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). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

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 newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

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. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Blood (story: Part One of Two)

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

She wished the half-open window of the bus would quit rattling. She already had a bad enough headache – not quite a full-blooded migraine – and it didn’t help her nausea that the bus kept on standing here, immobilized since more than twenty minutes ago, in the heart of the teeming market town X – . Since leaving Y – , two and a half hours ago, so much time had been lost: a detour at A – , a fantastically delayed switch of drivers at M – . Were they really going to reach C – by sunset? She certainly hoped so. This was her second trip to China, and although the material side of things had improved since eight years ago – it was now 1987 – she knew China well enough not to look forward to spending the night in some rural village in the Southwestern province of S – .
        And she had reached the age where deprivation is no longer a welcome adventure. As a twenty-year-old Foreign Student at Peking University, she had still been able to smile when she got up in the morning, went to the communal wc and found the floor covered with a third of an inch of water, no paper next to the toilet, and the flush mechanism not working. But now, holding a Master’s in sinology and working as China correspondent of a Rotterdam daily, she preferred sleeping in a bed without bugs.
        China was not the only thing on her mind. Just a couple of hours before she left on this trip, her boyfriend had announced that he was seeing another, younger woman and was planning to rent a room for himself in The Hague in addition to their apartment in Rotterdam. She felt like a heroine for not canceling this trip. But three weeks alone in China, two of them in the out-of-the-way Southwestern districts, had taken their toll on her well-being. The constant moving around had given her insomnia, and for days now, her digestion had been off.
        And now this bus, standing still in this heat. Ignoring the pain in her head for a moment, she thanked God for two things: that she was sitting on the shadow side of the bus while it stood in the blazing sun, and that the background music had somehow dropped out. The bus was so crowded that the standing passengers more or less collapsed in your lap, but after all, this was China. The other passengers talked so loud you would think they were trying to get somebody’s attention on the other side of an ocean. There was a lot of very stenchy smoking going on. Mothers crammed oily cold peanut-butter-covered noodles into the mouths of their crying children, or used their bare fingers to wipe puke from an open tiny mouth. Amidst all the din, incredibly, others sat or stood fast asleep.
It had started right after the bus turned right. This road in itself was nothing unusual – unpaved, dusty, full of deep ruts. But every few days there was an open-air market here. Like today. It looked as if half the population of the province had turned out for the event. And all on their feet: people toting bags, with patched denim bags slung over their shoulder, with half-rusted pails that jangled from the ends of long carrying poles, with a whole pig trussed to a thick stick that they carried together with a neighbor, with a sleeping baby in a sling, or with a white-haired Grandma with impossibly small feet dating from footbinding days, whom they pushed along in a wheelbarrow.
        More than twenty minutes ago, the bus had turned off onto this humanity-filled market street. The pedestrians, even the ones who looked around them enough to be aware that a big motorized vehicle was coming, ignored the bus’s approach or were immobilized by the human crush around them. The driver, like all drivers on all Chinese streets, tooted the horn so continously that the sound of the horn merely faded into the general hubbub. A few more minutes went by, and when there was still no sign of the pedestrians making way, the driver finally lost his patience. Slowly but determinedly, he let the bus start advancing.
The first few yards went fine, but then somebody walking with a bicycle suddenly tried to dash across in front of the moving bus. A sound of impacted metal. Shrieking brakes. A vast dizzying lurch. Again the bus stood still.
The driver threw the motor into neutral and flew out the front door. What happened next was invisible from inside. Within seconds, oral reports raced through to the end of the bus: the pedestrian was unhurt but the rear wheel of his bicycle had been wrecked. Other reports circulated outside: there was a Foreign Woman in the bus. From the other side of the half-open rattling window, people pointed at her face, her hair: look, a blonde white woman!
        She was too weak to smile back, and her nausea was really getting bad. And the driver wasn’t coming back, the bus wasn’t moving. She felt an overwhelming need to rest her head, to lean against anything whatsoever, just for a moment. She already knew the back rest of her seat was broken: it was stuck permanently in the forward position. But if she just shoved the window a little farther down, she could put her arm against it and lay her head in her hand...
