Eyes like dewy hydrangeas.
Decided to celebrate my favourite writer’s big day with a hand-drawn portrait. Celebrate with me by reading my love letter to him, or my musings on how John Keats’ Romantic poetry impacted his prose style. And don’t forget to have some gin & tonic!
Coloured pencil on pastel paper. More art can be found on my Instagram @artbybettyboo.
Architects design buildings, which are then built and maintained by builders, plumbers, and electricians. These buildings provide necessary living and working spaces for residents and professionals who, in turn, contribute to their society and economy. Politicians govern, lawyers defend, doctors save lives, businesses of all shapes and sizes provide essential goods and services. Scientists, physicists, engineers, and astronomers brought humanity to the moon. The world as we know it will not cease to exist without art and its practitioners but without moonage daydreamers, boy wizards, star-crossed lovers and those whose passion or profession it is to observe, think, analyse, and create, Earth is merely that which orbits the Sun, a celestial body where the passage of time is marked by births, deaths, and unexamined lives.
So here’s to poems about nature and beauty, songs about love, books that changed the world, and paintings that bewitch with their illusions of light and movement; here’s to films that enchant and inspire, to great teachers and their scholars, to thinkers, poets, writers, artists, composers, musicians, directors—to anyone who immortalised their human experience in art form.
‘Sorry,’ I said to the cashier at the art store because I took too long to grab my bags, of which I was carrying four. And I was sorry. ‘Sorry,’ I said again on my way out, because the shop was crowded with shelves and people and I was carrying one too many bags. I did not bump into anyone or knock anything off but still I was sorry for the time and space I took when exiting. And I was sorry many times before then because the aisles were narrow and I had to get through or somebody else had to get through, either way I was sorry I troubled the other shoppers. I went to a thrift shop next and I was sorry there too, sorry for the fact that the shirt I tried on did not suit me, sorry that I did not make a purchase and they have to put it back. ‘Sorry, that’s okay, thank you so much,’ I managed, this time at the music store, because the clerk could not locate the vinyl I wanted. I was sorry that he tried for me and wasted his time when he could be doing something else. Then I was sorry I was sorry because I had started to feel real bad for myself, because the only reason I kept apologising was this—this idea that I was unworthy of their services, someone who did not deserve their products or anything for that matter. And Uber—the convenience of it all and the patience of that particular driver—had me sorry too, four times if I remember it correctly: twice for having too many bags and twice more for being confused as to where he was parked; and he did not know this but I was sorry for seating at the back too, I would have ridden shot gun had I fewer bags to carry but he probably thought I was protecting myself from him. I was sorriest when I got home and looked at all that I had bought because I thought I did not deserve them. But later that night when I was well-rested and the boulder of existence lifted from my chest new copies of Hemingway, Pushkin and Yeats were read and felt and understood and I was not sorry anymore, I was soaring.
We are nothing if not plural, in our daily dalliances with plural others who, just like us, adjust their persona to suit different situations, places, and peoples.
We are nothing if not plural, when we say one thing yet behave otherwise; we attempt to reduce ourselves to absolutes in the hopes that by conveying a singular self to another they’d understand our ‘true’ selves but how could they, when we are all complex and contradictory beings struggling to make sense of ourselves, of which there are many?
We are nothing if not plural, yesterday today and tomorrow, for people change and no-one goes from birth to death unmarked by life, by others, by themselves.
We are plural, you and I, so let us not confine ourselves to forced categories and false pretences out of fear of not being understood. Let us run free and admit that we are nothing but inconstant, temperamental: multiple versions of a work in progress until we expire.
Good poetry speaks for itself. What is there to say about John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” that hasn’t already been said, by generations of scholars, writers, readers? Very little. So, instead of launching into a serious academic essay, I will elaborate on the personal significance of this well-known and loved Keatsian masterpiece.
I am drawn to Keats’ romantic portrait of anguish, longing, melancholy, and regret because these feelings—very human and relatable ones—are endowed with great beauty, like a well-executed, melodramatic painting of a man who, because of his suffering soul and inevitable mortality, is clutching his chest in pain, eyes squeezed tight, weeping soundlessly. This is precisely what I envision upon entering Keats’ realm of meadows, rivers, mossy ways, musk-roses, dryads and melodious aves. Nowhere is this world more apparent or romantically depicted than in “Ode to a Nightingale”. A case can be made for “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, but the former is unsurpassable.
