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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Is Bamboo Where?

Akiko Heilbrunner – this is a poeticized version of her name – was the first person in my life who tried to explain to me how Chinese characters worked. I must have been about seven years old, because we were living in those days in Heim’s Woods, a small wooded area on what was then the edge of Middleton, Wisconsin. Akiko and her husband and toddler son were our neighbors to westward, up the hill toward where the sun set and the highway lay, with nothing beyond but meadows and goldenrods and mountainous masses of clouds. In their house, they had a calligraphy scroll hanging on the wall. I now have no idea what it said, but the very sight of those Chinese characters on display fascinated me, and resonated with what my mother had told me: Akiko’s husband could speak Japanese and even read it. He had said learning Chinese characters was the most difficult thing he had ever tried to do.
        Akiko was not the first Japanese person in my life, but she was the first one whose nationality really impinged on my consciousness. A couple of years before, we had lived in a married students’ barrack town called Badger. Our neighbors were a Japanese-American family from Hawaii, and I remember that although the designation ‘Japanese’ was occasionally used, I did not really see anything all that special in Keith, Jason (I think those were their names) or their parents. True, their skin was darker than ours, but then so was Sandy’s, and she, a black girl, was just a member of our gang like anybody else. None of these people seemed to me nearly as ‘different’ as one sad-faced little boy whose name I have forgotten, whom one occasionally saw walking around the neighborhood with an open can of chocolate syrup, the kind normally used as an ice-cream topping. He would just be walking around the neighborhood all by himself drinking the thick brown syrup straight from the can, and there was a vague rumor that his working mother ‘left him all alone all day,’ and it all seemed, and undoubtedly was, very horrible and pitiable.
        No, my insensitivity to the Japaneseness of our Badger neighbors went so far that even now I am ashamed to think of it. My father had been in the Navy, and I loved to look at one of his books, an album of photographs showing the U. S. Navy in action against Japanese forces in the Pacific War. One day Keith and Jason’s mother came over just when I was looking at the book, and as soon as she walked into the room I gleefully called out: ‘Brenda, look! Here’s how we beat the Japs!’
        Embarrassing as it is, this incident reminds me of another, far more pleasant experience I had in Taiwan in 1983. I had been living for a couple of months in the YWCA Hostel on Qingdao West Road in Taipei. In those days, incredible though it may seem now, it was not easy to find a cup of drinkable coffee in Taipei. I was always on the lookout for Western-style snackbars where I could persuade myself it was coffee I was getting. My fellow Dutch sinologist Klaas Ruitenbeek, who would later produce superb translations from Lu Xun’s fiction, had pointed out a good place not far from where I was living, and before long I was going there several times a week for supper, a snack, or just coffee.
        The owners were extremely friendly, and like many people in their line, they seemed somehow flattered that a ‘long-nose’ would want to patronize their establishment. In their eyes I was a hero for being able to speak Chinese, and often I got free extras. They had charming children – I never quite figured out how many, there were always so many children running around that I never knew how many of them were theirs, but charming they were, except when the boys were off on a Martial Arts binge and kicking and roughing up all the other kids. Maybe at those times they had just been watching the American TV series Kung Fu, which was a favorite in Taiwan.
        There were two children in particular who paid attention to me whenever I came in. One was a girl, unbelievably tiny and pretty. I don’t think she could have been older than three or four. One day when I was sitting on one of the lunch bar stools, she came around and stood behind me and started violently twisting my hair. I asked her, ‘Hey, what are you doing’ – whereupon she leaned around and looked me in the face with a dumbbell-where’ve-you-been-all-these-years look and said: xi tou! Washing your hair! I hoped she wasn’t already preparing for a career in one of the so-called ‘tourist barber shops’ that were another, much more expensive venue where male visitors to Taiwan could get, among other things, coffee.
        She was always accompanied by a little boy who seemed to enjoy talking to me. He spoke excellent Mandarin with, to be sure, the usual strong Fukienese accent. One day he started really examining my strange pink hairy hands and arms. Finally he just asked me straight out, ‘Why do you have so much hair on your arms?’ I said, ‘We’re just like that, we foreigners just are that way.’ And at that moment he looked at me with eyes wide as the sky and said: ni shi waiguo ren ma? – are you a foreigner? I don’t know that I have ever been so moved in my life as I was by those words. It had just never occurred to the little guy that a familiar person, somebody who came in every other day and ate and drank and read newspapers and talked to him like anybody else, could be ‘a foreigner.’
