Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven

Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven

Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven
MIT Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780262016223 

Joyriding the Subtext: A Glimpse of Elsa Von Freytag Loringhoven's Uncensored Writings

Jennifer K Dick

Body Sweats is a 418-page volume, subdivided into ten parts, edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelago where Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Hermaphrosical / Sources” (81) reside in their “immortal fix” (81)—meaning fixity in the space of the literary cannon to which she is being returned. Yet this book is also ‘a fix’ as in of a poetic drug she injects her readers with, tossing them into a blurred, at times deranging, choice of language, image, poetic space and object where the body and the mind know “the very word penetrates!” (50).

The German-born baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven lived from 1874-1927 in cities such as Berlin, Paris, Munich and New York. She is classified by this volume as an “American Dadaist”, “controversial”, a “proto-punk poet and artist”, a “shrewd and salty critic” (as George Biddle said, 276) as well as an “associative machine” with “fine-tuned sensors” who locates poetry in every aspect of daily life. This tome—published almost a century after her arrival in NYC—comes to mark a moment (underhear monument) that the editors have brought back into the light so that readers may sit up and pay attention to what Freytag-Loringhoven contributed to her time, leagues to ours and has yet to offer to that of the future. Body Sweats is not a pocket text to peruse on the metro but a library book, weighty in many senses of that word, including 150 poems in English, photos of and by Freytag-Loringhoven, art images again of and by the baroness, color copies of her original manuscript pages, two appendices, a chronology, notes on the texts, a vast bibliography for scholars planning to do further research on her as well as an engaging and insightful 40-page introduction by the editors. Despite the off-putting title for the volume—which makes me want to go for a shower rather than crack the spine of this hefty book— Body Sweats captures in an original manner the eclectic life, writings, art, and personal encounters (with everyone from Man Ray and Djuna Barnes to William Carlos Williams) of Freytag-Loringhoven. It demonstrates the critical significance of this baroness who lived and wrote “Enfolded / By / Irresponsible — responsive / Pressure” (50) in a place where she is and puts others under that same “Pressure / Of no / Meaning” (50) as the poem “Lucifer Approchant” continues. As another poem states:  “She is mad— / I am lost— / Utter.” (Loss, 234)

In fact Freytag-Loringhoven entices and implicates her audience with her constant plays on words—both as a listener who may let poems sweep over them or seize on a line or two and as someone who might read these poems scrupulously for their every nuance. The reader must often recompose the poems, decide which statements may be spoken by which voices or personas in her works, and what order a line is to be read in or in what combination with the lines surrounding it. Take again the tercet cited just above—here the two-syllable word line “Utter” may be a command “to utter” and if so who is to speak—is she, are we, or is the owl Freytag-Loringhoven has been speaking of in the poem now asked or commanded to “utter” some word or meaning or sound? Or is “utter” not a verb at all but a displaced adjective, one which should be read as if it precedes the word “lost” in the penultimate line, and in this case Freytag-Loringhoven makes the reader ask themselves if this refers to the utter loss of the I speaker being utterly lost?

Freytag-Loringhoven’s work calls out, commands the readers, as well as invites them into participating in meaning making and unmaking. Therein lies one of its main strengths. Moreover, she often invites and leaves her readers in a space of joy or rejoicing in this process—certainly, few poets or poems exclaim so often “celebrate!” or the words “laugh” or “joy”.

What is most delightful, however, are the passages forefronting Freytag-Loringhoven’s “circlebrains” (83), poems or pairings of poems which at times run right back into themselves, circling sense, rounding it up, dispersing it again in many directions. For instance, section III of Body Sweats begins with the section title poem “Subjoyride” (99). This poem, composed between 1920-22—like the 1931 photograph of advertisements on Broadway and 47th street in New York with which the editors have chosen to illustrate it on page 101—celebrates the billboard and mass media consumer culture of NYC and its American brand name products. The poem and poet as narrative voice addressing a reader invite the reader to—like a potential client—“try it— / To the last drop?”(99) But try what? The “popular” products or “secret Pep-O-Mint”s and objects? Or things to consume or slather on the skin which “sooth", “keep clean”, provide “health affinity” and “satisfy” (99) as well as “delight” (100) in keeping the system running? The poem celebrates as much these products as the perky sounds of their brand names and marketing statistics (“4 out of 5” (99), or on p 102: “3 Generations” “3 Graces” “for 5 cents”). This is a poem which rubs its nose in the energetic but also ludicrous language of marketing and consumerism, unmaking meaning or perhaps making one see the meaninglessness in these things we all buy to order, comfort, clarify and beautify ourselves. Of course, as in most of Freytag-Loringhoven’s poems, one can locate a nice sexual-sensual play in various lines, such as “just rub it on” (99), “Cream Jim Henry tired / Out?” (102) or “Getting on and off unlawful / With jelly — jam — or Meyer’s / Soup noodles / The Rubberset kind abounds —” (99-100). In the end, the poem is almost too much for itself, it is uncontainable—like Freytag-Loringhoven—it is in our face, fabulously overwhelming us as if we—like the author—suddenly find ourselves in the bright lights of Time’s Square with every electric sign’s “supersized advertisements”(9)—as the editors describe them in their intro—inviting us up for our own dose of guaranteed satisfaction.

