablo Conrad (New York: Norton, 2016), 656.

[23] Linda A. Kinnahan, Mina Loy, Twentieth-Century Photography, and Contemporary Women Poets (New York: Routledge, 2017), 124.

[24] Cynthia Hogue, “An Element of Blank: On Pain and Experimentation,” Dickinson Electronic Archives, 2014,

[25] Susan Rosenbaum, “Surrealism on the Move: New York, 1937–1953,” in Mina Loy: Navigating the Avant-Garde, ed. Suzanne W. Churchill et al. (Athens: University of Georgia, 2020),

[26] Jennifer Scappettone, The Republic of Exit 43 (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2016), 99.

[27] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 15.

[28] Julien Levy, “Bodley Gallery invitation” (1959), Carolyn Burke Collection on Mina Loy and Lee Miller, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Digital Collections, Box 4,