        The window had two handles. One was right next to her seat; the other was closest to the passenger behind her – a stocky older woman with white hair in a bun, sitting straight up and sleeping through it all. Her fleshy, warty arms lay curled loosely around a clutch of useful items: a blue thermos flask, a venerable brown sweater, a child’s shiny pink silk jacket, a folded-up wooden stool. Sitting beside her was a youth with a pimpled face. He was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and green Army pants. 
The young man saw that the Foreigner wanted to close the window, but he could not easily reach around the big sleeping woman with her piled-up lap. He flashed a well-meaning smile at the Foreigner and pounded the sleeping woman’s elbow several times with the butt of his hand, calling ‘Auntie, Auntie!’
The woman’s eyes opened. They were blue!
‘Aaaaahh?’ she asked half-awake.
‘Shut the window shut the window!’ said the young man very fast, smiling at no one in particular, tense as if almost in panic, pointing with repeated jolts of his finger in the vague direction of the window.
In a single flowing but amazingly swift sequence, the older woman gathered up the items on her lap with one arm, raised the other hand and slammed the whole window shut with one decisive tug on the handle next to her, returned her arm to its original relaxed position, closed her eyes, and went back to sleep.
        The Foreigner nodded thanks to the young man. O please, she thought, please don’t let him start talking to me, don’t let him know I speak Chinese, don’t make me speak Chinese right now, Lord, I feel so sick! Meanwhile the young man returned her smile in silence, his own tense smile more than ever resembling a grimace.
        When she felt she had satisfied the demands of elementary propriety, she turned around, laid the back of her hand against the window, and carefully nestled her head into the palm. But the window was still rattling, and her head rattled along. Of all things that might have relieved her headache a tiny bit, this was the last. And now in addition to the near-unbearable noise of the bus, the passengers, and the surrounding crowd, a new sound entered her awareness: the intense rhythmic tapping of her ring against the glass.
It was a silver ring with a cornelian cameo, an heirloom that she had been given at her graduation from college. It had belonged to her grandmother, who had received it as a gift from her first husband shortly before he died.
        The tapping began anew every time she just seemed to have found a more comfortable position for her head. The noise in itself was not louder or more unpleasant than that of the voices, the motor, the window. But it brought along thoughts, of what her mother had said while giving her the ring: when the time comes, you’ll give it to a daughter of your own! But she didn’t have a daughter. Would the cameo be damaged by the constant hammering against the pane?
       Finally she gave up and sat up straight. She was just wondering how much longer she could stand it when there seemed to be a sudden new commotion in the front of the bus. The constant talking continued, but people seemed to look at each other more emphatically, with more focus. A few stood up from their seats and seemed to be trying to get off the bus.
‘Police...police...’ the rumor swept the bus; ‘they can’t agree on whose fault it was; they’ve called the District Police Office, but the man with the bike was injured, we can’t move till the police get here...’
        At this point, in a Western country there might have been a mutiny, but as usual, the Chinese passengers made the best of it. Quite a few stood up now and went out to
examine the wares of the street sellers, to try to sell something of their own, or to find a place to relieve themselves.
        Whatever residual optimism the Foreigner might have had was gone now. That a minor traffic incident had led to a 30-minute delay – okay, such things happen. But now there would be an additional wait – who knew for who long? – until the police arrived, and after that, until all parties had had their histrionic fill of sounding off for the benefit of the surrounding audience of down-home failures, unemployed dropouts and illiterate mothers for whom the whole drama was a wonderful amusement, the longer-lasting the better.
She decided to get out. A little walking might be the right thing for her head, and in any case, the air outside the bus would be more breathable. And right now, doing anything at all would be better than nothing.   
She stood up and was plunged into dizziness. The pain felt like a too-heavy steel disk jammed slantwise through her brain. Now that she was on her feet, she noticed a couple of hazy patches appearing in the right half of her field of vision. She half saw, half felt that the young woman who had been sitting on the aisle seat next to her was gone now. Others were elbowing their way down the crowded aisle, in both directions.
