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, September 24, 2012

Konni and Terry (story)

All the way from Chek Lap Kok Airport to the Care Center, Reed’s mind was in the past. Most of what flitted by the taxi window looked spanking new, but it was as if he were wearing goggles that reformatted the shapes and forms, the roads and buildings and signs, into those of twenty years ago.
            That had been his first trip to the Orient. He had felt so lucky, as a young non-tenured assistant professor of Comparative Literature, to be granted three months’ research leave and an air ticket to Hong Kong. His research topic was ‘Chinese diaspora women writers.’ He had taken his wife along on the trip. More than once, they had joked about her ‘chaperoning’ him lest he fall in love with every new pretty young Chinese diaspora woman he interviewed. At times it was more than a joke. But their marriage had held. Not till eight years later had his wife divorced him for another man.
            And now this expense-paid invitation to stop over in Hong Kong and give a lecture at the Orchid Heaven Care Center on his way to a big international conference in Taipei. The organizer at Orchid Heaven, Konni Kwok, was herself a famous writer. She wrote in English – some said deliberately, to enhance her chances of winning fame in the American academic world. She wrote novels and stories in a genre she claimed to have created, which she called ‘Annals of the Invisible.’ Her plots, mostly involving the supernatural and occult, appealed to many Western readers, though Chinese detractors said they read like imitations of the Qing-dynasty Chinese writer Pu Songling, in whose stories humans had sex with ghosts.
            Konni was said to suffer from a never-quite-defined ‘lifelong medical condition’ that made travel difficult. She had been living and writing in the Care Center for many years. Admirers said the very fact of her physical disability intensified her creative flights into a transcendent world of imagination.
            Reed found it almost too good to be true – that Konni had, in her own words, ‘pulled out all the stops’ in applying for subsidy and inviting ‘prominent Hong Kong scholars’ just for the single 45-minute lecture that he was to give this afternoon at the Assembly Room of the Center. He assumed she was planning to solicit his help in furthering her own ambitions. But in what way? Like many other Chinese writers, she already had a well-placed impresario in Western academe, who had written a Ph.D. dissertation on her works and gone on to translate several novels.
            As the taxi turned off onto the palm-lined semicircular driveway of the Center, he thought of his own situation. In addition to his academic career, for twelve years now he had been writing poetry. A small bibliophile press had published three of his collections, and the attractively designed thin volumes, full of Chinese imagery and Daoist allusions, had found a small but enthusiastic readership. Chinese friends had offered to translate his work and recommend it to publishers, but as of now, like many young writers he still hoped to make his own way and succeed without help.
            As he paid the driver and walked up to the entrance, he realized he was inordinately nervous. His lecture today was to be on the Chinese roots of his poetic images. He had spent two days re-reading his poems, taking notes, checking the accuracy of his memory as to the Chinese sources. He had no idea how big the audience would be, or how highbrow.
            The receptionist was a dark non-Chinese girl, perhaps Indonesian or a Filipina, wearing around her neck a gold cross which accented the gold tooth in her smile. When he said he was looking for Konni Kwok, the girl’s eyes went wide.
            ‘Are you also a writer?’ she asked.
            ‘Well…maybe a little bit of a one. I’m supposed to give the lecture this afternoon.’        ‘What lecture is that?’
            ‘In the Assembly Room.’
            ‘I am not aware of a lecture in the Assembly Room today.’ Frowning, she stooped and took out a calendar from beneath the counter.
            ‘Well – that’s okay,’ Reed said. ‘I’m supposed to meet Konni in her room first anyway.’
            ‘Very good. I will ask the nurse to take you to her.’ Plock-plocking on her sandals, she stepped into the office behind her and quickly said a few words in a language he did not understand. When she returned, she was accompanied by a middle-aged Eurasian woman with short dyed-red hair and half-glass wire spectacles.
            ‘Hi,’ the woman said with a nervous smile. ‘I am Gina. I will take you to Miss Kwok.’
            As they walked down the corridor, it struck Reed that the doors of all the rooms were open, some slightly, some wide. He saw no actual patients.
            Presently Gina stepped up to one of the half-open doors, knocked loudly, and called out: ‘Konni, you have a visitor!’
            From within, a female voice coughed slightly and said: ‘Great! Send him in!’
            Entering the room, Reed felt transported entirely away from the Care Center. He could have been in a professor’s office at the most modern of universities. On three sides of the room, Ikea bookshelves held countless volumes in Chinese and English, interrupted only by an occasional large seashell, rock, or image of Kwan Yin. Across the whole tabletop ran a thick many-colored throw rug. Beside the computer lay a pad of white paper with a gold-plated fountain pen on it.
