‘the body is his book’
Mina Loy, ‘Parturition’
In December 1999, the Co. Derry novelist Antonia Logue published the novel Shadow-Box. The novel was subject to a bidding war which ended with Bloomsbury paying a £66,000 advance after only seeing the first six pages of the novel. It won the Irish Times Prize for Fiction and Logue was named by The Observer as one of the ’21 writers for the 21st Century’. The novel takes the form of the imagined correspondence between modernist poet Mina Loy and Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Looming large over the novel is the specter of Arthur Cravan, Loy’s husband and Johnson’s friend at the time of his presumed death at sea. The novel, as one would expect given the protagonists, deals with politics of gender and race and all three characters are notable for their interest in the transformative power of embodied performance. Logue’s novel employs the modernist preoccupation with the sensory, and in particular the female body and sexual agency, rather than with the formal experimentation of modernist fiction. While this novel relies heavily on the narration of sensory experience and the transformative power of bodily experience, both Loy and Johnson’s bodies are haunted by these physical experiences, and the wounds live on in melancholic formations expressed in their correspondence, and the whole novel is similarly haunted by the modernist poetics of the body.
The first pages of the novel are a powerful rendering of the male body as spectacle which pages provide a kinetic account of the show-bout between Cravan and Johnson, with every sweating spectator and careful jab detailed in precision. Much of Johnson’s correspondence to Loy details of specifics of his fights and emphasises that, despite the racism that he had to deal with throughout his career, there was a truth to what happened in the ring: ‘You believe your bones, how they hurt when you spar, when old wounds are belted, when your liver throbs fit to burst when you take a low hit’ (69). Throughout his correspondence to Loy, Johnson distinguishes between the racist rhetoric of the press and this embodied reality. It is only when the former impinges on his bodily sovereignty that it is something he cannot blithely dismiss: ‘Tex was offered bids for my corpse after the fight. They were going to chop me in public, lynch me, even though I was dead already and bonfire me’ (75). This brings to mind the famous Esquire cover image of Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows to indicate his suffering in and our of the ring. During the novel, Johnson returns constantly to bodily endurance and racial politics, genuinely believing he can transform perceptions of African-Americans through his feats: ‘In Chicago, they said it, exactly it – better for Jack Johnson to win and a few blacks die in body than for Jack Johnson to lose and all blacks be killed in spirit’ (124). The transgressive power of his actions were noted by Bederman: ‘Johnson consciously played up white Americans’ fears of threatened manhood by laying public claim to all three of the metonymic faces of manhood: body, identity and authority’ (8).
However, it is not just in the boxing ring that Johnson’s bodily transgressions are explored: his sexual relationships and subsequent persecution under the Mann Act are explored. His taste for white women, who he dressed in furs and jewels, horrified many when photographs appeared in the press. In the novel, Johnson admits his cruelty to these women: ‘I hit her hard across the face, then again across the mouth, and pulled her corset off, her stockings, garter belt, and hit her hard on her legs and breasts, the fury of her hating me, judging me, her a two-bit hooker I’d given the high life to, an identity, a place in the world by my side’ (140). He regularly praises Loy’s beauty and raises Cravan’s overwhelming love for her, but for Logue’s Johnson it is clear the transformative power of the body is a masculine domain.
Loy is similarly frank about her experiences, which involve an acquaintance with many of the most significant artistic and literary figures of the early twentieth century, including Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams in New York. After a disappointing marriage which stifles her creativity, Logue becomes acquainted with the futurists in Italy, with Marinetti becoming infatuated with her and defining his passion in bodily terms: ‘Mrs Haweis, alone with stokers feeding the hellish fires of great ships, alone with black spectres who grope in the red-hot bellies of locomotives’ (99). Loy is initially seduced by the transformative power of the futurist manifesto but soon becomes disenchanted with the masculinism of the aesthetic and the negation of women’s voices: ‘He believed, with a passion that was insurmountable, that all power was masculine, all courage, creativity, all, all masculine […] I overcame my outrage and ignored the anxious gnawing that tried to justify my relationship with a man who so despised women’ (112-113). It is clear that Loy was aching for revolution: but sought one which included women’s lived experiences.
