Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Concupiscent Curds (story, part 2 of 3)

(from Strange Tales from a Sinological Studio 漢齋誌異 by Lloyd Haft)

Now on a certain very cold, dry, starry night in late November, the young scholar, having finished his scant evening meal, taken a bath, and changed into robe and slippers as was his custom, sat down in his armchair and switched on the lamp, intending to commence re-reading a particularly abstruse tome, written by three of his teachers, treating of morpho-phonemic phenomena in the dialect of Tientsin. He settled back in his chair, reassured himself that note-paper, red and blue pens, index cards, and dictionaries were in order, and routinely took out a cigar from the familiar small box with its cheery red label printed with quaint texts in a Low Germanic tongue. As he lit the cigar and watched the smoke curl up into the lamp-shade like the swirling patterns of an ancient jade masterpiece, he suddenly became conscious of an unusual sensation of silence and space. The neighboring apartments, usually so audibly in evidence, seemed at once devoid of human habitation. From somewhere in a distant street, the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels could faintly be heard, seeming to cast into still higher relief the stark stillness of the nearer environs.
        The young scholar, feeling the emergence within himself of a mood more reflective than studious, leaned back in his armchair and took a long draught at his cigar, appreciating the characteristic hiss as the glowing tip burned its way pungently through one additional millimeter of the renowned Sumatra wrapper leaf. No doubt the unaccustomed concentration upon such a trivium as the cigar-end was upsetting to the young scholar’s muscular coördination; or perhaps the long weeks of subnormal calcium consumption were beginning seriously to affect his tonus. In any event, whether through Fate, Karma, or a momentarily excessive accretion of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he dropped the cigar.
        This of course called for immediate remedial behavior, and the young scholar was not long in hitting the floor with all fours, spying almost instantly the spot where the burning cigar had come to rest. The place, being a point on the linoleum floor almost precisely equidistant from the left front leg of the armchair and the base of the floor-lamp, was in itself unworthy of sustained interest. Yet the moment of the cigar’s recovery, as it happened, was fraught with gravity – for as the young scholar leaned forward to re-grasp his smoke, his eye fell upon one corner of a thin book, nearly hidden from view but still visibly jutting out from under the armchair.
        Could it have been accidental that the book, long lost and consciously forgotten, was a rare edition of the selected poetical works of R. M. Rilke?
        In future years the young scholar would have more than sufficient occasion to ponder upon the truly occult chain of events which had brought this little book back into his hands. For the moment, however, he was, if the truth be told, nothing so much as delighted to be distracted from the analytical rigors of his previously laid plan for the evening. Within seconds he was once again seated comfortably in his chair, puffing serenely at his cigar, and opening his heart and mind to the sweetly disturbing cadence and reverberation of the lines to miraculously produced by the immortal author of the Sonnets to Orpheus.
        And so he began the evening, and so he continued, and the first cigar was scarcely finished before he reached for another. The poems seemed to re-awaken in him a state which had long since vanished from his recollection – a life, a world, a region in which the initial dentals of Northern Mandarin did not exist, and in which the Neutral Tone was sublimely irrelevant to the larger designs of his own heart. And so it went a while, and all seemed well.
        Yet presently the moment came – the moment in which he turned the page and saw before him once again the ‘Du, der ichs nicht sage, dass ich bei Nacht weinend liege...’ And quite simply, without the faintest tremor of conscious affect in warning, he began to cry. He cried shamelessly and with full assent, for he knew that he was all alone in the heart of the Ancient City, and that the fact of his crying or not crying, or doing or not doing or thinking or not thinking anything else, could be known, and would become known, to no human percipient now or ever. And crying he did not read the lines of the poem in sequence, but skipped at once to the last three lines at the bottom of the yellowed page:

Ach, in den Armen hab ich sie alle verloren,
du nur, du wirst immer wieder geboren:
weil ich niemals dich anhielt, halt ich dich fest.

