Three Moments in Paris

by Mina Loy

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The Poem

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“Three Moments in Paris” is a three-poem sequence in free verse, each poem numbered and titled. “One O’Clock at Night” contains twenty-nine lines, and both “Café du Néant” and “Magasins du Louvre” contain thirty-six. Stanza lengths vary in all three poems. The point of view also varies; Loy uses a first-person voice in the first and third poems, and a third-person voice in the second poem. The shift in voice can best be understood in the light of the title’s significance and of developments in art at the beginning of the twentieth century. Cubist painting rendered its subjects as collages of geometric shapes; Futurist painters added dynamic juxtapositions and urban imagery to this approach. Like Gertrude Stein, Loy applied these visual concepts to her writing. In “Three Moments in Paris,” she creates a verbal collage that satirically examines modern male-female relationships in the wake of increasing social autonomy for women.

The female speaker in “One O’Clock at Night” is leaning against her lover in the chair they are sharing, and she is falling asleep as he argues about Futurist aesthetics with his brother. She awakens when her lover clears his throat and is able to catch “the thread of the argument.” The speaker then claims that its issues—“dynamic composition” and “plastic velocity”—mean little to her, and her waking signals her recognition of the difference between men and women. The focus of the poem is on the nature of that difference. The poem abruptly closes with the words of the male lover, who cites the speaker’s exhaustion as a reason to end the argument and go home.

In “Café du Néant” (“Café of Emptiness”), the field of vision shifts from the café as a whole, to a pair of young lovers, to an individual female. A sense of futility permeates the poem. The decadent atmosphere of the café reflects the state of human relationships found there. Communication between the sexes has decayed into lies, silence, and meaningless language. Behaviors fall into predictable roles, in which the male is controlling and the female passively tolerates his control. The female figure who closes the poem presents an image of death in contrast to the modern life outside the café.

“Magasins du Louvre” (“The Shops of the Louvre”) returns to a first-person speaker, though the reader is not aware of the speaker’s participation in the scene until late in the poem. The opening line, “All the virgin eyes in the world are made of glass,” is repeated twice—a third of the way through the poem and at its end. It provides closure, serving as a refrain that draws attention to the poem’s emphasis on perception. The poem places readers in a shop where lines of dolls sit throughout the store and hang from the ceiling. Within this surreal atmosphere, the speaker observes two apparently unrelated events. In the first event, a man sets out to flirt with and possibly harass the shop girl. In the second, the speaker observes two cheaply dressed young women who examine the dolls and then exchange knowing glances; they see themselves, like dolls, as commodities to be bought in a sexual marketplace. The poem juxtaposes blind innocence and the perception that comes with experience.

Forms and Devices

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Several characteristics associated with free verse give “Three Moments in Paris” a modern look and sound: lack of exact rhyme and end rhyme; lack of consistent line length and meter; lack of punctuation; extra spacing within the line; sentence fragments; and words that are completely capitalized. Assonance, alliteration, and slant rhymes replace exact rhyme,...

(This entire section contains 498 words.)

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and at times these are found, along with the use of anaphora, at the beginning rather than at the end of the line. Loy’s line lengths vary from one word to seventeen. The spacing within the lines, which at times creates the pause normally provided by punctuation, and the use of sentence fragments contribute to the poems’ collage effect. Urban settings, characteristic of this sequence and of most of Loy’s poems, provide another modernizing touch. Loy renders her scenes with precise description and multisyllabic diction that at times draws on a scientific or intellectual vocabulary.

The paradox in the opening lines of “One O’Clock at Night”—“Though you had never possessed me/ I had belonged to you since the beginning of time”—suggests the irony and satire to come. Although the speaker claims she understands nothing about her lover’s Futurist argument, the poem is clearly influenced, in both form and content, by Futurism’s precepts, most of which were set down by Loy’s one-time lover, Filippo Marinetti. Thus, the poem’s literal depiction of a woman intimidated by male intellect is an ironic facade. It is not Futurism the speaker fails to understand, but rather the male tendency to engage in endless intellectual disputes. The poem’s subtle satire comes at the expense of the speaker’s lover and his brother.

The juxtapositions in “Café du Néant” are central to the poem’s irony. In a café where candlelit tables look like coffins and lovers wearing black resemble corpses, Loy collides images of light and darkness; youth and decay; stale values and modern ones; and artistic pretension and everyday living. Finally, life and death become capitalized emblems of the exaggerated, pretentious behavior of the café patrons. Given the bohemian atmosphere, the patrons could be parodies of fin de siècle artists and intellectuals who, like the bourgeoisie they reject, rely on conventional role-playing in their courtship.

“Magasins du Louvre,” which opens and closes with the same line and is thus an envelope poem, also draws heavily on juxtaposition. The innocence suggested by the dolls provides a striking contrast to the sexually experienced “cocottes” (prostitutes) in the shop and to the lecherous man who pursues the shop girl. This juxtaposition invites comparisons to William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” though Loy’s poem is thoroughly modernized in that it deals with sexuality from a woman’s point of view. Here, as in all three of the poems, Loy allows the juxtapositions to offer their significance without providing authorial explanation. Although satire is a didactic form, Loy manages to produce satire in a very nondidactic way.