‘Oh, dear reader, this is just my cup of tea!’ is too mild a phrase to capture the way dreamy descriptions of nature and apt depictions of mood, entwined with place, ignites my flammable soul the way fire does gasoline, speeds up my heartbeat and calms by mind like ecstasy and heroin rolled into one. So, reader, believe me when I say such literary accomplishments are to me the elixir of life, rare, utterly delectable, fatally addictive and usually (thankfully) only found in small doses: one sentence in a passage, one passage in a chapter, one poem in a collection. They say love is a drug. So is literature (and all of art, for that matter).
And it gets better: the poem’s subject matter is even more poignant than its mood and setting. The titular nightingale is the star of the poem and, more importantly, the catalyst for the poet’s anguished cries. He is deeply moved by this winged songstress of the woods, so much so that its music has become divine in his ears while the bird itself assumed immortality in his mind. In comparison, he realises, he himself remains hopelessly mortal, another human bound for death. Thus he laments the transience of life, namely the inevitability of old age, illness, and death, along with the fleeting nature of beauty, doomed to fade; he even contemplates dying an easeful, self-indulgent death while being serenaded by the nightingale:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in may a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such as ecstasy!
Or, had the precise terms for Baudelaire’s leisurely metropolitan stroller-cum-observer and The Catcher in the Rye‘s free-flowing narrative mode exuded less enigma, ‘Walking down the street: a list of things seen and thought about’.
Down the street I go.
Uneven pavement: the human skin (birth marks, deformities, blotches, spots and dots), success, life, the colour of elephants, scrapped knees, summer heat, pebbles and dryness.
An elderly Greek lady: hearty home-cooked meals, the laughter of boisterous grandchildren at play, immigration, old photographs gathering dust, early morning bus rides, flowers at the cemetery, gold jewellery begging to be polished.
Oranges on display at the fruit market: something to throw at your arch nemesis; action movie sequences involving white men on motorbikes and confused people of colour; the rough texture of a Cézanne.
Cars: destination, rage, modernity.
My family’s Chinese restaurant: familiarity, home, mother.
Asian shop signs: age, haste (waste?), and money; Cantonese BBQ meat hanging in the window, glazed and dripping sauce into oily silver trays below; a steamy bowl of Vietnamese pho.
Butchery: Babe, bacon, pink, rawness, blood and cartilage, rubber boots, wet tiles, cha-ching, thank you, next!
Traffic lights: dusk-lit skies, grey suits, vacant stares.
Café: chocolate brown, the inevitability of stale cake (‘It’s all fresh!’ – the shop girl), cigarette smoke, friends and lovers wiling the day away, the trusty ch-ch-chUAAAA of the milk steamer and the resolute BANG BANG of used ground coffee being emptied, muffled music and ice cubes jingling against glass, lipstick stains on napkins, crumbs and spillage.
Liquor store: ID card (1991!), old men in tatty shirts, filthy motel rooms, vintage porno mags, the pungent odour of drunkards’ piss (why the fuck must it linger for days?), the queue at Centrelink, sweat stains…the promise of gin and momentary relief from All That Is Going Wrong (don’t).
I cross the street and enter grease, fatty patties, sodium galore, glaringly cheesy 50s Americana and pimply teenagers. They call it Hungry Jack’s. At this point we must part our ways, reader, for *Yoda voice* trash my body, I shall.
I remember wintertime in the city of my childhood in soft focus, a blur of red, grey, and white. White was the colour of fresh snow, pure and untrodden, all the way up to my little knees. Grey was the sky, the buildings, the exhaust gas and the thick coats of pedestrians, their heads bowed against the harsh icy wind and dancing snowflakes. And red was the colour of lanterns, of paper cut-outs meant to bring good fortune in the new year to the families behind the doors on which they were glued, of the fabric banners bearing slogans promoting environmental cleanliness and respect for the elderly. Red, grey, and white: a sombre palette for my reveries of simpler days, tinged with the bittersweet pain peculiar to fond memories of long ago. Now, a decade and a half later, everything has changed. But the memories stay. I am writing this now, on the eve of Chinese New Year, in a city far, far away from my childhood abode. Oceans away, I immortalise the winters of yesteryear in the hope that words never fade.