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 3 of 3)

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

When he awakened it was as if days had gone by. Expending in the process no inconsiderable effort, he sat up in bed and slowly surveyed the room around him. Stale grey daylight hung thickly clogged in the ragged curtains still slung carelessly shut across the windows. The visible surfaces of walls, floor, and furniture were liberally strewn with the universal grit of the Ancient Capital, that indescribably dry and irritant compound of dust and coal-dust which lends itself so ideally to the chronic and incurable corruption of human throats, lungs, and mucous membranes. To this all was added the noxiously palpable presence of a rank, foul, invisibly fetid pall of half-decayed cigar smoke.
If every bone in his body had been shattered and every sinew ruptured, he could not have felt more entirely destroyed. Yet he sensed that he must lose no time in undertaking some activity, no matter how banal, as a means of gaining an unambiguous psychic re-establishment in physicality. The events of the preceding hours had been of such transcendently fascinating significance, while yet standing at an unbroachable remove from all definable focus in the temporal and spatial, as to constitute an immediate danger to the functional integrity and durative viability of the young scholar’s conscious personality. In short, his heart and brain required immediate distraction lest his flesh-and-blood entity conceive a fatal unwillingness to support the earthly continuance of his soul’s indwelling.
He decided to take a bath, put on a fresh change of clothes, and go out for a hearty meal. A meal...had not his initiatress, during her brief miraculous visit, favored him with a medical diagnosis and subsequent dietary prescription? Though he had only the vaguest memory of the words which she had spoken to him, he was certain that she had urged him to ingest great quantities of nutrients rich in calcium.
Thinking to confirm his impressions by re-reading the notes which he had taken from her dictation, he picked up the small bedside note-book. It still lay open to the page upon which he had written, in sequence:

bu dong
bu tong

Feeling for the moment no interest in further attempts at phonological reconstruction, he turned back to the previous leaf. It was covered from top to bottom with meticulously limned lines in a movingly beautiful handwriting not his own. The poem was preceded by an underlined title in strangely angular capitals. Moving his lips subtly, he read silently. The text was in Dutch. It said literally:

Madame Platane’s Plaint

What now in glory’s ever-standing gold
awaits no further weal than further onward,
shadowed by the turnstile I affirm.

O find me, you who cycled through my noon.
Let me, testament of nothing holding,
give you further giving than is known.

I call you, call it out below me here.
O see me standing by your track confounded.
There is no other walk than which you bleed.

