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 3 of 3)

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

The following week, on Wednesday evening around sunset, Geert and I joined Anny in her car to drive down to The Hague. Geert had invited me cryptically to be his introducé at ‘a reception that I’m sure you’ll enjoy, with your interest in ships’; Anny was going too.
        In the car on the way down, neither of them talked about the reception. When I asked about it, Geert said with a smile: ‘Just wait, you’ll see. This won’t be a wasted evening for Hal – right, Anny?’ Anny kept looking at the road ahead, smiled vaguely and said nothing.
        Our destination turned out to be an old elegant hotel in the heart of the city. ‘I wouldn’t exactly compare it with Sociëteit de Harmonie in Batavia, but it’s a nice place,’ said Geert. We went in and found ourselves in a thronging mass of humanity. At the reception desk, people were standing in line with luggage, coats and umbrellas. The lounge was full of other people standing around with baggage, apparently waiting to leave; yet at the same time a reception was going on. Waiters in coat-and-tails were walking around with trays full of drinks; well-dressed guests, most of them elderly, talked and laughed while gesticulating with pieces of cheese and candied ginger mounted on cocktail toothpicks. I feasted my American eyes on this Old World scene.
        It was too crowded for us to move around, but Geert didn’t seem to mind. We stayed just inside the front door, but eventually a waiter came around with drinks. Motioning Anny to take one; he picked up two glasses of jenever and gave me one of them. Calmly observing the chaos around him, he seemed not to be looking for anything in particular, but he looked at his watch from time to time.
When a group of Japanese, all wearing identical orange baseball caps, wormed their way in with their bulky suitcases and cameras, he watched with amusement: ‘Great caps they’ve got on! Just like an army, but now their weapon is money. One way or another, wherever they go they’re an army!’
And there were people in the crowd wearing real uniforms, including a Dutch Post Office employee wearing a grey jacket that looked exactly like the one I had worn as a boy in America, whenever my friends and I played ‘war’ and I was a ‘German,’ and a police officer in a dark blue uniform with riding pants and boots, who reminded me of the German S.S.
The lounge, already so full, kept getting fuller: still more tired-looking groups carrying bags from Schiphol Airport, still more plump Eurasian ladies in long dresses. The hubbub was loud and constant, but there seemed to be no focus, no center of attention.
        Before long we had finished our first round of drinks. When a waiter came around with another tray, Geert looked at his watch and said: ‘You two have another one; I have to go get ready. Anny, we’re in Room Four, in about fifteen minutes, ja?’
        She nodded and took another glass of orange juice. Though the first glass had gone strongly to my head, I took another jenever. The unstructured warmth of the reception filled me with a strange comfort; as a foreigner I was, as Mevrouw van Sassen was fond of saying, ‘watching a free movie’.
        Anny apparently felt obliged to keep me good company. As soon as Geert had left, she began systematically explaining every detail of the dresses the Eurasian women were wearing, and their hairdos, and their jewelry. Meanwhile she looked at her watch every few seconds. After about five minutes had gone by, she said: ‘I think we’d better start moving toward the back; we have to get to Room Four. There’s going to be a little ceremony.’
        Inch by inch we worked our way past all manner of legs and shoes and suitcases. Finally we came out at the beginning of a long hallway. Strangely, it was practically deserted, and now Anny’s movements became energetic, determined; she positively marched in the direction of Room Four, greeting the occasional waiter or man in uniform with a businesslike smile.
The door of Room Four was half open. The lighting in the room was very dim, but I could see a row of ten folding chairs facing a podium with a piano on it. On one of the chairs sat Geert, with a man in uniform on either side of him. All the chairs were occupied; other people were standing right behind them, and still others were now coming in through another door at the back.
        ‘Too bad for Mijnheer Cornelisse, ’ Anny said: ‘that he has to sit there all alone.’
        I was startled by her use of the more formal ‘Mijnheer Cornelisse’ instead of ‘Geert.’ It didn’t sound like a joke; rather like an abrupt shift in the frame of relationships, as if by transferring him to a more distant dimension of address, she was also shutting herself off from me.
And why had she said he was there “all alone,” when so clearly he was not? I began wondering if the Dutch phrase for “all alone” in this context could be taken to mean not really “alone” but specifically “without you and me,” or something of the kind.
        While we stared blankly at each other, a young woman struck up an introduction on the piano. The sudden sound crashed over me, sending a wave of gooseflesh across my back and arms. A beautiful young blonde woman in a purple evening gown, standing beside the piano, began to sing:

Bist du bei mir,
geh ich mit Freuden
zum Sterben
und zu meiner Ruh.

