In this post we review this haiku by Steve Hodge:
a swan disappears
into the mist
Published in Frogpond 38:1
(by email to Paresh Tiwari):
I would like to give you some insight into how this poem came about but it’s an uncomplicated and straightforward story. A woman I’ve known and loved as a dear friend since we met in college more than forty years ago was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago. Her husband called to tell me this sad news while I was riding my bike through a local park. After we talked, I saw two swans floating on the lake in front of me. It was early morning and there was a thick mist over the lake. I was thinking about the tragedy that lay ahead for my friend and her husband when one of the swans was enveloped by the mist, seeming to leave the other behind. I wasn’t in any way thinking of haiku at that moment but the poem came to me as I stood there watching the single swan floating alone in the mist.
This poem, more than any of my others, has struck a chord for many people who have contacted me to tell me how meaningful it is to them as they know or have known someone with Alzheimer’s. Different people read it from disparate points of view. Some see the swan in the poem from the point of view of someone watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s slipping away from them, as I did the day the poem came to me. Others see the swan as a person with Alzheimer’s slipping away from him or herself, becoming lost in a mist from which they will never emerge. At least one person saw the swan as the memory of an actual or metaphorical swan leaving the mind and memory of someone with Alzheimer’s. While some of these points of view never occurred to me in concrete terms, I’m more than comfortable with the knowledge that different people approach this poem from various points of view depending on what they, themselves, bring to the poem. I’d be interested to learn if anyone in your group has a different reaction or point of view regarding this poem.
There are very few haiku that I feel compelled to share with my loved ones. Friends have been ostentatiously pig-headed about the form, family is more restrained but I can often sense that I am treading over gossamer thin patience. But when I read this verse by Steve, I had to share it. With my wife.
‘I still can’t forget the absolute emptiness in his eyes’ she said.
There was a palpable pain in the way she revisited her Dad slipping away from us , waging his lone battle against a fading mind, fighting to recognize the things and people that had defined him not so long ago. Of course, by now she had made peace with the fact that he is gone, but I believe that Steve with these nine words may have given her a closure, which nothing else could.
The verse is layered with so many meanings that I read something new every time I read this haiku. Sometimes, I believe that I have probably understood everything the poet wishes to convey and then I read it again and find a new meaning lurking under the old. Is the swan an allegory about someone who is slowly but surely losing his mind, his memories, himself? Is he talking about the ones left behind? Or is he talking about the constant march of time where paradoxically, the one who is forgetting the world, is forgotten by the world too? May be all of it. May be even more.
This is one poem where I would not like to comment on the technique, for that would be a disservice to the poem, the poet and even that elusive thing we all call memory. Suffice it to say, this verse will remain with me for a long-long time.
When I first read this ku, I wondered if I would have kept L1 back for the last. Kudos to Steve Hodge for writing it as it happened. Or was it simply a desire to let pain be its own author. I have always found the ku that touch me, are the ones written around real life experiences. I know a lady suffering from dementia who does not always know me anymore…
The swan, the mist, this entire haiku reminds me of the impermanence of our very being, a fact we mostly choose to ignore. And isn’t it our memories that define us? What becomes of this consciousness? Does a forgotten experience cease to exist? Are they engulfed by life’s kaleidoscope, to make way for the next viewer?
One can stay back with the swan left behind or one can follow the one that got away!
An apparently straight forward read that forces a rethink, reminisce and aha.
This Haiku has the colour white written all over it. The opening line is direct, matter-of-fact and harsh. It contrasts well with this beautiful image of a swan disappearing into the mist. But what does the poet mean by connecting these two thoughts?
To me, the whiteness in both the images stand out. The swan is grace and beauty personified while the patient suffering from Alzeimer’s probably has the same qualities where the colour white is likened to old age. The swan usually mates for life and this person suffering from the disease is being missed dearly and being cared for by the life partner. The mist indicates a mysterious cloud that has surrounded the patient, where he or she has lost all memory. Although, the white colour lends a bleakness to the scenario – the life-partner, the care-giver has not lost hope.
The mist is temporary and after some time the swan will be revealed intact while late- stage Alzeimer’s and its effects are irreversible. The poet wants to show the contrast as well as similarities between these two phenomena.
This haiku is full of pathos, of hope, longing and love.
Yet, I would have preferred the opening line to be more subtle and less revealing. It would have helped in creating even more interpretations than what is currently fathomed.
Raamesh Gowri Raghavan:
At the first reading, it is a very simple reading: the swan as the Alzheimer’s patient slipping into the fog that is the dementia is very telling. But little of this haiku resonates unless the illness has had a presence in your life.
Reading it a second time, in the light of a recent exposure to Alzheimer’s, makes this haiku very poignant to me. A close colleague is leaving his job to take care of his grandfather struck down by this disorder, and in his helplessness and pathos, the swan is seen again. Keeping Steve’s explanation in context, I feel suddenly like the second swan, seeing the first one slip away. The pain is suddenly striking – it isn’t just the patient, but a loved one also slipping away: who must abandon much of their life and its pleasures to devote themselves to their care, the indirect victim of the disorder.
A third reading happened after I looked up some of the medical literature of this disorder. I am still to fully grasp what amyloid bodies are, but they are terrifying nevertheless, and the thought that comes with them – the brain dying cell by cell, extinguishing memories one by one: loves, hates, joys, sorrows, hobbies, passions, politics, attitudes… reducing us not only to animals, but animalcules, mere metabolic entities.
In all this it is probably difficult to look at the haiku dispassionately, but failing to do so is a disservice. I think to myself, would stripping it further, to its very bare bones, help?
a swan disappears
into the mist
Was ‘late stage’ necessary? Is there a poetic nuance it brings? I don’t know. But in this reading, leaving Alzheimer’s to stand by itself does two things for me:
- it creates the s/l/s visual balance that is beloved of classical haiku
- it makes, in my eyes at the least, the word Alzheimer’s an unqualified terror, creating a sense of sudden onset or unexpected discovery (where ‘late stage’ might have prepared the mind a bit), and also, contrasts with itself, as a patient with the disorder can no longer stand by themselves, they need to pull someone to themselves, making not one victim but many.
This is one of those rare haiku which moved me when I first read it. The power of the image works even before you think about it. I does not need much commentary because the image is so clear and apt.
It is both beautiful and depressing. A normally lovely picture, the swan vanishing into the mist becomes the symbol of that terrible disease. The next time I see a swan I won’t look at it the same way.
It is particularly fitting since Alzheimer’s works so slowly, taking the mind piece by piece, blanking it part by part. Having watched it happen I know that it deceptively gentle but actually brutal.
In Indian thought, the swan, hamsa, is a haunting symbol of the soul – “the restless swan on its journey infinite”. To me, that adds another level of meaning – the approach of death as the swan is lost in mists from which there is no returning.
Altogether a beautiful haiku which will stay with me for a long time.