Another memory – of my grandmother’s house

My grandmother lived during most of my childhood in East Sussex, southern England. We often visited her for a few days in her old cottage (which, sadly, is no longer standing); and in this poem I recall one of the memories I have of her house.

Pantry

On the north side of Granny’s house

A timbered door was always shut,

Wrought iron latch dropped neatly in its heavy catch.

 

The silent message was loudly eloquent:

Do not enter. But we had to know

Its mysteries, the marvels beyond that threshold.

 

So when her back was turned

We crept along the polished passageway

Treading softly as we could, barefoot,

 

Then two stone steps down

To the icy dimness of quarry tiles

And piles and banks and ranks

 

Of jellies and jams, hams and jars of Seville marmalade

All tightly sealed with wax, perhaps

Beside a loaf of new-baked bread or dome of cheese—

 

Don’t let the mice in please

 

All just barely visible in fitful light

That filtered through the wire-mesh fly-screen

Over a granite slab

 

Where, sometimes, in spite of Granny’s

Industrious housewifery, tidy domesticity,

The summer rain came slanting in.

 

© Lizzie Ballagher

Memories Without Words

Before Words

Before there were words,

Before trees & flowers & birds

Had names

And under morning’s first holy light,

I played below juniper trees

In dry brown dust where no rain fell.

 

Then scrambled out

To where my mother bent, planting lupins

In the fine damp loam

A rake’s length away:

Lupin leaves studded with rain beads

At their hearts.

 

I had no words, no names

For the soft rosettes of leaves

Or the junipers’ incense:

Just the wonder of diamonds on greenness,

With trees’ fronds brushing my face—

The heaven of their scent floating round me.

 

Some say

We have no memory

Until we have vocabulary.

And yet, a mystery:

Before words,

I do remember.

 

© Words, Lizzie Ballagher.  Images: with thanks to Pinterest.

Lupins found in a cultivated bed in Tekoa, Washington

The tricky business of finding a (print) publisher

No craft is learned quickly.

Old wisdom declares that it’s an insipid thing that falls into place too easily. All the same, I still hope (growing greyer by the week) to find a publisher one day for my poems. Meanwhile, I just keep writing. To the select band of followers of this blog: thank you for your encouragement, wheresoever you may be!

Even So

Like a wren without its mate

Singing against the darkness of a late spring dawn

And trusting that another bird may hear,

may yet reply;

 

Or like a wife on the harbour wall alone,

Yearning for a shadow on the summer sea,

Who waits in weary hope for the fisherman’s return:

For the curved white bow of his sail,

the heave and haul of silver darlings;

 

Or like a thirsty, burnt-out farmer

Squinting at the ruthless sky to spy

A speck or fleecy strand of cloud

Promising longed-for rain—autumn’s relief

Over wilted wheat & drooping barley,

over shrivelled yields & pod-cracked fields;

 

Or like that old beloved chestnut mare

They kept for kindness’ sake,

Believing she was barren,

Who wickers for joy at the winter hay-net,

Nudging twin colts as they nuzzle her:

The first soft-eyed foals on stilted legs

she ever bore.

 

So, even so, I set these poems before you.

 

And while only the frailest faith survives:

that a pair will be born to a barren mare,

that drying grain will know sweet rain,

that love will burn on a seafarer’s return,

that—like the music of all the love-lorn

in the greenwood’s darkest springtime morn—

these poems may take wings and fly,

I shall continue writing by and by.

Words and image © Lizzie Ballagher

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Wind Energy

Of Time & Tide – fifth in a series of new posts

V         Winds of Change               2001 – 2017 AD

Bound for global warming,

Men come with granite dug from primordial days,

Banking up the shifting cliffs with boulders,

Invading, though without a cruel conquest:

Without even the whispered prayers of hopeful hearts.

 

A new army marches here:

The London Array that walks on water,

On currents of roiling, seething change,

Feet treading deep in London clay,

White-bladed arms ever threshing slowly, slowly.

 

If the wind, the tide, cannot be beaten

(So say the runes of our present race)

In every place the tide must now be bridled,

The great winds’ horsepower harnessed,

Wild waves’ spirits saved, enslaved:

 

Not by the captive land above the advancing cliffs,

Nor by plainsong in flickering, echoing darkness,

Nor (they think) by the wing & breath of God;

But by smaller, new-wrought strongholds

Raised beyond the Roman fort, beyond the monks’ two towers,

 

Raised up with new-found music: the song of wind

In wind-turbines bestriding the scrolling & unrolling inky sea.

                              Words and images © Lizzie Ballagher

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Another New Year: the mystery of future time

How can we know what’s ahead in 2017, or indeed in any year? We can’t, but time (the enemy, as some call it) can also be merciful. As I approach the mystery of another new year, I do so as much with hope and comfort as with doubt.

Of Time & Tide: fourth in a series of new posts: here’s another Reculver poem for the first day of January. May the fog lift to bring hopeful, joyful and peaceful days!

IV        Sea Fog                    1805 – 1945 AD

 

Bound for oblivion,

Walls crack, heave up, subside, give way.

Tower windows widen like vacant eyes—

No one now watching the derelict Wantsum—

Just shafts of sky above the boiling tide.

 

Today’s towers stand, though broken,

As tokens & signs for sailors & airmen.

Two thousand winters of history,

Two thousand cloaks of summer weeds

Settle like sea fog over the ruins.

 

Words and image copyright © Lizzie Ballagher

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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?

 

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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By Black Waterside

Happily the South East Walker magazine (a quarterly) has just published this poem in its December 2016 issue. Written in a previous December, “By Black Waterside” celebrates the harsh beauty of the wild and watery place that is Romney Marsh. The sight of vibrant birdlife in that dark, wintry landscape is hard to forget.

By Black Waterside 

Clouds lower, doubled in still water. Above,

Beneath, an iron-clad heron leaves its feasting ground,

Flaps skyward, neck retracted, clanking. Fierce

Yellow eyes, yellow beak pierce the predatory wind.

 

Pattering madly in the mud, its shy white egret

Cousin searches for a fishy morsel then, hearing us,

Takes to immaculate wings. How

Such perfection’s born of river slime, who knows.

 

Where water brims, grasses stir, rushes skirr

To the ripple of wind’s fingers, to the whisper of wave rings

Flung wildly: marsh and air and water linked—

As wedded as the bride and bridegroom swans.

 

Swans! Now silkweed parts, and under a lazy sun

Bending to horizontal in stark November light

Great birds sail, murmur and whistle; stretch pale necks

Like candlefire into the dark, inverted arcs

 

Of gothic lancets formed of sedge and reed.

Just so … swans’ down blows down, snows down.

Curls, swirls of feathers rest, nest and turn on brown silt banks.

By black waterside, swans flex white wings like seraphim.

 

© Lizzie Ballagher

© Image copyright Val Lloyd

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