Swan Song: PDF Print E-mail

depth and mystery in the poems of Svetlana Marisova
by Natasha Nikonova


The purpose of this article is to explore several haiku by Svetlana Marisova in a way that, I think, they merit and as a personal response to the love she has clearly poured into this art. It is written by one who knew and loved her dearly.

I first came to appreciate haiku written in English as a significant form of poetic utterance from reading the ones being written by my former student and closest friend during the last year of her life.

From a very young age Svetlana had a remarkably quick mind, seeing patterns and connections in the world about her in ways that have never ceased to amaze me. It was my good fortune to have been engaged by her parents as her nanny, governess and tutor in Russia with the task of nurturing the giftedness, which was already apparent in their only child. I continued in this role when the family moved to New Zealand in 2004 up until she chose to devote herself to a life of contemplative prayer at the age of 17.

It had become my joy to nurture Svetlana's passionate reverence for the presence of the personal God in this world by opening her insatiable curiosity to the treasure of literary and spiritual writings that gave voice to this incarnational mystery. That this curiosity would lead her to write haiku carries a sense of inevitability.

Over the last few months I have read many poems written in English that go by the name of haiku, but in my dear one's poems I find a poetic sensibility and depth, found in few others. She has approached the writing of haiku as an art that demands unwavering dedication with ever-developing mastery. The degree to which she achieved her goal will only become apparent in time.

My own hope is that this article will reveal some of her intuitive facility for weaving various strands of the universe into a mesh of words that would satisfactorily carry a suggestion of the mystery and wonder of life that held her in such thrall.

To achieve this kind of power in the limited space of haiku, every word and pause must carry their effect in the tidal flow of one breath. Every word becomes as a speck of sand that accretes layer upon layer of meaning and suggestion to become as pearls that the poet strings together to create something more than the sum of the parts.

What is clear to me is that Svetlana read the acknowledged Japanese haiku masters, and the elucidation of their writings by various scholars, trusting her own poetic instincts to slowly develop in the application of traditional Japanese aesthetics to her own writing without ever neglecting her own heritage.

Her love affair with haiku appears to have started at the same time she chose to abandon her preferred vocation at the end of 2009 when her illness was first diagnosed. Diverted as she was from the path she had set out upon and isolated even more drastically from others her age she reached out from the privacy of her room to a universe of other people that her discovery of the Internet now offered. Social networking site Facebook became the stage upon which she now moved, establishing connections with others by the use of words alone.

This urge to connect with people before her existence in time ceased filled her with a sense of urgency to communicate herself to others at ever-deepening levels.

Some have written of her joining others on various Facebook groups related to sarcasm and the like, which relied heavily on skilfully using words to create effective verbal interplay. From what I have seen and read she excelled and became a somewhat legendary participant.

I will refer briefly to just one thread she posted on one of her groups and which attracted 2,364 comments –

Svetlana Marisova

Try and confine your comments under this thread to words or brief phrases expressing your spontaneous, imaginative, witty, insightful response to the last comment you see in the thread. Comments can come fast and furious from all sides so speed is of the essence. Good luck!
19 June 2011


She maintained that an essential tool for writing haiku that would carry layers of meaning beyond the superficially obvious, was a highly developed facility with imaginative word association. The fact that haiku can only use a limited number of words, so as to fit within the space of one breath cycle yet still be a fully-fledged poem, supports her stance.

Let us look at the role word association plays in the following haiku:

floating downstream -
the burden of my shadow
on a mayfly

The first line evokes a scene of deep passivity where the will is in a state of surrender. The choice of words will stir in most readers an unconscious association with the nursery rhyme and all the childhood feelings and memories that it will evoke. –

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

The pause at the end of the line creates space to dream (ma) deepened by the unspoken rhyme stirred by the association with the nursery rhyme.

the burden of my shadow
on a mayfly

These two lines deepen the sense of passivity being evoked and create an almost dreamlike feeling that is compounded by the disjunctive meanings being built up. Svetlana is leading us into a place of mystery (yugen). The phrase “the burden of my shadow” challenges the observable nature of things, yet it goes to the heart of what she is expressing. Her use of the word “burden” carries with it a sense of something weighing down, something to be cast off. Her shadow?

I found a clue to her intent in using this phrase within a poem by the Zen monk, Dogen:

I won't even stop
at the valley's brook
for fear that
my shadow
may flow into the world. (Tr. Steven Heine)

Svetlana has said on her Facebook profile, “My spirituality is one of kenosis - an inward journey to the gap at the centre of the soul which is the void which existed before creation. Stripped of all attachments we become nobody before God and the world - a formless void on which the Holy Spirit can rest.”

