Un-Collage, Excise, Re-Collage: “Ladies in an Aviary”
My series of twenty-eight poems In an aviary takes Mina Loy’s short prose poem “Ladies in an Aviary” as its generative source text. Early in my process of conceptualizing the series, “Ladies in an Aviary” leaped onto my desk to suggest itself as an organizing principle, a happy coincidence, a difficult imagination, a devastating image. Loy’s description of women whose “breasts are pouting” (line 1), posing as prize birds inside a cage, watched by onlookers, and waiting for men to select and adorn them, as “love…’tis a woman’s whole existence” (line 12) resonated with themes of enclosure and identification with the natural world that had been recently echoing through my work. Too, this outside source added an explicit tension of gender and sexuality—the voyeurism that turns a little ugly when pushed. As gardens and natural enclosures—the location of all the poems in my series—are frequently considered feminine or feminized spaces, I appreciated that Loy’s poem, with its “sugar of fictitious values” (line 5) and its “nasty sweep of feathers” (line 16), added both recognition and scathing assessment of such a space.
So—I like Loy’s prose poem: it’s compelling, engaging, and strange. It’s not the sort of thing I would usually write (I tend to stay away from pouting breasts). Even more, I like how it reacts with and charges my own writing. Permutations and modifications of Loy’s piece extend my language, nudging my series to seek out new poetic possibilities. I use two main methods to incorporate language from “Ladies in an Aviary.” The first is akin to collage: erasing, alphabetizing, re-arranging, and otherwise permutating Loy’s language to create new poems. One poem, titled “(ladies in an aviary),” is composed by alphabetizing all the words in “Ladies…”, making four columns of the alphabetized language, and reading across the columns; it begins: “a flat lovely sugar trail / a flock lump sugar tremor / a flutter man sugar up / a folded, man, sweep us” (lines 1-4). A later poem, “(vary),” uses a similar permutation, working through Loy’s language alphabetically—and selectively—beginning with “aviary” and ending with “sugar.” The poem begins: “aviary // burns, bustles // clouds, cries, curves” (lines 1-3) and ends “satin, satisfied, sedately / settle, shadows // sugar, sugar, sugar / sugar” (lines 23-26). The process highlights certain elements of Loy’s composition, like the repeated use of the word “sugar,” or the distinctiveness of certain letters and sounds, like those found in “diamond.” When Loy’s “man who / brings sugar to the cage” (lines 3-4) becomes my “man, man, massive” (line 17), the man takes on figurative weight, becomes imposing, and in juxtaposition with the previous line “love, lovely, lump” (16), sexual. In other Loy-languaged poems in this series I continue using methods of repetition and variation, curated omission, and visual erasure procedures.
The second method used to incorporate “Ladies in an Aviary” into In an aviary is less intrusive. I select phrases from Loy’s poem as titles for my own pieces; the first sentence of her prose poem, “They are so lovely and they cannot get out,” becomes the title of my own poem. Subsequent sentences, “Dispelling the shadows of their lashes in starry veneration, they lift that flat look at the naïve to the man who brings sugar to the cage. / It is so sweet this sugar, the sugar of fictitious values” become my titles “That flat look at the naïve” and “It is so sweet this sugar, the sugar.” These titles were selected prior to the drafting process so that Loy’s language would directly influence each poem it entitles. However, not every word of Loy’s “Ladies…” is represented through my titles, nor in the poems that make up the series. The entirety of Loy’s prose poem is not represented in In an aviary and could not be reconstructed from its fragments.
Such tactics have precedent, and not only in the poetics of Modernism or Oulipo—they are even in my choice of source text: Loy’s “Ladies in an Aviary” is itself an amalgamation of fragments found in the archives at Yale’s Beinecke Library. The “Ladies in an Aviary” poem “is improvised from unpublished notes, prose fragments, or drafts found in M.L.’s folders,” explains Roger L. Conover, editor of the collection of Loy’s poetry where the prose poem in question appears (329). The poem can be found in my copy of The Last Lunar Baedeker (Jargon Society, 1982), but it does not remain in later editions. And, “Ladies in an Aviary” is not the only collaged Loy text Conover curated; the section subtitled “Ready Mades” (311-322) in The Last Lunar Baedeker includes six “improvised” compositions (329). Is “Ladies in an Aviary,” then, a poem by Mina Loy or a poem by Roger L. Conover? Is my poem “(vary)” a poem by Mina Loy? by Roger L. Conover? by Genevieve Kaplan?
My work in the In an aviary series is essentially that of un-collaging and/or re-collaging a poem that was only ever a collage. And what is collage but highlighting and justaposition? Re-framing one object within the context of another? I’ve discussed how Loy’s “Ladies in an Aviary” frames my own poetic series, and how In an aviary is re-framed by Loy’s words. But I’ve also offered the narrower frame of my own poetic process, my source materials, and the poems themselves. What have I chosen to highlight? You haven’t read my series In an Aviary. You haven’t read Loy’s “Ladies in an Aviary.” Where can you go from here? What lines can you trace? You can read Conover’s “Ready Mades” in his 1982 edition of Loy’s poems. You can consider the work of The Jargon Society. You can look at various boxes in the Mina Loy Collection at the Bieneke Library. Perhaps you’ll find some papers titled “Ladies in the Aviary” that are not poems but consist of an unpublished chapter, an unpublished novel. You can look at all of it, or none. Take what you want—you can create new poems, collages, ephemeras, aviaries.
Though you can find a few in the Western Humanities Review “Adaptations” issue (2011), in Word For/Word issue 21 (2012), and reprinted online at Galatea Resurrects: A Poetry Engagement, issue 19 (2012).
Depending who you ask. Erin Hollis describes Ladies in the Aviary as “one of Loy’s attempted novels” (221); Jacinta Kelly refers to “Ladies in an Aviary” as a chapter from one of Loy’s unpublished novels (13)
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation poetry prize, and settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013), a chapbook of continual erasures from a single paragraph of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She lives in southern California and edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose.