Blogging for Dear Life

Driven out by war, forced marriage, famine, political and physical oppression, the migrants of the Mediterranean have slipped from view: not only beneath the waves, but also from news headlines. Numbers of those who died in their attempt to make the perilous crossing reached over 5,000 during 2016 alone. But the disaster and the horror go on; already, at the time of writing (August 1st, 2017), the number stands above 2,380 for this year.

Many NGOs are working hard and with broad financial support to rescue and help the refugees. It’s not hard to name them: the Red Cross, Caritas International, Christian Aid, UNICEF, CAFOD, Oxfam, CTBI…I am bound to have missed many. But will such interventions be enough? I have no answers, for sure; yet when I stop to think about what’s happening, I have to do something.

This poem, “Not Walking on Water”, is one of the somethings I’m trying to do. Last year I read about the Sicilian carpenter Francesco Tuccio and was struck by how one small person doing one small thing could change so much in a wide and watery landscape, as well as in the interior landscape of the many who are contributing practically and financially to relief work in the Mediterranean.

Not Walking on Water                                        © Lizzie Ballagher

Because they could not walk on salty water,

The Mediterranean drank them in hundreds.

Then swallowed hard. Few

Survived.

Print truth:

Sharp death.

 

Because they could not walk on salty water,

They drank the Mediterranean in hundreds

And drowned in the dark.

They died.

Blunt truth:

Stark bed—

 

And all because of greedy men

In leaky fishing boats,

In dinghies with outboard motors,

Who abandoned them on salty water,

Turned away, their ruthless pockets filled with money—

Or sailed by on the other side.

 

Yet there was a carpenter,

A plain man in Lampedusa,

Francesco Tuccio, who, walking the beach,

Found washed-up driftwood—

Flaking-paint flotsam of a thousand vessels—

Timbers of the boats that sank.

 

Weeping, he took and fashioned some of them

Into a battered cross of welcome, of hope for migrants:

Not nicely planed but bashed together,

Rough wood,

Unvarnished—

Grave truth.

 

Rugged, the Lampedusa Cross stands sentinel

Now in a wealthy capital, where weeping pilgrims

Keep on coming: to see not jewel-decked marquetry

But coarse-grained carpentry; to fall to their knees on the gallery floor—

Even as migrants keep on coming in their leaky boats

And fall to their knees on Italy’s shore.

 

By good grace Francesco makes more crosses,

Their lamps of anguish flashing across our benighted continent.

Let them teach us to show more mercy,

Teach us to offer at the very least a cup of sweet water.

These crosses: surely they will drive some nails of pity into us,

Shine some splinters, shafts of light into our darkness.

 

Oh, blunt yet sharp-toothed truth:

The heartless death of brothers and sisters—

Even as all of us are drowning.                                  © Lizzie Ballagher

This image of Francesco Tuccio’s Lampedusa Cross is © Trustees of the British Museum only.

This image of Francesco Tuccio’s Lampedusa Cross is © Trustees of the British Museum only.

 

Iceland’s Gullfoss

Iceland (during the week of the midnight sun) has won my heart. There was bound to be a poem…this time about Iceland’s Golden Falls (in Icelandic, Gullfoss).

Gullfoss

Rain drives into my face horizontally,
plasters my hair to my head,
bounces back to drench
ankles, shoes:
rain from sky, from earth, and more rain
(as if water were needed
when the cataract of thunderous Gullfoss
rushes,
gushes,
surges thick      and in a roar).

Before I reach the scarp-staired falls
on surreal, nightmare flights of wooden steps
I am soaked
silenced
newly alive…

Water curls, rolls up, around and over,
veils all in gossamer,
in gauze and the haze
of water-mist, then,
magnificent,

drops.

© Lizzie Ballagher

Image © Lizzie Ballagher

 

 

 

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

img_6489

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

img_6335

reculver-towers-colour

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

2015-07-13-10-34-05

 

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

bird-robin-erithacus-rubecula-13603325680yq[1]

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

reculver-towers-colour

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

beach1

 

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

2014-01-19-14-21-30

 

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

swan-c-val-lloyd