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.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Heavy Ships (story; Part 1 of 3)

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

In September, 1968, I arrived in Leiden as a young student from America. I had a bachelor’s degree; I had just tried to enlist in the Navy and found out I was disqualified for all branches of service owing to my ‘history of respiratory ailments,’ and I had a little money in my pocket. Tuition at Dutch universities was practically nil in those days, and I enrolled for graduate studies in Chinese and Japanese. For ninety-five guilders a month I rented a spacious, well-heated room overlooking a canal called The Way Back. The landlady, already deep into her seventies, was Mevrouw van Sassen. She charged her roomers less than the normal rent because she wanted, in her words, to ‘take my place in the hereafter as a decent human being.’ I remember that pronouncement so well because I learned two Dutch words from it: the words for ‘decent’ and ‘hereafter.’
I picked up Dutch fast. In America I had already learned to speak German at college. For me, it was actually not learning but remembering. My father had been killed in the Pacific in the last year of what we then still called ‘the’ war, when I was one year old. After his death, my mother and I went to live in Wisconsin with her mother, whom we always called by the German term for grandma, ‘Oma.’ My great-grandmother was still alive then, living with Oma. Though she had been born in America and never went abroad, she grew up in a German-speaking hamlet, and when I knew her as a toddler she still spoke mostly German to Oma. In doing so, she sowed my mind with linguistic reflexes that later made German and Dutch seem like variant present-day pronunciations of an ever-present ancestral prompting that encompassed both.
By the time I got to Leiden, Oma was no longer living, but something of her voice often seemed to echo in the words I heard around me. Walking down the streets of a Dutch city, sometimes I had strange thoughts like: if Oma were here, she could understand that shop sign, or: Oma would have understood what that hawker just said. And those thoughts weren’t even so strange: Oma really would have found my new environment fascinating, and during her life she had never let an opportunity go by to practice her German. During ‘the’ war she had even paid regular visits to a group of German prisoners who were held at a camp near her home. Sundays after church, she often went to visit those lonely German boys, to talk to them and lend them German Bibles and other books, sometimes together with a kaffeekuchen that she had baked the evening before. I think she might have learned from those soldiers the German folk songs that she later taught me, and that I liked much better than other, more serious-minded German texts that she often sung, such as Bach’s Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden.
So the transition to Dutch was no problem for me, and in other ways as well, I slipped easily into the modestly affluent, self-satisfied Netherlands of those days. But there were other parts of the world where many ordinary-looking Dutch people had also lived, sometimes lived what amounted to whole previous incarnations. I met a couple of them as soon as I was initiated into the quaint conviviality of Mevrouw van Sassen’s menage. Mevrouw van Sassen herself had lived for a while in the 1930s with her husband and two children in Jakarta, Indonesia, which was then called Batavia because it was still a Dutch colony. They had returned to Holland when her husband was taken ill; he had died before the outbreak of the war.
Of the other two lodgers, the younger was Anny Thio. She was Chinese by ancestry, born and raised in what was then called the Dutch East Indies, and must have been in her forties when I met her. Unmarried, she worked as a psychiatrist at a hospital in Katwijk. The other, Geert Cornelisse, was a tall blue-eyed Hollander who had also grown up in Indonesia; I have since calculated that he must have been nearly seventy in those days. He had a suite of rooms to himself on the top floor. On his front door he had mounted a small copper plate engraved with the words: G. Cornelisse, Naval Draughtsman. Since he spent most of his time shut up in his rooms and was constantly talking about his ‘assignment,’ I assumed he was still working at his trade. I did notice that Mevrouw van Sassen always grimaced when she heard him say ‘assignment.’
None of the three went out of their way to throng around with other ex-Indonesians, but when we were at home together on The Way Back, the atmosphere was clearly ‘different,’ and I was not the only one who felt it. I soon found out the whole neighborhood referred to our house as ‘The Indies.’
The differentness of ‘The Indies’ was expressed, among other things, in the foods we ate. I was told the neighbors had often complained about the pungent odors that wafted out of the ‘Indies’ kitchen and sometimes reached even to the other side of the water. I was shocked the first time I saw red-hot sambal being eaten straight out of the jar with a spoon, but soon enough I was converted to the chili pepper and laughed at the North Netherlanders for being scared, like spooks in the Orient, of a little garlic.     
There was one food habit that I first thought was a Dutch tradition, but it turned out to be a subtle remembrance of the East Indies, faithfully observed as such. Every Saturday was Soup Day. A little after one in the afternoon each Saturday, in Mevrouw van Sassen’s sitting room overlooking the canal, a homemade meal-in-itself soup was served. There was a perpetual alternation of two possible soups. One week it was Pea Soup with Pork Knuckle; the next it was Brown Bean Soup with Bacon. Summer or winter, rain or shine: always that delicious soup.
