‘Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’ Ed. by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Jan Horner

The German Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (F-L) has a curious connection to Manitoba. She has a place in modernism as a Dada artist and poet, but before she became the highly eccentric character who moved in avant garde circles in New York, she was the wife of Felix Paul Greve / Frederick Phillip Grove (FPG), the immigrant writer of prairie realist novels and essays and winner of the Governor-General’s Award for his autobiographical work In Search of Myself in 1947.

Abandoned by Grove in Kentucky in 1911, Elsa made her way on her own to New York. There she met and found similar free spirits, many immigrants like herself interested in creating new art forms and smashing old values, like the Dadaist artists and writers Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and their American colleague Man Ray. Elsa created found art from cast offs and cut ups, and created poetry consisting completely of sounds or of found language, as in her Subjoy poems constructed from advertising slogans. She also incorporated sex, lust and body functions into her poems, though few of her more shocking poems were published in her lifetime. She also loved to costume herself to the extent that she became an art work, with for instance, a coal scuttle on her head, spoons hanging from her ears and teaballs from her breasts; she was a performance artist before her time. Elsa had a reputation for being sexually aggressive, a “new woman,” and with her ephebe–like body, somewhat sexually ambiguous.

This collection of von F-L’s writings, many previously unpublished or untranslated, is a truly impressive work. It is first of all a critical edition and its critical introduction and section notes are probably the most lengthy and considered study of her writing to date. However, in view of von F-L’s visual art and the eccentric and visual dimension to her writing – she wrote longhand in capitals often using coloured inks— a number of her art works and manuscripts are reproduced in the book as well. Like a museum catalogue accompanying an exhibition, the book includes photographs of places, artifacts and people alluded to in or illustrative of her writings.

The poems are not arranged chronologically but by theme: love and longing; embodiment; city and consumption, performing nature, philosophical contemplation; sonic or sound poems; visual poems; death and suicide, aesthetic consciousness; and long poems or poems of poetic criticism. The editors chose this arrangement to emphasize the themes of body and embodiment that they believe are central to F-L’s Dada poetry:

…all of the Baroness’s poems … are corporeally charged, we have foregrounded seven kinds of sensory explorations: the erotic and eroticized body, the body in movement and function, the spatially transgressive body engaged in philosophical contemplation, the decaying body, and the artistic body [or] the body as aestheticized and aestheticizing.

There are some truly delightful aspects to FL’s writing. She doesn’t hesitate to put her lovers, friends and acquaintances in her poems and have fun with them as in her poem “Graveyard Surrounding Nunnery” in which she refers to former or would-be lovers Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams:

When I was
Young — foolish —
I loved Marcel Dushit
He behaved mulish —
(A quit.)
Whereupon in haste
Redtopped Robert came —
He was chaste —
I up — vamps fellow —
Carlos — some husky guy —
He turned yellow —
I go to bed — saint —
Corpse — angel — nun —
It ain’t

Or in her poem “To home” which opens with a witty reference to Jane Heap, one of the editors of the Little Review, and to her sea voyage back to Germany with Heap’s financial assistance:

Gull scream to:
Of Dreadnaught:

And then continues with a playful collage that captures Heap’s mannish presence, a combination of shagginess, patent leather, carbon paper, gems and stamping. And the editors have provided a portrait of Heap in short hair and a man’s suit, looking rather formidable.

Or her poem about Marcel Duchamp “Love—Chemical Relationship” which stands between Duchamp’s art work “The Large Glass” in which a bride “high on love gasoline” is pursued by her bachelors  and Elsa’s portrait of Duchamp, a collage-like sculpture, reproduced in the book, whose base is a large glass goblet. She skilfully builds a portrait of a man who is as refined as glass yet inaccessible and cut off from life behind his glassy surface. The speaker chooses a messier life “ere I turn to glass and the world/ around me glassy!”

There is also FL’s habit, brought to English from her first language German, of making new words by combining smaller ones, which often produces striking and poetic effects, as in “Palermo” an imagistic poem of a cityscape in rain and mist:

Down city presses eve deep —
Netted bubble beads ascend
Amethyst cap. Rainsteep —
Pearlskies stand.

Down city presses eve deep —
Lilac mistspew tastes singed.
Bellhens tinweep —
Chastizes lanes — hushtinged.

Down white city press deep
Blanketarms. At western seam —
From smoketopazes yellow peep —
Velveteen mountain brain flaunts dream.

More striking is her fused, sexually-charged language in “A Dozen Cocktails Please:” “No spinsterlollypop for me,” “There’s the vibrator—— — / Coy flappertoy,” or “Any sissypoet has sufficient freezing / Chemicals in his Freudian icechest to snuff all Cockiness. We’ll hire one.”

Some of the poems seem unfinished or unfocussed, or simply dated, having lost their power to shock. FL’s review of William Carlos William’s book Kora in Hell is included in the collection. It appeared in two instalments in the Little Review in 1921. At the time Jane Heap thought it brilliant and the editors here argue for Elsa’s “sharp, intuitive analytical skill.” Elsa’s review takes Williams to task for his hypocrisy and artistic cowardice but one wonders how much of her attack is fuelled by Williams’s adulation and then rejection of her. It also demonstrates a kind of self-indulgence that occurs in some of FL’s poems. I believe that some editorial direction and cutting à la Ezra Pound would have strengthened her writing – the review runs to twenty-two pages in this edition – though it is doubtful whether FL would have been open to it.

The editors address the anti-Semitic statements in some of her poems, not with the intention of excusing her “disturbing and unpalatable” attitudes. They do however ask us to consider the context of the time she lived in: “the tension between Jews and gentiles within the cultural arbitration of academia and intellectual exchange, [Jonathan Freedman’s analysis] also suggests the general artistic climate in which the Baroness both made her art and to which her art responded.” They also suggest that her anti-Semitic remarks grew out of a provocative, aggressive stance in which she attacked American life, the Christian religion and Germany and Germans as well.

Gammel’s and Zelazo’s edition is a remarkable achievement, a document of literary history that resurrects FL and argues for a recognition of her role in literary modernism and the Dada movement in particular. There is an irony here that on one hand Elsa would have loved the attention and respect she is accorded by this publication, but on the other the beautiful production values of the book seem to be in tension with her Dada agenda and spirit. Would she think that being enshrined in the museum of literary history deadens her art? Would she agree with Pound when he wrote of William Carlos Williams and FL in the Little Review (under the pseudonym Abel Sanders): “nothing is deada than dada”?

MIT Press | 440 pages |  $34.90 | cloth | ISBN #978-0262016223

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Jan Horner

Jan Horner lives in Winnipeg, where she works as a librarian and a poet. Her most recent book of poems, Mama Dada: Songs of the Baroness's Dog (Turnstone) is about the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.