He was stupefied. Was this the model poem which she had dictated to him? Was this the result of applying the dubiously schematic compositional techniques which she claimed to have learned from Li Shangyin himself in a disembodied state?
        The poem was clearly beyond the young scholar’s powers of interpretation. Quite possibly it was nonsensical from any point of view. What a weird combination of language, imagery, and allusion! As for the title, it could have been directly plagiarized from Wallace Stevens. Indeed, Stevens had had Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors. But would the form ‘plaint’ have occurred in their dialect?
        And why, ueberhaupt, was the poem written not in Chinese, nor even in English, but in New Western Coastal Low Germanic? To be sure, the Chinese girl had at least some familiarity with Rilke’s hochdeutsch, but how could she have produced an entire poem in recognizable Netherlandish?
        The young scholar recalled the overall sequence of events. The girl had first entered his field of cognition while he was engaged in smoking a Dutch cigar. Somewhat earlier, he had been reading with enjoyment cigar-box labels printed in the Dutch idiom. Perhaps his vibrantly radiating emotion of pleasure had served as a homing-beacon by which the girl in her Essential State had been enabled to find her way to him; and perhaps the Dutch language, appearing to her to be the cause of the enthusiasm which she intended to utilize as an Etheric anchorage for the intense affective rapport which was to serve as the channel of their psychic interperception, had seemed to her the safest basis upon which to found a lasting framework of psychic affinity. In any case, the lexical and grammatical facility needed to construct the poem could obviously have been borrowed from his own subconscious memory by paranormal means.
        But how to interpret the poem? The apparent references to a cyclist passing under plane-tree leaves near a railroad crossing seemed clearly to allude to his own Sunday-afternoon practices during his years as a student in the Low Countries. But what, for example, of the last line, which seemed to him frankly incomprehensible?
        Suddenly, without warning, his eyes seemed to become overcast with dry, wool-like floating patches of white. He realized that he was faint, actually trembling with hunger. He laid the note-book down, got out of bed, and began fairly to tear off his wrinkled, unclean clothes.
        Fifteen minutes later he had bathed, dressed, left his dwellings, and bought three sesame buns from a street pedlar. As he paced the wind-swept, dusty streets of the Ancient Capital, eating while he walked, he realized that “Madame Platane” could conceivably be a fanciful translation of wutong. And wutong, of course, was none other than one of the three items he had hypothesized as the girl’s last utterances. But what, then, could be the meaning of the other two – bu dong and bu tong, in the order in which he had originally listed them? Wu tong...bu dong...bu tong...
‘By God, that’s it!’ he cried suddenly, freezing in his tracks and shouting aloud to the amazement of all around him. ‘Those words in that order; it’s purely a question of punctuation!’
It would be profitless to speculate upon the reactions felt by the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom at the sight of this strange exemplar of foreign physiognomy, standing stock-still on one of their streets and crying out incomprehensible syllables for the benefit of no visible audience. What none of them could have divined, in any case, was that the young foreign scholar had mentally struck upon the possibility of arranging the relevant expressions as the sentence “Wutong bu dong, bu tong,” which he took to mean: “As long as the plane-tree is not understood, you cannot get through to me.” Nor could they have imagined that by one of those staggeringly instantaneous lightning-thrusts of thought-combination which demonstrate as do few other formally discrete perceptions the irrefragably supra-temporal, imperishably self-coherent identity of the human mind, the name of the plane-tree suddenly brought to the young foreign scholar a vivid recollection of his long-forgotten youthful ambition to seek both a living and a lifework in the study of arboreal biology. How long ago had it been, that summer in which he had actually gone so far as to solicit from leading North American universities an impressive array of brochures concerning the available curricula in Forestry, Conservational Ecology, and Forest Agronomy? He remembered with certainty that remarkably attractive financial aid had been offered to prospective students in these fields, such that even the period of learning could be regarded as the start of an uncommonly comfortable career. Would such conditions still obtain?
In any case, the young scholar reflected as he remained rooted to the spot oblivious to the staring, hawking, spitting, dawdling crowd milling about him, it was unambiguously evident that Sinology had nothing more to offer him. By comparison with the periclitational epiphany of incomparable romance which had so lately been disclosed unto him, what possible glamor could the future hold? Though he might devote an additional half-century to the classification of Sub-standard Affricates, he could never again hope for a meeting with the Beloved, whether in the emerald folds of her Essential Raiment or in the military drab of every day.
But could he not indeed?
With the speed and accuracy of a crossbow-bolt, there entered into his mind the one inevitable conclusion to which his ruminations upon the parting words of the Beloved must lead. Had she not said, according to his own analysis, ‘As long as the plane-tree is not understood, you cannot get through to me’? What could be more overwhelmingly obvious, then, that once he did understand the plane-tree, a channel of further Astral communication might be opened? In the Dictated Poem, she had quite apparently personified herself as a plane-tree. Was it not abundantly, indeed ridiculously plain to see that if he mastered the study of Forestry, learning as it were to “understand” the Siren mutterings of the rustling leaves of the plane-tree – the Beloved could then once again approach him?
He knew what he must do. He was to leave China at once, quit Sinology, enroll at the earliest possible as a student of Forestry, and apply all his inborn diligence to the mastery of a new career, a new life, and the joyous memory of the Entity who would, as he now believed, someday assuredly be re-united with him in the extra-corporeal extasies of Spirit Marriage.
He would return at once to his lodgings to begin packing. But first, yielding to a sudden craving for fried bean-curd, he turned his footsteps in the direction of the Inner City.

