Thursday, April 21, 2011

Buckshee by Ford Madox Ford

I think God must have been a stupid man
To have sent a spirit, chivalrous and loyal,
Cruel and tender, arrogant and so meek,
Gallant and timorous, halting and as swift
As a hawk descending -- to have sent such a spirit,
Certain in all its attributes, into this age
Of our banal world.
He had infinity
Which must embrace infinities of worlds,
And had Eternity
And could have chosen any other age,
He had Omnipotence
And could have framed a fitting world and time.

But, bruised and bruising, wounded, contumacious,
An eagle pinioned, an eagle on the wing;
A leopard maimed, a leopard in its spring,
A swallow caged, a swallow in the spacious
And amethystine, palpating blue:

A night-bird of the heath, shut off from the heath,
A deathless being daubed with the mud of death,
A moth all white, draggled with blood and dew,
'Haitchka, the undaunted, loyal spirit of you
Came to our world of cozening and pimping,
Our globe compact of virtues all half virtue
Of vices scarce half-vices; made of truth
Blurred in the edges and of lies so limping
They will not stir the pulse in the utterance...
From a New World that's new and knows not youth
Unto our France that's France but knows not France,
Where charity and every virtue hurt you,
Oh coin of gold dropped into leaden palms,
Manna and frankincense and myrrh and blams
And bitter herbs and spices of the South...

Because God was a stupid man and threw
Into our outstretched palms, 'Haitchka, you.

Ford Madox Ford is one of my favorite writers, but he is not particularly renowned as a poet. That's too bad, I think, because "Buckshee" is one hell of a romantic poem. Ford explains the title this way:

Buckshee, derived from the universal Oriental backschisch, has no English equivalent. It is a British Army word and signifies something unexpected, undeserved and gratifying. If the cook at dinner time slips three extra potatoes into your meat-can those are buckshee potatoes; if for something you are paid in guineas instead of pounds, the odd shillings are buckshee; if you are a little Arab boy alongside a liner and a passenger throws half a crown instead of a florin into the shark-infested water for you to dive after, the odd sixpence is buckshee backschisch. Or if you have given up the practice of writing verse and suddenly find yourself writing it -- those verses will be buckshee.

The implication is, of course, that Ford's lover 'Haitchka (and I'm not sure who this is, except that it is someone that Ford lived with in France) is buckshee--that he does not deserve her, and yet he is elated to have her anyway.

Not only is Ford not deserving of her, but the world is too. She is a being out of time, cast by an idiot God "into this age / Of our banal world." She is "a night-bird of the heath, shut off from the heath," or "a coin of gold dropped into leaden palms."

What strikes me also about this poem is that Ford's characterization of 'Haitchka does not come off as universally positive: She is "bruised" but also "bruising," "tender" but "cruel," "meek" but "arrogant." Though she is a "spirit / Certain in all its attributes" those attributes are paradoxical, but I think that the poem strongly implies that Ford values her for her apparent contradictions. The world that might have been created by God's omnipotence would have accommodated those contradictions; if they seem irreconcilable in our world it is not her fault but ours.

I love "Buckshee" because it is a different side of Ford from the one we read in The Good Soldier and Parade's End, in which love is so poisonous and adultery reigns. It is nearly impossible to imagine any character from those novels saying these things about any other, but it's nice to know that Ford himself could write them.

1 comment:

welker said...

By 1936 (date of publication of ('Buckshee') Ford was with his last companion, Janice Biala; they did indeed spend some (not all) of their time in France, mainly Toulon.