Hope and a happy new year to all who follow this blog!

This strange winter, bringing floods and winds to so many, occasionally brings delight to others. Until a few days ago, midsummer honeysuckle was alive and well and flowering in the holly trees along the edge of our small garden. I wasn’t quick enough in all those dark, wet days this month to photograph it, so I’ve cheated with a seasonal shot instead. To me, those tiny, creamy flowers spoke of hope, light and warmth at a time of year that is challenging, dark and cold for many. So, to one and all, a joyful, hopeful new year!

December Surprise

No surprise: there falls

Snow in the winter holly trees,

Wet flakes drifting in stillness,

Speared on savage leaf-points,

Vanishing in salty, mistletoe air.


No surprise: there shines

Scarcely a peep of light today,

Except for the crackling red

Of holly berries, the lively green

Of prickling leaves along the wall.


But now: a midwinter surprise!

If you look closely here, see,

Threading in among the glossy growth

Midsummer’s honeysuckle still in flower:

Fragile cream & butter petals


Twined within close holly trees,

Wreathing the deepening gloom

Of a winter’s afternoon;

Breathing out mild, wild sweetness—

No icy frost-flowers, these.


© Lizzie Ballagher


Bethlehem draws us as the star drew the magi

Vine-Leaves over the Lintel

“Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel.”
(T S Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”)

A dry bundle of tied black husks
And dusty twigs tangled in among the trellis rods,
The grapevine planted in the year that King Uzziah died
Spreads knotty cables, curls brittle tendrils
Like a dying miser’s fingers
Grasping, rasping on the shingles:
Transfixed & tortured over the crosspiece
By rotting twine and rusty nails.

You enter beneath it, sir, the taller of two,
Dipping your head in courtesy unexpected
From such a rough-hewn Nazareth carpenter: your beard grizzled,
Wispy as the wild clematis interwoven with that vine.
And you, too, enter beneath it, Lady, the smaller of two,
Lifting neatly patched skirt-hems; tugging that sweep
Of sea-blue cloak once more over the same
Right shoulder that brushes the mezuzah on the door frame.

Hear, O, Israel:
Thou shalt write these words upon the doorposts
Of thy house…
Even so, O Israel, strike the lintel
And the two side-posts with blood;
For then the Lord will overpass the door;
He will not suffer the destroyer
To enter in & smite you.

Your mind lays up God’s word
While your warm woman’s body curves around
Its gravid weight: an ark to shield, enfold the one true Word;
An arc of love & longing;
An ache of bewilderment at birth’s first pangs,
At the shrewd conniving of a canny king,
At the morning’s rising lark bubbling over thirsty fields—
Hear, O Israel!

But if you raise the vine’s most shrivelled sticks;
And if you pause to push aside the tattered remnant
Of last year’s passionflower with clotted purple bloom
And yellow, desiccated fruit,
Why, then, you will assuredly find a shoot
As green as Eden’s farm where Adam your first father walked;
As green as your sweet maiden’s face
When first you knew you were with child.

From this unpromising beginning
Below the cedar lintel of a bawdy, tawdry tavern
Will grow a stem, a branch, a leafy vine;
And from the sap now running slow at this year’s dark low-water mark
Through the parched veins of wizened winter wood
Will flow the healing blood
Bled, shed by God’s only Son, our Saviour:
Your babe now born behind a brawling ale-house:

Here, yes, even here, O Israel!

© Lizzie Ballagher

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’… And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:2-11, NKJV)


Advent – an underestimated season?

In spite of the gloomy northern weather that usually plagues December, I like this time of year: not just because Christmas is around the corner, but for its own sake. Advent makes me stop and take stock of where I’m heading and why; who’s going along the journey with me and why. I love getting those unexpected phonecalls from cousins and friends far away (New Zealand, Boston, Somerset, Melbourne…); I love the electronic and card greetings from people who’ve taken time to acknowledge that I might matter to them as much as they matter to me.

 So here’s a poem I wrote a while ago to celebrate this unique, wonderful time of year. It appeared this month on the back of Far East magazine. Christmas poems will follow…at Christmas!

Advent poem

© Lizzie Ballagher


The darkest days in northern lands

It may not be as cold as usual for December, but the gathering darkness is just as deep, the days growing shorter still for another eighteen days yet.

In spite of winter’s chilly iron will, however, light and colour come bursting in from the air, especially around dawn. Here I celebrate that wonderful fact in the poem “By Bird Light”. I’m pleased to be able to report that Poetry Space has chosen this as one of its Winter Showcase poems—please visit the Poetry Space website to see more!

By Bird Light

At the morning’s opening show, my eyes
Are little more than dimmed footlights quenched

By first light:
Curtains of colour streak the east
And a silent dew leaks,
Seeps from hawthorn & holly leaves.
Ruffled, a pigeon-loft yawns;
Silver birds explode from the wings,
Whir & wheel & whirl around the rising maypole sun,
Laughing in a promenade more practised
Than all the jabbering moves of motley flocks:
Those extras—!  huddles of speckled sparrows
And startled backstage starlings on their props.

Half light:
The tree’s green lungs exhale goldfinches &
Dragonflies diaphanous in backlit gossamer;
Drafting their own migration paths, swifts & skimming swallows
Figure-skate on the thin, iced pane of the sky.
In the chorus robin answers robin
With a necklace of white song, dropping seed-pearl notes
As delicate as ballet steps on points
Among the gaudy, berry-beaded branches,
Among the spider webs that trap dawn’s light
In shivering cracked mirrors.

Now melodramatic blackbirds caught
In the surprise of a breeze
Exit stage right (stage fright)
In arcs of flashing dark fire;
Then settle—fluttering, muttering—fields away;
Meanwhile, deep in bruised hawthorn shadows,
A brimstone butterfly opens primrose wings,
Takes flight
On hazy, airy stairs
To boundless dancing spaces:

Light fantastic, feather light—
By bird light.

© Lizzie Ballagher