Poet, artist and editor Charles Henri Ford was born in 1908 in Hazlehurst, Miss., and now lives and works in New York City. In the 1930s he founded Blues, an experimental literary magazine and, with Parker Tyler, co-authored a classic of gay literature, The Young and the Evil. In the 1940s, Ford edited another publication, View, which featured artists such as Maya Deren, Salvador Dali and Jorge Luis Borges.
The thoughtful, captivating, sometimes catty journals that make up Water From a Bucket begin after this period. They catch a creative social climate that flourished in New York and Europe during the post-World War II period, and trace a personal trajectory that includes the death of Ford’s father, his mother and his long-time lover, the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew:
“Pavlik’s great heart stopped beating at ten to eight (July 1957).”
Distinct portraits of personalities are sketched, in part, by Ford’s deft use of gossip, that much-beloved form of human communication. Among those discussed are Gertrude Stein, Jean Genet, Paul Bowles, Edith Sitwell, Peggy Guggenheim, George Balanchine and Djuna Barnes (with whom Ford was for a time romantically linked).
The artist Jean Dubuffet “is articulate, sound without being brilliant. He would be attractive in a brute way if his teeth were good.” Jean Cocteau “begged Garbo on his knees not to play George Sand in the movies. ‘George Sand was a cow,’ he told her. ‘Chopin and her lovers were cowboys — you should play one of the cowboys but not the cow.’”
And this remark from Tchelitchew: “I think Balanchine’s desire for ballets with no decor and costumes is egotistic, Charles Henri.”
Ford conveys — often humorously — the blend of affection, fascination and exasperation felt toward his partner of 23 years, who “radiates love in every direction” and is intermittently ill before his death. “Pavel has had neurotic fears ever since he was a child and blames them on an aunt of his coming in all draped in black to scare him into taking castor oil.”
Woven in with these characterization-bytes are Ford’s own meditations on mid-20th century thought: “It’s the desire to go to new extremes: either down (like Sade) or up (like Rilke). Baudelaire embraced both extremes: crime and sublime.”
And Ford fills his entries with sturdy quotes from great thinkers. Carl Jung: “The neurotic always renounces a complete erotic experience, in order that he may remain a child.” Jean Cocteau: “America is the only country in the world where passion is considered psychotic.”
There is constant mention of raging libido: “And here comes the 40-year-old housepainter in front of whom I wanted to masturbate yesterday.”
Finally, there are sheer, beautiful bursts of Ford’s poetry: “A frog the color of flesh-colored leaves (jumped from our path on pre-lunch walk)./Leaves color of yellow jackets, peaches and bull’s blood.”
Water from a Bucket is, as Lynne Tillman points out in her introduction, “about the dailiness of art and life.” Distinct parts of a life — writing, sex, apartments, friends, lovers, illness — are chronicled with an immediacy that, to quote Tillman again, is “imaginatively and definitively of its time and in it.”
This is all excellent for the modern reader fortunate enough to be transported there. I was sad that the entries ended in 1957. Yet, as Ford himself puts it, “There’s always been a choice between what gives pleasure and what gives lasting pleasure./As though any pleasure lasted.”
E-mail Lynn Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org.