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 sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

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. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

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. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Heavy Ships (story; Part 2 of 3)

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

A couple of days later, I suppose it was around five o’clock, while the late afternoon light still lingered above The Way Back, Geert knocked on my door: ‘Hal, how about coming up to my place for a paitje?’
        He saw my incomprehension: ‘I’m just kidding you, I knew you wouldn’t understand that. Pait – that means “bitter” in Malay. A “paitje” is a shot of hard liquor. A glass of jenever.’
        I was thrilled. I had never seen his legendary rooms. We went upstairs, he let me in through the door with the copper name plate – and instantly I had the sense of being in an environment that was long since familiar. Just as I had done as a boy, he had laid out model ships at strategic points in the room: on the windowsill a destroyer, on top of the closed secretaire a three-masted schooner in full sail, on the mantelpiece a beautiful passenger steamer that must have been a yard long.
       Hanging on the wall above the mantel was a watercolor of a ship, but when I looked at it from closer by, it was not so much the form as the suggestion of a ship: the water looked realistic, but above it, where the hull should have been, dark and light blue lines crossed each other in a tonal counterpoint that looked almost three-dimensional. Still higher, the lines were taken up in a dizzying spiral that widened as it rose, seeming at the end to join and somehow support the very sky. All of this was criscrossed by thick white swaths: the boat deck, where the lifeboats hovered like crescent-shaped sun dapples on water. The overall effect was a sense of rising circles and ellipses, no longer specific parts of the ship but an autonomous system of light and motion, coherent yet suggesting larger proportions than were shown.
        ‘What a picture!’ I said, noticing that in the lower right corner it was signed in pencil: ‘Cornelisse.’
        ‘That’s the Oranje,’ he said: ‘the flagship of the Nederland Line.’
        ‘There’s a lot of movement in it.’
        ‘Well, there has to be! Movement’s what it’s all about. You’re not just a big dead hulk, you’re alive, you’re moving! And the movement is what you are!’
        Behind him on the other side of the room, a magnificent antique clock struck the quarter hour with a rich, long-resonating chime. He waited till the silence had returned and said: ‘But what do you want to drink? Do you drink jenever?’
        ‘You bet I do!’
        ‘I have a bottle of Extra Aged, is that allright?’
        Out of an antique wooden cabinet he took two small glasses and a green-glass bottle of Old Hartevelt: ‘Sit down, make yourself at home.’
        I sat down near the fireplace in a low-slung wooden chair with an adjustable slatted back rest, the kind that Hollanders in those days called a “smoking chair.” ‘I want to be near the Oranje,’ I said. ‘Do you do a lot of painting?’
        ‘Oh, I didn’t paint that. My brother did.’ He came to sit facing me on a Windsor chair, expertly keeping his overfull jenever glass from running over. ‘My brother, now there’s a guy who could paint!’
        Slowly, steadily he raised the glass, so full that the top surface of the liquid was higher than the surrounding rim, and drank to my health with one of the familiar Dutch formulas: ‘Proost!’
        Prosit,’ I said, using the German variant.
        ‘Hey, do me a favor,’ he said. ‘Just say proost. People of my generation – we don’t so much like Germans, don’t even like to hear their language. We had to hear a little too much of it in the 1940s. But how come you pronounce it that way, did you pick that up from your drinking buddies at the university? Do they still sing “ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit”?’
        ‘I don’t know, yeah, maybe I picked it up from some German song.’
        ‘Well, no matter. Proost hoor! – Anyway, I was telling you about my brother, that he was so good at painting. He was a genius at it. He could have gone all the way to the top with that. But he never got the chance. He was in our Navy; he served under Karel Doorman in the Combined Striking Force. Does that mean anything to you?’
        ‘Sort of. The Battle of the Java Sea, right?’
        ‘That’s right. Well, he was in that. And he didn’t come back. He was on the Kortenaer, that’s the one over there’ – he pointed to the destroyer by the window. ‘They never had a chance. Doorman had good men, but he just didn’t have the battlewagons, the heavy ships. The whole Japanese invasion fleet coming at him, and what did he have? A couple of light cruisers. Couple of destroyers. That’s all. They didn’t have a chance, and they knew it.’
        I looked again at the watercolor. Even from a slight distance, the whole image seemed transformed into nothing but the circles, the ellipses, the elements that went beyond the form of the ship.
