Review by Michael Boiano
I've always had a soft spot for the very idea of "soulmates"--that "affinity of spirits" that two, if blessed, can share--especially between those who are separated by distance or other factors and can never meet. I've also long been an admirer and, to a humble extent, a pratitioner of Japanese aesthetics and literary forms. When these two elements come together, as they have in "Be Still and Know," by Ted van Zutphen and Svetlana Marisova, the resulting collaboration is, for me, irresistible, more a matter for the heart than for the intellect.
I became acquainted with one of the authors, Svetlana Marisova, when she approached me, via Facebook, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, asking for advice on Japanese poetry and aesthetic sensibilities. She wondered if this might be her medium of expression and I encouraged her to take this path. Over the past several years she was often in touch to share her discoveries and accomplishments--always accompanied by words of gratitude--and to share more of her poems. I was always impressed by her enthusiasm, her subtle intelligence, her creative powers, and not least by her humility. I never missed an opportunity to express my pride in her achivements and to encourage her further exploration of Japanese poetry, to make it her own. I didn't know her age. I didn't know she was ill. I only knew that I was in touch with a formidable talent which deserved encouragement and nurturing.
Last July, not very long before she died, Svetlana "tagged" me in one of her poems which she combined with a picture in Facebook. It is included in this book and goes as follows: lenten reflection.../a wanderer explores/her journal. I wrote a "response" to it: wandering journal pages/seeking clues,/a way forward. She liked this answer and now, after recently learning of her death, I understand more--her "reflection" and what my words "seeking clues, a way forward" might have meant to her. Writing...poetry...these were her way forward.
I've only just met her co-author, Ted van Zutphen, but have been impressed by the closeness of his writing to the classical Japanese haiku that I have read over the years and I could not help but be touched by his comments about Svetlana in the book's introduction. Their poetry is very complementary, as one would expect between two friends who share that "affinity of spirits"--just the right balance between the earthiness of haiku that one sees in some of the more famous Japanese classical poets and a sense of the ephemeral, the ineffable, the eternal.
Throughout the history of Japanese tradtional poetry forms, there is another writing tradition which doesn't get much attention and yet is as "spiritual" and uplifting as the art forms themselves. Now and then there have developed friendships, bonds, affection, and--the word has been so cheapened by popular culture that I hesitate to utter it--love between writers who correspond, drawn by each other's words and ideas. Over time, such artisitic affinities may deepen into something more--spiritual affinities--and such writers may become each other's muse. This isn't the "love" of TV dramas and pop music, but something almost impossible to describe. The depths and joys of such affinities, so subtle yet so profound, can be fully understood only by those who share them but, when revealed through literature as in "Be Still and Know"--and through other forms such as letters, poetry of all kinds, and even novels--others cannot help but be inspired, touched, moved by them. All we can do is read and..."be still and know."
Such bonds between writers, thinkers, and religious soulmates over distance is not limited to Japanese culture or literature, either, and there are many examples in western culture. As I looked through the book, I recalled the relationship between another pair of soulmates, the young Carmelite nun, Thérèse (later Saint Thérèse of Lisieux) and the young seminarian Maurice Belliere who, seeking spiritual counsel, was assigned to Thérèse for correspondence. Though they never met, they shared a correspondence--an art form in itself--that lifts heart, mind, and spirit, ours as well as those of the writers. Thérèse died young too, at age 24 of tuberculosis but, before she died, she prophesied to the future priest that they would speak a conversation to "charm the angels." They did and I've no doubt they still do. And I prophesy that the "conversation" revealed in the poetry in this book will charm not only those fortunate enough to read it, but will charm the angels as well.