He read the lines quickly in silence and then attempted, through all his tears and despite the halting, hacking breath so grudgingly produced by his nicotine-drugged, calcium-starved organism, to read them aloud.
        The result was such as to make him sit suddenly bolt upright. Clinging about his flesh like a second, warmer, truer skin was a tingling aura, communicating through its presence what a learned Professor of Poetry has called ‘the experience of mixed exaltation and horror.’[1] The young scholar felt himself hovering upon the brink of a strange, deep, compelling vortex of the extraordinary. For in the few brief seconds in which he had attempted to give audible utterance to the poet’s heart-rending words, it had not been his own voice which had spoken. His had been the lips, the tongue, the vocal chords – but not the tone, the timbre, the strangely strident music of each vowel.
        And he knew whose these had been. His mind, having for so many weeks sought refuge, in an arid intensity of eccentric scholarship, from the intolerable craving of his heart, seemed now in a single stroke to cast forcibly away all pretense, recognizing in a sudden agony of relief that his true purpose, in all his weeks of researches into the Mandarin consonants, had been to find therein an affinitative link, a phonic thread of relational continuity, binding him to the girl whom he had met so briefly in the sour-milk shop. In short, he had been hoping unconsciously, through sheer dint of emotional immersion in the racially codified linguistic background of the gene-pool in which her flesh and bones had originated – to divine her name! Was this, perhaps, the ultimate import, the supreme hidden motivation, of his entire career in Sinology – to learn to pronounce the Name of the Beloved?
        His skull burned. Now if ever was the time for further research – for hard, back-breaking, rigorous, no-nonsense research. But with what tools? In coming to China he had not thought to bring with him The White Goddess, or dear old Dr Guirdham,[2] or Professor Nelli...[3]
        Before he could once again become lost in cogitation, he found himself vocalizing again, and once more it was the girl speaking through him.
        ‘You want very much to put away your studies immediately,’ the voice said, ‘and to go to bed. You are very tired. You want to go to bed immediately. You want to lay your cigar carefully in the ashtray, take off your shoes, turn out the lamp, and go to bed. Now.’
        Moving with the eery surety of a somnambulist, he obeyed. Through all his movements, he still felt the presence of the added aura, so alien yet so familiar, overshadowing the shapes of his own body. When all other preparations were completed and he was standing next to his bed in the dark, he paused. What, if anything, should he do about the small note-pad which he kept perpetually ready on the night-stand? He had pre-ruled each of its pages into a top and a bottom half, subsequently labeling the two halves with ‘D’ and ‘T’ respectively, so that if he should be favored during the night with a dream providing a new fragment of insight into the historical-phonological structure of a Mandarin word, he could record the details in the appropriate row. Would it be wise, on such a psychically charged night as this, to leave burning the tiny electric night-lamp which perpetually illuminated the opened note-pad?
        ‘Turn it off,’ said the voice within. ‘To be sure, there will be that tonight of which written record must be kept, but I will guide your hand in writing it. In any case, your ruled half-pages will be of no significance. On the Plane from which I speak to you, division by Two does not exist. I will teach you something concerning division by Three – but hurry! Turn the light off and get in bed!’
        But he was already moving. He was thrilled by the urgent familiarity with which the girl addressed him. Gone were all traces of the polite forms of address in which the Mandarin is so rich. She spoke to him now as one who had known him from the beginning of his life.
        In a moment he had turned back the bedspread and switched off the night-lamp. Then, incredibly, as he crawled onto the bed in darkness he was stunned and blinded by an overwhelming sensation of light seemingly concentrated in an oval shape perhaps two yards high and hovering above his pillow. At the same time, the sensorily distinct aura which had covered his skin seemed to be wrenched violently away, leaving him to shudder from a sudden quick feeling of chill.
        Upon seeing the light-form beside him, he had closed his eyes instinctively. But after the passage of several seconds, he perceived through his closed eyelids a certain diminution of intensity. Half-opening his eyes, he saw the girl formally manifested beside him.
        And she was glowing. Her tall, magnificently slender body was swathed in richly refulgent, elegantly draped material of penetrant green mottled with black, seemingly of silk but brighter by far than the sheeniest of silks. As if deliberately to crown in glory this cascade of serpentinely lissome luxuriance, her shoulders rose nakedly above, shining with a pulsating radiance. As for her face, it was enfolded in a mesh of vibrations so intense that the young scholar did not dare to look, but closed his eyes as if in self-protection. Nevertheless he saw, as it were behind his closed eyelids, the most uncannily perfect reconstruction of her face as he had seen it in the shop, but having in it something of an agelessly old woman as well, and something of an infant yet unborn, so that he knew he was seeing her in her Essential Aspect, of which any more temporally concrete fixation could have been but the merest cross-section.