I believe that, in this haiku, she is trying to give expression to the process of self-emptying that guided her journey into the prayer of contemplation.

The line that follows shows the shadow as being cast “on a mayfly” or, more tellingly as so charmingly translated into French by Vincent Hoarau,“sur une éphémère”. There is almost a shock realisation that her shadow is placing an unnecessary burden on something that epitomises the transience of life. What is she saying about her own presence in the world?

We reach the end of the poem with the exhalation of “on a mayfly” and recall the first line. What is floating downstream? Is it the writer? The mayfly? Again we enter into the mystery of what cannot be understood with the mind and its addiction to words.

Svetlana’s unique understanding of time has been touched on elsewhere and this haiku takes us right into the heart of her.

In this next haiku, Svetlana sets the scene for the final stages of her journey into the still point.

swan song …
the limb-loosening rush
of dark feathers

On first reading this haiku, the reader is drawn into a scene of deep mystery tinged with an almost mythological significance. We enter into this mystery through the connections her words and images conjure up in our psyches, creating things that she cannot name but can hint at with just a few words, a few brush strokes on a blank page.

Much more is being said here than what is written and probably what was consciously intended. Each word is layered with meanings that she drew out of her own awareness of the world, to take us deeper into that which remained unknown to her.

swan song . . .

This first line appears as our entry point into the haiku. Each reader will create their own stage to fit these words. In performing her swan song is Svetlana hinting that she intends to give the last performance of her lifetime and will be expending everything she is in one magnificent final effort of creativity and beauty? This haiku was composed in May 2011, a little over three months before her death. There can be little doubt she considered that she was entering a time of rehearsal for her swan song.

The first line ends with an ellipsis creating the effect of hushed silence that falls over an audience after the performer announces the piece she is intending to perform. A sense of expectancy is created that invites the reader to turn over to a blank page that, in response to the writer's words to follow, awaits the brush strokes of the reader's own interpretation.

The following two lines draw the reader into the mystery Svetlana is tapping into with a sudden flurry of movement ending in the deeply disturbing yet strangely comforting image of 'dark feathers', the mystery and wonder being intensified by the falling cadence. The juxtaposition of the first line with the second two generates ripples of meaning that complete and conflict with each other, opening the way to get a sense of what the poet does not say.

What is she saying to us in this haiku?

She says exactly what she has written and, in what she has written, she has created space and a sense of mystery in which she shares the reality of herself as she yoked these words and images together. The layers of meaning within the words chosen grow out of everything that has entered her psyche from the moment she was born. Memories, dreams and reflections as well as the accumulated knowledge she obtained and assimilated from her vast reading. She has assumed the part of poet as a weaver of myths, universalising one human being's experience of being a created being in a much vaster creation spanning space and time.

I knew Svetlana as well as it is possible for one person to know another and recognise some of the resonances behind the words that she has chosen to use, but I can only surmise what her spirit was actually saying with my own spirit. She has had the grace to create this haiku in such a way that I can share in something of the mystery she is not only celebrating but also embodying.

The earliest known reference to the idea that swans sing one beautiful song before dying appears in Agamemnon by Aeschylus from 458 BC. In the play, Clytemnestra compares the dead Cassandra to a swan who has "sung her last final lament".

Ovid refers to a swan song in "The Story of Picus and Canens" - "There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully, in faint tones, in harmony with sadness, just as the swan sings once, in dying, its own funeral song."

the limb-loosening rush
of dark feathers

These second and third lines deepen the significance of the first line by juxtaposing images, that compliment and contradict each other. "limb-loosening" is an unmistakeable allusion to a lyric fragment by Sappho that I know Svetlana was familiar with.

"Once again limb-loosening Love made me tremble, the bitter-sweet irresistible creature" carrying suggestions of intense sexual excitement and of death.

The association of words and images dives even deeper with the clear allusion to W.B. Yeats' poem "Leda and the Swan" -

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Svetlana turns Yeats' "that white rush" into "the limb-loosening rush / of dark feathers" and much may be learned by exploring why she did this.

Yeats' sonnet suggests that the rape/seduction and impregnation of Leda by Zeus (in the form of a swan) lead to the murder of Agamemnon by Leda's daughter, Clytemnestra; the same Clytemnestra already named above in reference to swan song. As Camille Paglia said, "all human beings, like Leda, are caught up moment by moment in the 'white rush' of experience. For Yeats, the only salvation is the shapeliness and stillness of art." I believe that Svetlana alluded to this poem to address the question Yeats asks in the final lines of his sonnet and which resonate still.