What is exquisite is how Freytag-Loringhoven’s partner poem “Sense into Nonsense 2. Subjoyride” (102-103) circles round and in fact sieves from the pop-product culture name brand and label use the location of a sort of resonant raison d’être, or at least place to be. Here the products are significant, meaningful, and are part of either what is rushing people and must be slowed or of what is called to a slower reality—one which must not be rushed: “Caution! / Don’t rush / Please! / Life’s best work! / Ambition realized!” (102-103). These lines address and are applicable to the poet-narrator and reader’s life and ideas or dreams of becoming one day a success, as well as to that of the product and marketing world itself—striving for “life’s best work”. “Ambition realized” being at once the poem and the top-of-the line invention, the product which will be mass-produced by the relatively new moving assembly lines which were reflections of speed and of success at the turn of the twentieth century, the pinnacle of some (business? inventor?) person’s life-work and “ambition realized”.

In this second poem there is far less wordplay. The poem’s sonority is not as pleasurable either, as the nonsense lines of the first poem packed tight with sound-arrangement neologisms are replaced here with tight lines which are often exclamations. Yet these do remain somewhat ambiguous, as if they could be spoken by various voices, and be either commands or expressions of excitement. One cannot but think of Williams’ “No ideas but in things!” coming into play as they peruse this second poem with such lines as—“Look for it. / Liquid Arvon!” (103). This time the poem accentuates the balance these products can bring to a life:

     Makes you eat
     The runkels of a
     protects you (103)

In the post-WWI context of the 1920’s, when this poem was composed, these products are transformed into that which betters the self, but also provides it with a sense of safety and protection. Now that the world felt far from the biggest dangers (war), plaque, gingivitis, and bad hair are the remaining menaces. The house becomes the field to placate, perfect and thus have to protect and be protected by.

This compact poem is less poetically playful and more nonsense into sense than its title’s announced reverse—and yet it closes with a cryptic potential modern Shangri-La reference—“Live happier in Leonia”(103) a place which is “absolutely pure” or advertised as such (as the poem’s penultimate line “the guard will tell you” shows). And yet where, what, who is Leonia? A person, place or product? An El Dorado, an Eden? The editors inform us that it is Leonia, New Jersey—and further research reveals Leonia was the base of the Harvey Dunn artist colony (founded in 1915) and home to a highly educated and successful community in the 1920’s and ‘30s. It is, one may suppose, the place for ambition to be realized. Freytag-Loringhoven thus circumvents the plasticity of the language of mass marketed products in this pair of poems to sieve those banner names and brands down into a call to a slower, purer, quality life—a happier life, which these products support and protect and reinforce. Leonia is the encapsulation of both the rush and a harnessing of the energy of the city and America that one sees in this pair of urban Americana poems.

Overall, it is the inventiveness of Freytag-Loringhoven’s work that makes these poems and this entire volume invaluable. For example, her radical use of neologisms places her smack dab in the middle of a great gathering of authors who explored similar linguistic elasticity around her time—such as Gerard Manly Hopkins, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce as well as authors who were part of the Dadaist, Surrealist and Futurist (both Russian and Italian) movements. It announces contemporary explorations of the sort one sees, for example, in Joe Ross’s 2012 book Wordlick or British poet Giles Goodland’s “Gloss” published with Dusie Kollectiv 5 ( Yet Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry’s clever playfulness might offend some readers, not only for its unbridled sexuality but also for its frequent and overt rejoicing in silliness. However, one should not be fooled by the façade of foolishness the jester places before us—here there is a depth, as the “Subjoyride” poems mentioned above demonstrate well.

Throughout the book, the body and word are intertwined in and outside of an overt sexualizing of language. This is as much due to the punctuation in these poems, especially the vast array of dashes both long and short in her works, creating a push-pull between words, a breathlessness or a stutter—as here in the 2nd poem of the book:

     Ah Me!

     Trust me
     I do agree
     Madam—I firmly stand that ground
     Coitus is paramount

     Nay—Mr. Twitch do me allow
     To cool define: when you know how!
     As poetry—coitus urges
     Driven courses rhythmic surges
     Executive ability.
     Fancy’s wing composed complex
     Genius sex’
     Bagpipe spell
     Sunsirens’ crimsoncruising yell
     It is—
     Saucerorbs agog enorm
     Smirks he
     Ah me!
     I don’t perform. (43)

The message? Perhaps as simple as love (a word that dots the pages of this book) both body and language, that which makes life, brings into being, names and calls out and connects—and is part of the long tradition of poetry which, as Whitman did, sings of itself, its being, existence, celebrating itself in all is grandeur and ludicrousness.

