April is National Poetry Month. And I will publish two posts to My Sentimental Library blog this month. The first is by a poet laureate, and the second, which I'll publish later this month, will be about the library of a poet laureate. Today I will post an article by Don Thompson, Poet Laureate of Kern County, California titled "Of Jade Flower and Miss Jones." His article was first published in 2017 in the now defunct Levan Humanities Review.
Don Thompson's article is about a book of poetry that he found while book hunting some forty years ago. William Targ published this book of poetry in 1941. I found Thompson's article while researching online for my February post about a book collecting periodical that Targ had published. And when I read Thompson's article, I discovered that he mentioned me by name in the article. So I contacted him and we arranged to publish his article in an April post to My Sentimental Library blog:
by Don Thompson
Before you could hold the world in the palm of your hand, before Amazon could locate a copy of almost any book imaginable, bibliophiles used to prowl not only used book stores (so rare now) but musty basement corners of junk shops, yard sales, and even the faux décor of model homes where an odd volume glued to an end table could turn out to be something you’d wanted for years. Not that you’d snatch it, of course, when five bucks and a cup of coffee for the real estate agent along with a shrug and a blushing explanation of your addiction would make that title legally yours.
Forty years ago on one of those searches, I came across a book that fascinated me—and still does. Every few years I take it from the shelf and wonder about it. Five and a half by eight, a quarter inch thick, it’s the classic “skinny little book” of poems that Karl Shapiro sneered at in The Bourgeois Poet. “Go pulp yourself” was his advice. The cover boards might have been bright originally in 1941, but have now faded to a slightly grimy burnt orange. The title is a pasted-on yellow label—not unusual for a small press edition back when embossing would have been too expensive, long before computer technology made it possible for us to produce at home a book that looks like it was published in New York City. The end papers are saffron and inside the cover there is a penciled price ($2.00) and the author’s autograph.
Or is it? The name, in orange ink, “Charles Yu,” despite the lightning bolt squiggle underneath and the speed and ease with which it has been scrawled, flattening the letters other than the initials into approximations, may not be an actual signature at all. However, since the author of Poems of a Chinese Student is not a native speaker (though his English is flawlessly idiomatic—something else to bear in mind) we can expect his signature to lack authentic slapdash or elaboration, to seem merely written, for it is, after all, only his student moniker and not his real name. At least Charles isn’t.
An edition of 250 copies of the book was issued in Chicago by the Black Archer Press. The publisher was William Targ. There’s a photo of Targ that shows anything but a bookish aesthete. We see a darkly handsome, rugged and cleft-jawed man with intense eyes and a fedora pulled down over his brow as if daring anyone to knock it off. More hardboiled private eye than bibliophile, but that he was. A high school dropout hopelessly in love with books, Targ (originally Torgownik) borrowed some money from his mother and opened a used bookstore. He stocked it with odds and ends and a number of damaged volumes purchased at deep discount from MacMillan, where he had already worked first as an office boy and then as a sales rep. He did well enough until the 1929 Crash when he lost everything after his bank failed. In the process of rebuilding, he decided to add publishing to sales and began Black Archer.
Later he moved to New York and went to work first for World and then G.P. Putnam, rising to the position of editor-in-chief. His claim to fame as an editor is having signed a contract with Mario Puzo for $5000 to write, without chapters or outline in hand, The Godfather. He was also the American editor of Simone de Beauvoir and had many other authors in his stable, both prestigious and prosperous. After retirement, and he lived to 92, Targ published his own Targ Editions out of his home in Greenwich Village—limited editions of works by personal favorites such as Updike, Bellow, and Mailer. His catalog at the original Black Archer Press was also varied and interesting. Primarily, he put out books about books, but there was also an edition of Huysman’s La Bas, a classic of fin-de-siecle decadence; something by William Saroyan, which he admittedly pirated; and of course, Poems of a Chinese Student.
In Chinese landscape painting, human beings are miniscule figures trudging along down in a lower corner, anything but Byronic. The poetry is much the same, usually making observations of nature or human interaction without attempting to solve our persistently unsolvable problems. I love the direct simplicity of the poems: ‘Well, old friend, the bottle is empty and drifting away with the moon’s reflection in the water, and now I have to sail upriver to the farthest outpost where the emperor has exiled me, and you and I will never drink wine together again…’ An affectionate pastiche, but not far from the truth. For instance, here is “The Fishing Boat” by one of my favorites, Yang Wan Li, of the Sung Dynasty, from Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow (Weatherhill, 1975), translated by Jonathan Chaves:
It is a tiny fishing boat, light as a leaf;
no voices are heard from the reed cabin. There is no one on board—
no bamboo hat,
no fishing rod.