        Talking about this reminds me of another incident in which I was ‘adopted’ by the Chinese as one of their own. In April 1984, I was invited to go to Zagreb, Yugoslavia to attend a conference on bilingual literature and authors. The poet Lela Zečković and I, both being in some sense ‘bilingual authors,’ were the two representatives from Holland. We were put up at the most expensive hotel in the city; all bills were paid by, I think, the League of Croatian Writers. I was feeling a bit under the weather and arrived in town hoping to get a bit of rest. Little did I know that my culture-promoting hosts had booked a room for me on the same wing of the same floor where an Italian cinema team was busily engaged in making a movie about the First World War!
        In short, there were some amusing interludes. Zagreb was Lela’s home town, and she put me on to a number of interesting things to see and do. As my modest contribution to the conference, I wrote a paper entitled ‘Poetry is a Form of Translation.’ In those days I undoubtedly thought this was quite an original idea; I had still not discovered the German poet Günter Eich, one of the best translators of the Tang-dynasty Chinese poet Wang Wei, who said in effect that even in writing original poetry, the poet is struggling to ‘translate’ a text whose original is not extant.
        Excerpts from my paper were translated into Croatian and published in the local newspaper. I cannot read Croatian, but thanks to my two years of college Russian and my knowledge of the Russian Orthodox liturgy which is sung in a form of Old Bulgarian, I was able to follow enough of the newspaper version to identify several crucial phrases on which the translator had flubbed, distorting my meaning totally.
        At the conference there was also a Chinese delegation headed by the famous Mongolian writer Malchinhu (Mala Qinfu). Before long we were sitting together at table, talking Chinese to the amazement of the locals. No doubt everybody in sight thought I must be a high-level CIA man – after all, who ever heard of an American, well travelled in the Far East, living in Holland, whose field is Chinese but who also knows Russian?
        The Chinese loved it. They actually started calling me an ‘alternate member’ of the Chinese delegation! We had a good time together during an official outing when we all took a bus trip to Varaždin. This tiny place was proud of its history: during the Huns’ occupation of the surrounding country, Varaždin had resisted all their efforts to conquer it. During our visit, we walked along what were supposed to be surviving fragments of the original walls, and it occurred to me that you could write an interesting ‘occult’ story in which Malchinhu and his Mongolian colleagues had been soldiers in the Huns’ army during a previous incarnation, had died a violent death in the fighting around Varaždin, and were now irresistibly drawn to revisit the scene in order to re-establish the Etheric Link with their past-life Flesh Vehicles so as to end what had been a centuries-long subtle drain on their Supernal Energies. In that story, perhaps I would have been a Slavic-speaking Christian monk who had learned the Huns’ language and served as an interpreter...
        Nationality is a strange, subtle thing. Like not a few young people, I went through long years of laughing at the whole concept of ‘nationality,’ thinking a person’s nationality was nothing but an accident of nature, such things had nothing to do with the Brotherhood of Man etcetera. But as time has gone by, I have been forced to admit that there really is a certain persisting reality in a nationality. Whether we like it or not, I am afraid it is true that our mind somehow ‘classifies’ people according to ‘types,’ of which nationality is one sort. I cannot prove this, of course. What I do know for certain is that various times in my life I have had an impressive dream of a person of a given nationality and then, the following day, been visited very unexpectedly by a different person of that same nationality. This would seem to indicate that on the levels of mind at which coming events are sensed, a given ‘item’ may be perceived as interchangeable with, or translated into, another ‘item’ of the same ‘type.’
        I have often had another kind of experience in consciousness which I think, points to the same conclusion. I am referring to the tendency in memory to confuse persons who were comparable in some particular dimension of possible ‘classification’ but belonged in fact to entirely different periods in my life. When we were living in Heim’s Woods we had no television. As a child I could not, of course, appreciate the many cultural advantages of this situation, and especially on days when a baseball game was to be televised, I was just about ready to jump out of my skin with frustration. Presently, however, a solution presented itself: my mother’s sister, who did have television, came to live in the nearby town of Pheasant Branch. Before long, on baseball days I could be seen hiking through the woods shortly before the lunch hour so as to be in Pheasant Branch on time for the game. On the way, I had to pass a creek which seemed to me, in those days, a veritable river. It ran past the back yard of one of our neighbors, a plumber by profession, who had much skill with carpentry and such things. We all called him The Plumber. He had built a sturdy wooden bridge over the little ravine, and on my Saturday marches to Pheasant Branch I enjoyed trampling over the resounding wooden planks and looking down at the rocks and the churning water. At one end of the bridge there was a curiously attractive little patch of green growing things, with young trees and weeds and wild flowers. Years later, when we were living in Louisiana, one night at supper my father related that a colleague of his from China had told him bamboo grew so quickly that you could sit down near a young bamboo plant and more or less literally watch it grow. In my memory’s eye, that bamboo plant is invariably situated along that little green stretch along the approach to The Plumber’s Bridge in Heim’s Woods near Akiko’s house, and it is my father’s friend Huang Qilun who is telling my father about it.