            But the focus of the room was the occupant in her wheelchair, vigorously rolling across the room to meet him. She was slender, her tallness accentuated by a long coarse ponytail falling over her right shoulder. Her smiling face, dark yet radiant, promised easeful intimacy, and her lips were wide and full.
            As she offered him her hand, he had a mighty impulse to kiss her – but this was the Orient. Her hand was intensely warm, and as he sensed her fingernails grazing his wrist, his eyes moved to her almost-bare shoulders, swathed in a black lace stole over something turquoise. From the waist down, her form was wrapped in a thin wine-red blanket flowing all the way down to cover her feet.
            Gina took the wooden chair from the corner of the room and set it down next to the table: ‘Miss Kwok, shall I bring tea? Or perhaps – the gentleman prefers coffee?’
            ‘Coffee coffee!’ said Konni gleefully, following the Chinese custom of saying the same thing twice in quick succession. ‘I’ve read his books. I know he’s a coffee addict!’
            They all laughed, and as Gina walked out, with a gesture of her long bare arm Konni motioned him to take a seat beside her.
            For an instant, her eyes seemed to vanish into a swoon of surrender; then suddenly they were searching into his own, deep and deeper inward, as if scanning even into his previous incarnations. Her gaze thrilled him sexually, embarrassingly so, and his response was to start talking business: ‘So, is everything set for the lecture?’
            Averting her eyes, she said slowly: ‘Reed, the thing is…there is no lecture. That was just my pretext for inviting you to come here. I thought if I told you the real reason, you wouldn’t dare to come.’
            ‘What is the real reason?’
            ‘I have a proposal for you. A proposal of marriage. I’m in the traditional Chinese role of a meipo, a matchmaker!’ She laughed.
            Gina returned with a little white coffeepot and cups on a tray. Without a word, she set the tray down on the desk and walked out, leaving the door slightly open as usual.
            ‘Wow. Who’s the proposal from?’
            ‘My sister,’ she said, pouring his coffee. ‘I know from what you’ve written about yourself that you drink it black; there you are! The proposal…well, the first part of it…is from my sister. She wants to marry you.’
            ‘I didn’t know you had a sister.’
            ‘Most people don’t. She’s no longer living. She died of an illness many years ago.’
            ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. But what do you mean then, she “wants to marry me”?’
            ‘Her surviving spirit wants to marry you in the unseen world, the spirit dimension. You’re a sinologist; I’m sure you’ve heard of our custom of minghun, Spirit Marriage.’
            Indeed he had. He even had a Taiwanese friend, a university professor of physics, whose deceased younger sister had been posthumously married to a distant relative years after her death. The theory was that if a young girl died with a strong unfulfilled wish for marriage, after her demise her spirit might remain troubled. It could emit disharmonious energies, causing illness, marital discord, or financial trouble to surviving members of the family. The solution was to conduct a wedding ritual in which the deceased girl, represented by a photo or an effigy, was joined to a living man – who might perfectly well be long since married and the father of children. The “visible” and “invisible” marriages could exist side by side.
            ‘Well,’ said Konni, picking up a folder from her desk, ‘since I’m the matchmaker, let me go ahead and introduce you!’ These are some pictures of her. Her name is Terry.’
            As she handed him the folder and pronounced the name ‘Terry,’ he felt another sudden sexual shock. He opened the folder. The first picture showed a tall, slender, smiling young woman at the seashore in a long ponytail, sunglasses, a white bikini and high-heeled sandals.  ‘As you can see,’ said Konni, ‘she was very beautiful. She was a professional, as it is called here, “leg model” – always getting her picture taken in swimsuits, short pants, nylon stockings. She and I were twins. We used to say we were one soul divided over two bodies. And I got the brains, she got the legs!’ She laughed till the tears ran out over her cheeks.
            He looked at the second photo. This time the woman appeared as a bride, seated on a chair in a tight knee-length white dress. Again the breathtaking legs.
            ‘Do you like her?’
            ‘Well…sure, she’s beautiful! But…’
            ‘But you’re thinking maybe beauty isn’t enough. You want brains, too. Somebody who can talk to you about your writing.’
            ‘That’s not what I mean. I do like her, very much. But let’s face it – she has already “gone back,” as you people say. She’s no longer living in this world.’
            Leaning forward, she spoke very slowly: ‘And now we come to the second part of the proposal. Reed, I am very mediumistic. I am actually in touch with Terry every day, even hour by hour. All I have to do is to think of Terry, and she’s right here with me. And it’s not a one-way street. I have whole conversations with her every day. She was the one who inspired me to start reading your work. I was sitting in our library looking over the covers of some new books. And just as I was looking at your Tracings of Wind and Rain, I positively heard her voice saying “You should read that one! You’ll love it”!
            ‘From where the deceased are, they can see a wider field of things than we can. They have kinds of foreknowledge that are impossible for us. That’s why in this part of the world, some businessmen take a Spirit Wife. They think she can help them to foretell trends and make better decisions. And I can tell you, for a long time now, Terry has already been keeping very close to you. Closer than you could ever imagine.