If you’re with me
I’ll go with joy
to dying,
to my rest.

I had the iciest gooseflesh I had ever experienced, but now I was rudely shoved aside by a couple of young men rushing into the room from behind us. One of them, wearing a field-grey Wehrmacht uniform, spurted out without looking back: ‘’tschuldigung!’ The other, in a sailor’s uniform, did look back, but when his gaze met mine it was clear that he did not see me. The ribbon around the rim of his cap bore a text in blackletter: Gneisenau.

Ach, wie vergnügt
wär so mein Ende,
es drückten deine lieben Hände
mir die getreuen Augen zu!

Oh, what a pleasure
my end would be
if it were your dear hands
shutting my faithful eyes!

‘Those guys have the nerve!’ I said to Anny: ‘Showing up in German uniforms! Won’t the audience be offended?’
        ‘What do you mean, “German”?’
        ‘Well – aren’t those German uniforms those guys are wearing?’
        ‘What guys?’ – but her fingers were digging into my arm. ‘Come on,’ she said in the same strange tone as a moment ago: ‘Let’s go. Actually I didn’t realize it was going to be this. I don’t think we’re supposed to stay for this, and I have to go to work early tomorrow.’
        All the way to the car, and on the road back to Leiden, Anny continued to talk in her strange new tone of voice – animated yet somehow absent – about formal dress and evening gowns, but I heard hardly a word of what she was saying. I was still in Room Four. What continued to rivet my attention was not so much what had happened, or perhaps I should say what I had experienced. Whether or not I had accurately seen what I had called ‘Germans’; the undeniable sudden depersonalizing shift in Anny’s manner of referring to Geert – these questions gradually receded from my focus as we now drove along the National Highway, continuing past Wassenaar, past fields and trees along the roadside that reminded me of similar open spaces I had often seen as a child in Wisconsin, in places with Dutch names like Bergen and Oostburg and Vandenbroek.
There are times when the human mind, faced with an imminent and dangerous overload, seizes gladly on a disturbing, turbulent element – unpleasant yet concrete, identifiable – and prefers obsession with that element to any continuation of chaos and incomprehension. At this moment in the car, my thoughts circled buzzard-like around the idea that there had been something incorrect about the musical setting of ‘Bist du bei mir...’ that I had just heard in Room Four.
The object of my obsession was the transition, as I now believed I remembered it, from ‘go with joy’ to ‘to dying.’ The pianist and singer in Room Four had rendered that passage very differently from the way I thought I knew it by heart. Starting with ‘to,’ their melodic line had been pitched lower than the one I remembered and had actually been subvocally singing at that moment, and the accompanying chords, in an equally unfamiliar harmonization, put a very different emotional cast on the whole: darker, ominous. In their version, starting with ‘dying’ it was more difficult to sense any rhythm, any connection, in what followed. In all the years since I had last seen Oma alive, I had carried around with me the memory of a more cheerful setting – cheerful and yet, I now realized, perhaps not real, not present to others than myself.
Had I myself intuited or devised a brighter setting in an effort to make Oma less sorrowful than she so often had been in my experience, to make my enduring sense of her a happy one? Or had the musical alteration been caused not by the mechanics of my mind but somehow by Oma herself? Had she herself sung the song to me in an unorthodox, happier melody simply because she felt joy in my presence?
In such matters, who can tell directions? Who can say where the fertile impulse comes from? In the unfinished poem that Slauerhoff wrote on the death of his baby son, he refers to:

...shadow cast on stone
by wind-moving leaves...