It is with warm humour and a delicious sense of wickedness that Loy recalls the reception of her poetry:
I was denounced in Christian journals, in all the right-wing newspapers, slated as a harlot, without morals, shame, dignity or sense. It was magnificent […] Journalists came to interview me, to take pictures. I, they decided, was the personification of the daring Modern Woman. Mina Loy the Modernist (169)
Of course, the gendered economies of futurism and modernism have been well-noted by critics but recent work has done much to bring to light women’s innovative and experimental voices in modernist literature. It is clear, though, that many of the characters in Logue’s novel enjoy transgressing this critical commonplace (as, indeed, many modernists did), no more so than Cravan: ‘When he stepped into the ring, he invariably announced himself as “Poet and Boxer Arthur Cravan,” as if dividing himself in two’ (Conover 26-27). The emphasis on female spectatorship and the permeability of the male body in the novel ensure this troubling aspect of modernism is foregrounded in a novel whose form is more eighteenth century than stream of consciousness.
Loy’s own writing, which is undergoing something of a critical renaissance over the past twenty years is, of course, deeply concerned with the symbolic power of the body but is most striking for the variety of bodies represented. In her Feminist Manifesto, Loy ‘seeks to engage female identity from female chastity, but she also celebrates maternity, with eugenicist undertones to her embrace of reproduction’ (Goody 43). This interest is most magnified in ‘Parturition’ but is evident in many of her poems, but she is also interested in make abject bodies, from the vagrants in her later poetry to the victims of warfare.. Loy’s interest in the grotesque and abjected body intersects in interesting ways with the intellectual context of her work, in particular Dada’s link of the female body and the bourgeois consumer: ‘For many artists of New York Dada, the New Woman’s disruption of boundaries produced apprehensions about the uncontrollable flows of commodity culture projected onto the female body-machine’ (Goody 113). Logue takes Loy’s obsession with the body and technology and ensures it suffuses every page. Indeed, writing and the body are inextricably linked in the novel: Loy becomes involved with Marinetti’s futurism this allows her to write out the pain of her dead daughter: ‘I grew fascinated by reading again, read everything, writing things out of my body that had not been purged since Oda’s death’ (106).
The moment were Loy sees Cravan for the first time is the only other moment in the novel which matches those first pages for power and bodily intensity. She is overwhelmed by his appearance, particularly his almost monumental size:
There he stood in the portal like a Greek sculpture, his height such that he bowed to escape the architrave, and when he stood upright again in the light of the hallway it shone on his cheekbones and made his face seem cold as marble. He was wearing nothing but a grubby tasseled bedcover a self-styled toga, his legs muscled and brown with slight blond hairs in chaos across them, a shoulder bare, and on his head, framing his magnificent face, a towel, wrapped with flourish in a pillar as though a turban (185-6).
She is not the only woman in the room whose interest in piqued by Cravan: ‘Every woman who saw him turned despite herself to drink him in, to absorb his gait, his strong thighs and remarkable visage’ (186). Logue makes it clear that this is no platonic admiration of the male form, but rather a deeply sexualised encounter with Loy as the desiring subject: ‘He looked obscene, a vast bulging purse of hardened flesh as clear to view through the thin fabric as the hairs on his bare chest’ (188). Throughout the novel, the author seems enraptured with detailing Cravan’s body and physical feats. Unlike Loy and Johnson, he is never given a voice but is rather there to be admired and, later, re-imagined. His achievements, real and imagined, appear mythic: the forgeries of the Wilde letters, astounding love-making, tightrope walking, and genital torture at the hands of the Gestapo. His crowning achievement of melding bodily transformation and artistic practice is when he gives a talk while getting drunk and stripping, scandalising the audience women but ‘on he went, the absinthe coursing through him, until he stood naked before the desk in the podium and delicately rested his genitalia on the table. Now, he said, The Independent Artists in Europe and America’ (190-191). This performance has long been recognised as one of the ‘crowning achievements of pre-Dada in New York’ and Mina Loy ‘called his provocations “atrocities on the spectator’s habitual expectations.”‘ (Conover 23) While the novel is interested in the transformative power of the body, Cravan himself noted that ‘Genius is nothing more than the extraordinary manifestation of the body’ (quoted in Conover 27). Conover details that what he was most fascinated by was: ‘dancing, fucking, boxing, walking, running, eating, swimming. He loved the taste and smell of the body’s first issues – urine, shit, spit, sweat’ (Conover 27).
This novel, then, circles around the symbolic power of the body and the mechanics of grief. It demonstrates, then, that the modernist preoccupation with the narration of the individual’s experience of the sensual has resonance in contemporary fiction. Logue links childbirth, grief, love and the politics of race with her understanding of modernist aesthetics and the power of this novel lies in its visceral connection with the subject and the careful imagining of the desiring female subject.
Dr Caroline Magennis is a Lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. Her research is kept updated here: https://salford.