Thomas a Beckett – his day

A Poem for St Thomas of Canterbury, for December 29th – a haibun

Strangely, King Henry II’s closest ally was no nobleman; instead, Thomas à Becket was a priest, the son of a petty Cheapside merchant, who nevertheless rose high in the old church. But when that holy man began to pay less heed to his earthly monarch than to his heavenly King, Henry knew he had to rid himself of his friend. No mean contender, the king dispatched not one but four of his most savage knights (with swords swift and sharp as talons) to slay the unarmed Becket in Canterbury.

only half an ounce

of red-breast feathers held still

in shock—rolling song cut short

 

in the tight-hooked claw

under the regal black eyes

of the sparrow-hawk— 

Four knights’ swords sliced through the still cathedral air, no mercy shown.

                                                                  a fierce, fast flash-past

of indigo, silver, slate—

wings steely, smoke-blue

 When the archbishop’s red blood gushed down those sacred steps, did Thomas see as he fell a vision of the hawks he had learned to fly while still a boy playing on the Sussex Downs—long before he knew the king, long before he became a priest?

                                                                     one beauty devours

another—nature brooks no

tender sentiment

 King Henry had thought to triumph over Becket. Yet, more than eight hundred years later, the voice of Thomas of Canterbury has never been silenced.

                                                                         in another tree

a younger robin takes up

his song & sings it

 © Lizzie Ballagher

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Of course a sparrow-hawk feels no remorse for taking a robin to feed its young. I do wonder, though: what did the English monarch feel after Beckett’s death?

 

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Of Time and Tide – third in a series of new posts: the longing for peace

In these days of searingly painful news, a time in which world events explode all around us, our longing for peace has rarely seemed more poignant, and peace itself more vital. Christmas can remind us, though, that people were hungering for peace two thousand years ago in the Middle East. They longed for peace, too, a thousand years ago on our own shores. And the narrative of Christmas is one of hope. This post focuses again on the great stone towers at Reculver, which was a monastic community both before and after the Norman invasion.

III         Pax Domini              669 – 1150 AD

 

Bound for long silences,

For the telling of beads & hours on knees

In the monastery church built on crumbling rubble

(Above the seas & the wreckage of Romans),

Monks guided their missiles of plainsong & prayer to low clouds.

 

No more invaders striding, riding here

But (always reminding them of time’s truth) the dry whisper

Of wind in thrift, in sweet-cut hay,

And the battering of waves,

The chattering of bead-like stones on encroaching cliffs.

 

No more Pax Romana.

Instead, now, Pax Domini vobiscum

Et cum spiritu tuo—for all wrong deeds

And the desperate longing

That—for ever & for ever—peace should fall upon us.

© Lizzie Ballagher

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Of Time and Tide: What Canute Understood – second of a series of new blogs

Two things surprised me recently: to learn that my understanding of the old tale of King Canute supposedly trying to stop the tide was completely back to front; and to discover that the poet Lachlan MacKinnon has written a poem (“Canute”) which gives a wry, dry voice to this long departed king. So here’s my take on the king, the tide, and that thousand years ago time.

II          What Canute Understood            1030 AD

 

Not bound for glory, poor Canute!

And yet it was not as legend claims

(That he, a fool, had raised his kingly arm to stop the tide).

Instead, when waters lapped the throne’s high legs,

His followers found out—exactly as their canny lord intended—

That human power is pure delusion.

 

No throne, no ruler, no human hand or foot

Can turn a rampant tide, return the time.

Aye, rocks & stones may shore up ruins,

Though only for a while;

For, iron-tipped, time pushes forward—feathered, swift—

And a ruinous tide rolls on, rolls in.

Text © Lizzie Ballagher, image © Jamie House

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Of Time and Tide: Reculver first of a series of new blogs

It’s that time of year to look back—and ahead. The ancient ruins at Reculver (where the 2,000 year old Roman fortification walls are still visible) always make me reflect: both on change and on constancy.

I           Reculver (Regulbium)                   43 AD

 

Bound for Londinium on proud horses,

Ruling, inscribing harsh lines from Rome

Across the Alps, the land, the sea,

The emperor’s men brought in their inky tide:

Decrees scrolling, unrolling in waves of change.

 

Captives hauled the flints they mined with antlers

(Hacked out, split in twain, cracked out)

To build the straight, square garrison a mile from water

So their conquerors could watch the Wantsum, guard the sea

And scare poor British wretches into slavery.

 

They raised up ramparts, parapets,

With remorseless order: a flinty masonry

Of angles, sharp corners,

Cold geometry—

And calculated mastery.

© Lizzie Ballagher

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