        But the point is that in objective fact, it could not possibly have been Huang Qilun, because we were not even to meet him until years later, when we moved from Louisiana to Kansas! On the mental level at which memories, dreams, and lasting significances are stitched together, the ‘type’ designations of ‘Chinese’ and ‘friend of Dad’s’ apparently combined to ‘cast’ Huang Qilun in the role of ‘person who can tell you about a plant that resembles what grew nearby The Plumber’s Bridge.’
        As for why the ‘bamboo’ grew, in my mind, beside The Plumber’s Bridge, I can only say that I hope, if I live to be a hundred and twenty, someday to gain some dim understanding of how such mental affinities are threaded. And it was not only the bamboo: the little brook with its spray-spattering stones became the home, for me the mental backdrop, of a whole cluster of associations with China. As children in those days we were, of course, brought up on the idea that Chiang Kai-shek and his wife were Christians. And in the scenery of my mind Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei Ling lived in a wonderfully cozy house that nestled peacefully under the trees just across the water from The Plumber’s House. Kai-shek and Mei Ling had an awe-inspiring room in their house that was entirely devoted to prayer and meditation, and the subtle benevolent energy that arose from that room was somehow associated with the leaves and the water and the green things that could be seen growing. Astounded as ‘the Chiangs’ or ‘the Heilbrunners’ would have been to know how their lives were being arranged or ‘typed’ in a young child’s mind, the fact is that I have never lost that inner image of a paradisiacal Community dwelling in permanent contagious happiness along what we must all, as adults, dutifully describe as merely a fretful rivulet hurrying out of objective sight among split boulders and rusting cans.
        Be that as it may, my visits to Akiko’s house established a lasting ‘type’ or ‘track’ of their own in my consciousness. She became, in computer language, the ‘environment’ of the cluster Kindly-Wise-Woman-Associated-With-The-Orient. I know this because more than a quarter of a century later, while I was reading Pearl Buck’s autobiography, I noticed that in my mind’s eye I was constantly ‘seeing’ Pearl Buck sitting in the room of our Heim’s Woods house that looked out on Akiko’s house. Pearl Buck, like Akiko, was an ‘Oriental’ woman who knew an exotic language, talked out of a vast fund of experience on another continent situated to the West of where we lived, and took a strong interest in children.
        These are obvious connections. Is it conceivable that there is a still deeper level of relevance in the fact that in the traditional Chinese system of ba gua 八卦 divination, the Southwest (i.e., the corner of our house from which I saw Akiko’s house, and in which I ‘saw’ Pearl Buck) is associated with kun , the Feminine, the archetypal Mother? Did Pearl Buck and Akiko become lastingly significant in my life because for me they were personifications, representative focal points, of an underlying Energy transcending individual lifetimes – say, something that was inherent in the way the sunlight fell, those peaceful afternoons toward evening, through the leaves and twigs and branches of a then-unpolluted forest?
        Let’s defer that question, hopefully, for Later. Meanwhile, in my present-day home in Holland, I have a pair of Chinese calligraphy scrolls written by the famous poet Yang Lingye (羊令野, 1923-1994),[1] hanging above the dining table. The text reads:

Since the Han and the Tang, the torch [of learning] has been handed down;
Lloyd is enthralled by the [ancient] poems and texts.

Substituting one character, with no change in pronunciation it would also say:

Since the Han and the Tang, the torch [of learning] has been handed down;
be gladly obsessed with the [ancient] poems and texts.

While sitting at the table, I can also occasionally look out the front picture window and enjoy the sight of a bamboo shrub which grows in the front yard. In other words, like Professor Heilbrunner, I now have difficult ancient characters hanging on my wall, and like my mind’s version of Huang Qilun, I now take my turn representing the ancient tradition of watching bamboos grow.
        Does this mean that after these sixty years – i.e., in Chinese symbolism, a ‘lifetime’ – I am no longer just mentally ‘constituting’ the Plumber’s Bridge Community but actually inhabiting it?
        I don’t know, but I hope to find out Later.

-- Lloyd Haft

[1] For access to my translations of various poems by Yang Lingye, see the January 2013 and March 2013 archives on this blog.