Fall 2003 vol 3.1
Bei Dao
(translated by Matthew Fryslie)


AT 2:30 IN THE AFTERNOON , I ring the doorbell of the New Directions Publishing Company on the nineteenth floor of 80 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, and Peggy comes out to greet me. Whenever I am in New York, she and Griselda take me out for lunch; along with Eliot who lives nearby, our foursome dines on a green, for-company-use-only American Express card. But I wanted to do things differently this time and skip lunch, so when I arrived in New York—without calling ahead—I dove alone into the sea of humanity. But to my surprise, as a memorial reading in honor of Octavio Paz at the Metropolitan Museum is letting out, Peggy materializes in front of me, and, brooking no excuses, sets up a lunch date.

Peggy Fox is my editor as well as the Managing Director and Vice President of New Directions. From the back windows of her home on the upper Hudson you can see the river through the covering reeds. After a meal cooked by her husband at her house, we take a walk along the Hudson and come to a small dock. A wooden pier stretches out into the river. A sign, nailed at the foot of the pier, marks the spot during the Second World War where countless American boys said farewell to their loved ones, and never returned. James Laughlin passed away two years ago, and unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet him. The publishing house has since become a matriarchy where most of the main editors are women—mother hens who have hatched and reared some of our generation’s most masculine literature.

Eliot arrives late. As Paz’s English translator, he has been run almost to death over the past couple of days. Grand memorial activities in honor of Paz have been held in New York and Washington, culminating in the reading at the Met, where Eliot is placed, according to alphabetical order, at the very end. Sitting beside me, he is anxious but able to control himself; still, a match brushed near his body would probably ignite. The American Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky acts as master of ceremonies and in tying the various readings together uses Eliot as the closing knot—he speaks highly of Eliot. Before reading the final section of Paz’s, Sunstone, Eliot, his voice choked with emotion, begins “Thirty years ago, only a few blocks from here, Paz and I gave our first reading together. It is strange now to have the translations without the original.”

Then Griselda finally shows up. She is over seventy and has just recovered from pneumonia. She is not yet very steady on her feet, but remains the head of the publishing house and in charge of the American Express card; illness and age are slowly forcing her into retirement. Her father, Schulyer Jackson, was a poet and literary critic. Some sixty years ago, the English poet Robert Graves and his companion, Laura Riding, came to spend a summer with their family. Griselda’s father and Laura fell madly in love, and their relationship drove her mother into a breakdown. Her father and Laura moved to Florida, living in seclusion on a grapefruit farm until their deaths. In those forty years they collaborated on an English dictionary in which each word had one and only one meaning; it was neither completed nor published. Griselda only rarely saw her father again after that summer.

The four of us go down to ground level from the nineteenth floor, cross the street, turn a corner and make straight for Café de Bruxelles. We have tried several other places over the past ten years but have never been very pleased with any of them. Experimentation is all well and good, and it is the way that traditions get started.
   Bruxelles is decorated mostly in dark greens—very old school—a kind of pre-war European flavor. The atmosphere is relaxed but decorous, there are no young people or alcoholics and I would guess that most of the people around us are regulars. The four tables by the windows turn under the ever-changing light from the outside. Most of the time we take the table in the corner, for a certain feeling of stability, it would seem. On overcast or rainy days, the four tables at last become still. Summer sunlight, filtered by the window, is no longer so violently bright; when winter comes, dappled and shifting, it becomes a sort of illusion of life.
The waiters, polite without exaggeration, are always ready to disappear.


There are some things in New York that never change. For the past ten years we, these same four people, have gone to the same restaurant, sat at the same table, and talked over the same subjects; even our tastes have gradually become more and more similar. Today, though Griselda orders calf’s liver, Peggy, Eliot and I all opt for the duck salad. And to drink? All four of us will have iced tea. As is customary, we also ask for two orders of pommes frites, with mayonnaise.

First we talk about the resounding success of the Paz reading. Since the hall had filled up quickly, more than a thousand people had to be turned away, including some sponsors of the reading and Mexican senators. Peggy says she was stopped at the gate, but fortunately a party of Mexican politicians arrived at the same time. She announced that she was Paz’s publisher, and thus literature slipped into the hall via politics.

