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.



Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 4 of 8)


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


Next, we saw Master Shen himself, dressed in a white jogging suit with white tennis shoes, performing Wild Horse Spreads its Mane, smiling from beginning to end from under half-closed eyes. When he came to the point where in my experience the posture should have been finished, he went on with additional movements. His rear arm kept moving forward; then he pulled both arms back and thrust them forward again as if pushing something or somebody in front of him. He stood still in that attitude while a superimposed image appeared: a large glass pane in front of him, his hands pushing against it.
‘Wait, wait,’ said Muus: ‘stop right here.’ He leaned back in his chair and picked up his glass of jenever. ‘This is a beautiful example of what I was telling you. That all these tai chi “postures” are actually symbols of inner states. A “horse” that wants to run “wild,” shake loose its “mane” – that’s vitality! That’s the prehistoric animal inside you that gets tired of marching in line! And then that it runs up against that glass, that window – that’s consciousness, that’s what the body hadn’t foreseen, can’t understand. It tries to understand, but it can’t. It’s just like a little kid standing with its nose against the window and watching it rain outside. It wants to go out, but it can’t.’
His voice wavered and he got tears in his eyes. He took a big swig of jenever, set the glass down, and with the same movement grabbed his cigarettes and his lighter. ‘Sorry about that. Since Bea died, once in a while I have my weak momentssss – ’ The long sibilant s blended into the sputtering sound of the lighter.
‘Sure, no problem,’ I said and looked away toward the screen. I thought of the movements we had just seen. Why had Teacher Shen added those last two movements, the fist and the push? I was familiar with those movements, but not in a Yang-style context. I remembered they were typical of the Chen style, supposedly an older form of tai chi that the Yang style was derived from. Shen was presenting a latter-day synthesis, combining the fiery assertion of Chen with the gentle receptivity of Yang. Like Vera, I thought: being a woman, but with an implicit man in the background. Or Jiang Wei’s face with its tough top and warm bottom half. Trying to get all the energies in, embody them all.
I had trouble appreciating the movements. Unlike some of the magnificent elderly Masters one sees, Shen looked to me simply old and tired. He could produce the Postures, but it was as if he had to keep his mind on it. Did he move so slowly to protect his Inner Energy from undue turbulence, or was he just not able to move faster? One way or the other, there was something cumbersome, something unwieldy about him, that contrasted rudely with the dreamy flute music. Another objectionable feature were the superimposed images of visualizations that you were supposed to do while making the movements. They appeared every few seconds, showing a platinum-white ‘ring of energy’ circling around Shen’s hips like a hula hoop, or a golden ‘cord hanging from Heaven’ that his head was suspended from. The technical brilliance of the images made Shen’s body appear all the more dull, slow, plodding.
I looked at Muus. He was shaking a new cigarette out of the pack. ‘Muus, what do you think of this DVD? I mean – it’s kind of a hassle to watch, right? with all those images, those “visualizations” floating in and out – ’
‘Oh, no, I like those!’ He lit up but hardly took a puff, holding the cigarette in the air like a pointer: ‘See, in a way, our whole body is nothing but a visualization. We act like we’re familiar with it, we know what it is, and we tell ourselves it’s something harmonious and friendly, it’s on our side. “The wisdom of the body” and all that. But nobody knows what the body is. That’s the great mystery. Always has been, always will be.
‘But to him too,’ he said, pointing at the screen with his cigarette; ‘it’s a mystery. That body is a problem to him, you can see it. He’s trying to be positive about it, make it seem more peaceful, more harmonious than it is. Secretly he’d like to just jettison the whole thing, be rid of it. I saw that in the book; it says you should consciously be imagining your body has no density, it’s just a collection of “response points” in space. Actually, I’m for that, I think that’s a beautiful idea.’
‘Well, that may be, but it doesn’t fit in with what you see on the screen. What I see is that he’s way overweight!’
‘Sure he is! But that doesn’t change the fact that he has a need for...contact...’ he began to cry and looked away.
Wow, I thought. Maybe we shouldn’t have got started talking about his wife. But he’s the one that started it.
        ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m back now, I’m okay.’
‘That’s all right,’ I said; ‘and then that “advanced” part later on in the book, where he talks about all sorts of movements that your hands and arms can make – and he says they’re all variations of the same thing...hugging a big ball, a “sphere of feeling” that connects you with the world...’
        ‘Right, and that takes us right back into astrology – the idea of an imaginary sphere that connects you with the whole world. I think that’s another beautiful idea.’
        ‘Hey, what is this? I thought you didn’t believe in astrology!’
        ‘No, right, I don’t believe in it. But I wish I could believe in it, because the idea behind it is so beautiful...That there’s something that connects you with every single thing that’s happening. That’s what astrology is really saying. Really should be saying; I’m not talking at the level of the horoscope page in a newspaper. And I wrote that stuff, I crucified astrology, didn’t have a single good thing to say about it...and yet in the long run, it left me with some beautiful ideas. And that’s the way it’s always been in my life. I have to first attack something, destroy it...and then I get the realization of how beautiful it was! I had that with Bea, too...’
His eyelids started to flutter and he grabbed the jenever bottle. I quickly released the pause button and moved on to the next Posture. It was called ‘Stork Spreads Its Wings.’ We read its poem:

Where the four walls were too narrow, now
I dwell in the wind.
What hands could never reach: now
here under my wings.

‘See, just like I was saying!’ Muus said. ‘Again, he wants to dissolve the body, get rid of it. He’s saying, Look at me, I don’t even need hands any more, I have wings! I’m not tied down to that big heavy troublesome planet Earth, I can go anywhere I want; I’m a bird!’
I pressed Fast Forward to skip the details. ‘And now watch, Muus; this next one, this is the one you’re supposed to do on the film tomorrow, with Jiang Wei.’
        ‘What’s this one called?’
        ‘Guard the Knee on a Cross Step.’
        ‘Wow, that’s a mouthful.’
        ‘Can’t help it. The translations aren’t mine.’ Meanwhile the poem had come on:

Where the heart at last relaxes,
the next step emerges.
Where Yin and Yang are moving,
my heart is also moved.

Tomorrow morning, Muus and Jiang Wei were supposed to simulate a martial application of this posture for the filmer. Jiang Wei would stand facing Muus and slowly pretend to try kicking him in the groin. He would deflect the kick with his left hand while using his right hand to throw her off balance.
We watched Master Weiran walk his labored way through the moves, surrounded by brightly colored points and flashing lines. I pushed the pause button: ‘Well, Muus, what do you think? Do you think you can do that tomorrow? Can your body – sorry, I mean your “collection of Response Points” – make those moves?’
        He said nothing. He was asleep.

[to be continued]