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.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Yang Lingye’s 羊令野 ‘Notes on Facing the Wall’ 面壁手記

from Notes on Facing the Wall
prose-poems by Yang Lingye 羊令野, selected and translated by Lloyd Haft[1]


A soul is undergoing the Death of a Thousand Cuts, from its own graver. The final form has not yet emerged. But already your hands hang down, the look in your eyes drifts with the gloom, your lips are shivering in the season of ice.

Now that you’ve lost all the sketches, how are you going to sculpt a Self? You have lost your way among the beautiful and the ugly: caught between humans and spirits. You draw a cross on your sole: east south west north. Where are you going to set out from?

All the mountains are already rising. Amidst that ancient solemnity, escorting the clouds you surge along into a cosmos that awaits enlightenment. The field of your heart resounds with your superhuman footfalls.


Merely lifting your hands, you become a ladder to the clouds. And a desire arises. The beauty of flying: you call and the wind pays obeisance.

Who’s to ascend by means of you? Those spaces beyond clambering. And you: a tortuous road through the sky, unfolding into the Void.

It’s that way of standing: what trees mean. What distracts me. While your solitary shadow keeps all its dangerous depth.


Wind, lightning cannot touch you, nor the carpenter’s axe. You are a gnarled oak, beyond mark and measure. Sun and moon swirl in your growth rings.

Fragrant nor pretty, though you walk an unfamiliar road you unfold a landscape of your own, using the sunlight to form a shadow on the ground.

Remembering ruins: pillars and beams meant to stand, burned in the fires of lost empire. But you, the lowly oak, have a corner of the green hills all to yourself, luxuriantly being nothing special.


You heard a bullet leaping along the trajectory. And then a life burst out of your breast. What you are holding in your cupped hands is that kind of life: kneading the sound of metal into an image of tomorrow, its fire-colored face washed up from the blood that a million human cries drowned in.

Behind your eyelids the sea thickens, becomes a tear. Mountains are pressed by your palms, becoming grain-sized fossils. When you forge yourself into a sword with which to prop up the sky, the very constellations come tumbling down.

You have no name in the books of time, though your body is a history that can never be read to the end. And from somewhere, against a background of curling smoke and battlefields, the sunlight of life emerges in pastel.


Your footsteps are an inquiry into my whereabouts. And free from the depths of my valley the oriole’s song rises, woven into the brocade of a landscape. Wakeful blue eye, who was it that planted the exiled willow beyond its habitat, and sold springtime at a giveaway to the dwellers in the sunny South?

And how many refrains are you still going to sing? The westward road stretches even longer, your shadow has grown thin as a daisy: why not trim it into a bonsai? Who will bring you an autumn with which to color the Southern Mountains?

So you brandish the cup, urging your own shadow to drink. Your gaunt fingers pluck cold strings. For whom will you play the lute that your face is?


The lute that your face is sounds your autumnal plaint across the red of autumn leaves: that blood-washed ball, the setting sun. The final fall of the city of loneliness.

The first snow flies as a flag of surrender above the drunken guest’s temples. From in a mirror you read aloud the proclamation: joys and sorrows to be altered beyond recognition! A banner painted with battlefield scenes comes snapping into view.

Gather up the gunfire complexion of yesteryear; make of it a stiff border for the travel bag that your flesh is. Like the clanking ring on the haft of an ancient sword, the wailing walker’s footprints trudge out song beyond all following.


Smash open any of the audible worlds, and you come leaping out. Iron and steel blossom with graceful sparks in obeisance to you. In every house enjoying the sleep that is the fruit of autumn.

It’s an imprisonment, like a peachpit, and spring peeps out of it. While the language of flowers longs mightily for a wind to write it wide.

You forge a Self in stones and metals; the quiet flow of time falls silent to allow your shadow to pass.


The neighbor to the east raises chrysanthemums; the neighbor to the west makes wine. And there you are, sad and between, heaping yourself into a mountain. Call Tao Qian and he doesn’t answer; call Li Bai and Du Fu, they won’t come. Your solitary shadow is carved in silvery moonlight across a garden of allusion.

