The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
Edited by Irene Gammel & Suzanne Zelazo
Cambridge (Massachusetts): The MIT Press, 2011
Hardback. xvi+418 p. ISBN 978-0-262-01622-3. $34.95 / £24.95
Reviewed by David Ten Eyck
Université de Lorraine
The publication of Body Sweats : The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is a landmark event for readers of poetry and scholars of Modernism for at least three reasons. Most basically, this book makes available for the first time the full range of Freytag-Loringhoven’s verse, allowing readers the opportunity to experience this remarkably innovative body of writing, with its striking imagery and startling sonic play. At the same time, Body Sweats makes a major contribution to the ongoing re-evaluation of the Modernist canon, forcing readers to enlarge their conception of avant-garde writing in New York (and elsewhere) in order to accommodate Freytag-Loringhoven’s achievements. Finally, Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo’s editorial work foregrounds questions that are of interest to all those scholars who are currently working to make available the vast quantities of unpublished or little-circulated documents relating to the Modernist period.
By the time she settled in New York City in 1913, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven had already led an eventful and unconventional life. Born Else Hildegard Plötz in Germany in 1874, she was thrice-married (to the architect August Endell in 1901, to Endell’s friend, the translator and poet Felix Paul Greve in 1907, and to Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven in 1913). With Greve she traveled widely in Europe and migrated to North America, stopping in smaller cities like Cincinnati (where she began to work as a model) and Pittsburgh (where she was arrested for wearing male clothing in public), as well as rural settings like Sparta, Kentucky (where she and Greve operated a horse farm). With Baron Leopold she took up residency in New York, where she stayed for the ten years that followed – a period in which she composed most of the verse published in Body Sweats. And from her marriage to him she took the title of ‘Baroness’, by which she would be best known for the rest of her life.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, the Baroness was permanently separated from her husband and she immersed herself in what would become known as New York Dada. In the years that followed she enjoyed artistic and personal relationships with such figures as Djuna Barnes, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, William Carols Williams and Man Ray. And her poetry, visual art, performance art and lifestyle attracted the attention of such Modernist luminaries as Ezra Pound (who in the 1950s included a sympathetic portrait of her in his Canto 95 and raged against her omission from the Penguin Book of Modern American Verse) and Margaret Anderson (who included the Baroness’s poetry in the seminal issues of The Little Review that also contained, amongst other things, episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses).
Irene Gammel has devoted much of her career to an exploration of the Baroness’s art. Her cultural biography, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (published in 2002, also by the MIT Press) makes a convincing case for her centrality to the New York avant-garde circles of the 1910s and early 1920s, and for her broader significance to Modernism in art and literature. This biography serves as an excellent companion to Body Sweats.
Given the esteem in which she was held by so many of her contemporaries, it is surprising that the Baroness’s verse has remained so long unpublished or out of print, and that she has remained at best a marginal figure in so many scholarly accounts of the cultural movements to which she contributed. In large part, the blame for this state of affairs lies with the strong masculine bias that shaped readers’ understanding of Modernism for decades. Like other important female writers and artists of the period, there was a tendency to cast the Baroness in a supporting role behind powerful male figures (in her case particularly William Carlos Williams and Marcel Duchamp). Yet even after efforts were made to correct this masculine bias, the Baroness’s reputation did not grow in the same way as that of female contemporaries like Mina Loy, H.D. or her friend Djuna Barnes. This is likely due in part to her movement between cultural contexts. She wrote in both German and English, and moved in and out of artistic circles in New York, Berlin and Paris. It is also likely due to the nature of the Baroness’s writing, which transgresses boundaries between genres and, more basically, between life and art. As such, it presents formidable barriers to transmission, even for a sympathetic publisher or editor.
Despite her efforts, the Baroness’s poetry was never collected in book form during her lifetime. And today much of her work exists in multiple states – frequently in both English and German versions. Many of the qualities of her sound poetry and her performance art are lost on the printed page, while in other cases the Baroness’s verse must be seen in relation to her visual art or her work as a model in order to be fully appreciated. All of this has hindered readers from meaningfully reappraising her artistic achievements and cultural importance.
Thanks to the work of Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, however, that is likely to change. With the publication of Body Sweats, readers of poetry and students of Modernism now have in their possession the means to confront this powerfully original body of work on its own terms, and to adjust their estimation of its author accordingly. For the Baroness’s writing is remarkable in many respects. The finest of her poems stand comfortably alongside the best verse of the age. ‘Spring in Middle’, for example, written on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday, captures the contradictory emotions of middle age with beautiful concision. While ‘A Dozen Cocktails – Please !’ is a tour de force for the way it deftly modulates from irreverent humor (‘No spinsterlollypop for me – yes – we have / No bananas – I got lusting palate – I / Always eat them –––’), to militant feminism (‘I am adult citizen with / Vote – I demand my unstinted share’), to frankly sexual language (‘Progress is ravishing – / It doesn’t me – / Nudge it – / Kick it – / Prod it – / Push it –’). The imagery she uses to describe the Hudson River in ‘Tryst’ is worthy of similar passages from Hart Crane or William Carlos Williams:
What will stand out for most readers, however, is how the Baroness’s poetry relates the experience of the modern city. With their skilful incorporation of found material – snatches of conversation, advertising slogans, popular songs – her poems widen the scope of acceptable poetic subject-matter, while developing technical means for carrying such material into verse. The poem ‘Subjoyride’, for example, recreates the experience of a rider on the New York subway in the early 1920s, surrounded by small talk and assailed by advertisements, and giving herself over to the associations these create. The Baroness’s skillful use of the dash and of line breaks serves to isolate words or phrases in surprising ways, while the controlling image of the subway ride, together with a well-managed use of enjambment, generates an impression of speed and energy that pushes the poem forward:
Wake up your passengers –
Large and small – to ride
On pins – dirty erasers and
These 3 Graces operate slot
For 5 cents.
