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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 5 of 8)

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

Next morning shortly before six, I was not surprised to be the first one awake. The night before, while Muus lay fast asleep on the couch, I had already reconnoitered the kitchen and now, walking over the pleasantly chilly stone floor tiles in my stocking feet, I took out a bowl, some muesli, and a tea bag. I had taken the whistle off the tea kettle to let Muus sleep – he had had a lot to drink last night. Listening to the nostalgic homely whisper of the gas flame, I hoped he would be in shape for the strenuous morning to come. In any case, the weather looked good. Sun; a few high white clouds; judging from the leaves in the back yard there was no wind. The idea was to make the film out on the little stone-tiled patio behind the kitchen. If the cameraman stood in the right place, it would look as if Muus and Jiang Wei were sparring in an idyllic rural setting.
I was just about to take the boiling kettle off the burner when the phone rang in ‘the room.’ I turned off the gas and ran: ‘Hello, this is Muus Aarts’ residence!’
        ‘Hi Daaf, it’s Vera. I hope I didn’t wake you up?’
        ‘No, but Muus is still upstairs.’
‘Okay. Daaf, listen – last night, sort of – well, last night turned out sort of different than we expected. Wei didn’t get much sleep at all. Wei’s awake now, and we were thinking maybe – would it be okay if we just came over right now?’
        ‘Well, sure – it would be fine with me, but Muus is still asleep. Where are you guys now?’
‘We’re still at Ed’s place. We spent the night here, but that’s the whole point’ – her voice was lower – ‘I’ll tell you when we get there, it turned out kind of weird. It’ll be better if we don’t stay here right now, let everybody kind of catch their breath.’
        ‘Wow, sounds like you better come right over! Should I make coffee or tea?’
        ‘Coffee. Strong.’