        ‘ – but the damned thing is, if they’d just been able to wait a little longer, then they would have had bigger ships, bigger guns. Three new battlecruisers. Our government had already approved the plan – it was called Design 1047. It was approved in 1940. And if Doorman had had those ships – they were going to have eleven-inch guns! – then our old friend and buddy Admiral Nishimura would have got the hell beat out of him!’ He leaned over with both forearms on his knees, clamping his glass tight in his fist. His lips pursed grimly, he breathed heavily, staring at the carpet.
Ja – ’ he finally said in a quieter voice, ‘I know, at your age this stuff doesn’t mean so much to you. It was a different time, a different world. But that’s the whole point. I get so sick of hearing people say that “different world” is over and done with. It’s gone, bye-bye, and wasn’t it all sad but it’s over and we face today...But that’s the whole point; that “different world” ’ – and now again his tone was tense, bitter – ‘is anything but “over.” It can’t be over as long as it’s still not done – do you get what I’m saying? It’s not finished yet. Ready for a refill? Come here, give me your glass!’
        He picked up the bottle from the floor beside him and poured another round for us both. ‘Tja – oh, and while we’re at it, you smoke cigars, right?’ He stood up, walked over to the mantelpiece and handed me a small plain wooden box with a brand name burned into the wood: ‘This isn’t the best brand in the world, but I like them. They’re called Sumatra Miskleur, but I always call them Miskleun. Sumatra mis-kleun, can you understand that?’
        ‘I think so, yeah!’ I said and more or less faked a laugh. I wasn’t at all sure what it meant. Something like a pun on “odd colors” and “odd culls.” Something about the Sumatra wrapper leaf not being top-quality...
‘Well, my hat’s off to you,’ he said, ‘ the way you’ve mastered our language. It’s like you’d been speaking it all your life.’ He took out a cigar for himself and handed me a silver-plated butane lighter.
        From where I was sitting I could see, through the half-opened wide doors, a little way into the next room, presumably the bedroom. I took a couple of puffs on my cigar. The smoke veered off very quickly toward that unlit area behind the doors.
        Geert was sitting across from me. His cigar looked like a stick of incense giving off long, blue smoke trails that all moved rapidly toward the large dark area behind him.
        ‘There aren’t many foreigners that speak Dutch as well as you do,’ he was saying. ‘Hardly any. Even if they’ve been here for twenty – ’
There was no light on in the room behind him, but the longer I stared in that direction, the more I thought I saw a human figure standing there, just behind the doors.
        ‘ – a joke like mis-kleun; why, the average foreigner doesn’t even know – ’
        I was seeing a small, dark woman, holding a young child in her arms.
        ‘ – and all those so-called “modern” ways of learning languages, the méthode nature, it’s incredible people can take it seriously – ’
Suddenly the whole bottom part of my body was cold. It was as if I were up to my knees in very cold water that somehow filled the room, streaming in the direction of the darkness. I felt it so strongly that I actually looked down to be sure that objectively, there really was no water. At the same time, the back of my neck and head was uncomfortably hot, and very dry.
‘ – like when we’re talking about ships, you just know what I’m saying, I don’t have to keep translating – ’
        It was as if our cigars were giving off more and more smoke. The smoke trails came together above Geert’s head, joining in a single strong, fast stream in the same direction as the “water.”
        ‘ – expect you to know a Malay word like pait, but even the average Dutchman – ’
‘Geert! Sorry to interrupt, but look at all that smoke! Don’t you mind all that smoke getting into your bedroom?’
‘Hell, no! My wife used to say: tobacco is menjan to me, I can’t get enough of it! Menjan, that’s another Malay word. Incense. She’d say: I can’t get enough of it. And she’d even say: later, don’t forget to keep smoking for me. You’ll be doing it for me, I like the smoke!’ He bit his lip, turned away and looked at the stream of smoke. The cold feeling in my feet and lower legs was getting stronger by the second.
        Abruptly he turned back toward me, smiling now: ‘Do you want to go in there and take a look? Come on, I’ll show you my modest little harbor.’ And just while he was speaking, I again had the impression of a human figure behind the doors. This time it was a young blond man in a white sailor’s uniform. He was looking in my direction; I actually thought he saw me and began to smile.
‘Geert! Who is that?!’ I was shocked by the sound of my own voice: so tense and turbulent, so unlike the steady clarity of Geert’s voice, as if we were not just conversing in an ordinary room but in a hollow cave-like space that picked up our voices and amplified them, exaggerating their differences.
 ‘My brother,’ he said calmly. ‘Say, you’re just about the first person that could see right off it was a portrait! None of the things I do are “realistic.” Come on!’ He got up, walked over to the half-open doors, and stopped next to one of two small identical frames that hung on the wall, one on each side of the doors. Meanwhile I no longer saw the man in the sailor’s uniform.
