Letters of Life

Sentimental Lines

When you are old and grey and full of sleep, / And nodding by the fire / take down this book, and slowly read, and dream of the soft look your eyes had once. . . -- Yeats.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep, / And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look / Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.  — Yeats.

Looking for some old pictures for an upcoming project, I found a handmade book given to me by a friend from my days in the newsroom. He was a soft-spoken history major who loved classical music and everything to do with the performing arts; he ended up editing an arts magazine for The Esplanade where I did some freelance work, and then he moved on to manage The Arts House, a grandiose little building known as Parliament House which was built in the mid-1820s in colonial Singapore.

Back to the book. He’d collated five sheets of thick art paper in light grey, cream, black, white, and blue. He’d folded them down the middle to make a booklet, and with a black-ink pen, written neat lower-case words of verse and prose, one sentiment per page, with lots of empty space all around.  Some lines were from famous poets like Yeats, Auden, and a Singapore poet called Lee Tzu Peng. Some of the words were his own.

Alongside the words were photocopied pictures of idyllic fishing scenes:  Two male silhouettes sitting in a sampan, a traditional Asian fishing boat, or the dark shape of a male figure knee-deep in water, hauling in a net, or a wide shot of a fishing village on stilts floating above a river bank, the shapes of coconut trees black against the white sky of the xeroxed picture.

But its the words that stood out. Like these:

. . . there is written
a certainty that points us, surely,
to the gateways leading forth
to our first loves.           ~ Lee Tzu Peng ~

and

...a past that no one now can share,
no matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
unvariably lovely there,
smaller and clearer as the years go by . . .   -- Philip Larkin

But the lines I liked the best, 20 years on, are the ones he himself wrote. Like these:

Old poems are stillborn futures
 captured forever
 in someone's memory      - Phan Ming Yen

At the time, I admired the words, succinct and each counting for something; while blithely ignoring the sentiments that weighed them down. I’ve always been slow on the uptake, and now, I get it. Experience is now on my side and the full worth of a friend’s sentiments have presented themselves to me, anew.

For a long time now, our paths have rarely crossed, and we rarely speak except once or twice a year. Is it bad or good? Perhaps neither. The Indian Nobel Prize poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough.”

This line was in the handmade book too.

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Categorised in: Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought (Reflections), Youth (My History)

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