Anny always did the shopping the night before; she would ask Geert and me for a small contribution. And the next day, at the appointed hour Anny would come home from the hospital, Geert would come downstairs whistling or humming, and one or the other of them would tear me away from my books and into Mevrouw van Sassen’s room. Not that I resisted! I liked the soup – and especially the little fried bread cubes that we got with the pea soup! – and the wonderful stories that started to flow as soon as we were together, about ‘back then.’
        For my fellow lodgers just the sight, the smell of the soup was a signal that for a while, starting now, the curtain of time should be drawn differently, opening on a scene wider than the everyday. It seemed that in prewar Batavia there had been a restaurant where every Saturday afternoon, when one o’clock had come around and the weekend officially began, you could eat pea soup with pork’s knuckle or brown bean soup with bacon. They had eaten it in Indonesia while thinking of Holland, and now in Holland they ate it to evoke Indonesia.
But they were not the only ones who had old things to tell, and they always wanted to hear more about my own past in Louisiana. Like their Indonesia, my South had stayed in memory as a zone of eternal sun, of young fragrant green, and of a lifestyle which despite all dearth of material goods was generous in its yield of color and gesture, local truth and timeless yearning. I told them how as schoolboys we threw sticks up into the branches to knock pecans down from the trees; as children they had done the same with mangoes. I talked of voodoo; they of guna-guna. With heartily shared indignance, we commiserated each other over the smallness of the magnolia flowers in Holland, the monotonous blandness of the food, the disgustingly rainy climate. They seemed to treat me as a long-lost family member who had now returned in their midst. It was as if they found my stories not only interesting but somehow vital, necessary, as if there was something in my words that they had long awaited, long latently known but that needed the here-and-now witness of my lips to confirm it and make it reality. Nothing I said was too trivial to deserve their fiery attention, their laughs of assent.    
The same was true of me toward them. Their colorful tales of the then-everyday filled me with a poignant joy, a moving but inexplicable recognition and participation. When Geert told me what brand of beer he drank before the war, when Anny imitated the way her mother always took the stuffed papau rolls out of the icebox in the morning and put them in the steamer for breakfast – it was as if my thrill of fascination went deeper than a single person’s experience of it could be. In moments of the most contagiously spreading glee, sometimes it was as if someone were physically listening over my shoulder, someone for whom it was terribly important that I should remember it all, enjoying it all on that subtle psychic plane where memory itself, consciousness itself is joy.
That first fall, my birthday was celebrated in The Indies. The actual day was a Thursday, but we agreed to celebrate it on Saturday ‘at soup’; that way Anny, who worked Thursday evenings, could join us. When Saturday came – it was pea soup – we began as usual, with soup and bread. But when the first round was over, at the moment when Mevrouw van Sassen traditionally said: well, anybody besides me want some more? – Anny suddenly went to the kitchen and came back with a beautiful cake, a high-piled one with chocolate frosting, American style, and candles, one for each year of my life.
When she put down the cake, the three of them launched into ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in English, and while I listened I saw that in between the candles there were two tiny paper flags mounted on pieces of sateh sticks, a Dutch and an American flag, both drawn and colored exquisitely. I silently wished that the four of us should never again be separated, took a deep breath, shut my eyes, and tried to blow out all the candles in a single breath. I failed. There were too many, already. Everyone laughed.
‘Anny baked the cake,’ Mevrouw van Sassen said, ‘and Geert made the flags.’
        Coffee was poured; the cake was cut – and then suddenly I was beside myself with amazement! It turned out to be a poppy seed cake, one of the less usual kinds but my personal favorite. In our family it had been the traditional birthday cake ever since I could remember.
        ‘Hey,’ I said to Anny, ‘how did you know I like poppy seed cake?’
        ‘Well, I just thought – what kind of cake does Hal like, maybe he likes poppy seed!’
        ‘But I mean, I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it! There are twenty other kinds you’d normally think first of!’
        She shrugged and looked at me with a sweet smile. For the so-manieth time, I wondered why she was unmarried.
        ‘It’s clairvoyance,’ said Geert. ‘I’ve always said, Anny is clairvoyant.’
        Mevrouw van Sassen grimaced: ‘Geert, will you cut it out! Unlike certain others, she just has a certain amount of intelligence.’
        ‘Hal,’ Anny said, ‘you and I think we’ve never talked about it. But maybe we’re both suffering from cryptomnesia.’
        ‘Oh my Lord,’ said Geert, ‘now it’s “cryptomnesia.” Anny, always reading all those psychology books – it’s a miracle you’ve stayed sane!’
        ‘Okay everybody,’ said Mevrouw van Sassen: ‘cake time!’
        By the time we finished, it was past three o’clock. We took our own dishes to the kitchen and Geert went back upstairs. As Anny began to wash the plates, I picked up a towel to dry them.
        ‘Hey, stop that, give me that thing!’ said Mevrouw van Sassen. ‘It’s your birthday!’ With an affectionate wink, she took the towel out of my hands. ‘Wasn’t that nice of Geert, to make those flags for on your cake. You can say whatever you want about Geert, he really knows how to draw.’