        After a moment, keeping his head lowered slightly, he opened his eyes; in the same moment his gaze fell upon the gradient of her bare shoulders, and the fire of need that has inhabited all flesh since the Fall waxed sorely rife within him. In a word, he lunged at her like a wild animal.
        In the following instant he experienced a sensation akin to that of falling suddenly prostrate upon a hardwood floor. A positively spatial barrier seemed to impede his forward motion, and his head started and shuddered as if upon collision with a flat, wide surface. Instantly he held still, not daring to look ahead.
        ‘No!’ cried the voice of the girl. ‘I have not obtained special permission to visit you in the spirit, thereby incurring heavy debts to be repaid throughout the remainder of this life, merely to slake momentarily the hereditary thirsts of your Four Limbs and Six Organs!’
        ‘But – ’ and as he said the word his own voice returned – ‘but I love you!’
        At this his interlocutress could not suppress the most gentle and glamorous of guffaws. ‘Why,’ she said, ‘oh why must you Occidentals profane the name of Love by “protesting too much,” treating its profession as a license to that which needs no worldly license, but is Life itself?’
        He raised his hand in objection and would have looked directly into her face, but again the light was too strong for him.
        ‘Unfortunately,’ she continued, ‘I have no time to discourse at length upon that whole system of karmically impelled, phylogenetically predestined, effectively involuntary enactments which you Westerners so pruriently and inaccurately call “sex.” To be sure, the strenuous conjunction of man and woman is not to be despised, if only as a prophylactic measure to prevent one’s Desire Vehicle from detaching itself in despair from one’s Cognitive Nucleus, thus causing a tragic reincarnation in the Asura Kingdom of Hungry Ghosts. But you should know that there are forms and procedures of mating which may remain quite unnoticed by the Gross Musculature while indelibly fructifying the Supernal Consciousness, and it is these into which, when all Necessary Causes have ripened, it shall be my joyful commission to initiate you. From the present perspective of our fleshly forms, however, after tonight we shall never meet again.’
        He cried out in dismay, but she continued unpurturbed: ‘Such was the condition under which I was allowed tonight to visit you, treading in safety the perilous pathways of the Astral. For every Special Ability which is granted, a Heart Sacrifice must be made.’ With these last words her voice seemed ever so subtly to falter, and she paused for a moment, breathing heavily. When she resumed speaking, her tone was softer, less severely self-possessed. ‘For the moment you must know, Scholar from the West, that if my limbs appear to you to glow with a heat shapely beyond all sensible forms, it is but the reflection of the Unquenchable Fire of your own Unborn Spirit!’
        He was deeply moved by her words, and in a bewildering welter of desire, exaltation, and plainly imminent grief, he felt tears welling in his eyes.
        ‘Hush!’ she said, curtly, very much the Superior again. ‘We’ll both cry enough later; there’s no time now. I have come neither to gratify nor to confuse, but to instruct. At any moment I may be recalled forever, and there is much which I must yet impart to you. Now do as I say: come lie in your bed beside me. In the beginning you must not touch me in any way, nor look at me. When you are fully relaxed, I will teach you what is necessary. Come!’
        He moved to comply.
In his next conscious moment, he felt that he had slept more deeply than at any other time since earliest infancy. Every cell of his body was buoyant, seemingly empty though strangely charged with energy. He opened his eyes and realized his surroundings. Here he was again, in his familiar bedroom in the Ancient Capital. Though there was no lamp burning, the space around him was full of a diffuse, silvery radiance.
And then he remembered he was not alone. He turned to look beside him, and when he saw the strange-yet-familiar face of the Chinese girl it was as if he was lifted bodily, veritably propelled in an arc through the air and into her waiting arms already arching to embrace him – yet embrace her he did not, for he found himself plunged into a namelessly weird experience of expanded space, such that while he grasped desperately at her elbows and shoulders and hips, he seemed to be sent floating and slithering alongside her body, approaching her ever more closely yet insulated from her by a slick, resilient cushioning layer of indescribably luminous space. Through all of this he became gradually aware that she was directing her own movement, and his own attention, more and more into his right hand. Finally understanding, floating weightlessly above her body which yet remained intangible, he grasped the ball-point which lay on the night-stand beside him.
‘That’s it!’ she gasped. ‘Now write, write! Get it all down! This dictation will be the supreme deed of my life, and it’s all for you!’
His pen poised at the ready, the scholar silently resigned himself to whatever destiny might bring. Though he had heard and read of Dictated Messages, he would never have presumed to imagine himself a recipient thereof, and at the hands of such a mysterious Guest! Yet now his pen was beginning to move –
‘First – ’ the girl whispered hoarsely and he began to scribble, ‘ – drink more milk! Eat doufu every day for three weeks! Owing to your most unnatural manner of living, the reserves of your Vital Principle have become exhausted in frightful measure. Indeed, the Silver Cord is in imminent danger of being loosened! I have diagnosed you from the Beyond; heed my warning!’