When I heard the wheels grinding up close on the gravel outside, the coffee had already worked its way down through the filter and I had just taken the blood-sopped piece of toilet paper off my fresh-shaven chin. I walked out onto the driveway to welcome them – and saw the sharp-pointed unbeautiful high-strung head of the afghan sticking up in the back of the van.
Too bad they brought him along, I thought. We have things to do this morning, we have to be able to concentrate. But then all my attention went to the two beautiful Chinese amazons emerging from the doors on both sides of the van.
The one on the left was obviously from Mainland China, not Taiwan or the diaspora. From the North, I thought: she was tall, almost as tall as Vera but without that hint of Indonesian blood. Her hair was cropped short, hovering close and almost sphere-like around her head – the style that during the Mao era had been humorously called the ‘rat’s head.’ The look in her eyes was somehow vague, the focus somehow uncertain – not sharp and glowing but reserved as if in another dimension. I was reminded of what Ed had said, about her face having two independent halves.
        She had a curiously charming athletic suit on, made of thin light-blue synthetic that looked like silk. The jacket was fairly long and started at the top with a high collar, clearly modeled on the ‘Shanghai dress’ or qipao. Under the collar was a row of buttons of the tight-woven, hard-to-open-and-shut Chinese type, ending at breast level. The pants had long loose legs narrowing down to the level of her white jogging shoes. All in all, I would not have called her a ‘beautiful’ woman, but she was impressive and exciting.
But then, on the right: Vera. Since yesterday, she had found time to dye her hair red. It was as if in the meantime she had grown still taller; now she was wearing very high white sandals with a thin ankle strap, in high sensual counterpoint with her short turquoise basketball pants. All this under a looser-fitting lady’s version of a man’s white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her upstanding breasts made it impossible to call her slender waist ‘boyish.’ With her long lavish red pony tail, I thought: you’d almost take her for a transvestite, she’s more feminine than any woman! But that thought was pure self-defense: think what I might, by now she had me very firmly in the palm of her hand.
At about nine-thirty, when Muus finally declared himself fit to come downstairs, Vera was standing at the kitchen door, ready to take Matt for a walk. She turned around when she heard him approaching with his half-awake 68 years, his Einstein-Kant hairdo and his through-the-mill yet jovial expression. Muus stood there for a moment enjoying the rays of morning sun as they swathed warmly through the kitchen and joined in the smiles of the twin amazons.
‘Well, good morning!’ he said.
        ‘I’m so sorry,’ said Vera; ‘we had to come a little earlier. Did we wake you up?’
        ‘No, I was just taking my time to come back down to earth.’
        ‘Well, let me introduce you two,’ she said. ‘Muus, this is Master Jiang Wei.’ In Chinese, she quickly explained that Jiang Wei could call him Teacher Peace – based on the long a sound of ‘Aarts,’ she had chosen for him a plausible Chinese family name, An, that also means ‘peace.’ As an experienced middleperson, she now mediated between the plain-but-congenial Dutchman and the stylized hyper-enthusiasm of the Chinese woman.
We all switched to English, and although Jiang Wei had to search for her words, communication was easy.
        Muus took Jiang Wei into ‘the room’ to show her the new Dutch DVD. It turned out she had never yet seen it.
        As soon as I was alone with Vera, she said: ‘I need a smoke. Let’s go out and talk.’ On the way to the driveway I asked her: ‘What’s going on?’
‘Well, originally we – see, Wei and I were originally supposed to share a room in a hotel in Leeuwarden; that was all arranged ahead of time. But then Ed called up to say that he wanted us both to come spend the night at his place instead. Actually it was stupid of me to agree. I know Ed in those situations. With women.
‘Anyway, and so last night – as usual, Ed had been drinking. And as time went on, he started expecting Wei to do all sorts of things that she just didn’t feel at home with. And she couldn’t take it.
        ‘And I mean, understandably! Hey look, imagine: you’re a Chinese woman, you just got to Europe for the first time, you’re lying in a strange bed and then all of a sudden here’s this big drunk smelly dike-jumper who gets in bed with you and starts saying: I want you to be strict with me, please scold me and punish me, I want you to spank me! And mind you, he’s the Director of the Foundation that invited you over and paid your air ticket!
‘Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with that stuff. To me it’s just first aid, it’s one way that I can be a Good Samaritan to Ed when he needs it. Without that, he never would be able to get some relief. People don’t know it, but – Ed’s impotent. Does that surprise you?’
        ‘Not necessarily. Why should it?’     
‘Well I mean – judging from his books, The Orgasm: Fuel for Your Future and all that, you’d think: this guy must really be numero uno in bed! But that’s not how it is. He does think it’s important and everybody needs it for their health, but when the time comes, he can’t get it done. The only way he can have an orgasm is to get spanked across Mommy’s knees!’
‘And then go back out there and tell everybody what a drag Big Sister is!’
        ‘You got it!’
        I followed the movements of her lips as she stuck the tip of a cigarette between them, lit up, and took the first puff. The color of her lipstick, just slightly darker red than her hair, accented the broad freckle just above her upper lip.
‘Anything’s possible in that whole area,’ she said. ‘Did you know there are men that actually come just from watching a woman smoke a cigarette? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean now – ’ She laughed again and I thought: Oh no, nothing like that.
‘ – but I really have to get back to Ed now. The way he was just now, when we left – sometimes he really crawls into an emotion, it’s like a whole different body he’s in. And that’s what he wants, that’s what he believes in – just let it all change, let it all come, make room for whatever comes. “Just let it come, that’s what a womb does. Be a womb!” he always used to say’ – She had a tear in each eye now.
‘What do you mean, “used to”?’
        ‘Well – in the groups. But that was then. I don’t think he could even handle a group now. He’s been through too much himself. I said to him not so long ago: I’ve come into your life just in time to prepare your crash pad.’
 ‘Wow. When I saw him yesterday, I didn’t think he looked so bad.’
‘Oh no, he can still make that Big Man impression, sure.’ She looked down. With the heel of her right shoe she nudged at the gravel, played with a few loose pieces. ‘Especially when he’s on the hunt.’
        ‘Could you maybe take the dog back?’
        ‘I’d rather not. I’m afraid Ed will let him run around loose today. He does that when he’s mad. He uses Matt to vicariously break out. But that’s illegal in this country, you know, to let an afghan run loose.’
        ‘Illegal. Big Sister again!’
        ‘Big Sister again!’ We both laughed. Relief brought the tears down out of her eyes and onto both cheeks. She looked at me. In her eyes I felt sorrow, but also the peace of recognition.
        I heard my voice saying: ‘You know – I really like you!’
        She said nothing but smiled, looked at the gravel, laid her warm hand around my elbow: ‘I won’t be long. Maybe an hour. Will you take Matt out for a walk in a little while?’
‘Sure. Be careful.’
        She got in the van, started up, and waved goodbye with a fiery smile from behind massive sunglasses. I stood waving until she disappeared and then joined Muus and Jiang Wei.
They were standing on the patio in the warm morning sunlight. Jiang Wei had taken off the jacket of her athletic suit. What she had on under it was a white basketball shirt printed in red and blue characters: ‘Institute for Martial Arts, Changsha.’
‘Don’t laugh!’ Muus called, standing there in faded blue jeans with a red tropical shirt and a blue baseball cap. I saw that he was wearing brand-new tennis shoes – not wise, I thought. He was going to have to make some unaccustomed turning and twisting movements, and I knew from experience that the rubber soles might cling to the stone surface and throw him off balance. But the patio was the only place they could make the film; the lawn was too bumpy.
‘Okay, I’m going to take Matt for a walk now,’ I said. ‘I’ll be back in a while.’ Jiang Wei was already showing Muus where and how to stand.
As Matt and I walked down the gravel, I said to him: ‘You don’t need to do any exercises, right? You don’t have to find your way back to nature – you’re already there!’ Suddenly I had to pull hard on the leash to hold him back as he lunged off into the grass by the side of the road. He had seen something he wanted. It turned out to be a dog turd, which he promptly began to eat.