        Three minutes later, she had succeeded in getting off the bus. She had thought it was crowded and noisy in the bus, but outside, she was in a whole new world where new standards applied. While she stepped down to the ground, an image flooded her mind: she was a diver, descending onto the bottom of the sea, but the sea had dried up and was now baking in the sun, while the countless plants, ferns, fossils, starfish, sea horses – even if they were now dry, solid, fully concrete – still swayed as if underwater, sometimes suddenly shifting position. People and things moved abruptly but slightly, vaguely but inevitably, as if obeying unseen shudderings of the planet beneath them.
The moment her foot touched the bottom, she was barked painfully in the shin by a strange new aquatic specimen suddenly looming up out of the swirling sea of humanity: a stocky girl with long braids and expressionless eyes, pushing a horribly squeaking wheelbarrow with two piglets in it. To the lurching of the wheelbarrow, the animals added their own squirms, grapples, grunts. Their noise blended into the rasping of the wheel, piercing back and forth through the steel disk which remained stuck in the Foreigner’s skull.
No one apologized; no one noticed the Foreigner while she bent down to rub her shin, holding the other hand against her hurting head. Animate forms drifted past her bending body, their hands gripped tightly around handlebars or children, suitcases with wheels, open slouch bags with live chickens in them. A man plodded by with a television set under one arm and under the other a sleeping baby.
        Cautiously the Foreigner returned to vertical position while letting herself be moved slowly in the irresistible direction of the overall motion. It was an effort to walk, but it gave her a sense of renewed strength, and the spectacle of the Chinese, passionately losing themselves in their habitual chase for colorful odds and ends, was a soothing distraction from her dizziness and pain.
When she had trudged along for three or four minutes, the great stream of motion brought her past tanzi: the booths and tables of street-sellers, full of their wares. A small rickety table wobbled and shook as passersby inspected its freight: plaster busts of Beethoven, Mozart and Einstein. Two yards further on loomed a counter improvised from shoved-together wooden crates, the top filled with medicines: dark liquids in bottles, bundles of stalks and herbs wrapped in newspaper, pills in tiny glass bottles sealed with corks and wax.
        While she stood looking at the medicines, a voice behind her said in Chinese: ‘That stuff’s good for you, that brown bottle on the left. You can rub it on your leg where it hurts. It really works!’ She turned around: there, smiling wide as the sky, was the boy who had been sitting in the seat behind her. He was holding the white-haired woman by the hand. So they had seen her, observed her, followed her out of the bus and beyond.
        She smiled, nodded a wordless greeting.
        ‘You’re taking a walk,’ the young man said, still smiling and looking her straight in the eyes. His cheeks were red with the thrill of looking a blonde foreign woman in the face.
        ‘Yes,’ she said; ‘you too!’ Who was the famous Western writer who had pointed out the Chinese custom of ‘stating the obvious’? She could not remember.
        ‘Go ahead; buy some medicine! That brown bottle is good for your leg. For your head too!’ 
        What is this, she thought; how does he know I have a headache? But he went on: ‘Take your time. It looks like we won’t be leaving for a while, with that fighting and all...’
        ‘Didn’t you see them when you got out? Fighting.’
‘They were really going at it. This woman was slugging him with her fist, I mean the guy with the bike. And cussing him out: that she had seen it all, it was all his fault and he should just shut up, and all. But then this other guy got mad at the woman and started grabbing onto her, and somebody else hit him in the mouth, and...’
‘No!’ the old woman suddenly cried. The look of horror in her amazingly blue eyes was addressed to no one. ‘Oh no, they shouldn’t fight, I don’t want anybody to fight. I don’t understand why one human being should hurt another, oh Heavens, they beat my husband up so terribly and he was always so good to me, he never did a thing wrong and they say he’s dead but I know he’s alive, I saw him that time in the alley, I’m just going to see my granddaughter, my little treasure, why should they start fighting again when I’m just going to – ’
        ‘Auntie, Auntie, take it easy!’ the young man said while he threw his arms around her. ‘Take it easy, it’s okay!’ Even while he was pronouncing the words, it was as if he and his aunt sank away again, swallowed up again by the unsteady irresistible pulse of the wordless sea of humanity.
