Featured Poet – Simply Haiku Spring 2011


A commentary by Robert D. Wilson

Who is Svetlana Marisova? Up until six months ago, I’d never heard of her. A young woman of Russian heritage who moved to New Zealand in her early teens, she was introduced to me via my co-owner, Sasa Vazic. She took a liking to Simply Haiku and volunteered to serve as webmaster and to donate webspace with Ted van Zutpen. That, of course, was a Godsend. The other day she submitted some haiku for consideration in this issue, and needless to say, I was both stunned and speechless. I am well known for my stance on haiku and am very selective as to what we publish. Most haiku published today deviates from the model indigenous to the genre Japan gave the world. The S/L/S metric schemata, kigo, and the use of Japanese aesthetics as tools are being replaced with an uneven, ever-changing conceptualization of short form poetry that Professor Harao Shirane from Columbia University calls “haiku-like poetry” that in many ways is Imagistic, and what Mr. Kai Hasegawa, a well-known critic and haiku sensei in Japan, calls “junk poetry.”

Marisova’s poetry is proof that poets can write quality English-language poetry without bastardizing the genre. Her poetry is far above most of what I read today in most online and printed Japanese short form poetry journals and self-published poetry books. They are memorable and demand interpretation.

Marisova’s haiku are activity-biased versus object-biased and not influenced by Ezra Pound’s Imagist manifesto or Blythian errors. Marisova values kigo, understands, intuitively, the importance of zoka; utilizes the S/L/S metric schemata, and makes adept use of Japanese aesthetic tools. She does all of this while remaining true to her own cultural identity.

thunder … object (thunder)
still this birth object (birth )

This poem above can be understood two ways. The word “birth” can be a verb or a noun, depending on the reader’s interpretation. Either way, the haiku’s focus is neither “thunder” or “birth.” The key to interpreting this poem is via the unsaid. Why does the birth (noun or verb) continue to resonate after the crack of thunder, and what does thunder imply, for the poet to entertain, prior to the crack of thunder, the possibility that it could stop a birth from resonating emotionally or physiologically?

Marisova’s haiku goes below the surface of the obvious, setting into play a continuum of activity, that emulates the zoka. A non-static poem is not one, one reads once, then instantly understands its meaning. Zoka is complex and defies Anglo-Western definition. An activity-biased haiku must be multifaceted, with more than one meaning. Haiku are limited to an economy of tones and rests. It is through the skilled use of Japanese aesthetic tools that the unsaid can be mined and explored. The usage of the aforementioned tools in no way negates or invalidates Anglo-Western aesthetics. The word “aesthetic” is an Anglo-Western term and, as such, its definition, when applied to the understanding and hermeneutical conceptualization of a Japanese poem, may not always be accurate. Aesthetics was taught via the German-based educational system to the Japanese using the language used to interpret and translate the Bible. The Yamato language (pure Japanese) is a language unequipped to define Anglo-Western philosophy and theology. It’s an intuitive language with multiple meanings for many words, dependent upon inflection, cultural landscape, etc.

Language, it’s been said, is the heart of the Japanese people. Aesthetics as the West defines aesthetics is not the same. To the Japanese, aesthetic terms like wabi, sabi, ma, yugen, etc., are styles of artistic expression. Their understanding is culturally intuitive. Many translations of Japanese poetry, therefore, have not always hit the mark in that they were interpreted through the Anglo-Western mindset, which explains, perhaps, Blyth and Yasuda’s errors as well the Anglo-Western conceptualization of what is and isn’t an English language haiku. It’s odd that Anglo-Western poets are even attempting to change haiku when they can’t even come to a universal or near universal concatenate.

distant thunder . . . thunder (object )
the writer of this writer (object )
haiku dead? Haiku (object )

There is mystery in this haiku. None of the objects are the focus of the poem. Why does the distant thunder cause the writer of this autobiographical haiku to think that she’s possibly dead? Marisova’s adept usage of yugen (depth and mystery) positions her poem as a stimulus for thought and perusal; Basho’s creative (zoka) again plumbing the unsaid for answers. Her poem is activity-biased, creating and recreating itself, a metaphysical journey exploring thunder, death, and the immortality of a person’s soul. What is, isn’t. What isn’t, is.

Speaking of which, Marisova’s haiku below, is especially surreal and laced with yugen.

summer dreams … dreams ( an event, not an object )
the night heavy with night (an event, not an object )
datura datura ( object )

How can a non-object be made heavy by an object? What is the relationship between “summer dreams” and the surreal “night heavy with datura”?

Datura, commonly called “Jimson Weed”, contains a narcotic alkaloid used as an hallucinogen by some North, Central, and South American tribal peoples. It is also found in India (dhatura). It’s highly toxic and lethal when the incorrect dosage is ingested. As Carlos Castaneda wrote in his book, The Teachings of Don Juan, “Don Juan was never too fond of what he called Yerba del Diablo, the ‘devil’s weed.’” He told Castaneda that datura’s power was not unlike that of a woman saying:

“She (Datura) is as powerful as the best of allies, but there is something I personally don’t like about her. She distorts men. She gives them a taste of power too soon without fortifying their hearts and makes them domineering and unpredictable. She makes them weak in the middle of their great power.”

Are the dreams the poet writes of induced by the ingestion of datura? Is the reference a metaphor?

The following is a highly unusual haiku filled with imagery. The “death-watch beetle” gets its name from the tapping sound, heard between March and June, made by beetles banging their heads against the walls of tunnels to attract mates. This insect is often found in churches, hence the association with death reflected in its name.

in my brain . . . brain (object)
a death watch beetle beetle (object)
marks time time (a continuum)

Marisova’s use of the “death watch beetle” can have multiple meanings.

1. Is she pining for a mate? Is this a thought continually echoed in her mind?

2. Is there something eating away at her sense of serenity, perhaps a dark secret?

3. What is meant by “marking time?”

This haiku is one focused on the watching of a continuum that has no end.

The following poem is apocryphal, laced with “yugen”, with a healthy dose of “ma” to provide the dreaming room necessary to see and make meaningful this metaphor bringing to light once more the unsaid.

easter vigil ( a period of time )
clouds (an intangible manifestation of air )
eyes (objects)

The haiku’s focus is not an object nor the intangible manifestation of cold air. It’s a surreal concatenation of the imaginary and thought, seeing and sensing something during a course of time. Is it apocryphal? Our job as the reader is to interpret these haiku, not to figure out what the poet means. Each of us as individuals think differently. Our thoughts, illusions we paint in our minds, each with its own signature.

easter vigil …
piercing the clouds
with closed eyes

Covertly there is a vast difference between object-biased haiku-like poems and event-biased haiku. This emphasis on the process and the skillful unearthing of the unsaid, is what makes Svetlana Marisova’s haiku come alive and linger in a reader’s memory.

[Reprinted with the kind permission of the author and editor of Simply Haiku]

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