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Coming Clean

Word from a famous Southern son you've never heard of.

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Water From a Bucket

By Charles Henri Ford

Turtle Point Press, 272 pp., $16.95 (paper)

It's time Charles Henri (né Henry) Ford got some regional recognition to go with his international reputation, a reputation that rests on his long career as poet, painter, printmaker, photographer, filmmaker, publisher, and now, with Water From a Bucket, diarist. But first, know this:

Ford was born in 1908 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, son of a hotel-owning father and artist mother and brother to future stage and screen actress Ruth Ford. At the age of 16, he dropped out of high school, got his poetry into a number of small magazines, then took the ambitious step in 1929 of founding his own literary magazine out of Columbus, Mississippi: Blues: The Magazine of New Rhythms. William Carlos Williams served as a contributing editor, and together they sought and published the work of Ezra Pound, H.D., Kenneth Rexroth, Erskine Caldwell, and an unheard of newcomer by the name of Paul Bowles. Blues ran for only nine issues but its influence was felt. Ford's name was on its way to being made.

He went to New York long enough to collaborate with film critic Parker Tyler on one novel, the groundbreakingly open and unapologetically gay (and banned) The Young and Evil, then left for Paris in 1931 to become guest of Gertrude Stein and roommate of Djuna Barnes, whose manuscript, Nightwood, he prepared for publication. He also fell into friendships with anyone who was artistically anybody -- from expatriates Man Ray and Peggy Guggenheim to Edith Sitwell and Jean Cocteau. It was also in Paris in 1933 that Ford met and fell for surrealist painter Pavlik Tchelitchev, who was 35. Ford, a mere 24, stayed with him, in and out of love, for the next 25 years.

The two returned to New York, and in 1940 Ford founded another influential magazine, View, and for the next seven years he ran the work of the reigning European modernists and the work of stateside friends such as Joseph Cornell, in addition to publishing the first English translations of André Breton's poems and the first monograph on Marcel Duchamp.

The late 1940s and '50s, the period covered in Water From a Bucket, saw Ford and Tchelitchev hopscotching to and from Paris, Italy, New York, and Connecticut, and Ford making it down to Jasper, Tennessee, for his father's dying illness. But when Tchelitchev died in 1958, Ford moved permanently to New York, where he still lives and where he made fresh starts in filmmaking (his underground classic Johnny Minotaur featured Allen Ginsberg) and in a new form, the "poem poster." It's an extraordinary career even without the fact of Ford's own poetry, which stretches from the surrealistic to the "cut up" (a technique he was one of the first to explore) to his favored form today, haiku.

This background to Ford's life is necessarily sketchy, but was it necessary that Lynne Tillman's introductory remarks to the diary -- a diary she had to coax Ford into publishing -- be almost equally so? If, as the publisher states, the Ford family once lived in Memphis, for example, mention isn't made here. Still, it's the diary itself that counts, and Tillman is right to characterize Ford's "epic poem about the dailiness of art and life" as an "itinerary of lived attitudes" delivered "in bits and pieces, a collage, or like [Ford's] poems, a cut up."

And like a cut up the bits come to us every which way: from the critical (Peggy Guggenheim's "art collection is hard to look at, especially the messes signed Jackson Pollock"); to the chatty and/or catty ("'Her characters are unreal,' I say to Pavlik, talking about Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. 'She's unreal herself,' he replies"); to the catty and/or chatty ("Osbert Sitwell used to call America the garbage can of Europe, but now he's eating out of it"); to the ornery ("'Rhymes, too, come from the unconscious,' [Auden] told me. 'They should stay there,' I said"); to the reportorial ("I look at P.'s hemorrhoid [burst but healing] every night with the flashlight"); to the puzzling ("To walk like an Egyptian is to carry a ladder across Paris"); to the startling ("On how many shoulder-blades have you wanted to cut your throat?"); to the haunting ("A trembling duck being weighed in hand-scales: part of the trembling world, part of me"); to the self-incriminating ("'You're just a whore, that's what you are,' Pavlik tells me"); to the quotidian ("'I'm not going to Canada with you unless you learn to suck -- this jerking off business is boring'"); to the reassuring ("Anything that brings two people closer is, theoretically, good -- even to eating each other's excrements"); to the all-out icky ("Having read about the 'insertions in the urethra' in the Kinsey book I'm about to make an experiment ...").

"I loved the Blues before I loved the Poem," Ford writes in May 1954 in Paris in a rare reference to his Southern roots. "Somehow the two loves were from the same source. So it was natural that I called my poetry review Blues. ... Years of work, a burst of glory, and it's all over."

No, Mr. Ford, not all over quite yet. In Water From a Bucket, you come in still loud and clear.

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