Don’t envy Aunt Jemima’s
Self raising Cracker Jack
Laxative knitted chemise
With that chocolaty
The elegance with which Gammel and Zelazo handle difficult questions related to the presentation of the Baroness’s poetry is also a strength of Body Sweats. One of the major editorial challenges involved in this project is that of printing a large body of poetry that has only ever existed in manuscript form. As the editors point out in their introduction ‘neither the Baroness nor Djuna Barnes left instructions for how the poetry should be arranged’, and they likewise acknowledge the difficulties created by the existence of multiple versions of many of the Baroness’s poems, which show her ‘working through a theme from different angles’.
The editorial difficulties created by this state of affairs are enormous, and are far too complex to be meaningfully discussed here. Two features of Body Sweats that are of particular importance in this regard might, however, be mentioned. First, the editors provide extensive ‘Notes on the Poetry’ at the back of their volume. These rigorously identify the copy text on which the printed version of each poem is based, and provide concise references to the relevant archival collections (most commonly the Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven papers at the University of Maryland). Secondly, with the co-operation of their publishers, the editors have provided a generous number of facsimiles of the Baroness’s work in this book. The reader is given 23 color facsimiles of the Baroness’s manuscripts, 41 black and white facsimiles and 20 photographs of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and of the cities and people she knew. The result is a book which is a beautiful object as well as a beautiful collection of poetry. Printed on oversize 18 x 23 cm. paper and abundantly illustrated, it offers excellent value for money. The presence of such a large number of facsimiles makes it possible for readers to weigh the editors’ printing decisions against the evidence of the manuscripts. It should be hoped that such generous reproduction of images from the archives will serve as a model that editors and publishers engaged in similar projects will follow in the future.
Of course, given the ambitions of Body Sweats it is inevitable that some objections will be made regarding Gammel and Zelazo’s choices in presenting Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry. The most important ground for contention involves the editors’ decision to arrange the Baroness’s poems thematically, rather than chronologically. The book is divided into ten subsections, which correspond to major themes and categories of the Baroness’s work. These are given titles like ‘Crimsoncruising Yell’ (for sonic poetry), ‘Coitus Is Paramount’ (for ‘Poems of Love and Longing’) or ‘Cast-Iron Lover’ (for ‘Long Poetry and Poetry Criticism’). Each of these subsections is preceded by a brief introduction. In adopting this organization, Gammel and Zelazo have attempted to emphasize the major creative impulses that inform the Baroness’s work, even as they seek to present her output in a comprehensive and scholarly manner. Since many of these poems are published for the first time in Body Sweats, this presentational choice can be defended as one that will encourage readers to confront the poetry on its own terms – as a dynamic and vital creative force – rather than presenting the Baroness’s verse as an historical object – anaesthetized, as it were, and laid out in a neat chronological order. Yet readers who are unconvinced by the thematic organization will find the sectional introductions to be of little use. (Though it is also worth noting that such readers will appreciate the excellent chronology of the Baroness’s life that appears at the back of the volume, as well as the well-researched bibliography that is provided, together with an appendix containing criticism of the Baroness’s art by her contemporaries.)
Another objection that might be raised is that while the existence of variant texts of the poems included in Body Sweats is recorded in a broad way, such variant texts are not catalogued in a systematic manner, nor is a record provided of all variant readings. The textual note on the poem ‘Moses’ is typical of the editors’ attitude toward textual variants. They comment here that ‘there are at least eight variants of the German poem and its translation, including an English typescript, all entitled “Moses”.’ Part of a marginal note from the Baroness to Djuna Barnes is then reproduced, but no more substantial record of the content of the variant texts is provided, nor is any catalogue made of the locations of the variant texts in the archives. In their introduction the editors explain that they have attempted to select the ‘most finalized’ form of poems in cases where there are multiple variants. Given their project in Body Sweats this is entirely understandable. Yet if readers respond to this book in the way it deserves, at some point in the future it will surely be necessary to offer a variorum edition of many of the poems that Gammel and Zelazo have collected.
Ultimately, however, such objections are of very minor importance in comparison to the enormous value of Body Sweats as a book that makes available such a large collection of the Baroness’s verse and expands and challenges our understanding of the cultural context in which it was written. This book stands as a worthy culmination of Irene Gammel’s longstanding work on the Baroness’s life and art. It is essential reading for any student of literary Modernism or of Twentieth-century poetry.
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