I say that it was Paz, his individual charm that brought together two groups that under normal circumstances did not interact: the diverse elements of the American poetry scene and the politicians and diplomats. The reading was like a reunion of a family deep in reconciliation, the only outsiders being a Swedish poet and I. “You were but a babe among them,” Griselda interjects. She tells me that the rather lanky fellow with the gray hair had been Kennedy’s special advisor. “It is simply amazing! Almost half a century has gone by and he is still alive!” Griselda sighs. Everyone stares at the table, as though we had seen a ghost. “Nobody has ever understood Paz’s politics,” Eliot says, devouring a French fry, “Actually, it is very simple. By American standards, he was a leftist, but by Latin American standards he is considered a rightist since he was an anti-communist and anti-Castro…and lots of Latin American writers support Castro.”

The duck salad arrives. The kitchen is like a drama’s unspoken lines, hiding behind literature and politics and then taking them by surprise. Our stomachs are suddenly awake and throbbing hearts. For a long time the only thing that can be heard is the clanking of forks and knives. Everyone has stopped speaking, concentrating instead on the flavor of the duck, the texture of the salad green, and the color and sheen of the dressing. The sounds of cars and footsteps leak in and a human shadow slides across the window. The sunlight dazzles. Sunlight is, in fact, New York City’s real master. Yesterday morning, a French photojournalist taking my picture led me out in the middle of the street in pursuit of the sunlight. I see New York’s light through a photographer’s eyes: groping its way through groves of buildings, refracting, and then in an instant, gone.

I ask Eliot about the crime rate in New York. On the morning of my second day back, I was at a coffee shop at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East Thirty-first Street drinking coffee and reading a Chinese newspaper. There was an item about Yo-Yo Ma losing, then regaining his cello. Getting out of a taxi, he had forgotten to take his two and a half million-dollar cello out of the trunk. After he reported the loss, the entire New York police force was mobilized to find the taxi. Four hours later the cello was back in Yo-Yo Ma’s hands; his performance that evening was not even delayed. Just as I was reading the article, a thief nimbly slipped away with my book bag. It was over before you could say “knife.” When it dawned on me what had happened, I took a look around, sizing everyone up—but they all appeared to be upright, law-abiding citizens. Peggy and Griselda immediately hug their bags closer to themselves, as though afraid they will sprout wings and fly away. Eliot rolls his eyes, shakes his head and says, with a note of reproof in his voice, “This is New York.” Eliot has no choice but to reprove those of us from the countryside whenever they draw attention to the failings of any upright, law-abiding city dwellers.

I ask Eliot what he thinks of Mayor Giuliani. “He’s a total fascist,” Eliot explodes. “Even for a barbecue in the park, you need authorization if it’s more than twenty people. That’s a violation of the right to free assembly! And don’t even mention the Brooklyn incident!”

After the dishes are cleared away, the four of us have coffee. The conversation turns to next year’s election. Eliot sighs and says he does not know whom to vote for. He explains to me that Kansas has recently passed a bill that denies the theory of evolution, making Christian creationism the basic classroom curriculum.
   “If the world has only existed for ten thousand years, then how do you explain fossils?” Eliot shrugs and continues by explaining Borges’ essay about God creating the earth with fossils. “Yet in order to win votes there, Gore took no stand on the issue.” Peggy and Griselda nod. Even these American leftists are fed up with the Democratic Party; political prospects look as dark as the coffee.

I ask Peggy why there is no third political power in American politics. “A Reform Party has sprung up, but it is unlikely it will become a real third power.” Peggy patiently explains the American electoral process to me.

“Why have almost all current American presidential candidates been lawyers?” I ask. This is the outsider’s privilege—to ask questions without shame or inhibition. Peggy and Griselda one by one tick off all recent presidential candidates on their fingers before conceding that, sure enough, I am right.

“Don’t the thinking and rhetoric of the legal trade influence American politics?” I ask. “They use legal jargon to accomplish their ends through calculation and misdirection,” Peggy says.

Lunch is over and we say goodbye at the door. The sunlight is bright and alluring; this is the last golden moment of fall. For some reason, I think of Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’herbe, when in reality this painting has nothing to do with our lunch at Bruxelles.