The editors paid precise attention to reproducing the dashes from the manuscripts of Freytag-Loringhoven’s works. Not since Emily Dickinson has an author so warranted a long series of discussions on her punctuation, and the potential interpretations readers may have for its uses. In the poem cited above, the long dash at the end of the climatic line “It is—” is then prolonged and given its own line, a wordless line which is all and no language at once, an ellipse, a waiting, a beat in the poem on the staged scene, before the poem then turns away from this intenseness with “Else:” and back towards a dialogue at the end and the “he” speaker saying “Ah me! / I don’t perform.”   

Another stylistic element of Freytag-Loringhoven is her admirable exploration of the thin line—made up of one to three syllables and streaking down the wide pages of this volume like a stripe, an arrow’s shadowtrail. At times these tiny lines create a clipped, staccato pacing, at others they embody speed and slippage; are aquatic in their rush. This is especially true in poems where sound seems beyond control, tumbling and falling. In such poems, words drop as if gravitationally down the pages towards these thin poem’s closures, where finality is stamped onto our eye and ear in lines which are closing exclamations—addresses to the self and to the other—as on page 91:


Again, the message seems evident, but it is how Freytag-Loringhoven makes this call to “Live” that resonates—the exciting onomatopoetic “Lo!” which comes in to slow down the arrival at “Live” and is like one calling out to a horse to halt, to stop before one gets off the horse or out of the carriage and heads into the resting place. Or is a call outwards, to see, to hear—“Lo!” and let live—an echo again of poetry from the past.

The weakest poems in this collection are the ones still locked in clotted metric romantic gestures, which overplay the archaic or rhythmic, or exaggerate the shock value until a reader might just roll their eyes as at a petulant teen vying for everyone’s attention in some inappropriate way. For example the plethora of “mine”s in place of “my” in lines like “with mine heart” and “thine heart!” (60) “mine gothic cathedral” (61) and where it is used in force in Marie Ida Sequence (pp243-244) and the long poem near the end of the book entitled Mineself—Minesoul—and—Mine—Cast-Iron Lover (277-286). In the smaller poems where this kind of play on the poetic archaic appears, the play becomes clunky. It is as if Freytag-Loringhoven has tried on a bad pair of heels and decided to go clomping about in an awkward strut. These moments are gaudy, at times bawdy, and just over the top—yet I would not want the editors to in any way have excluded them, as they capture a fundamental aspect of this lost author’s personality and literary mind, showing her linguistic prowess at its strongest but also in its over-exaggerated moments. At times these excessive poems contain extremely fun lines, as seen in stanza one of the two-stanza poem Tempest (70). When read aloud, this poem is both practically laughable and wonderfully poignant—



Here the author’s request may be a plea or an invitation to pleasure, to fulfillment on so many levels. There is the tick of time and the delectability of taste. This poem is like having a shot at the bar, where the almost entirely 1-syllable lines are sharp and distilled to their refined minimum, so everything clear goes down the hatch at once and the reader is with the poet in the tempest here but suddenly things shift and they discover themselves in stanza two’s drunken disclarity.

Freytag-Loringhoven is constantly composing and recomposing herself as if for a masked ball, leaving the reader on unsure ground as she tries on literary styles, themes and masks while constantly developing the uniqueness of her own expressions and voice. She and her work are much like what she names at the start of her poem “Narcissus Icarus”—(the significance being already present in that Narcissus and Icarus are suddenly two in one, one in two, multiples and multiplied in their namesakes’ singularity):


     Narcissus Icarus

     Innate neurasthenic—inexuberant youthmask
     Hopeful-less-ly meeting his ever
     Lone image—he disappears to—in mysterious
     Constitution’s mechanical incessancy—reappear
      —resurrection——fluctuating rapturous
     cheat of himself—in decompositions (264)

Though in the case of Freytag-Loringhoven her mask is exuberant, and she is rather captured by the composition and recomposition instead of decompositions. She spins, turning and turning on the “Shadow carousel” that appears later in the poem—writing what feels for some readers as “Futility rampant throughout / Madness to human intellect.” (264-266). This is, however, a turning and cycling, back in time and forward, in a powerful space of “allsum of allconception” (264) where this author is perhaps seeking at once origin and future.

So much more could be said of these works—especially of the fine organization of this volume and its value both to authors and scholars. Freytag-Loringhoven’s longer, more complex poems are placed near the end of the book allowing readers to be familiar with her linguistic habits by the time they reach them, and also to be prepared to recognize echoes in them of the earlier works. As the editors intend, these poems and the artwork of Freytag-Loringhoven should be studied at length and reexamined in the context of the literary history of both Europe and North America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelago have thus brought us an invaluable book to begin one’s study or to further it. We hear, when reading this volume, Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Consciousness’ murmuring” (231).


Jennifer K Dick

Jennifer K Dick is the author of Circuits (2013), Fluorescence (2004) & the BlazeVox ebook Enclosures (2007) as well as 3 chapbooks.  She lives in France where she teaches at UHA, curates the Ivy Writers Paris bilingual reading series in Paris & co-organizes the Ecrire L'Art French mini-residency in Mulhouse. She is a poetry editor for VERSAL magazine & writes a regular poetics column for Tears in the Fence (UK). Her blog is