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, December 24, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 3 of 8)

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

The antique oaken table in the kitchen was half buried under tai chi books and DVDs in various languages. Muus was sitting with a glass of red wine; nearest to him was a DVD with accompanying book in Dutch. The Dutch title and undertitle read: Back to the Body: Tai Chi as the Secret of Life. The subtitle was The modern simplified Yang Style, explained and demonstrated by Master Shen Weiran.
I had never heard of Shen Weiran, but that meant nothing. I had never tried to keep up with the steady stream of ‘masters’ who claimed to have spent years ‘in the mountains’ receiving oral instruction from the last living exponents of the ‘true tradition,’ who now littered the internet with sample clips of the ‘instructional videos’ which their American impresarios had helped them to produce.
But I found the name remarkable, ‘Weiran.’ There were no Chinese characters indicated, so I could not be certain of the Chinese meaning: wei and ran are common syllables and could mean various things. But I guessed maybe it meant ‘For-the-sake-of-how-it-is.’ To me it had a Taoist flavor, like a name that someone might have assumed later in life after adopting a philosophy. On the other hand, it might mean ‘Just-the-way-it-is.’ That, too, sounded Taoist or Zen-like.
Vera was standing next to me. She proffered a mug of tea. ‘Do you want anything in it?’
        ‘No, thanks. Hey, this one, by Shen Weiran – I don’t know this one; did it just come out?’
‘It’s not even officially out yet. It’s our own. We’re planning to start using it in the Foundation’s introductory courses. It’s based on our own version of the movements. We want to try it out now, in the workshop, and see how the newcomers take to it. That is, of course, if you and Muus agree.’
        ‘Well, sure; you guys know best.’
No sooner had the bright red van taken Ed, Vera and Matt back out of sight, than Muus said: ‘Well, isn’t it getting to be time for a serious drink?’ I had noticed the cheery yellow cardboard box next to the refrigerator with six liter bottles in it: Ketel One Jonge Jenever, the mild-tasting but strong Holland gin that is so unfortunately unknown overseas. Muus took out one of the bottles, opened the refrigerator, and exchanged the new full bottle for an opened one out of the freezer compartment that was still half full. ‘If you get two glasses out of that cupboard, we can go sit in “the room,” as the good Dutchman says.’ He picked up a tin of salted cashews from the sideboard and led me into ‘the room.’
Practically up to the ceiling, bookshelves covered and hid the walls. In between two of the steep stacks of books, there was an open space wide enough to reveal the color of the wall: white. Here a small framed black-and-white photo hung on the wall. It was of a young woman, with a pretty smile and boyishly short-cropped hair, standing on the seashore in a one-piece bathing suit.
‘That’s Bea, my wife. That’s how she looked when I met her – we actually met on the beach. We were “washed up together,” we used to say. Come on, let’s sit down.’
We installed ourselves in a corner with a wonderfully wide view of the surrounding farmlands: a southwestern exposure where at this northern latitude the late afternoon sun seemed almost the clearest of the whole day, bringing out visual details and implications that had gone unnoticed in the harsher light of noon.
‘This is my favorite spot,’ he said. ‘This view – I could sit here all day long. Do you know that poem by Jellema, with that line “the meaning that keeps it open”? Well, for me this is the open that keeps it meaning. Absolute reality!’ But the phone was ringing: a cellphone on the little desk in another corner of the room. Muus grimaced for a moment, set down the full glass that he had just been about to toast with, and strode quickly to pick up the device.
‘Hello, Aarts here – oh, hi Vera, what can I do for you? Oh. Right. Well, that’s fine, sure, if there’s any problem, but I don’t think there will be. I’ve got an expert here in the room with me! Okay great, see you tomorrow!’
        He went back to his chair, sat down, and raised his glass. ‘Santé!’ he said warmly. ‘That was Vera, just to say they’ve all decided to spend the night at Puilenbroek’s place instead of in Leeuwarden. They were just sitting down to eat now.
‘Speaking of eating – I hope you don’t mind if we just heat up a couple of frozen pizzas tonight? Good. With some ready-made salad and an ice-cream cone – keep it simple, I always say. Nobody ever lived in this world that hated dishwashing more than I do.’ He emptied his glass in two swigs and poured himself another. ‘Bea never had any problem with that. With the housework. During the day she taught theology in Leiden, but then she’d come home at night and cook a real nice dinner. She actually enjoyed doing stuff in the kitchen – working with things, with material. She liked that. All that stuff is much to concrete for me, I’m always trying to get away, escape into numbers and formulas and the cosmos. Maybe that’s why I still have lessons to learn right here, the earth side of things.’
‘Well, you’ve got the right name for it! “Aarts” means “earthy”!’
‘Right, we always had to laugh about that. And in a way, I am earthy. When I sit here toward sundown, and I look out at all those beautiful trees on the other side, to me they’re all beautiful women, waving at me with their beautiful arms – if you’re into etymologies, you know “arm” can also mean the branch of a tree – here, let me pour you a refill – I was already standing beside him – and then a little later, when the sun’s really setting, you can see how it hesitates, it actually hangs under those branches, it’s being held by all those nice female arms...’
I could tell there was going to be a lot of talking tonight. I hoped that when we got around to the tai chi part, we would still be fairly sober.
‘You know,’ he was saying: ‘I’ve always been an arms freak. When I was young I used to go to the beach at Scheveningen just to look at all those bare female arms! That’s what attracted me to Bea in the first place. I was out on the beach and there she stood, with those fantastic long arms, she actually was a competition swimmer in those days, and when I saw her I thought: get her buddy, that’s the one!’
        ‘So it’s like I always say: a person changes, but in the things that really matter, you don’t change much. As a kid, I stared at girls’ arms. When I grew up, I stared at women’s arms. Now that I’m an old bastard, I look at the arms of the trees and tell myself they’re women. But I’m yacking your head off. Your turn, talk! Tell me what you’re doing these days...’
After the ice cream, Muus made a pot of strong coffee. I took mine without cognac. We moved a couple of chairs and put his DVD projector on the little desk. I now noticed that he had installed a roll-up screen above the window. We closed the venetian blinds and curtains and let the screen down. ‘Muus,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have thought you were the type to sit around watching movies and singing karaoke. You have a regular theater in here! I thought you were mainly a books man!’
         ‘Well sure, I am. But I like to watch all those science series that they have nowadays. When I was working on astrology, I bought a whole box of DVDs on the history of astronomy. Fantastic! Now I’ve got one on the history of language and writing. And I enjoy the technical side of it; once in a while I make films of my own.’
Meanwhile I had inserted the new DVD from the Foundation. We decided I would operate the projector so that Muus could concentrate on the exotic physical movements that he would be seeing for the first time.
        After a few introductory pages of names and credits, we came to the Select Posture menu, with a list of The Twenty-One Postures.      At the top of the list, I clicked on the posture called ‘Wild Horse Spreads its Mane.’ The name of the posture came up written across the screen in Chinese characters, against an audio background of traditional Chinese flute music. The next screen showed an instructional poem based on the essence of the posture and the movements that built up to it. The poem appeared in Dutch while the text was read out loud, clearly in Vera’s voice:

The breath that sent my hands before me
stays before me, mirrors me.
Tall in my truest stature,
proudly I step onward,
on to the Wide Encounter.

[to be continued]