living lightning – the poetry of Elena Shvarts

Language wakes up in the morning. It has not yet washed its face, brushed its teeth, combed its hair. It does not remember whether or not, in the night, any dreams came….

Language goes to the tall mirror that hangs on one wall and stands before it, wearing no makeup, no slippers, no robe. In the same circumstances, we might see first our two eyes, looking back at their own inquiring. We might glance down to the two legs on which vision stands. What language sees in the mirror is also twofold–the two foundation powers of image and statement.

–Jane Hirshfield (from Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World)

Last night I dreamed, in technicolor, of scarlet Oriental poppies. Behind the night-shutters of my eyelids, I watched a bee fly through the waving leaves and swelling buds of a garden, until it happened to perch on my forehead. When I moved my hand involuntarily to brush it off, my eyes opened. What did it mean? I gave myself brief permission to consider this question, until I rose to embark upon the duties of the day.


While immersed in Ten Windows, I slowly savored the subtlety of Jane Hirshfield’s literary analysis, and the measured cadence and musicality of her prose. Art, she says, is “some part of a life distilled to essential and self-aware gesture.”

I am self-aware enough currently, to notice the distance between my appreciation of both daily events and the poetry of others, and my own prose. My first instinct, upon reading a particularly interesting piece, is to rush away and hide, together with my impression of it, inside a dimly-lit virtual closet, to seek refuge from the harsh light of cynicism.

What is the process by which one distills the parts of a life? Perhaps the fragments of a recipe can be found in those moments when the border blurs between the perception of self and the environment. I read a translation of a poem by Elena Shvarts recently, which struck me as an example of this blurring.

Candle at a Wake


Elena Shvarts

I love fire so
That I kiss it,
Reach out towards it
Wash my face in it,
Since the gentle spirits
Inhabit it, like a bud,
And a band of magic
Thinly rings it.

This is their home, you see,
Their shell, their comfort,
And everything else
Is too earthy for them.

I set my fringe alight,
I singed my eyebrows,
I thought … it was you
Flickering there in the flame.
Perhaps you wanted
To whisper a word of light.
The flame quivers,
But I am filled with dark.

–By Elena Shvarts (translated by Sasha Dugdale)

Here is a link to the poem in Russian.

Elena Shvarts (1948-2010) was an eccentric Leningrad-based Russian poet, whose imagery captures my fancy. Elena wrote of her initiation into the writing of poetry:

One day, coming home from school, I walked down the hall to my room, thoughtfully shaking the door key, and suddenly, in time to this jingling, words began to appear. I walked into the room, lay on the bed, right in my school uniform (a brown dress and black apron), and began to listen to the words emerging from within, and to knock with the key, beating a rhythm upon the iron bedposts, topped with steel balls.

And the rest of my life was spent in this state, awaiting those ringing words.

I found similar themes of light and fire in another of Elena Shvarts’ poems in Russian, and decided to translate it for myself:

Living Lightning

The Lady wandered by the bay
Yet failed to notice the flash–
Her face, in a distorted landscape,
And the commencing of a heavenly tick,

So lightning stabbed her through,
Its glance, a crimson feather
Entered and fully suffused
Throughout her spinal column.


Mulberry Tree, Van Gogh

She was not burnt, but revived,
And in the throes of lightning itself
Became a living soul and lamp;
Transfused; she scorched the air.

She merely leaned against a tree,
And the whole forest crackled with fire;
The girl caressed in her forgetting,
The little one destroyed with smut.

Golden one! Death-dealing! Dark’s daughter,
And her soul, you slip within her,
After you, the night seems blacker.
Will you find your soul in the cinders?

An article on Elena Shvarts, which may be of interest, appeared in The Morning News in 2013.  According to this article, six years before her death, Shvarts survived a fire in her apartment, which destroyed all of her belongings, including the money she had recently won in a poetry contest.

A book of translations of the poetry of Elena Shvarts, Birdsong on a Seabed, can be purchased online.

–Posted by Jillian Parker


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