When Matt and I got back to the house, I saw that Vera’s van was still gone. I tied Matt to a tree and walked around to the back – but there was nobody on the patio. The back kitchen door was standing wide open.
        I walked through to ‘the room’ – and found Jiang Wei lying on the couch on her side, her face hidden away in the back cushion. She was not asleep. When she heard my footsteps, she turned around.
‘Jiang Wei!’ I said: ‘What’s going on? Are you okay? Where’s Teacher Peace?’
        ‘It’s okay, Teacher’ she said. ‘Teacher, it’s all my fault. I must not have explained it well enough. Teacher Peace isn’t feeling well right now. He went upstairs to change his clothes.’
‘To change his clothes.’ I thought, What’s going on. ‘But – is everything allright, I mean – did you guys get your preparation done, for this afternoon?’
‘Teacher,’ she said; and I thought Please, please quit calling me Teacher. But I knew it would confuse and embarrass her if I insisted she call me by my name; to her it would seem she was treating me like an inferior or a child – ‘the way it is right now, I think – maybe this afternoon we should change our plans just a bit, for the filming. I think Vera should replace me, she’s very good at tai chi.’
‘But – she’s never practiced with Teacher Peace before.’
‘They can do it as soon as she gets back.’
‘Well – yeah. But – ’ She had sat up now, and sat running the fingers of both hands through her short-cropped but ample hair. I heard water running upstairs. The shower.
‘Teacher – I’m going to have to go right back to China. I’m sorry. There are some things over there that really need my attention; my mother’s health is very shaky.’ Outside, I heard the van arriving on the gravel.
        ‘Has she had an emergency, or –’
‘Well, not really an “emergency,” but...Teacher, I should have realized. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been so selfish as to leave her and come to Europe.’
        ‘Oh, Matt-ty!’ It was Vera’s voice, now in its Mommy-in-Control register. ‘Did they leave you all alone?’
Through the window I could see Vera bending down from the height her white heels gave her, letting Matt nestle into the warm cove of her bare arms and legs.
        ‘Lucky bastard!’ I said in Dutch.
        ‘What did you say, Teacher?’

[to be continued]