Shortly after noon upon the third day after the young foreign scholar had reached his fateful decision to alter the established course of his fleshly career, a young Chinese girl in a green Army uniform exited through the check-point at the main entrance to the compounds of Capital Cloth Garments Processing Factory No. 22. She carried an olive-green canvas valise printed in white with the name and symbol of the city of Tientsin.
        The guard at the check-point, doubtless knowing the girl personally, did not so much as lift a finger as she passed. Indeed, as she walked rapidly on through the streets and alleys of the Ancient Capital, her appearance was not such as to attract the slightest curiosity in whatever quarter.
        And well it was that no-one gave attention to the briskly passing virgin, for with each gentle footstep, with each faint fearful puckering of her wind-reddened cheeks, she was committing an act of Felony and of High Treason. The facts of the case were that she had left her place of employment upon a false pretext of illness; that she bore upon her person forged identity-cards and letters of introduction, in both English and Chinese, purporting to have originated in the highest Bureaux of a Ministry; that her valise was filled with fried bean-curd which, like the aforesaid spurious papers, had been purchased at ruinous cost through illegal channels; that she intended to proceed to a certain address in the Foreigners’ Quarter and deliver the contents of the valise to a certain foreign scholar; and that in every detail of her present undertaking she was but obeying the irresistibly fervent suggestions which she had received in dreams, upon four consecutive nights in absolutely identical form, from Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.
        When the girl arrived at the address to which she had been thus directed, she was almost disappointed to discover that she could well have dispensed with all her dearly-bought counterfeit documents. The Foreigners’ Quarter, so it seemed, was so ill-governed that she was not even so much as challenged to identify herself between street and door, between door and stairs, or all along the corridor; and so impossibly identical were these surroundings with those which Guan Yin had shown her that she felt no fear, nor any other kind of passion, but executed all necessary movements with the infallible nonchalance of one to whom the earth-life has already become but a minor footnote to Reality.
        Arriving at the fatefully numbered room, she found its door standing open, and as if by one great stroke of a terrible bell of mourning, the miraculous convergence of dream and reality was broken forever. The room as she found it was empty, bare, uninhabited. Within seconds the reality of her three-dimensional situation had dawned upon her. The mission entrusted to her by Guan Yin would never be fulfilled; she would never again see the young foreign scholar; and she was a Felon and in mortal danger.
        She turned around and made her way hurriedly out of the building by the same way she had come. Setting forth upon the streets, she began involuntarily to cry, and though she was now in full view of countless countrymen, she made no attempt to stem the ever-increasing flow of tears and sobs, if indeed she had been able to do so. Presently she broke into a run, clutching the valise under one arm; speeding toward the center of the City in an agony of grief and panic, she had by now no clear destination in mind.
        Was it Fate that she should have remembered the incriminating nature of the contents of her valise just as she emerged onto a street running alongside a body of water? What may be known and recounted with certainty is that after progressing by a few short yards upon the said route she suddenly stopped running and, standing by the unprotected edge of the water, heaved the valise into the gently flowing blue. Seconds later, as subsequently reported by numerous witnesses, she uttered one long cry of supreme despair, leaped boldly into the water, and ceased to inhabit the visible world.