Read strictly according to grammar, this implies that the movement of the wind above the grave, the only thing that stays forever above the grave, is initiated by, would not exist without the fragile mortal leaves themselves.
While I was pondered these things, we were driving through ‘Vandenbroek.’ I had once been here on a short bicycle trip with Anny, when we came here to buy wonton skins at a local delicatessen. That day I had asked why she had chosen psychiatry as her specialty.
        ‘Well,’ she had said, ‘the driving forces of our lives, the real motivations, mostly stay unconscious. Our life floats on a surface. What’s under that surface – that’s what I wanted to know.’ End of answer. End of conversation.
        Since then, she had hardly ever again spoken of psychology or of inner things. She always had much to say, but only about concrete facts in a concrete world. I wondered if long-term habituation to professional platitudes, together with constant exposure to conventional society with its useless but sanctioned dime-store wisdoms, had caused her to relegate the dangerous but passion-rich areas of mystery to a less satisfying but more communicable plane.
In any case, I now realized as we left ‘Vandenbroek’ behind us, it would be useless to try to talk to Anny about the more hopeful shadow version of Dying that I shared with Oma. Or about the other secret that I shared with Oma, a secret that was a person: her son my father, who in the language of conventionality was “dead” and yet could move within me, in or through or during or by means of my feelings as they rose and fell like waves on the never-ending, ever-expanding surface of the unfathomable.
        I suddenly realized that one of the things my father had inherited from Oma must have been a weaker than usual orientation toward forms, a thinner interest in objective existence as such. Perhaps that in turn had given him diminished vitality, such that sooner or later he was bound to run into a premature fatality. The fact that Oma had so often walked around in the otherwise cheery kitchen singing a song about death was an indication. She was simply one of that minority of the human race who even during their life in the visible world are already, or are still, standing with one leg elsewhere, just as their heart is elsewhere. Their knowledge of the here and now is a footnote, a lesser commentary on a wider knowledge: of death, a deeper expanse reaching on and beyond our limited and limiting life. What interests them is not the daily and hourly plunge of fact into forgetting but the rich inexhaustible stream of what remains under it, different yet related, incompatible yet inseparable.
And when they have departed this life, they continue to be, but in a way that has become at last their own: not after this life but beside it, lasting alongside it.
        It was well that I could no longer consult Oma, could not ask her once and for all what she thought about Dying. For me to go on walking alongside Oma and my father, there must be no place, no time, no sector of previously known experience where I now defined them to be. I must let them go and keep going. Not leave them, but let go.
The next day, Thursday, I was the only one at home in ‘The Indies.’ Even toward evening, at the hour when Anny normally drank a cup of tea with Mevrouw van Sassen before leaving for her evening shift at the hospital, the house was empty.
        The next day as well, nobody was around but me. Late in the afternoon, when I returned from a class, I found a letter in my mailbox. There was no stamp and the envelope was not pasted shut. I read:

Hello Hal,

Could you join me tomorrow (Saturday) at 13:30 in Mevrouw van Sassen’s room for some soup? There are some things that I need to discuss with you as soon as possible. Please let me know if you are prevented .

