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 book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017.



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.



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, November 19, 2011

Fleetest of All Known Things (story)

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

Like all Chinese, Liao Rubin spent her vacations doing useful career-related things that might enable her eventually to work at a harder, better-paid job. That, and going back to her native Taiwan to visit her widowed mother, who at 88 was still going strong in a Buddhist care facility.
        She had just told me these things as we met, two tourists standing in line to buy tickets to the Jiansheng Temple. I was surprised that she had never visited the temple before. True, she was unmarried, and the temple’s main attraction was its image of the Mother Keeper of the Birth Book, Zhusheng Niangniang, who helps worthy wives to become pregnant. But it was not so far from where her mother lived, in the mountainous Chiayi region with its wide sunny exposures fragrant with tea plantations.
        ‘No,’ Rubin said, ‘the sun doesn’t bother me at all. Actually I can never get enough of it. That’s one of the things about Taiwan that I still do like. My mother keeps urging me to take early retirement and come back here to live.’
        She taught Chinese language and culture at a college in Washington State where tall evergreen trees outnumbered the people and cars but it rained or near-rained every day.
        ‘It was never really my idea to go into this field,’ she said. ‘I actually wanted to be a nun. Our whole family is Catholic. But my father wanted me to study and teach literature. He said: you should share yourself with the whole world, not just with God.’
        ‘Isn’t that the same thing, sort of?’
        ‘You know...that’s an interesting idea. I’ve never really had time to think about that’ she said, but by now we were already coming up to the ticket window and she was reaching into her handbag. When she took her coin purse out, an empty flashbulb pack came out with it and dropped to the floor. As she bent down to pick it up, I looked at her legs, slender and bright beneath her knee-length blue cotton dress. She was wearing white pumps with narrow heels that made her totter slightly as she stood up again.
        We walked through the turnstile into the temple. From the incense seller, she bought a single stick. ‘I don’t really believe in this stuff, but I have a niece in Kaohsiung that’s hoping to have a child soon, and I promised to “send up incense” for her.’
        She stepped up to the stone vat, lit her own incense from the big communal punk stick, and held it close to her chest for a couple of moments with her eyes closed. I thought I saw just the slightest vestige of the traditional non-Christian three bows that precede placing the incense stick into the vat.
        As the bluish pungent smoke curled upward from her own stick and the shorter older ones that stood beside it in the vat, she started rummaging in her handbag again. I was about to walk over and examine the image of the Mother but three Cantonese-speaking girls, cameras already raised, blocked my way.
        ‘Oh, this is so-o-o-o stupid!’ said Rubin. ‘I didn’t take any flashbulbs with me. Do you have one or two that I could just buy from you?’
        ‘No, I don’t even have a camera with me.’
        ‘Well, isn’t that a shame! I wanted to teach a course next year on female goddess cults, and I wanted to show my students what the images look like from close by.’
        ‘Maybe there’s a souvenir shop where you could buy some postcards.’
        ‘But I like to make my own slides, and make nice big prints for the students. O, gee...’ Holding her camera limply in one hand, she watched the Cantonese girls as they flashed off one shot after another. ‘Well, maybe I could stand up close to somebody else while they’re taking a picture, and when their flash goes off, I could take my picture at the same time!’
        You can’t be serious, I thought. Do you have any idea how perfectly timed that would have to be, to get the same flash to work for two people?
        ‘It wouldn’t work,’ I said. ‘You’d have to co-ordinate the time perfectly. The light only lasts for a split second.’
        She kept looking at the Cantonese girls as they moved off into the corner and began leafing through the little free prayer booklets. Had she even heard what I said? I looked at my watch. I had an appointment in Taichung City for later this afternoon, and I was hoping to go back on a bus that left thirty-one minutes from now.
        ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I think I’m just going to have to go outside and see if I can buy some flashbulbs. I couldn’t live with myself if I came all the way here and didn’t even get any pictures. I don’t think I would have to buy a new ticket to come back in.’
        Even if you did, I thought...but I knew that for them, no amount of money was ever too trivial to worry about, to become an issue, to disrupt plans and call things off.
        ‘Okay, good luck!’
        She walked back to the entrance, said a few words to the ticket-taker girl, and disappeared from sight.
        I stepped up to the image of the Mother. It was one of the Dark type – a plausible human form in dirty or smoke-blackened golden robes, with an opened book in one hand and a writing brush in the other. Red pom-poms hung around the head, shading the face and making it even darker. As so often, it was hard to tell whether the loose, almost formless facial features indicated benevolence or apathy, patience or absence. The darkness of the image and the dim of the surroundings amplified, justified, lent verity to each other.
        A flashbulb exploded into light close behind my right shoulder. Instantly my whole body half-leapt with a spasm of instinctual rejection, cramping against the sudden excess of brilliance. As always, for a few moments afterward I was blinded, seeing less in the light’s wake than I had in the accustomed darkness which had awaited it.
        Other flashes came, accompanied by voices in Hokkien, Hakka, Japanese. But they came and went, adding nothing, altering nothing. I too, carrying camera nor incense – I would add nothing, alter nothing here.
        And yet...that was not true. I would remember this place at this moment as no one else would ever remember it. Someday, though it be decades away in a far land, I would think back to this backward corner, this dimness that had come to house an image, a hope. And I would see it again, perhaps would see it all the better for having no two-dimensional picture, no caricature framed in the glare of a man-made bulb.
But Rubin – did she really believe she could share in the flash of a passerby less meditative, more practical in the ways of this world than herself? It was possible. Her Oriental deference to her father had driven the nun that she was into hiding, making that early essential image live on, not as the visible shape of her adulthood but as an underground stream nourishing other lives, still hopeful shoots. Beneath the teacher, the propounder of culture, the well-spoken lady teetering on stylish half-high heels, I wondered if her feet ever stood quite steady on the planet’s surface.
I turned around and started for the exit. Rubin had not come back. Had she been detoured, drawn, charmed back into the aura of her forebears’ eternal window-shopping, bargain-talking, gift-buying, snack-eating? Would she price flashbulbs at a dozen shops before returning to the first one and pleading for a discount? Maybe in the end, seeing they were more expensive here than in the city, she would decide after all not to buy them, and instead to try her fantastically unrealistic idea of taking her picture while somebody else’s flash went off.
        If so, I thought as I headed for the bus stop, it would be a lesson. Not to teach but to learn: that in this world even light, fleetest of all known things, is subject to time: is measured, meted, doled, dispensed by the days, the hours, the moments: those shutters that so narrowly allow it in its passing.