The wind blows the boat, and the boat moves.
Easy to dismiss, but deceptively simple with a haunting quality that grows on you and means more than it says—especially since it doesn’t attempt to say anything. Pure Zen.
The Chinese student’s poems have a simple directness and many elements of Chinese poetry, but a very different mood. We could characterize them as social satire, in fact. Almost playful. They take a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward obvious racial stereotypes. The student’s girlfriend at home is named Jade Flower, after all, which no one could take seriously, and his “co-educational companion” in Chicago is a certain Miss Jones, who drags him away from a museum display of Sung porcelains so they won’t be late for a Ginger Rogers movie. Aching with nostalgia, he imagines Jade Flower back home:
Robed in silk
Purple as the skin of an egg plant,
A red lotus in her hair,
Measured and perfect
As camphor-jade beads strung on gold.
She has a tortoise shell comb in her hair that he gave her; Miss Jones wears tortoise shell glasses. Jones has ink-stained fingers, opinions about every issue, and never sits still. She exposes him to American life, an easy frame, giving him the opportunity to muse on its weirdness including “gastronomical adventures” and “a skirmish/ At the hosiery counter.” And of course, true to type, the Chinese student is squeaky clean, intelligent but naïve, and as earnest as Charlie Chan’s son. Miss Jones is practical, obsessed with clothes. Jade Flower is far away and mysterious with her “hibiscus-white hands/ Gently folded and waiting.”
All of this is unacceptable these days, as harmless as it is, utterly un-PC. But even in 1941, we have to wonder. Is this really the mindset of an exchange student whose home country is being ravaged by war: “Fall bombs on Chungking/ Soldiers die and poets weep…” Maybe. He finds nothing in Chicago that he prefers to China, no modern art in the museums “to compare/ With a horse-painting/ By Han Kan…” And Miss Jones is the butt of most jokes. But there’s just something about the language, something too natural, too—well, too much like a native-speaker.
So… Off to the internet where I discovered an article in Chinese about the CharlesYu book. I pressed the button and received a madcap English translation in which Black Archer Press is rendered—perfectly!—as Black Crossbow Book Bureau. The author, Wang Jianliang, has also picked up a tattered copy from a used bookstore. He’s mystified because so few Chinese poets had published abroad in English in 1941 and because he has never heard of a Yu who might be the author—several ideograms are possible for the surname—let alone a Charles. He turns out to have many of the same questions I have raised along with a certain respect for the poems, which I share. He does note that the “Chinese flavor” seems artificial, though it is done with respect and without “the usual colonial adventures or condescending sense of superiority.” He suspects that Yu isn’t actually the author, but goes on to wonder why a Chicagoan would write such loving homage. Perhaps, he speculates, the author was concerned as many Americans were at the time about the Japanese invasion of China. The Rape of Nanking (1937) was only a foreshadowing of what the world would suffer in the coming years. And obviously, whatever his ethnicity, the author had been an admiring reader of classic Chinese poetry. He concludes that the poems are actually pretty decent work, “fresh and lively” and “skilled in the skills.” However: “The mysterious Charles Yu, really a poet forgotten by the history of modern literature?” the translation wonders in Googlish.
Wang also cites an online article (which I’ve seen, too) by a Florida bibliophile named Jerry Morris who tells an anecdote. It seems a Chicago women’s club asked Black Archer to have the Chinese student read for them; but when the poet appeared, he didn’t look a bit Chinese. Indeed, he looked pretty much like the photo of the publisher described above. OK. But how can we be sure Morris isn’t just making it all up? In Wang’s copy, along with the signature of the author, there is another signature below it and in parentheses. This is missing from mine. After studying the scrawl, Wang determines that it says—as you know by now: William Targ.
I confess that for forty years, even until I began writing this, I’ve been all in, completely falling for the hoax. But I’m not offended, not even surprised to discover the truth. It has always been obvious that Jade Flower and Miss Jones were caricatures, almost manikins, each decked out in typical clothing. The student is too much cut from the same cloth to be taken at face value. And the exchange between the two cultures is in no sense a clash nor is it intended to be profound. The mood is fun, charm, an innocent ribbing of everyone concerned. So hoax is too strong a word; prank would be closer. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know what William Targ had in mind. We never will…
…Unless. Back to the internet where I located a phone number for William Targ’s son, Russell, someone who may be even more intriguing than his father. At 82, Russell Targ remains very active in the field of ESP, especially remote viewing. A Stanford trained physicist, formerly associated with the Stanford Research Institute, he takes his work very seriously and has been testy when labeled a pseudo-scientist, although he has been a guest on Coast To Coast AM. His wife, Joan, is the sister of chess master Bobby Fischer. “That was a long time ago,” he said when I asked him about Poems of a Chinese Student. He went on to say that his father was a serious scholar of Asian culture, especially fond of woodcuts, which he collected. Original work by Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro and others was displayed on the walls when Russell was growing up. After Pearl Harbor, Targ followed the advice of friends and sold all of his Japanese art—something he always regretted. However, Russell has no idea why his father wrote the Charles Yu poems. “I guess,” he mused, “that my father felt like a Chinese student.” While we were on the phone, Russell opened a copy of William Targ’s autobiography, Indecent Pleasures, published by MacMillan in 1975 [which I’ve since read and used here for a few details], and found Yu in the index, referring to page 59 on which he tells the anecdote of the women’s club reading. So now we know the source of that.