Even as he feverishly copied the key words onto the note-pad, she continued: ‘Now! If you want to write immortal poems, I’ll tell you the secret, which my revered ancestor, Li Shangyin, taught me in a dream. It is this: division by Three! Always, always, always by Three! If a feeling, three different rhythms; if a forest, three different trees – get it?’
His pen stalled. It was crucially important that she make her meaning explicit. For all he knew, she might be putting him directly into touch with little-known truths from deep within the Collective Unconscious. She was offering him a formulaic distillate of Li Shangyin’s technique of writing. If he could bring these insights back into the Dayworld intact, he could write the most fabulous poems of the twentieth century. He could become another Li Shangyin!’
‘Please explain,’ he said. ‘What do you mean by “divide” by Three?’
‘Just this: set out three rows. Cross them with three columns. Choose three words related to the initial inspiration. Write each word in one of the nine positions. Then expand each word with two other words to fill the square, and – ’
‘But – but how do you choose the three words to begin with?’ He was frantically eager to derive a workable system...
‘Don’t you see?’ She was panting, and her visible form beneath him seemed to roll and lurch with exasperation. ‘Wait! I’ll dictate one complete poem, so you can see how it works. Just write it down now; you can study it later!’
And so, with fingers trembling in gratitude for the incomparable revelation which was being vouchsafed unto him, he proceeded to take down the poem from her dictation. Strange to say, the words made no conscious imprint on his mind. Functioning as an automaton, he entrusted to his fingers the task of unconsciously receiving and recording the stream of half-whispered, half-sung sound which seemed to pour out of his Guest’s voice without interruption.
Finally, as the writing neared the bottom of the note-page, her dictation stopped. Expecting more, he quickly flipped the pad open to a new page and waited. But no more sound came. After a moment he looked at her inquisitively.
He was shocked at what he saw. Her form seemed less full of light, less solidly visible. Her face, which just seconds before had been aglow with oracular urgency, seemed faded and tinged with a hint of ashen grey, and her form seemed spatially to be sinking slowly but unmistakably away from him.
When she spoke, her voice was weak: ‘Never forget this message, which I have brought you out of a Love rooted beyond the illusions of Time!’
‘Wait!’ he cried. ‘I must see you again!’
‘It is impossible. I have already exceeded my Karma by obtaining this one opportunity. Within the limits of the stream of Causality in which my present Physical and Etheric bodies participate, it is clear that I cannot hope to cross your path again. I must continue working at the Cloth Garments Processing Factory to pay for my brother’s education, and to support my Aged Parents. Please know that in my secret prayers to Guan Yin, I will always remember you.’
‘What do you mean?’ He was frantic. ‘There must be a way. Can I write to you?’ Even as he spoke, she was sinking still farther away. More ominously still, she now seemed again to be wearing the green Army cap on her head, and the once-bright green patterns of her raiment were now indistinguishable from the green Army drab in which he had first seen her. She was going fast now and he knew it.
‘How can I get in touch with you?’ he screamed, with a sudden violence that burned his vocal chords – ‘What is your name?’
The rest of his life was to hinge upon the attempt to reconstruct her answer with certitude, for in answering him she disappeared from sight, and in disappearing she ceased to speak clearly. Of her first five words there could be no doubt. They were: ‘In the Astral, or Symbolic...’ But what had followed? The sounds, uttered during her final dissolution into invisibility, had simply been too indistinct to recollect with precision. The young scholar believed, but could not be sure, that she had thrice uttered the same two-syllable expression. Of those two syllables, he was quite sure the vowels were U and O respectively. And the second syllable positively ended in –NG.
But had the “U” been preceded by a “W” or a “B”? And had the consonant before “O” been “D” or “T”?
Within minutes after her disappearance, he had sat up, subjected the matter to a preliminary analysis, and written down in phonetic transcription the three possible meaningful expressions which, in his opinion, thrice repeated, might have constituted the last message he was ever to receive from her lips. They were:

(1)   Bu dong, meaning ‘(I) do not understand (what you are saying)’;
(2)   Bu tong, ‘(you) cannot (any longer) get through (to me)’; and
(3)   Wutong, this being the Mandarin name of the Sterculia platanifolia or Chinese plane-tree, a recurrent image in Classical poetry.

By now the strange silvery light of the visionary atmosphere had been superseded by the plain leaden glint of early daylight. The young scholar suddenly felt himself being weighed down by an invincible press of exhaustion. Too fatigued even to glance at the poem which he had received from the girl, he sank onto the twisted, disordered sheets of his cold bed and, after three or four vast, involuntary shudders of strain, sorrow, and paradoxically irresistible relief, passed quickly into a near-comatose sleep.

(to be continued)

[1] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (London, 1975), p. 14.
[2] Arthur Guirdham, We Are One Another: A Record of Group Reincarnation (St. Helier, Jersey, 1974).
[3] René Nelli, L’ érotique des Troubadours (Toulouse, 1963).