The Beloved Body
On Douglas A. Martin
“Triptych- August 1972” Francis Bacon
An author’s work is laid out like a map, a landscape, populated in a chronology that leads one down an ordered path, two roads diverged in a yellow wood. Douglas A. Martin’s newest novel, Wolf, sets the wood on fire. Not as a force of decreation, of immolation or masochism, but in the sense that the gentle house of loss is figured anew. The house is not gentle.
Many of Douglas A. Martin’s novels and essays take historical queer figures such as the painter Francis Bacon, his lover George Dyer, or the poet Hart Crane, and reconstructs mythical biographies for them. His books rechronicle queer history. Sometimes they are straight forward, but more often they are lyrical reimaginings. Martin writes a canonization of queer saints and thieves.
Wolf (Nightboat Books, June 2020), lets the house burn. A house he had been slowly building and populating with Hart Crane, lovers, Rimbaud, and Francis Bacon. The porous nature of the house and the body for queer and trans people in history has always been a troubling problem. The house is never safe, the body is never stable. An author can vanish into the body and the house. As Michel Foucault says, and Martin quotes in Your Body Figured, “the point is… a question of creating space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.”
When Martin quotes Kathy Acker, “My body doesn’t exist” at the end of a fragment in his book Acker, we feel the dare. For Martin, the body is the cut of literature. The body does exist, it leaps off the page, or rather, the body is the page. If this is the case for Martin, the wounded body, the masochism and sadism stretched throughout his work force us to reckon with the text as violence. Certainly, Martin’s grasp of Acker depends on this concept. The break of Acker’s literature, the brutality. Rilke: “the beauty and the terror.”
Most of Martin’s books are fragmentary, that is, they are cut-up. Again we find many fragments of writers like Roland Barthes that reveal the never-reaching-wholeness of queer literature. So why try? Many queer artists’ leave behind only a fragmentary legacy. Arthur Russell only ever released one studio album.
We deal with the epistolary, the diary, the autofiction, the autotheory. “Only time allows value,” Acker tells us. Martin’s books condense and expand time like they do the body, splayed out, crusted, broken, beaten, or simply at a loss for the scene. The scene is empty. The scene is short and haiku because the evening comes quick.
What is a loss? Wolf follows the loss of security, safety, a family dissolves in front of us, so translucent we cannot see what is in front of us fully. I listen as the contents of the novel are described. That happened? That’s what this book is about? I think. How can that happen? How can it be? All loss is continual and difficult if not impossible to trace in public. The writer disappears in the text.
The work of Douglas A. Martin, Wolf in particular, displays whiteness turned inward. The violence of surveillance, the home, the body, capitalism, legacies of domination and power. Brutality is thin. It does not stop, it is never appeased. To think one is safe is illusory.
Can the punk be beautiful? In Outline of My Lover, what is given up is given up freely, almost daily. The lover is a fragile instrument. But as Martin moves, we find the houses of writing are apartments lining a city moving closer and closer to something. An unlit city street. We find Kathy Acker. We find abuse, neglect, murder. We do not move into a nice house with Sylvere Lottringer and have an intellectual affair with a professor named Dick, who in turn loved Kathy Acker and sent her one of her last letters.
The patriarch enacts his own fences, his own protection, his own making of family. In this, God recurs. God turns up as a point of origin, and origin, birth, home, as a place of violence. In Your Body Figured, Rilke is a god, benevolent and ever-vigilant. “He was your first man, a religious man in his own way.”
Martin writes of a formative sexual experience Hart Crane has, turning it into as a theological origin. Writing of Chris Kraus, Olivia Laing discusses “...using the loved object to will yourself into life.” In this space of the love-object as the will-to-power, Douglas A Martin, George Dyer, and Kathy Acker find something in common. The loved object as a purpose unentangled from art-making, victimhood, and a way out. For Crane, the loved object becomes a way out of the crank of loneliness dawdling slowly. Days of working, days of almost touching, days on the docks. “There’s always another E., a J., a sea of them. They have many names, but they wash away,” Crane says.
For George Dyer, the fantasy of life can only be found in another. Francis Bacon is a vampire and George is the beloved body. I imagine Francis Bacon felt much the opposite.
The beloved body needs a beloved, to be loved is to love. “You needed a Verlaine,” Martin’s Crane says. “You found it only natural to want to cling.” The beloved is a vampire and the lover is a vampire as well we find in Your Body Figured. Queer theorist and film scholar Richard Dyer reminds us of the link of the aristocrat to the image of the queer vampire.
If we write a literature of violence, as Édouard Louis desires to, what fractures occur? Whose violence? Does writing violence replicate it or extract it to its core? Does recreating our trauma heal?
Abuse, money, power, age, harm, race, neglect, flow through Martin’s work in a way that is difficult to talk about. It triggers, envisions, enacts, and comes back again and again to the cut.
One walks away contemplating the image of wounds, the image of fire, the image of continual loss. As someone who has had their body violated, I found it becomes a challenge to witness, to see, to find the writer displaying and vanishing within the text of violence. If Édouard Louis creates a literature of violence, one explicit and political in nature, Douglas A. Martin creates a literature where brutality lifts the thin veil of dust over the fabric of the body and disappears in the night.
Hello! It’s been a year of this on-and-off newsletter. I wrote this essay while working at Nightboat Books last summer.
I am considering exiting Substack as a platform, if I do these posts will remain up. I have been (slowly) back on twitter.
Also, I interviewed Hannah Baer about her book for Observer NY. Content warning: su*c*de is in the title of the book, proceed slowly- a tender interview about transitioning and memes, but can be intense at times.
Note: This essay also appears in the Summer 2021 issue of the Anarchist Review of Books.