        ‘Is he actually still working?’ I asked.       
‘Mom,’ said Anny, ‘don’t forget to take your pills. I think you forgot yesterday.’
        Ja ja,’ said Mevrouw van Sassen, ‘that was just because Garry hung on the phone so long. I’ll remember.’
        Nobody picked up my question. It was not the first time I had heard Anny call Mevrouw van Sassen ‘Mom’ when Geert was not present.
        But now I really wanted to know. ‘Hey, but Geert – does he actually still have a job, is he still working?’
        With pursed lips, Mevrouw van Sassen hung the towel back on the hook and came to stand close to me: ‘Hal, to begin with – that man’s been through an awful lot in his life, don’t ever forget that! If it was anybody else, I would have asked him to move out long ago; the way he treats a house, the things he’s done to his rooms and all...but he’s such a sweet guy! And he’s been through such hard knocks, he’s just never really gotten over them, nobody could! Look, to begin with, he was in one of those Jap concentration camps for years, and – ’   
‘Mom, do you mind!’ cried Anny. ‘Don’t drag all that stuff out again!’ She was vaguely wiping the sideboard. I saw that her face was flushed.
        ‘Sorry, but Hal asked me a question, and now he’s going to get an answer!’
        Anny threw down the wet white rag and stomped out of the kitchen.
Mevrouw van Sassen threw up her hands. ‘Incurable! Anny gets kind of emotional when we get to talking about Geert. But okay, what I was saying – the camp. He was in it for three years. And in the end he survived. Barely. And before that, he had already lost his brother. His brother was in the Navy; he was killed in the Battle of the Java Sea. Geert was real close to that brother. Hein, his name was.’
        She bit her lip and picked up the vase of flowers from the sideboard. Carefully she brought it to the sink, emptied it, and started to fill it with fresh water. ‘And then, after the war’ – she put the vase back in its place – ‘they couldn’t find his wife. He had a Malay wife; she must have been awfully nice, I’ve seen pictures of her. But anyway, she disappeared. He traveled all over Indonesia looking for her, even during the rebellion and the Police Actions and all that, but in the end it was no use.’
        ‘Did they have children?’
        ‘Well, he says they did, and like her, they didn’t survive the war. But you know what it is – it gets to where you don’t always know what to believe.’
        ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well – okay, now we’re talking about this, I’m just going to tell you the rest of it too. See, Geert – on the one hand, he’s mentally still sharp as a tack, a lot of boys your age don’t have the memory he does. But sometimes he’ll say something, and I’ll think: maybe I should just take him straight to the hospital. You know he spends all his time in his room drawing, right? Well, he believes he’s doing that for the Navy. He believes the Navy still needs him to make drawings for them. He’s drawing big ships that were supposed to be built in the 1940s but then the war came, the Krauts took us over, and the whole thing didn’t go through. More than a quarter of a century ago. But Geert thinks as soon as he finishes the drawings, the ships are still going to be built.’
        Clasping one hand tightly in the other, she looked at me with moist eyes. Her voice trembled: ‘He really believes it. And then the whole squadron’s going to sail, and he’s going along, all the way to Indonesia. And then they’re going to chase away the Japs and he’s going to go back to Batavia and see his brother and his wife, and everything’s going to be like it was.’
A tear ran down over her cheek. She turned away and gripped the edge of the sideboard with both hands: ‘Hal, you have no idea what that man’s been through. And in 1950, after we lost the colony and the Indonesians took it all over, he came to Holland and the first thing you knew, he got real sick. He was in the hospital for a year and a half – he didn’t have to pay for it all, he’d been a civil servant. But when he got out, there he was, no job, no money, nothing.
 ‘And then some way – in those days, in The Hague he still had a “brother” in the Freemasons. In Batavia he had joined a Lodge; I don’t think it was that real big one, the Star of the East or whatever it was, but another one. Later on in The Hague he had some kind of trouble with the Lodge, and he hasn’t been down there for years, but in those days he still went. And this “brother” lent him some money to start a business, selling model ships and remote control boats, that kind of stuff. Well, for a while he was doing all right, but then one day the whole shop burnt down and his insurance didn’t cover it. So there he was.’
        ‘Incredible,’ I said.
        ‘So that’s what I mean, it really has been kind of incredible, with him. And still, the way he usually is, you’d think he had pretty much gotten over it all. But you know what it is – sooner or later it gets in here.’ She pressed her index finger against the middle of her forehead. ‘In the thoughts. The mind.’
        It was too much for her; the tears began to flow. She looked away to one side but began gently shoving me backward in the direction of the door. ‘Sorry, I hate to lay all this on you on your birthday, but you asked me a question, and now you know the answer. Okay, forget it! Go get together with your friends, have a happy day and a nice long happy night! I have to hurry up and fix Anny’s tea now. See you tomorrow!’
After she shut the door, I stayed in the hall for a few moments. Through the door I could hear her crying.

[to be continued]