Poetry that obscurity hasn't obscured; The Last Lunar Baedeker, by Mina Loy. Highland, N.C.: The Jargon Society (distributed by Inland Book Company, 22 Hemingway Avenue, East Haven, Conn. 06512). 334 pp. $25.

She was born Mina Lowy, in London, 1882. Later she shortened her last name to Loy. She was an early rebel against conventional Victorian codes for women, and she left for the Continent at 17, ''in a subconscious muddle of foreign languages.'' She was a noted beauty, and even when she became a ''Futurist'' poet of rare promise, her beauty continued to interest some observers more than her poems.

As an art student she enrolled in the studio of Augustus John and later, in Paris, met Apollinaire, Picasso, the painter Rousseau. An unhappy marriage brought out the poetry in her, but she continued to paint, to assemble collages, to design her own clothes and hats. Her hats were like lampshades. She invented and marketed the calla lily lamp, its electric bulbs shaped like calla lilies perched on slender stems and emerging from a leafy vase.

Her early poems won the praises of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Critic Yvor Winters compared her satires, in a burst of hyperbole, to the best of Pope and Dryden. In the years between World Wars I and II, she lived as an expatriate among the expatriates of Paris. After 1936 she moved to New York City, sought the obscurity of the Bowery, and chose ''an unpublic existence'' of renunciation and reclusiveness. In her later years she claimed that ''owning things and knowing people meant absolutely nothing.''

In 1957, nine years before her death, when the young poet Jonathan Williams visited her in Aspen, Colo., she asked, ''But why do you waste your time on these thoughts of mine? I was never a poet.''

And yet a poet she undoubtedly was, deny it though she might, an experimenter in abandoning punctuation and breaking the line for striking effect, long before e. e. cummings made these departures from conventional typography his trademark.

Depending on where you open her pages, Loy can be haunting, enigmatic, and cerebral or earthy, direct, and sensual. Like her life, which alternated from avant-garde salon to Bohemian Bowery, her poetry cuts rebelliously between two environments. She writes: I must live in my lantern Trimming subliminal flicker Virginal to the bellows of experience . . .

The ''bellows of experience'' blew her from slice-of-life realism, ''hoboes hobnobbing/with obtund oafs,'' to upper-crust satire, Gabriel D'Annunzio, the Italian ''national archangel,'' portrayed as a compulsive womanizer.

Loy's vocabulary, like her subject matter, swings from the Greco-Roman ''cymophanous'' and ''agamogenesis'' to the idiosyncratic ''Empyrean emporium.'' She dwells a good deal on combinations like ''lyric elixir,'' ''ilex aisles,'' and the playfully alliterative: Giovanni Franchi's wrists flicked Flickeringly as he flacked them.

All too seldom comes the clear, direct Anglo-Saxon phrase like the lines that end ''Stravinski's Flute'': ''To this listening/the mouth and the ear/of music/are one.''

Probably Loy is her own best critic when she writes of her poems: She made a moth's net Of metaphors and miracles And on the incandescent breath of civilizations She chased by moon-and-morn light Philosopher's toes.

To compile the nearly 300 pages of Mina Loy's poems here collected, Jonathan Williams has had to comb both little mags and the poet's private papers. With the help of Roger Conover's diligent researches into the life and letters of Loy , he has come up with a fascinating reconstruction of a writer who, despite her own intended obscurity, refuses to remain obscure, refuses to surrender to the wear and tear of time.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.