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

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

by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
432 pp. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01622-3.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard
New York, NY 10019 USA


In 1910 a 36 year-old woman promenades down Pittsburgh’s 5th Avenue in men’s clothing smoking a cigarette beside her husband. So suspicious is their appearance that they’re arrested for being “suspicious.” The next day, some 390 miles distant, The New York Times runs this headline concentrating on the woman: “SHE WORE MEN’S CLOTHES.”

Meet Elsie Greve, alias Fanny Essler, by divorce and remarriage soon to become Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, this former darling of Expressionist Berlin thence to enter New York Dada stage center, a marvelous, subversive presence in every sense available to us.

Excessive in dress, provocative by style, seductively passionate by need, antic, delirious and lucid when it suited her, a major poet and striking performer, living what she wrote and writing what she lived, finally reappears within the pages of this book, her writings “uncensored,” as the subtitle notes. But be warned: the Baroness won’t be taken lightly, as you do coffee with sugar. When encountering her, you do so on her terms from the brilliance of her texts to the secrets of her flesh, even as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp did, the latter her once lover -- whom she dubbed “M’ars” (“my arse”) -- in their first film together: “The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair.”

Framed by the editors with precise commentary for context, a mix of history and interpretation, the poems rush out with unnerving vivacity, lust, heresy, humor, and a musicality tuned pitch-perfect to the chaos of a city in capitalist rubato. Add in hefty strokes of wit, critique or wonder at the way things were, and the “Orgasmic Toast” she leaves us with – is it only a poem? -- is more than enough for lunch.

Here is a woman who used tomato cans for a bra and long ice-cream soda spoons for earrings, wore a birdcage for a hat, adorned her body with vegetables, and shaved her head for the pleasure it gave her, and the pleasure she had when she painted it vermillion red for the delectation of her public, known and unknown, especially on the street.

Here is a woman who could focus the poetic act to single-word lines and who perfected sound poems without words with her “strangely rough and powerful voice,” replete with stutters, guttural intonations, expostulations, ululations, and anything else she wished to add, the body become so much more than metaphor.

Even the titles to her poems and collections situate her in this regard but now, of course, for us: “Coitus is Paramount,” “Subjoyride,” “Life = 1 Damn Thing After Another,” “Wheels Are Growing on Rosebushes,” “Proud Malignant Corpse,” “Crimsoncruising Yell,” “Manquake,”  “Cosmic Sense Suicide,” “We Are Fleas,” “Starry Grind,” “Ejaculation,” “A Dozen Cocktails – Please”; or the devastating poem-critique she launched against her pet “W.C.” (aka, William Carlos Williams) in “Thee I Call Hamlet of Wedding Ring…,”  over some 21 pages at the far end of the book.

As Kenneth Rexroth once put it: “Her verse represents a more radical revolt against reality than August Stramm and Kurt Schwitters or Tristan Tzara.”

Why then her neglect, just recently confronted in this and other books and exhibitions? It is hard to say. Perhaps her shifting masks and personae eclipsed a more docile kind of subjectivity, whose homogeneity more easily enabled careers; perhaps it was because she was a woman too outlandish for her peers, let alone strangers; perhaps there is another reason. Suffice it to say she was a leading voice, along with Joyce, in The Little Review, and appears in other avant-garde journals of note from The Liberator and Transition to Transatlantic Review. And of her associates – there is Bernice Abbott, Picabia, Duchamp, Hart Crane, Mina Loy, Arthur Cravan, Walter Arsenberg, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes (who later becomes her editor and part biographer), W. C. Williams, Man Ray, and others.

Her years in New York, when she finally settles in Harlem in 1913, measure a decade. They are enough to establish her talents, which also include Dada sculptor and manuscript artist during that rebellious time when modernism, as we know it in retrospect, struggled to survive and flower.

In 1923, for reasons the book does not go into, she returns to Berlin, enduring extremes of poverty and breakdown. By 1926, finally in possession of a travel visa, she moves to Paris. Unable to make a go of it, she swings back to Berlin. On December 14, 1927, by accident or suicide, she dies of gas asphyxiation: “A stupid joke that had not even the decency of maliciousness,” as Djuna Barnes writes.

At least now perhaps, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven can be appreciated for what she wrote, how she lived, and what she did.

For readers compelled by poetic rebellion, flamboyance, and beauty, Body Sweats is for you.

Last Updated 1 January 2012

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