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The mother of all Dadas

By in Culture

The Baroness Else Von Freytag-Loringhoven is a relatively obscure historical figure.

Though she ran in artistic circles which included Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams, the influence of her life and art has been largely unacknowledged. In the early 20th century, the Baroness (who acquired her title from one of her numerous husbands, a German baron) brought Dada to America.

Jan Horner, a poet and librarian at the University of Manitoba, has recently shone a bright light back on the bizarre life of the Baroness in her newest book of poetry, Mama Dada: Songs of the Baroness’s Dog.

In it she describes her relationship with her bizarre muse, the Baroness, as an “uneasy truce.” Horner’s poetry lives out on the page the passionate interaction of poet and muse with mournful undertones.

Now, I must admit, I willfully avoid contemporary poetry (and I know I’m not the only one). Leonard Cohen is probably the only living poet who I read with any regularity. So I was quite happily surprised to discover in Jan Horner, a western Canadian poet, someone who writes sonically powerful and intellectually fascinating poems. With gargantuan words, Horner has crafted some powerful bottle-of-wine, balcony reading.

Mama Dada includes poems which recreate particularly significant or bizarre moments in the life of the Baroness but it also contains many poems written from Horner’s perspective. Throughout the book, she recognizes the relationship between a poet and her muse as an abstract, malleable thing; and a shifting of voice and perspective will keep readers on their toes.

In a number of the poems, Horner seeks advice from the Baroness and then imaginatively constructs what the Baroness’s responses will be. In this way, a sense of play colours the poems, creating a ghostly intimacy with the Baroness, who is startlingly present at times. From the Baroness’s perspective, Horner writes, “Listen, you be you and still be me.”

After having read about some of the more wild antics of the Baroness — wearing cakes on her head, sleeping around (and around!) or claiming super powers derived from her syphilis — and then reading Horner’s poems expressing deep intimacy with the Baroness, I came to expect that Horner would have a fiery, if not confrontational, personality.

Again, my assumptions were proved wrong. Horner read her poems in a gentle voice to a quiet and attentive audience, as the featured poet at a recent Tonight it’s Poetry at Flint bar.

The atmosphere was warm and enjoyable, which struck me as a drastic contrast with the free-wheeling, havoc-reeking Baroness. After all, Horner was the same women who wrote, “Respectability I left behind like a prison.”

“The Baroness was a cautionary tale to me. She was a romantic ideal for all artists. I am maybe at the other end of the scale — bourgeois, doing my art when I can.”
—Jan Horner

Horner later explained, “[the Baroness] was a cautionary tale to me. She was a romantic ideal for all artists. I am maybe at the other end of the scale — bourgeois, doing my art when I can. But look what happened to her. Something about my own anxieties was coming out [in these poems].

“[On the other hand] would she have done the wonderful things she did do without that? I remember a novelist who wrote that she loved the characters that risked the most and I suppose I love that about her too. Perhaps she allowed me to experience that vicariously.”

Mama Dada presents a difficult question at its core: can a person be too open to life? The Baroness died under dark circumstances. She and her dog pinky asphyxiated from a gas leak in their flat (which may have been suicide) but by this time her life had already spiraled out of control.

Without much money or work, the Baroness sold newspapers on the streets of Paris to the end of her days. Her art and poetry would remain mostly unknown in subsequent years.

“It was because she was poor and she had a fairly dramatic life. She was always struggling and she was unhealthy at the end”¦ And the art world was somewhat sexist. To a certain extent she only developed so far. If she was in a more stable situation financially she could have done more with it,” explained Horner, on the Baroness’s anonymity.

Yet, like her book of poems, Horner withheld a final judgment of the Baroness, citing arguments for and against living life recklessly the way Baroness did.

“There are lots of things I like about her: her wit and her fearlessness and her excitement. She must have felt incredibly alive at times. In many ways we are completely different”¦ [My poetry] was an opportunity to experiment like she did.”

Mama Dada is so fresh off the press that Horner couldn’t find a copy for sale while she was in town. However, it is now available at McNally Robinson. You can also order one online from Turnstone Press. But find some solitude and a large bottle beforehand.

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