Mina Loy’s poem “Lunar Baedeker”
Mina Loy’s poem “Lunar Baedeker”
When read top to bottom, Mina Loy’s poem “Lunar Baedeker” may sound like a story of drugs, sex, and desperation. In reality, it is an encrypted biography of part of Loy’s life, as well as symbolic of the cycles of life. Let’s start with the title, shall we?
“Lunar Baedeker,” the word ‘lunar’ means moon. It can also mean relating to the moon, but more importantly it can mean measured by the moon’s cycles. What in the world is a “Baedeker” though? Baedeker is actually one Karl Baedeker, a German who, in 1859, published a series of guidebooks. Mina Loy’s title, therefore, translates to either “a guide to the moon” or a ” a guide to the moon’s cycle or cycles.”
The first stanza is very autobiographical; it refers to Loy’s falling in love with her second husband, Fabien Avernarius Lloyd, also known as Arthur Cravan. “A silver Lucifer/ serves/ cocaine in cornucopia” Silver here can be read as a shiny, white color, or highly persuasive, or a metal that has the highest thermal and electrical conductivity. Lucifer can mean a fallen rebel or a fallen star. If you read ‘Lucifer’ as ‘star’ it fits in well with Loy’s celestial theme, but it is better construed as a fallen rebel, because Loy’s second husband, Cravan, was constantly on the run for being a draft dodger. The fact that he was silver describes him as beautiful, pure, and persuasive. The fact that silver has the highest thermal and electrical conductivity says that he had a lot of sex appeal and “sparks flew” between him and the poet. Cocaine is a highly addictive substance that causes euphoric effect. The fact that it is “served . . . in cornucopia” makes Loy sound very much like a young girl who is giddy with love and cannot get enough of her beau.
A rendition of the couple’s bedroom life is in the next stanza: “To some somnambulists/ of adolescent thighs/ draped/ in satirical draperies” Though Loy has two children from a previous marriage, these lines make Loy sound like a virgin in her husband’s bed. The term ‘somnambulists’ means sleepwalkers, which keys you into this pertaining to night activities. Thighs are a common representation of sexuality, as they are so close to the sex organs anyway, and by describing what I assume are Loy’s own thighs as “adolescent” she represents her own sexuality as immature, underdeveloped, vulnerable and unused. By being “draped/ in satirical draperies” Loy says that her immaturity is hidden, but only by clothing or cloth that intentionally exposes and criticizes her puerility.
Loy’s third child, Fabienne, is referred to in the third stanza. “Peris in livery/ prepare/ Lethe/ for posthumous parvenus” Peris, which is not ‘Paris’ misspelled, is actually the plural form of the noun Peri. A Peri is a woman or girl who is descended from fallen angels and is excluded from Paradise. The term can also be used to describe a beautiful girl. Livery is servants’ clothing, implying that this ‘Peri’ is not from a wealthy family. Lethe is the river in Hades that would erase one’s memories if she were to drink from it. The ‘posthumous parvenues,’ however, is what ties this whole stanza into Fabienne. Loy’s husband, Cravan, married his wife in Mexico where he was dodging the draft.
They separated and were supposed to meet up just before they returned to the United States, but Cravan never showed, nor was he ever seen again. Loy searched for him, and later he was assumed dead. Loy was already pregnant with Fabienne, and posthumous can mean ‘born after the death of the father.’ Better yet, a parvenu is one who is unaccustomed to wealth or power, but has recently gained a position of such but hasn’t gained the prestige that comes with the station. Fabienne, as a newborn, is completely unaware of the fact that she has just joined the human race.
The fourth stanza of Loy’s poem, “Delirious Avenues/ lit/ with the chandelier souls/ of infusoria/ from Pharaoh’s tombstones” is a description of Loy’s search for her missing husband. The chandelier reference is also key because shortly after “Lunar Baedeker” is published, Loy opens a lamp shop and designs the lamps and fixtures herself. At the time that the poem was written, she was probably already dabbling in the art. The “Delirious Avenues” is a reference to her constantly searching blindly, with no clues, in every place or pathway her husband could be. The people who are a part of Cravan, Fabienne and Mina herself brighten the avenues; they are the “chandelier souls,” branches, pieces of Cravan. The “Pharaoh’s tombstone” indicates that Loy finally coming to terms with the fact that her husband is most likely dead.
The acceptance of the loss of Cravan comes in the next stanza: “lead/ to mercurial doomsdays/ Odious oasis/ in furrowed phosphorous” “Lead” can be interpreted in more than one-way. It can indicate that Loy was brought to a conclusion by the previous stanza, but it can also be defined as the first punch in a boxing match. This is important because Cravan was known as the “boxer poet” because he was really only a second rate poet and used prize fighting to supplement his income. “Mercurial” is a reference to Mercury, who is the Greek god of travel, cunning, and theft, and is also associated with swiftness. Mercury is also the second reference in the poem to a shiny, silver colored element; in this case it is a poisonous element. In keeping with Loy’s celestial theme, Mercury is also the closest planet to the sun.
Therefore, this doomsday, the loss of her husband, came swiftly, is like poison to her heart, and the heat of the planet Mercury can be paralleled to the fire of Hell. The term “Odious oasis” is an oxymoron. Loy’s only relief in submitting to the fact that her husband would never return to her was that she could give up searching for him. Her oasis is “in furrowed phosphorous” because she feels the loneliest at night, the term phosphorous, meaning something that glows or shines, is referring to the stars in the sky.