        The Foreigner tried to stand still for a moment and get her bearings, but again she was borne along, moved along in the ungraspable yet warm surf of souls foregathering in a moment of sun.
        She went along, came along, joined in the coming. Past a bicycle with a baby up front and a net full of turnips behind. Past an old woman pushing a cart full of garlic stems, stopping every few moments to clear her throat and spit on the ground. An old man with one leg, a beggar, sitting on a piece of canvas with a green Army cap to shield him from the sun, and on the ground next to him a metal rice box, empty but for a couple of coins and a yellow-and-red tourist badge with a profile of Chairman Mao.       
And so she came along, was led along, prepared, let further and further in to where her eyes suddenly stayed wide open, gazing at what stood in front of her, white, gleaming in the sun like a pillar risen from an ocean: an enormous earthen jug, taller than her waist and half a yard wide, filled to the brim with blood.
        She felt sick, urgently, but even as her eyes – still hazy with the sense of an overhanging piece of steel weighing thwart across her forehead – scoured the ground for a place to puke, it was as if her spirit was awakened, positively freed by the sudden fresh rush of pain. Beyond the reach of migraine, of nausea, she moved in a subtle dimension of unassailable peace. While she watched a cockroach edging its way past a cigarette butt long since trodden and smashed into the grit of the road, she hovered on a secret plane of thankfulness, proud to be conscious, to be thinking: I’m much too happy, much too privileged to let a moment of discomfort detract from this life, this, day, this hour that I am here.
For indeed she was here, now, in China, surrounded by flecks of living color as they moved gleaming through the sunlight of this late afternoon, every fleck a soul joining in the dance that was about her. Their blaring chatter was a psalm, a song of praise for her, reaching through fear and pain all the way to her ears with a message of assurance, a knowledge of her strange glory, the unassimilable beauty of her being.
        But she really did feel sick now. Seeing she was not going to find a decent place to throw up, she began to sink to her knees where she was. Her mind went back to the earthen jug and just under its rim, its silent surface of blood.
        Hadn’t she read somewhere that the ancient Chinese used bowls of water as mirrors? Could you see your face mirrored in a jug of blood? At the thought, she began to retch, yet the very strangeness of the thought fascinated, distracted her, led away from pain. A mirror, blood as a mirror...wasn’t that a literary allusion?
Something smacked down nearby with a dull thud. Resting on her hands and knees, she lifted her head and looked. Someone had just thrown a duck, with a bloody cut-through throat, onto a big pile of dead ducks that all had the same cut-through throat, the same bloodmarked head hanging half loose from the same limp dead body. She did not dare to look at the eyes.
Nor had she dared, six years ago in Leiden when she and her boyfriend had just moved into a home of their own, to look at the eyes. It was a beautiful, ample apartment they had found – the spacious, light-filled ground floor of a remodeled eighteenth-century house. But on one of those long shared summer days, an afternoon with a quiet drizzle falling, she was standing just inside the glass back door listening to a Haydn piano trio and looking through the rain traces on the windowpane at the trees and shrubs in the garden, when somewhere out of nowhere a baby bird, a starling, flew up against the glass with a hard knock and fell onto the stone patio.
        She had rushed to the animal’s aid; several times she had walked coatless into the rain and tried to use two twigs to turn over the little body, at intervals twisting with terrible palpitations, and set it right again so that the spasmodic movements that the wings still made might still turn again into flight before the upstairs neighbors’ cat should arrive. After the first time, she had never looked again at the eyes. 
It was hopeless. In the end she had laid the dead body in the garden close to the roots of the saxifrage. She had gone back in, put on the other side of the music, and together with her boyfriend drunk a glass of wine that led to another, and to a long  session of love on the floor by the window.
        That had been their first home.
But now she felt somebody pulling on her elbow. ‘Come on, I’ll help you’ said a woman’s voice, in Chinese with a strange accent.

[to be continued]