With best regards,

Since the letter mentioned ‘soup,’ I was amazed when later that evening and even late at night, the house was still empty. Normally, every Friday evening Mevrouw van Sassen made the soup for the following day. Without that aroma pervading the house, I could scarcely believe it was Friday night. I even went upstairs to check whether Geert was really gone.
I knocked loudly on the wood next to the copper nameplate, but there was no answer. I noticed that in the hallway outside his door, there were six big grey trash bags, all very full. Strange, I thought. In our neighborhood the pickup was not until Tuesday.
        The next day, again the house was empty all morning. At one-thirty when I knocked on Mevrouw van Sassen’s door, I had given up trying to figure it out.
        The door opened and there stood Anny. She was holding a pan of pea soup.
        ‘Come on in,’ she said. ‘The soup’s ready.’
        I slowly opened the door. The four soup plates were in their usual position, but there was nobody else in the room. Anny set the pan down on the tea warmer; the candle was already lit.
        ‘It’s not home-made,’ she said. ‘Just a can of Unox.’
        ‘Well, that’s fine, it’s the best brand! But are we the only ones? Where is everybody?’
        She said nothing, but filled two of the plates with soup. She had already put on a plate with square slices of white grocery-store bread on it: this time no home-fried cubes.
        ‘Go ahead, bon appetit!’ she said. She sat down opposite me and began to eat with an odd slowness, clearly ill at ease. She looked back and forth at the two empty plates.
        ‘Hal,’ she began, ‘There’s something I have to tell you. This past Wednesday night, after you and I got back from The Hague, Mevrouw van Sassen had a heart attack. She died early the next morning.’
        ‘Anny!’ Before I could help myself, I reached across the table and took hold of her wrist. She immediately retracted her hand and went on: ‘It’s not a pleasant subject, but there it is, and I’ve been thinking about it constantly for the past three days and nights, so I would appreciate it if right now you and I could just sort of keep it short, okay?’ I nodded.
        ‘And now Hal, the thing is – this house is actually my property. We’ve always treated Mevrouw van Sassen as a landlady, and in a psychological sense maybe she’s been that, but actually I bought this house years ago; otherwise she would have had to move out because she couldn’t pay for all the upkeep.
        ‘But the way it is now, with her being – gone, I think it’ll be the best thing if you move to another address. You and I have always been like friends, so I don’t imagine you’ll have any problem agreeing with me on that. And actually, I’ve already made some inquiries and I’ve found a nice room in Oegstgeest that you could move into if you want. It’s not expensive; we can talk about that.’
        Chewing on a piece of dry bread, I said: ‘And what about Geert?’
       Staring at a spoonful of piping-hot soup, she blew on it twice and then said: ‘Mijnheer Cornelisse is at another location right now. He won’t be back at least for a while. I’ve already done some cleaning upstairs, in his rooms. I found a letter on his desk addressed to you.’ From the table she picked up a white envelope addressed to ‘Mr. H. Lofthouse’ and gave it to me. Something besides paper was enclosed in it, a key or medal, I thought.
        ‘I’ll open it later.’
        ‘Anny – can I ask you where Geert is?’
        ‘I’m sure Mijnheer Cornelisse will tell you about that himself. But you might have to wait a while.’
        Sobeit. She wasn’t going to tell me. Deciding there was also no point in asking her why she had still put on four plates as usual, I said I would be glad to move to Oegstgeest. When I asked about Mevrouw van Sassen’s funeral, she said only family were invited.
        I ate two and a half plates of soup and a lot of dry bread, knowing this was the last time I would ever experience Soup Day in The Indies. When we were finished, I washed up our plates and put them, together with the two unused ones, back in the kitchen cupboard next to the familiar rusty tea canister and the revered copy of the 1934 Batavia edition of the Keijner Cookbook whose worn-out back had long since been replaced with yellowing strips of cellophane tape.
I went back to my own room and opened the envelope. As I had thought, there was a key inside. I folded the letter open and read:


I hereby invite you to join the Shipbuilders Collaborative. You are a ‘natural’ for membership in this Order; that was made clear to me during your visit by certain unmistakable indications. I need hardly add that as a member, you will not exactly have an easy time of it. As I said to you that evening: life is war. And that is all the more true for those willing to dedicate their lives to the winning of that war. But you will do better to avoid all talk of our ‘war’ in the presence of the worldly-wise who so vastly outnumber us.
        The Constitution of the Order, together with a written statement of acceptance which you can sign and then immediately burn, can be found in my room on a small sheet of paper, folded up inside the foremost main battery turret of the battlecruiser. Loosen the turret top with a screwdriver and you will find it inside. The contents will not surprise or trouble you. It all comes down to: ever and always seek to be instrumental. Actually you already know, but you still do not know that you know, and in the difficult process of making the implicit explicit – which unbeknown to the world, is the role and purpose of humankind – you will find the Order of great help.
The first assignment is: draw a circle. Inevitably, this will take you long years of effort. Keep courage. Take comfort in the thought of the many who have undertaken this Voyage before you. It goes without saying that you can count on my continual support, though you may as yet find this difficult to imagine.
        Further indications will reach you in their own time by such channels as are always available to such as ourselves. It will always be your own choice as to whether you, as a full-fledged Builder from now on, wish to follow them.
        It is contrary to the spirit of our Order even to speak of our existence in the presence of the uninitiated. But I am sure you will not find it difficult to honor this precept.
        Farewell, and at the same time: welcome aboard!