The very Russian story presented in Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with its Odette/Odile (white/black) motif was popularised in the movie Black Swan released in 2010. I also know that she loved visiting an estuary, near her home in New Zealand, to watch the black swans that live there.

There is a reproduction of a painting by the English artist, Samuel Palmer, she had pinned to her bedroom wall. Often she spoke of the mystery and visionary power of this work and expressed her desire to one day write haiku that achieved a similar sense of wonder for her readers. Next to this reproduction she has copied in her own handwriting a haiku by Basho -

the coolness --
faintly the crescent moon
above Mount Haguro  (Tr. Makoto Ueda)

Haguro literally means "feather-black".

Svetlana divined a connection between Basho's haiku and Palmer's painting that had profound significance for her, and which guides us deeper into the vision at the heart of her haiku. In his haiku, Basho has attempted to give form to the experience of the sacred he received from the mountain moonlight scene he evokes. Similarly in his painting, Palmer has tried to bring to our senses his vision of the sacred that permeated his Shoreham years in the 'valley of vision'.

It seems to me that, at the time she wrote this poem, Svetlana had a clear presentiment that she was entering into the final stages of her life. This haiku is her acknowledgement to herself and those who would read her words that what she still had to write would be her swan song. The dark feathers could also suggest the tumour she sensed was reforming in her brain with the increasing incidences of short-term memory loss, giddiness and confusion, not to mention intensifying headaches.

Svetlana was never one to leave the meaning of what she said at just that level. She is saying to us that, to her, the returning cancer is a sign of God's active and personal love for her. She welcomes his love with a profoundly yielding excitement, allowing herself to know, as she allows herself to be known experiencing the headlong rush of the 'cloud of unknowing'. She welcomes into the mystery of her own being the revelation of the full mystery of God.

I feel Svetlana answering Yeats' question –

Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
with a 'yes', a 'so be it', and especially her customary 'make it so'.

swan song …
the limb-loosening rush
of dark feathers

The third poem I have chosen from Svetlana’s range of haiku is one she wrote near the end of her time in the world we know:

ahh rainbow!
the light passing
through me

I have chosen this one, I think, as it carries an echo/response to the one commented on above, which she wrote several months earlier:

floating downstream -
the burden of my shadow
on a mayfly

In both haiku her presence between a source of light and what lies in front of her is suggested. The more recent haiku opens with an exclamation of joy and wonder followed by a moment’s pause. There then comes the humbling realisation that the rainbow startling and delighting her is being formed by the light that passes through her as through a dewdrop.

She would have been well aware of all the ways that a rainbow plays a magical, otherworldly part in the world’s mythologies because of its bright, elusive and heavenly appearance. Most commonly it appears as a bridge between earthly existence and the home of the Gods. To the Judeo-Christian mind it is the sign of a covenant between God and his creation. ForBuddhiststhe rainbow is the highest state achievable before attainingNirvana, where individual desire and consciousness are extinguished.

Again, on referring to Svetlana’s Facebook profile information, we can still read these words – “How thin must one spread oneself to become transparent?”

There have been many comments from people here and from around the world testifying to her effect on them, and I know that she struggled with the increasing accolade. On her Facebook profile again we read a favourite quotation from Mother Teresa of Calcutta - "If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace,becauseyou know what you are."

She was always at pains to explain that there was nothing extraordinary about her and proposed that what others may have seen and admired in her were the very qualities in themselves, that she had somehow called forth from them. She was not going to inflict the burden of her shadow on them, but wanted to become as translucent as a dewdrop so that the light, being the love of the God she loved totally, would pass through her to bring something bright, elusive and heavenly into the lives of others, without that light becoming trapped inside her own limitations and attachments.

I cannot leave this article here with the impression that Svetlana was some kind of saint. Her immediate family and friends knew her affectionately as ‘the brat’ and that name fitted her like a glove right up to the end. She had a very sharp tongue that would not put up with what she saw as stupidity, in silence. I am sure that many, who encountered her on various Facebook pages, would be able to testify to this.

What I can say of her is that, through her writings, she has shared her journey into the mystery that pervaded her every breath.

autumn mist …
the recurring dream
of self

teach me, candle,
the art of becoming ...
as fire


We continue to maintain the blog Svetlana set up last year and add to it from time to time from the body of writing that she has left behind. The blog may be viewed at http://marisova.com.