Swan Song – a haiku commentary


by Natasha Nikonova


The purpose of this article is to explore one of Svetlana Marisova’s haiku in a way that cannot hope to be exhaustive but as a personal response by one who knew and loved her dearly.

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 the 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 her to a deeper awareness of 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 is intending 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 that she considered that she was entering a time of rehearsal for her swan song.

The first line ends with an ellipsis creating an effect of the 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 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 that 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 where she lived 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 head aches.

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. 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’, ‘so be it’, ‘make it so’.

swan song …
the limb-loosening rush
of dark feathers

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