‘Look,’ he said as I joined him; ‘this is my portrait of Hein. My brother.’ He pointed to the frame, which enclosed a black-and-white abstract, seemingly done in ink on rice paper or a similar material. It was like a further development, a simplified refinement of the circles and ellipses I had already seen on the Oranje. This time the visible shapes were fewer, but they seemed stronger, more decisively drawn in. And this time they were all broken, open, only partially enclosed by the frame, making their imaginary proportions all the wider.
        ‘So you made this one yourself,’ I said, trying to talk normally although I could have sworn the room was knee-deep in cold water.
        ‘Yes, it’s mine. Well, I got that idea of the circles from Hein; that was his own technique in his later things. But I’ve developed it, I’ve done other things with it.’
        ‘Yes, I can see that.’
        ‘And that’s the way it always is, ja? You get hold of something unfinished from somebody else, but then you work it out in your own way. And then there comes a time when your own version needs somebody else to take it on further, give it a future.’
        ‘On this one, the circles don’t close.’
        ‘But isn’t that right? Isn’t that the way it always is? There’s always a point where the form breaks off, but that’s because it’s in motion and the motion is so wide. The circle is always wider than it looks; that’s why you don’t see it as a circle. And look, that one over there – ’ he pointed to the even simpler drawing on the opposite side of the door – ‘that’s my wife. You see? It’s even simpler, but it also has more strength. It’s just a single line, a single curve – but what it’s doing is tremendous! See? She’s farther along, part of a much larger circle!’
       Coming to those last words, his voice quavered. I noticed that on both paintings, in the bottom right corner, in the place where you might expect a signature, there was a symbol: an intertwined anchor, carpenter’s square, and draughtsman’s compass.
        ‘That signature goes well with it,’ I said. ‘Does it have a meaning?’
        ‘Well, it’s not exactly a signature, it’s – okay, what the hell, it’s okay for me to tell you this. It’s actually the emblem of an organization. We call it the Shipbuilders Collaborative. It’s the idea that whatever you make, whatever you do, you’re not alone in doing it.’
        ‘A sort of draughtsman’s guild?’
        ‘Well, not just draughtsmen. The Collaborative is an offshoot of Freemasonry. I joined the Lodge when I was young; I was a Freemason. I’m saying: was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against them; I think they do a lot of good in the world. But little by little I realized they were stuck on the form side of things. They didn’t really believe in what was behind it.
        ‘I have to admit, I learned a lot from them. Especially about drawing, design, what that really is. It’s not just about lines on paper, but the drawing itself, the activity of visualizing itself, what that builds – that’s the important thing.
‘Even just learning to draw a circle, a real one. It sounds simple, but it’ll take you till your forties, half a lifetime, just to do that. My brother used to say: if you can’t make a circle, you won’t make much of a man either.
        ‘He was working hard on it, young as he was. Maybe he sensed that he wasn’t going to have a lot of time in this world. But he woke up to it before I did: I mean the contacts, what we call the link – that you don’t need to get that formally via an organization. If you just work on it – it’ll come to you. If you stay loyal to the idea of it, if you just work on your drawing, on what you can visualize, then sooner or later you do get the insights, the flashes, the indications that you’re not alone.
        ‘So eventually, besides being Freemasons, we set up the Collaborative, my brother and I. But come on; I’ll show you the harbor!’
        He led me through the doors and turned a light on. Passing through the doors, I positively felt that I was stepping out of water onto land. In the room where I now found myself, there was much more light and the air was dryer, warmer. My legs felt warm now, though a cold draft was still coming out of the room we had just left.  
A big antique wardrobe partly hid the far wall. Next to it was a door with a bamboo curtain, evidently opening into a following room which I assumed was the bedroom. Along one of the side walls was a long table with several lamps, large sheets of paper, and drawing instruments. Hanging above the table was an enormous drawing of a ship, not framed but mounted on wood, labeled in block letters ‘Side View, Battlecruiser 1047.’
       Over the whole breadth of the room along the opposite wall, there was a low wooden platform with dark-painted walls, more than a yard wide and half a yard high, its top covered by a blue-green tarpaulin hooked to the four corners.
        ‘Wait a second,’ said Geert; ‘I’ll take the tarp off’ – and at the sound of his voice, I was plunged without warning into an inexplicable feeling of guilt, shame, and failure. His voice, more than the actual words, was somehow a signal reminding me of something horrible, something vile and unforgivable, that I myself had somehow just done. He was speaking to me out of a warmer, dryer, better-lit area than the one I had just left, filled with clearer, more distinguishable forms. Somehow I had done something wrong, almost positively evil by seeing a woman and a man in what were only colored shapes on thin paper, and by thinking I was wading in cold water where no water could have been.