Not surprisingly, Russell Targ had a “cold read” on me when he answered the phone. He said he had the impression that I had been released from prison. Not bad, really, when you consider that I worked in prison education for many years until I finally paroled—which is to say, I retired.
Targ or Yu, it’s still interesting work. Here is an example, “White Stones”:
The poet Wei Ying-wu sings
Of the Taoist hermit
Who boiled white stones
Then ate them like potatoes.
From the Orchid Mountain
Which is my home in Kan-su Province
I have journeyed to this
Venerable Peak of learning
In this Great Principal City
Of the Middle West.
And here too
At the feet of my Teachers
I see white stones boiled
And passed among us
As pearls of learning.
Wei Ying-wu was a Tang Dynasty poet who lived in hard times during civil war. He was one of those administrators sent to the boondocks where he endured loneliness and hunger. The Chinese student poet is also far from home and lonely, despite the companionship of Miss Jones—or because of it, perhaps, if she only makes things worse in comparison with Jade Flower. From Orchid Mountain the student has come to the flatland city of Chicago, which he calls, in ironic upper case, a “Venerable Peak of learning.” This is Sandburg’s “hog butcher for the world,” anything but a fragrant mountain, and neither old nor worthy of the respect he feels for his ancient culture. In Chicago there are “painted women under gas lamps luring farmers” while a Bactrian horse of the Tang Dynasty is ignored in the window of a gallery,
A fierce and bunched animal
Blue glazed and shot with red.
When he asks a fellow exchange student about what is most impressive in this country, his friend names “the dancing girl/ Gypsy Rose Lee.” It’s no surprise, then, that as far as he is concerned, what he acquires at the feet of his capital T teachers in Chicago is no more “pearls of learning” than white stones are really potatoes. So Charles Yu isn’t quite Charlie Chan’s number One Son after all.
This brings us to another issue about Poems of a Chinese Student that we might consider briefly. Should Targ’s little book be considered an example of literary yellowface? It’s not just a matter of Swedish Warner Oland being made-up to play a Chinese detective, but the practice of using Caucasian actors to play Asians in leading roles. There have been beautiful and successful actresses from Anna May Wong to Nancy Kwan, who broke through the color barrier once and for all in the early sixties. Nevertheless, Hollywood felt that interracial romance would be accepted only with a white actress. One example I can remember is the casting of Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955). But only a year later, Glenn Ford starred opposite the great Japanese actress, Machiko Kyo (Kurosawa’s Rashomon) in The Teahouse of the August Moon. That film also featured Brando in yellowface as an Okinawan houseboy. I thought it was excruciating; but others, including Asian critics, have admired the role. On the other hand, everyone concerned who’s still alive remains embarrassed by Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961).
William Targ was a unique man: prominent editor, bibliophile with thousands of rare books in his collection, raconteur, name-dropper, wine aficionado and foodie. He knew everyone who was anyone from Carl Sandburg to Viva, whose novel, Superstar, he published. He also knew many of the characters and oddballs of New York City, of whom he was especially fond. He was a neighbor of the great poet Marianne Moore in Greenwich Village. He might have continued to write poetry himself if not for having so many other interests. In fact, as a teen, he had some poems accepted by Harriet Monroe for Poetry—still a bucket list item for most poets.
In any case, I’ve got my rare copy of Poems of a Chinese Student, and Wang Jianliang has his. That’s two survivors of the original 250. There are others, but the only one I’m aware of is listed on Amazon for $500. Don’t get excited, though. That copy has been rebound in a clamshell box by a well-known bookbinder in an elaborate and exquisite Japanese style. My copy, like so many other cherished trifles, can be valued at something between the two bucks I paid for it and priceless.
William Targ, Bibliophile, my Nov 2008 post to my Bibliophiles in My Library blog, was the article that Wang Jianliang and Don Thompson found online. And here's an image of my copy of Poems of a Chinese Student: