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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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…
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.
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.
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
A fierce and bunched animal
Blue glazed and shot with red.
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.
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.
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.