The next stanza is somewhat cryptic, though the many references to white and light and the moon, “the eye-white sky-light/ white light district,” made me think of virginity and purity. The final line, “of lunar lusts,” indicates the sexual needs or desires of one who is chaste, another oxymoron. It is most likely Loy voicing her loneliness.
At this point in the poem, Loy’s blending of words happens more and more. The first line is “—Stellectric signs,” —Stellectric being the combination of constellation and electric, meaning that Loy is taking meaning from the constellations in the night sky. The first sign she sees is “‘wing shows on Starway'” If looked at from a point of view where this is an actual show, as in a theatrical presentation, a wing can be defined as a dance step, and the Starway can be the stage, something similar to Broadway. Loy’s next sign is the “‘Zodiac carrousel'” which is the cycle of astrological signs that are represented by the constellations in the night sky. A carrousel is a children’s amusement ride where one would sit on an animal-shape, which would tie in to the zodiac. A carrousel can also mean a cycle of activity that is complex and fast-paced and difficult to break free from. This shows that Loy was in a cycle that she may have been unhappy with. Both the zodiac and the carrousel are the first two of many references to things that are cyclical, or go in circles, or are round even.
The next two references to cyclical occurrences are in the next stanza. “Cyclones” are high-powered storms with low pressure at the center, 99% of which in the northern hemisphere spin in a counterclockwise motion. The fact that they run counterclockwise could be Loy’s rebellion against the cycles she is trapped in, or her feeling that she is stuck in a backward cycle, or a backward life. These cyclones consist “of ecstatic dust/ and ash” means that Loy’s grief for the loss of her husband is beyond her reason and self-control. The dust represents what something disintegrates into when it is reduced to its lowest form, and can also mean a state of humiliation. The ash, which is the carbon left after something is burned completely, is symbolic of Loy’s grief, repentance and humility. An ash is also a type of tree that has a tough, elastic wood, which represents Loy’s strength and malleability, indicating that she will heal from this loss.
The dust and ashes “whirl” in this cyclone, another indicator of a circular, cyclical pattern. The next part of the stanza refers to “crusaders/ from the hallucinatory citadels/ of shattered glass/ into evacuate craters” The hallucinatory citadels is the safety and security Loy thought she had with Cravan. The shattered glass represents Loy’s broken dreams about her ruined marriage and the evacuate craters, which are probably on the moon, are the emptiness into which her broken dreams are siphoned. Crater is another important hint to Loy’s personal life also. Loy was a painter and an artist and a crater can also be a dimple in a painted surface, meaning that there were visible flaws in Loy’s life.
Though Loy’s dreams concerning Cravan are broken and gone, she still had goals and aspirations, in fact, she has “A flock of dreams” still. Those dreams do sometimes “browse on Necropolis” which means she often thinks of and dreams about her lost husband, Necropolis being the city of the dead.
The next stanza is a return to Loy’s lunar theme, and also a reference to a used and tarnished womanhood. “From the shores/ of oval oceans” The word oval means elliptical and egg shaped, which the orbits of the planets and moons are, but also it is derived from the Latin word ovum, which our word for the female sex cell. The “oxidized Orient” is the phrase that truly represents a tarnished womanhood. Oxidation is when something has been exposed to oxygen, which has cause a corrosion that is often black, brown or green. Orient is another reference to the moon, which in turn represents chastity. Orient can mean the East, where the sun and moon rise from, or rising in the sky, and also the luster of a pearl.
The next image that Loy presents us with is the loss of her thirst for life. In “Onyx-eyed Odalisques/ and ornithologists/ observe the flight/ of Eros obsolete” dark eyed concubines and studiers of birds watch, inspect, and celebrate as Loy’s no longer useful lust, as Eros is the Greek god of erotic love, and her life-preserving instinct, which is also represented in Eros, leave her.
The next stanza where Loy refers to her “‘Immortality'” as it “mildews/ in the museums of the moon” Immortality could refer not only to her unending love for Cravan, but also the possibility of her being famous for her writing or her art. The fact that it can mildew means that there truly is no such thing as immortality, but if there was, it would be in a place where it would be looked at and not used: a museum. This museum would be in the moon because the moon represents an unreachable place or goal.
The next two lines are direct references to the moon. The “‘Nocturnal cyclops'” would be the one-eyed being that is active only at night. With the “‘Crystal concubine'” crystal represents something transparent and pretty, while concubine represents an unmarried woman who lives with a man, which is symbolic of the moon’s relationship with the sun.
The very last stanza of “Lunar Baedeker” is full of meaning. It refers to the moon as “Pocked with personification” One general thinks that pocked means to have craters or indents, when in reality it means to have pustules that are filled with infection. By being “Pocked with personification” the moon is infected with human attributes. The moon is also considered “the fossil virgin of the skies” Fossil here refers to the fact that the moons representation of purity and chastity are outdated and a remnant of the past. This is also another allusion to astrology in that the virgin, or Virgo, is a sign of the Zodiac.
The final three words of this poem are very powerful. When thoroughly considered they represent an inner struggle and inner turmoil. To wax is to increase, grow or intensify, but it can also mean rage. Wane, on the other hand, means to decrease in size and diminish, but it can also be used to describe a loss of power or a fall from power. “waxes and wanes—-” This is symbolic of Loy’s struggle with her anger and pain after the loss of her husband, and in waning, she relents to her feelings.