       Apparently reasonless as it was, the sensation of guilt was not entirely beyond my understanding. Anny had once told me that children who suddenly lose their father often interpret their tragic loss as meaning that they themselves must have done something unforgivable: that their father is now punishing them by never returning. As to why that guilt should have been accompanied by such a convincing illusion that I was standing in water, I could not explain it, nor have I ever understood it in all the years since then.
In any case, I must have been possessed, momentarily dislocated by a recurrence of that childlike mental state and its logic. Otherwise it is inconceivable that just at the moment when Geurt took hold of two corners of the tarpaulin and started to remove it, revealing that the wooden structure was filled with water, I was entirely convinced that I was going to see my father lying under it. The irresistible uprush of boyish joy that I felt at the sudden sight of water, piers, tugboats, and intricately modeled harbor equipment – brought with it the equally irresistible certainty of grief: my father is dead, my father has been lying under water and I have never looked under it for him, never seen him, never gotten him out again.
        I knew that I was experiencing his death as bedrock reality for the first time. In a flash I also realized that it was not just a matter of this colorless water under this blue-green tarpaulin, but of all the water, all the colors, all the things that I would ever see in my life. My father would be there beneath them all.
Meanwhile the whole tarp had been rolled back. The tub under it was filled several inches deep with water. Floating in it were all sorts of intriguing maritime models, but the center of attention was the big grey warship with two stacks and large guns in three turrets. Thanks to the drawing on the wall, I recognized it at once as a Dutch battlecruiser.
        ‘Just a minute,’ said Geert; ‘I’ll turn on the transmitter and we can take her for a run.’
        Why had I come to Europe? That was also a passage over water.
        ‘ – can really get up some speed, but here indoors it’s just to give you an idea of it – ’
        Why had I studied Chinese and Japanese? In another sense that, too, was a sea voyage: to the ends of the earth.
        ‘ – get up to full speed.’ The ship was moving. ‘The main armament turrets can turn, too, watch...’
        Had I become an Orientalist to find my father? – my father, who had been sent to serve and die in the Orient, who had seen it but not been able to live in what he saw, in whom the Orient must have awakened some larger-than-life question that he had never had time to answer. I would never know what his question had been, but I had come across the ocean to find an answer.
 ‘ – try it yourself? Look, you just turn this – ’
        Geert handed me the transmitter and we watched while I manouevred the battlecruiser.
        ‘I see it’s a battlecruiser,’ I said.
        ‘Yes, it’s one of the three. Design 1047. Back in the 1940s they made some drawings of it. I found them in a magazine, the Marineblad, and then I worked it all out. I was the one that made a real ship out of it.’
        I watched as the ship made little waves in the shallow water, moving with a purring sound.
        ‘Now, that’s a perfect example of how it works,’ he said. ‘Our design was based on a German ship, the Gneisenau. Sure, there were differences: the Germans had a different conception of the engines; our ships had to be suitable for tropical waters and so on, but basically it was a Gneisenau. But the Gneisenau didn’t just drop down from the sky. She was based on an earlier ship: the Mackensen, just like the Bismarck was actually based on the Baden. Like I always say: nothing comes out of nothing. It’s all been through a human brain before us.
‘And a drawing, a conception – it doesn’t just lie there. If it’s really been worked on, thought on. And you’ll never know what becomes of it later, or for whom. Here was this young German boy, and one day he made a drawing of the Mackensen. All sorts of things came up, and it turned out the ship itself was never finished. But the Gneisenau was. And via Design 1047, right now you’re holding this transmitter in your hand. The ship itself, whether or not it ever gets to sea – that’s not the point. It’s the idea: that you believe in your own conception, that it’s not just a lifeless thing.
‘Or take another example. My brother gets the idea of a Collaborative. I work on that, I make a drawing based on it. And thirty years later, you look at the drawing and you can still see it’s him! You saw it before I told you. Isn’t that beautiful?’
Meanwhile he had resumed command and returned the ship to its berth.
‘Do you want to see the drawings?’
        We walked over to the long table. He turned on the lights above it, shoved an ashtray closer to me, and began sifting through the pile of paper.
        ‘The original plan was for three battlecruisers. I’ve already finished the first one. What I’ve learned from that, I can use on the second and third. Look, this is a sort of “artist’s conception” of the second one.’
