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.



Friday, December 30, 2011

Muus and the Tai Chi Masters (story; Part 6 of 8)

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

       
With her whole weight resting on the needle-sharp point of one white heel between the pebbles of the driveway and the unweighted leg arching gracefully ahead and slightly to one side, like a tai chi adept Vera brought up her hands in an easy, floating motion. One hand carried the lighter to her mouth while the other shielded it from the wind. The posture reminded me of ‘Step Up to the Stars,’ I thought, standing next to her and doing my best to fight off Matt.
I could see she had been crying. I was going to lay my hand on her shoulder but she caught my hand halfway. Wrapping my wrist in her hand, she pressed her thumb into my palm.
        ‘How’d it go?’ I asked.
        She nodded. ‘I’m glad I went back. I’m really starting to worry about Ed. He gets to feeling like the whole world rejects him, and then sometimes I’m afraid he might do something rash, the way he just sits there in the house all alone – ’ Matt had put both his front paws on her and looked about to leap up. She took him in both arms. ‘Oh, Matty, Matty, why must you be so jealous? Can’t Mommy just talk to Daaf for a minute? Come on, Mommy still loves you!’ The smoke from the cigarette in her mouth, thinning out in the morning air and blending with the scent from the jasmines along the driveway, reached my nostrils. I was enjoying it when suddenly we heard a scream from inside the house.
        Through the window we could see Muus standing behind the couch. His hands were pressing down on Jiang Wei’s shoulders. Wei sat balled up on the couch laughing.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘looks like everybody’s cheered up a little, at least. Let’s go see how they’re doing!’ I tapped against the window. Muus and Wei looked up and I pointed to the kitchen door.
        At the door, Vera was going to stay outside to finish her cigarette, but Muus grabbed her arm and pulled her inside. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Even in this Americanized day and age, it’s still legal to let your friends smoke in your own house!’ He put his arm around her and kissed her cheek.
Surprised but sportsmanlike, she kissed him back. ‘Should I make a pot of coffee?’ she asked.
        ‘Good idea!’ said Muus – ‘but just for you guys. I’m going to have a beer.’ He took me by the arm: ‘You want one too?’
        ‘No thanks, it’s a little early for me.’
Meanwhile, Jiang Wei was standing close in front of Vera, who was holding both her hands. They talked very quickly in Chinese. No details were given, but ‘something unexpected’ had happened, and we would just have to ‘find another solution.’ Several times, Vera asked what had happened; the answer was always ‘It’s okay, it doesn’t matter.’ Obviously they would need to get out of earshot of me.
       Jiang Wei began to cry, trying to hide her face, trying to stifle the sound. Vera took her by the arm and the two women walked off to ‘the room,’ whispering.
        Muus took out a cold bottle of Dommelsch, opened it, and took a big swig. ‘Jesus!’ he said. ‘What a couple of great women!’ He looked tired but also pleased, glad that all these new things had descended upon him.
‘Wow, you guys got done in a hurry !’ I said. ‘But – is there something wrong?’
        He laughed. ‘Something wrong! Well, you can be damn sure there’s something wrong! ’cause as of now...I quit!’
        ‘How’s that, “quit”?’
        ‘I mean: count me out. Out of the film and the ridicule, the bullshit criticism – ’
        ‘Criticism.’
        ‘Yeah! To criticize the hell out of tai chi, wasn’t that the whole point of all this?’
        ‘But now you’re saying you quit.’
‘That’s right. I quit criticizing, quit ridiculing, quit everything. I’ve found out it’s not ridiculous, I’m ridiculous. My great magnum opus about it is never going to get written. I’m done.’
        ‘Hey, what the hell! Listen, you can’t do this! I need your magnum opus, I’m counting on it, and so are a lot of other people!’
He dug his index finger into my chest. ‘Then you’ll have to write it yourself!’ He laughed: ‘I really mean it! ’cause I’m not doing it, I’m out of it!’ He turned around, walked out onto the patio with his bottle, and stood there in the sun looking out over the green yard and the green distance.
Meanwhile, Vera was back. Behind her, through the open door I could see Jiang Wei lying on the couch again. Very un-Chinese, I thought: to let the host see that she wasn’t feeling well. There must be something going on.
        ‘Daaf,’ Vera said, ‘we’ve got a problem going. Wei says she isn’t going to make that film this afternoon.’
‘That makes two of them! Muus said the same thing! Vera, what’s happening?’
        ‘Well, Daaf, like – Wei is Chinese through and through. She’s sometimes very indirect in expressing herself. But what it comes down to is, she’s sick and tired of being sexually harrassed by all these Dutch men!’
        ‘By Muus too! By the Anti-Sex Guru!’
She laughed. ‘I’m not sure what to make of it yet. But what she’s saying now is, she wants to go right back to China. She wants me to drive her to Steenwijk right now so she can get on a train to Amsterdam. She can spend the night there at a friend’s place, and then she’ll try to get on a flight to Beijing tomorrow.’
        ‘Hey, but listen, we made some plans, we signed some agreements...’
‘Of course we did, no, this is no good. The Foundation has a contract with the cameraman. One way or another, we have to make a movie. And tomorrow whether we like it or not, twenty people are going to show up for the workshop. But what did Muus say, why does he want to back out?’
        ‘I’m not sure yet. He says he doesn’t want to “criticize and ridicule” tai chi. But he’s not saying a lot about it.’
‘Well, that’s up to him. We agreed to pay him five hundred euros. If he’s willing to let that go – but hey wait a minute, I’m thinking...what would happen if you and I made that movie together?’
        ‘But...would that be okay with the contract?’
        ‘Sure it would. As long as the cameraman gets paid, he doesn’t care who the actors are. I’m treasurer of the Foundation; I can still move any way with this.’
        ‘But I’ve never practiced with you!’
        ‘Well then it’s high time!’ She burst out in an explosive laugh. ‘But no, I mean it! We can just go out right now and practice a little and, let’s face it, who’s going to know how good we are? There’s a certain make-believe element in all of this stuff anyway. We can bring it off! Come on, let’s! It’ll be fun! But listen...I’m not going to take her anywhere right now, whatever she says. I’ll call Ed and ask him to bring over two of my jogging suits. You can fit into one of them. The shoes too; otherwise you can just do it barefoot! So today we make the movie; tomorrow Wei’s calmed down, and tomorrow she and I can give the workshop. What do you think?’
        ‘If you say so! Sounds fine to me!’

Half an hour later Muus, Vera and I were just finishing our coffee when a cascade of horrible loud outdoor sounds ended the morning peace and announced the coming of Ed. Matt more than redoubled the bedlam.
        I asked Vera: ‘Is it a classic Harley?’
‘No, a three-wheeler. A trike.’ As she stood up, the legs of her chair screeched against the floor tiles: ‘You guys just wait here; he can just give me the things.’
‘That’s ridiculous!’ said Muus. ‘Tell him to come in and join us! No, really, it’s been so long since we even said hi to each other!’
 ‘That may be, but you’ve got to know how to handle Ed, and just take it from me, this isn’t the time to have a nice get-together with Teacher Puilenbroek!’
        ‘Well then, I’ll go out with you,’ I said. ‘I want to see the trike.’
        ‘Me too!’ said Muus, and from the tranquil shade of the kitchen the three of us stepped out into a sunny dayworld where Matt was still yelping and Ed had not turned off his motor. Despite its big fat rear wheels, the bright-shining, expensive-looking conveyance under Ed looked too small for him. His imposing figure was made extra top-heavy by the orange day-glow backpack hung tightly around his shoulders. There was a complicated seat belt running between his outsize belly and various parts of the trike, but he had not pulled it tight.
‘Jesus!’ Vera cried over and above the loud raging of the motor: ‘You can at least fasten the seat belt decently!’ She made to adjust it herself, but Ed raised his potentate’s hand and she desisted.
        The two gurus took each other’s measure. They may have looked different – Muus thin as a rail and pale, Ed bloated and now somehow red in the face and neck – but there were similarities. The forehead with deep grooves. The bags under the eyes.
Muus was the first to extend a hand. He smiled as if to say, We’ll both be dead before you know it, let’s acknowledge each others’ existence.
        Still not smiling, Ed took off his right glove, took Muus’ hand firmly in his, and held it for full seconds. The motor kept running. Vera was starting to take off the backpack.
Suddenly Ed broke out in a wide grin, not so much friendly as triumphant. Through the tumult of the motor he shouted: ‘Maybe you guys can get something out of that inhibited Confucian bitch, I can’t!’
Now Muus laughed too, whether at the content of Ed’s message or its form. Suddenly Vera pressed the red button at the end of the handlebar and the motor fell dead. Going on swiftly with her next movement, she started examining the backpack’s contents: jogging suits: one red, one turquoise. Two pairs of black Chinese canvas shoes. A folded-up red nightshirt, a toothbrush – ‘Hey, Ed, will you cut it out? Did you change the lock on the door? Can’t I get in tonight even to brush my teeth?’ She abruptly gave the whole pile to me and took Ed in her arms as she had done to Matt. ‘Come on, Ed-dd-dy! Mommy still loves you!’ Ed-dd-dy’s long-suffering gaze hovered over the distant fields while Mommy’s hands moved down to adjust his seat belt.
Muus made a friendly offer of ‘a cup or a glass of whatever,’ but Ed said no; there were things at home that he had to take care of. Turning his lumbering chariot around, he nodded mechanically when Vera urged him to ride carefully. Advancing a few yards to get in position for the blastoff down the road to the highway, he started the motor. As on cue, Matt went wild.
‘I’m always scared when he’s on that damned thing,’ said Vera. ‘Especially in moods like this.’
        In an instant Ed shot forth like a rocket down the narrow road sleeved with elders and jasmines that stood there in silence like props from an earlier stage of evolution. When he got to the main road he braked with loud backfires but did not stop.
        ‘Sometimes I wish I still believed in God,’ Vera said. ‘Then I could pray for him.’
‘Just thinking that, is your prayer,’ said Muus. ‘It’s a prayer when you think about somebody.’
        ‘Thanks, Muus. Hey, thank you for saying that!’ She put her arms around him, gave him a couple of comradely pats on the back, held him for a few seconds. When she let go, he had tears in his eyes. So did she. Quickly she grabbed the little pile of clothes in my arms and started for the kitchen.
‘I can’t make any sense out of Puilenbroek,’ said Muus. ‘He’s with that woman, and he’s still not happy.’
        ‘Well, you say he’s “with” her, but I’m not real sure what that means in this case.’
        ‘That’s the beauty of it! They’re not sure either! They haven’t gotten around to the stage of considering each other part of the furniture. Speaking of which, let’s go in and sit down!’

[to be continued]