It is always at these moments when the willow’s drunkenness congeals into blue eyes. Just in the midst of your ease, a gaze is fixed on you.

Walk circles around the pine, the chrysanthemum. Sample the face in the wineglass. To be sure, the wine’s no longer the fruit..


Your scales become sediment, become an arc of moonlight on water beyond the angler’s reach. Your wings are adrift, a cloud no arrow will touch. And so you let your shadow wander, wide as sea, empty as sky.

But what is embroidered on the map of your heart? You’ve laid all the patterns aside, giving the flowers back to the snow, marrying the moon off to the wind. As you let yourself melt away into nature, the very face of this world mutates.

Inside your body a time of honesty is taking shape. A beautifully wrought fountain of blood is being opened, rejoining the purple river’s flow while you keep charting your little course across the heart’s transparencies.


You are the cracked earth that even the clouds’ long stilts can stamp no moisture out of. In what the sunlight’s golden blade dissects – in those parched crevices, you keep hoping to find an edible fish. And who’s to tap a well of autumn water in those blind eyeballs? In a vase full of tears, a soul is dying of thirst.

Twisting your own hair into a rope, you hang passionately from whatever appears, while gloom interlaces the thicket of your hair with a boundless, vague luxuriance. Who will trap the light of autumn and kindle a torch of red leaves for you?

Get the moon to lend you a diviner’s coin: can that obscure text, your fortune, be translated into the darkness of tomorrow, into the forwarding address of a lost shadow?


Your long arms dragged, became oars; your loose hair became a sail and you were pulled down every kind of stream. Who knows the winds, the tides you poked your way through.

It must have been the river that wine turns into, that you came bobbing along. Are you the one who caught the moon? Your net bulges with the numberless eyes of autumn.

While moonlight wanders through the alleys, you remember a dried-up river bed. And then your boatman’s song falls, falls the full length of your shadow.


Who could stir up your footprints from the campfires’ ashes? The last gunshot still rings with the news: fire contact made. Every tree waits in its original state.

The butt of the gun in your hand is already sprouting with spring fungus. The myriad birds sing sadly; the hundred flowers are spattered with tears. Who’s to read yesterday’s Diary of a Hunter? Weekend: green unicorn circling left and right, colorful phoenix dancing up, down.

But your body rises as a tree that marks the years on a map without coordinates. One by one the wind-eroded clouds come out of hiding.


Night after night your two eyes, which have survived the first frost, gaze upward, becoming a skylight at autumn’s end. Who will siphon off the stars you overflow with, and wash your grieving shadow clean?

If two migrant birds were to fly out slowly from behind the crystalline curtains of a boudoir, the Milky Way would not be the home they returned to. Like snow, like falling stars their multifarious feathers would drift one by one into oblivion.

Two ploshing springs keep coming, painting a stream of blue across the sky: sun and moon, held in your longing, that sunflower exploding, that dawn.

[1] The 20th-century Taiwan poet Yang Lingye (pseud. of Huang Zhongcong 黃仲琮 , 1923-1994) has not fared well in the hands of compilers of anthologies. After a period of growing prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, he seems to have drifted out of the spotlight, I hope temporarily. If present-day readers had to categorize him, the words ‘Modernist’ and ‘Buddhist’ would probably both be used. Personally I would vehemently add the term ‘Existentialist’ (in a broad sense) to these.
The term mianbi 面壁, which I here translate literally as ‘facing the wall,’ is also a traditional Buddhist term for meditation practice. One of its modern meanings is [ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary 2003]: to ‘engage in pursuing something difficult.’
The original Chinese text I have used is from Yang Lingye zixuan ji 羊令野自選集 [Yang Lingye: Works selected by himself], published by Liming Cultural Enterprises 黎明文化事業 , Taipei, 1979. Thanks to Liming for permission. The original contains 94 numbered sections, of which I have selected and translated 13.
In 1995, I published a brief article outlining my own approaches in reading and interpreting Yang Lingye’s poetry. I hope to revise and expand it soon. It can be accessed under the link 'On Yang Ling-yeh's (羊令野) poetry' on this blog.