He handed me a large white sheet with only a single short curved line on it. It reminded me of the “portrait” of his wife, but this time the line was even shorter, the curve more obviously a mere section of a much larger whole. It was hard to believe Geert took this seriously as a “drawing”; yet I could not deny that the proportions, the rhythmic division of labor between the line and the space around it, could not have been more perfect. The placement of the line in its field showed the same mastery as the positioning of a single stone in a Zen garden. I remembered a quote, I thought from Mondriaan: Once you know a single point with certainty, then you’ve also got the whole painting it will become a part of.
 ‘Look, and this is the propulsion system,’ he said, handing me the next sheet. ‘Two engine sets, so there are two stacks.’ What I actually saw were two overlapping ellipses, one drawn in more forcefully than the other. Neither was mathematically quite correct, but the very distortion somehow made the four foci even more clearly present. Again I would have hesitated to call it a “drawing,” but again it was perfect.
        ‘It may seem a little abstract,’ he said, ‘but if you get this part of it right, at this stage, then all the rest fills itself in. The later things, the decks, the armor – any dumb idiot can draw those. But I’m the only person in this country who’s really working on the cutting edge, right here on this table. That’s why it’s so important to me. And when my job’s done, I can finally go back to Batavia.’
        ‘You always call it Batavia, never Jakarta. Aren’t those the same? I never took Dutch history in school; I’m still kind of vague on those things – ’
No sooner had I said the words than I regretted it: Geert’s whole personality was instantly changed, even his body. His back was a slab of concrete, slightly curved but immovable. He was holding his cigar a few inches in front of his face with the ash pointing upward, looking at it attentively while he turned it back and forth in his fingers.
When he spoke, it was in a tone of pure acrimony: ‘Hal, I didn’t even hear what you just said, that name. I didn’t even hear it.
‘But that’s not your fault. It’s this day and age that’s at fault. You say you’re “vague on those things,” but that’s not you, it’s this day and age. This generation is “vague,” the whole damned Kingdom of the Netherlands is vague! ‘And if only people had been less “vague” back then, I can tell you a whole lot of things would have worked out different!    
        ‘Nowadays God damn it, we’re not even supposed to say “Batavia”; we’re supposed to call it by another name because that bunch of “long-haired warriors” think it sounds better, in that so-called new national language of theirs that actually was all worked out by a couple of Dutch boys in Leiden, right here at the university – I’ll tell you about that sometime; that really is what happened! Even that, they couldn’t do without us. Without our help, they wouldn’t have even known how to put together a decent language!
‘No sir, the correct word for Batavia is Batavia! And Vier – I mean Mevrouw van Sassen, that’s her name – Vier always gets her dander up when I start telling the truth about those things, but you just have to realize, she doesn’t know. That’s her way to survive. Just deny it. Just say it’s not really like that.
        ‘The last time I ever saw my brother, we knew he was going to sea, and he had a premonition. I said: Hein old buddy, see you soon. And he said: Where’s that going to be, in Heaven? And I said: No, it’s going to be right here, in Batavia, mark my words. That’s how sure I was; I said: mark my words.
        ‘So the place where we’re going to see each other again, that stays Batavia. By definition, that can’t be changed. And that bunch of bastards that are in power over there now, whatever they do or don’t do can’t affect me! That’s nothing but the passing show; it doesn’t amount to a pile of crap.
        ‘But there’s no way you’re going to tell Vier that. Because she survived; she got through it, it’s not her problem, ja? And she’s just going to keep on keeping on; the Virtuous Widow, helping other people, taking care of the ones that do have problems. She’s a real caregiver type, you know – she was a nurse in the war; she even saved the life of some German guy. She may not want to tell you that story. But okay, so now she’s playing the nurse for me. And for Anny. She’s the Good Caregiver – but actually we’re the ones taking care of her! She needs us. Otherwise I would have gone back to Batavia long ago.
        ‘And you know, Anny – she’s a real special kind of girl. Beautiful, nice, smart. But letting it all go, unattachment – that’s what she’s still got to learn. She had that one big shock in her life; I guess she was around twenty, when that guy just fell over dead from one day to the next – and since then, basically she’s never gone out again. Ja, if I’d been younger, my hat would have been in the ring for her! But I always thought: she needs a man that’s in the same league with her, not a damned has-been like me! But okay, I’ve talked enough. How about let’s go out and get something to eat?’
        We went to one of the so-called ‘Chinese and East Indian’ restaurants and ordered a rijsttafel: a dozen various dishes with a big bowl of rice. As I tasted each dish, Geert told me exactly why it wasn’t made authentically. We drank round after round of Heineken, which he taught me to call Star Brand – Tjap Bintang – and by the time we walked home, it was not clear who was helping whom to walk straight.

[to be continued]