My heart was pounding and my head swam. My impulse was to rush upstairs and look for the Constitution of the Order, but something told me I needed to wait until Anny was away. It was now Saturday afternoon. Anny always spent the whole weekend at home. I would have to wait for two days...I walked into town and bought bread, cheese, apples and jenever. Once back in The Indies, I shut myself up in my room and spent the weekend memorizing each jot and tittle of the mimeographed Leiden classic Outline of Japanese Grammar by Frits Vos.
        Monday morning, once Anny left for work, I went up to Geert’s floor and let myself in. I saw at once that many of the things I remembered were gone: the paintings, the drawing of Design 1047, all the drawings on the table. I proceeded at once to the ‘harbor,’ rolled back the tarpaulin, and – the battlecruiser was gone! The Kortenaer was still in place on the windowsill; likewise the passenger ship on the mantel and the schooner on the secretaire. I searched the whole place, including the tiny bedroom at the back. I spent an hour looking, but the battlecruiser was gone.
When I had once again locked the door behind me, I had an impulse to open and search the trash bags that were still standing in the hall. But something kept me from even touching them; besides, it seemed unthinkable that anyone would leave the rest of the models in place but throw away the magnificent battlecruiser.
        That evening, I went to talk to Anny, supposedly to turn in the key to Geert’s room. I said that in his letter, he had asked me to touch up a detail of the battlecruiser, and asked her if she knew what had happened to it.
        Smiling impeccably, she stood there in wan silence till I nodded and said goodbye.

In less than a week, I had moved to Oegstgeest. The way from my new room to the Sinological Institute did not pass by The Way Back, and before long I had lost contact with The Indies. I did keep up the habit – to be honest, to this day I have never stopped – of opening a can of soup every Saturday noon.
        I have always kept Geert’s letter. Not that I’ve really done anything with it, except that a few times in all these years, I actually have sat down and tried, more as a joke than anything else, to draw an acceptable circle. He had warned me it would be difficult, and it is.
        Once, much later, I did go back to The Indies on an impulse, ten or twelve years after I had moved away. It was on a Saturday morning, one of those splendid breakthrough days in early April when even in Holland’s northerly clime, it finally becomes possible to believe that summer is on its way again, that light and warmth still exist and shall return to this world. I had an appointment that morning at a house on the other side of The Way Back, but maybe the sudden return of comfort and sun made me nostalgic, or maybe it was the sight of dappled waves on the water that reminded me of the Mississippi. In any case, I made a sudden detour to The Indies.
        First I looked in through the window on the ground floor where I had lived. I recognized some of the furniture that now filled the room; it had been Geert’s. But I sensed the place was uninhabited, and that the furniture was only there to discourage would-be squatters. I walked on to the window of what had been Mevrouw van Sassen’s sitting room, where on so many Saturdays we had shared soup and bread. Here, nothing seemed to have changed. In all the intervening years, not one framed photo, not one chinoiserie vase had been removed. In the basket on the floor in front of the easy chair, there was still the familiar-looking pile of women’s magazines and Judge Dee mystery novels.
        It took me a while to realize that one thing was new. At the back, in the corner atop the television set, half camouflaged by the dull brownish wallpaper behind it, was a grey ship model: a heavy warship with two stacks and three big gun turrets. Other than that, all things were as they had always been, including the four soup plates, white with bright red rims, gleaming on the table in the sun.