Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring2009, Vol. 29 Issue 1
By Michelle Tupko
Douglas A. Martin. Your Body Figured. Nightboat Books, 2008.
Douglas A. Martin's ecstatic and devastating narrative verges on what Roland Barthes called the text of bliss. Unlike the text of pleasure, which is refined, delicate and readable in an ordinary sense, the text of bliss, of jouissance, offers up its dense, poetic language for the reader to lose herself in. Told almost entirely in an insistent second-person voice that mixes Martin's own with the ruminations of his characters, Your Body Figured traces through three parts of the lives of three well-known artistic figures on the cusp of transition: Balthus, metamorphosing from his youth into maturity; and, from their maturity to their respective deaths, Hart Crane and George Dyer, Francis Bacon's longtime lover and model. Martin's responsibility to the text, which hangs suspended between fiction, biography, and the question of autobiography, never allows him to absent himself from the addressing "you" that floats through the work, refusing to allow any detail to be pinned down to certainty. Though Your Body Figured functions on many levels, it wouldn't be inaccurate or reductive to call it a work of minor or alternative biography. Martin tells the history of these formidable men as a history of interior struggle, sexual entanglement, addiction, and deep delight. This inner life, though fictionalized (what life isn't?), crashes through the official facts with a force strong enough to leave the reader with a shudder of lasting pleasure.
Two Painters and a Poet
by Cassandra Langer
Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Inc. Jan/Feb 2009
DOUGLAS A. MARTIN'S new book, Your Body Figured, consists of three prose pieces each focused on a major artist- two painters and a poet.
The first is Balthus, a.k.a. Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (1908-2001), an esteemed Polish-French modern artist who painted perversely queer and disturbing visions. Obsessive and sexually charged, his visions deal with forbidden subjects, such as adults and adolescents engaged in dream-like displays of eroticism in The Guitar Lesson. This painting shows a half-naked female pupil slung across a woman's lap while the teacher appears to be penetrating her. You get the picture- and so does Martin in his richly imaginative and effective prose. In a powerful poetic flight, he imagines Balthus staring "up at the sky with blinking eyes, filtering through the haze a progression of blonding thighs, young, steady."
The second essay searches for the truth behind the short life of the gay poet Hart Crane (1899-1932). Frequently criticized as too difficult or incomprehensible, Hart Crane spent his short life trying to connect with the difficult beauty of desire and find a harmonious balance in his own existence. One of his best known poems, "To Brooklyn Bridge," embodies his ecstatic vision of the modern city: "And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced/ As though the sun took step of thee, yet left/ Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,-/ Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!" On a trip from Mexico back to New York, Crane booked passage on the steam ship, S.S. Orizaba. Drunk and despondent, he hit on a male crew member. He was rejected and the sailor beat him to a pulp. Somewhere along the Florida coast shortly before noon on April 26, 1932, Crane leaped from the ship's deck to his death. Martin asks us to "Imagine being drawn to that which would destroy you, like flowers are to banks of water," an image that nicely encapsulates the tragedy of Hart Crane's suicide.
Martin's final subject is Francis Bacon (1909-1992), the Irish-born British figurative painter. Coincidentally, Bacon is currently the subject of a major traveling retrospective that opened at the Tate in London last September and travels next to Madrid's Prado, finally arriving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May, 2009. Known for his virtuoso arrangements, Bacon boldly choreographed compositions both mournful and heroic that have made him one of the highest selling contemporary artists.
Commenting on love, sex, and death, Bacon said, "The creative process is a little like the act of making love, it can be as violent as fucking, like an orgasm or an ejaculation. The result is often disappointing, but the process is highly exciting." Martin's focus is on Bacon's relationship with George Dyer. Uneducated, alcoholic, and insecure, Dyer committed suicide in their hotel room in 1971 on the eve of Bacon's major retrospective at the Paris Grand Palais. Martin tells the story of a half-man, half-boy who's obsessed with his looks and never really fits in with the bohemian set surrounding Bacon. "Something is rending the comprehending of your head. He brings you in to have a look at yourself, to see yourself from two, three, from a number of different angles, ways through him," is how Martin describes Dyer's bewilderment when confronted with me artist's vision of him. Martin says of Bacon's love for Dyer (as well as his other lovers): "He didn't love you enough. It was him who killed you, got rid of you, all of you, one by one, as occasions took precedent, one way or another. Someone should make sure to protect the next you, the next one, better."
Last July, Francis Bacon's Study for Head of George Dyer, 1967, was the highlight of Sotheby's contemporary art evening sale. But Bacon's greatest achievement may be the black and burgundy panels that he completed in 1973 to commemorate Dyer's suicide two years earlier. (Incidentally, the Bacon estate has commissioned Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan of DeKooning biography fame to write a life of Bacon which looks to be a juicy read.)
Your Body Figured is an absorbing book despite its relative brevity. It is also an incantatory book that embodies the passions of love, sex, and death in writing that's often suspended in a beautiful tension between indulgence and restraint. Through the lives of these three artists, Martin offers an unflinching meditation on suffering, mortality, and the beautiful in artistic transfiguration.
"How sentences that look so unassuming could still agitate and exhilarate and break my fucking heart, I do not know. What I've learned from Douglas A. Martin is that the sentence is an essay."
"How on earth could Douglas A. Martin follow up the amazing fever dream that was his Branwell? How could he take us even deeper into the heart and flesh of longing and the loneliness of want? I don't know. I only know that he has again--this time focusing his laser lens on what it is to be a muse or want a muse, how often someone kills the thing they love. Riffing on and dreaming into the lives of Hart Crane, Francis Bacon, Balthus and others, Martin gives hypnotic voice to a nameless 'you,' a kind of male spirit that both inspires and is destroyed by those who call on, use and need him."
Cover art: "Untitled," ink on paper, 2007, by Brian Getnick