            ‘But now Reed, the thing is this. I am a medium, but you are not. To be really close to her…to enjoy her fully…you will need me to be there. To mediate for her. To substantiate her. To supply the physical body that will make her present and believable to you. And so, Reed…I am also asking you to marry me. Have me as your visible wife, please! And in the invisible, she will also always be with you, and so all three of us will be happy.’
Suddenly she took off the lace stole, revealing beautiful bare arms and shoulders. Beneath it, she was wearing an elegant turquoise shift with the thinnest of straps. Her breasts heaved and her breath came panting as she spoke again: ‘We don’t have much time,’ she said. ‘I just want to show you how sincere I am. I have nothing to hide from you. Look!’
Afterward he could never remember exactly how she tore off the shift and threw it down on the floor, it happened in so spellbinding a flash of defiant passion – from one second to the next she was transformed from a canny, self-possessed mistress of language into a gloriously naked virgin.
            Her breasts were the most beautiful he had ever seen. His eyes moved helplessly back and forth between the burgeoning brown of her nipples and the dark imploring open of her eyes.
            In another moment, as she suddenly swept away the blanket that had covered the bottom half of her body, he found himself automatically turning away from what he saw.
            She had no legs. Both had been amputated high above the knee and were capped with what seemed, for the split-second in which he looked directly at them, metal disks with large wooden knobs in the center. Where her legs should have been was a long thick tightly bundled nut-brown cushion, reaching from the bottom of the wheel chair up almost to the turquoise-colored tanga stretched thinly beneath her superbly flat belly: this was what she had used to support the blanket and to simulate full bodily form.
            ‘Don’t get the wrong idea,’ she said hoarsely. ‘I may not look like a complete woman, but I am. I am fully capable of giving you what you need as a man. And don’t forget: what I don’t have, my sister does. And since you’ll be married to us both, we’ll both be with you in bed!
           ‘I know it’s hard to believe, Reed, but I’m telling you the truth. Terry told me in a dream that she wants to marry you. So do I. By taking us each on our own plane, you’ll be making two women happier than they could ever have hoped to be.’
Reed could not respond. He tried not to stare at her constantly, but her beauty enthralled him. Even the cushion now seemed part of her, full of her warmth and her aura.
‘Reed, if I had knees, I would get down on them and beg you! But Terry’s knees are so beautiful, and you’ll be kissing them every night! I promise!’
The last word glided into a sob as she broke down crying, loud, wailing, her breasts and shoulders shaking as she covered her eyes with her hands.
In an instant, Gina was in the room grabbing Reed’s arm. She had been standing just ouside the door all the while. Ignoring Konni, she pulled Reed away, taking him with her out into the hall. She shut the door. Standing very close to him with averted eyes, she said in a low voice, ‘We all just have to be very understanding of Konni. She has a wonderful creative gift, but she has had to pay a terrible price for it. All her life’s sorrow, all her loneliness has gone into it. We just have to remember she lost both her parents when she was still a baby, and she was an only child.’
‘An only child.’
‘But…didn’t she have a sister?’
‘No. And that’s a big part of it. She often talks about that – how much she would have wanted a sister to share things with. She often cries about that.’
From behind the door, the sobbing continued.
‘Sir,’ Gina said, ‘I’m very sorry, but I think it will be best if you just go now. I know Konni. It will take her hours to recover from this.’ Looking him in the eyes at last, in the slow stately style of many Oriental women she offered him her hand.
‘Thank you very much, Sister,’ he said.
            ‘I’m not really a sister, I just work here.’
            ‘I didn’t mean it in that sense.’
Smiling ever so slightly, she looked at the floor.
            Back on the road in a taxi, he was relieved that he had no lecture to give. Now he had some time to indulge the Western sinologist’s archetypal hobby of browsing through real Chinese bookstores. But parts of women’s bodies went with him all the way. Terry’s legs, Konni’s breasts, Gina’s hand – all approached, all almost touched him again and again. But even more constantly, it was eyes that he saw, and they were always Konni’s.
            As he went through the motions of reading the titles on the book covers, even some of the Chinese characters seemed to blur momentarily into a roundness suggesting eyes. Konni.
            Before he knew it, it was evening and he was at the airport at the assigned gate, waiting to check in. He was leafing through a new book of critical essays on Konni’s fiction, which he had just bought, when a girl’s voice broke in over the PA system: ‘Passenger Reed Loman, Reed Loman, please come to the check-in counter, thank you.’
            At the counter the girl handed him a wine-red envelope: ‘A message for you, Sir.’ The envelope was printed with orchid designs in turquoise and brown.
            Resuming his seat, he took out the the thick folded card covered with handwriting and began to read:

Dear Reed – so dear to me and also to Terry:
I was telling you the truth when I told you I had no secrets from you. Now I have let you see not only my body but my silly girlish idiocy. Undoubtedly you’ve been shocked by both. No matter. I have only been so open with you because I love you.
                I’m sure you will never want to come back and see me again. But know that wherever you go, whatever you do, I will always be seeing you. The eyes of love are not bound by time and space.
                After you left, Terry and I had a long talk about you. She said I should write a story about my meeting with you – that the story would be my baby, my spiritual child by you. Even as I write these words, I can feel the baby, your child, kicking in my belly!

As Reed read the words, tears sprang to his eyes. At the same time, he was caught up in a swell of sexual warmth – inconveniently, for at that moment the girl at the counter once again broadcast a request for him to go to the counter.
            He waited a couple of moments for his passion to subside, then stood up and went to the desk.
            ‘Mr. Loman,’ the girl said, ‘I have a new boarding pass for you. Your flight has been upgraded to Business Class, compliments of Miss Kwok.’
            His head swam as he accepted the card. Before he could speak, the girl was already announcing the beginning of Business Class boarding. He hurried to get his luggage as once again tears blurred his eyes. When the attendant at the last check point said ‘Have a good flight, Sir,’ he did not look her in the eyes. He saw that she was wearing a name badge: “Corry.”
            As soon as he was settled in his wide Business Class seat, he read the remaining lines of Konni’s message:

Have a great time in Taipei, and when you present your lecture, may you share with your audience at least a little of the happiness you have brought me today! In my present incarnation, it has not been given to me to be your lover. In the next…watch out!
                With a double love (you know what I mean!), Konni

He found himself stretching out his fingertips to touch the ink of her signature. At the touch, he felt a slight after-spasm of the erotic thrill he had felt a few moments ago.
            Would he go back, back to Konni, to see her and kiss her and take her in his arms? Already he knew he would not.
            The passenger sitting in the seat across the aisle from him was a terribly pretty young Chinese woman, undoubtedly from Taiwan, wearing a wine-red dress suit and black high heels. She smiled at him for a moment, turned away impeccably, and carefully crossed her legs. Her hands were more slender than Gina’s, he thought. Her legs could have been Terry’s.
            After takeoff, as soon as the flight leveled he signaled the stewardess and ordered a double neat vodka. Positioning a sheet of the complimentary letter paper on the table in front of him, he took a big swig and wrote down the first lines of a poem. It was, he knew already, the first of many, a whole new book, that he was going to write to his new loves:

Whose are the lips you speak through
when you call my name?
--Lloyd Haft