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Charles Henri Ford
Central Park, Easter 1995
Photograph by Jonathan Williams

CHARLES HENRI FORD
(1913—2002)
A poet I have been reading for over 50 years. This is Charles in Central Park, New York City, in the spring of 1995. He must be nearly 82.

One of the few surrealists from Midnight, Mississippi. (Well, Brookhaven, Mississippi, if you insist.) Luckily, I am interested both in surrealists and in Mississippi small towns with funny names. Hot Coffee, Mississippi, is my favorite, but Notapater, Bobo, Soso, Homochitto, Money, and Arm are not to be ignored.

Charles Henri has a comfortable little apartment under the roof of the Dakota Apartments on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. We stop in now and again for tea with him and his devoted friend from Katmandu, Indra Tamang. The talk turns from Gertie Stein and Pavel Tchelitchew to the latest gorilla-hash about the artistes on Long Island. His accent is still mud-deep Mississsippi and he is a real delight.

How little he knows or worries about our Extremely Dark Continent. Has he ever even been to Newark? I hope not. People in Newark think Tchelitchew is a new expensive drug, not yet available on the street.

OUR BUSINESS HERE BEING AYRE

Batman & Robin made some of us what we are today. Was Robin from Charles Henri Ford’s hometown of Narcissus, Mississippi? Sufferin’ catfish—I hope so! (I wonder if Dick Grayson had any brothers?)

Pavel Tchelitchew used to write to Ford during their courting days: “my darling huckleberries finn...” Yep, it does seem that the nation’s blue-eyed-surrealist prides come from arcane sunken oases on the map. James Broughton, three years younger than Ford, from Modesto, California; Robert Duncan, nine years younger, from Bakersfield; and Philip Lamantia, much later, San Francisco, 1927. Lamantia was published in Ford’s magazine View when he was but 15... I wonder what was in the water to cause three “fancy” writers like Guy Davenport, Emmett Williams, and me to come from a triangle described by towns with the names Anderson, Greenville, and Asheville? Maybe not Aquarian water; maybe it was epiphytic? What bombshell bard will someday hail from Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky?

A friend asked Tchelitchew, “What does Charles Henri do to stay so young?” The painter gave the laconic reply, “Nothing. Like the Chinese, just nothing.” While Narcissus didn’t exactly die of writer’s cramp, Charles Henri has been much busier than most, whether in the Dakota Apartments, Pawlet, Vermont, or Kathmandu. The reason that you don’t hear of him more is that he wasn’t interested in being academic fodder and beguiling all the professors from Kenyon to Harvard Square. He shone at salons where formidable ladies like Florine Stettheimer, Edith Sitwell, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes presided. Barnes said Ford had eyes whose whites went to the sides of his head, like wild animals. That’s nicer than being admired by Helen Vendler.

Charles Henri is said not to like his photograph by Gerard Malanga. I do like it. Though he may not appear quite Sweet Sixteen (his favorite year) at 62, he is still looking with that cloudless gaze of his through the jalousies (or whatever you call the awnings or blinds at his home in Chania, on Crete) at the almond-eyed éphebes and kouroi of the imagination. Ford, in a recent interview in Gay Sunshine, says he is till “just a Southern child, a long way from home.” Neither, happily, have other fifteen-year-old bards disappeared from the old Helicon swimming hole. That cosmic authority, Dom Pierre-Silvester Houédard, OSB, of Prinknash Abbey, Gloucestershire, was reporting just the other day on two discoveries from Kent: one is called Geoffrey “Moondusk” Moorehouse and the other is Wm Chapple. May they join the company of earlier glorious finds like David Borgia Duck and Dacre Punt! Art Blakey, Vesuvius on drums, said of one of his groups of Jazz Messengers: “I always stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’ll get me some younger ones...Keeps the mind active!”

One night, when Batman & Robin have come to dinner, it will not surprise me to look up and see Charles Henri materializing out of some halation—“divinely inconspicuous as the Duchesse de Guermantes arriving while a private musicale is in progress,” to quote his friend Parker Tyler (of Midnight, Mississippi), talking about something else.

(Paris Review, No. 64, 1975, as one accompaniment to a portfolio of photographs of writers by Gerard Malanga.)


Jonathan Williams

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