As for the young foreign scholar, very soon after his departure from the Middle Kingdom he succeeded in gaining the coveted Scholarship for the Graduate Study of Forestry of a leading Canadian institution of higher learning. Once in Canada, he mastered the Curriculum with phenomenal rapidity and thoroughness, and attained within three-and-a-half years to an Assistant Professorship. Two years later he was made Research Director of a vast experimental forest preserve in British Columbia. Among his colleagues he was renowned not only for his astounding professional competence but for his unusual private recreations, one of which was the reading of Chinese books. Not only did he produce with some regularity translations of Chinese articles concerning Forestry and Ecological Biology, but it was rumored he could quote from memory innumerable passages from Classical Chinese poetry.
        Not surprisingly, the young scholar’s success was marked by substantial material rewards. Concomitantly with his respected position in British Columbia, he took possession of a beautiful dwelling in forest surroundings, situated upon the shore of a small lake which belonged to the property. It was said, by those who knew the young scholar, that though the lake was strikingly cluttered with old planks, spars, and other such wooden miscellanea dating from the recent wreck of a sailing-boat, the young scholar had expressly refused to remove them. It was also said that he had a penchant, bizarre as it might seem, for setting forth upon the lake in a row-boat on overcast days in summer, and that during these solitary outings he seemed positively to welcome rainfall. Upon one occasion, indeed, he was said to have sat in his boat under an umbrella surrounded by floating debris in the middle of the lake during a strong rainstorm, imperturbably reading aloud from a book of Chinese poetry, until finally, toward nightfall, he re-emerged onto dry land in a curious state of bliss in which he suddenly made a number of substantial donations to charitable institutions and wrote, in the form of a perfect cycle of Regulated Poems in Classical Chinese, an extraordinarily generous Last Will and Testament before proceeding forthwith to the hospital with high fever and incipient pneumonia, from which, however, he had entirely recovered by the next morning, having by his own insistent testimony been ‘helped through the night by two friends.’
        Whatever the degree of final veracity with which such averments may be, in retrospect, accredited, we cannot but assume that the young scholar was in fact accustomed to practices of such or a similar nature. Nor should we be likely to err gravely in accepting the hypothesis, universally current among those having intimate knowledge of the young scholar’s private affairs, that these unusual predilections, indicating as they did some subtle yet decisive streak of serious psychological imbalance among the traits of his seemingly strong and admirable character, were not without meaningful relation to the fact, otherwise so remarkable in the case of such an outstandingly successful young scholar, that he never saw fit to marry.
        Lest the reader be left, as our modest account draws to a close, entirely without the means to form an intelligent opinion upon these matters, it may be well to relate that upon a sunny Saturday morning in early June during the thirty-fifth year of his spirit’s incorporated journey through the Vale of Soul-making[1], the young scholar was found deceased by the driver of a route-delivery van from the local dairy. The young scholar, when thus tragically discovered, lay sprawled across the gunwale of his row-boat upon the lake adjacent to his home. The boat had run upon an immobile mass of sunken lumber, so that it remained afloat though the young scholar’s head and arms had long since sunk fatally below the water-level. From the fact that he had with him in the boat a cushion, several thick blankets, a sheet of mosquito-netting, and a thermos flask half-filled with coffee, it appeared probable that he had spent some or all of the previous night upon the water. According to the report of the dairy-van driver, the young scholar’s features bore, despite the frightful circumstances of his death, an unmistakable expression of exceptional content, nay, of joy.
        Most singularly of all, among the folds of the blankets, in the near vicinity of a small pocket-torch, there lay open two books side by side, one in Chinese and one in English. As confirmed by subsequent investigation, the pages thus exposed to view contained a stanza by Li Shangyin and its translation into English. In the margin above the English version, the young scholar had clearly written in his own elegant handwriting the ancient Chinese saying: ‘He who has seen the Way during the morning may die the same evening without regret.’
        The poem itself, in full translation, was, is, and shall forever remain as follows:

She came on the Seventh Night, at the predestined hour.
Since then, the curtain of the inner chamber has remained closed.
The moon that witnessed our hour is already waning.
The coral was caught in an iron net, but could not be harvested.
If only I had a magic charm to prolong forever that hour!
Shall I send up my longings on incense-smoked paper?
The History of Emperor Wu is an unambiguous witness:
These things are within the experience of humankind.

[1] On this world as ‘The Vale of Soul-making,’ see Carlos Baker (ed.), Keats: Poems and Selected Letters (New York, 1962), p. 467.