Japanese haiku for a Japanese banner

On a Japanese Banner: Four Haiku for the Samurai

like spring’s blasting gale:
strike against all walls to crack—
break—thick bulwarks down

like summer’s forest:
stand tall in tranquillity—
grow wise in calmness

like autumn’s tree-fire:
flame up—burn across the land—
devastate your foe

like winter mountains:
hold hard—all cloaked in snowfall—
stay firm in fastness

Words © Lizzie Ballagher.

Image: traditional hata sashimono (feudal war banner) as carried by Takeda Shingen in the sixteenth century

 

 

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Glorious Friday

On this day every year people say, “What’s so good about Good Friday?”—a question I consider quite often these days.

So here’s my attempt to address this painful, deeply paradoxical question.

Glory, Glory
A star bathed shepherds’ hills in light
The night that Christ was born—
Was this the glory of God?

Stone jars of water turned to wine
At Cana on that wedding day:
And was this the glory of God?

The lame man walked. The blind could see.
The leper left his sores behind.
So was this the glory of God?

The women grieved & Jesus wept.
Then Lazarus was restored to life.
Was this not the glory of God?

Under waving palms & cheering cries
He rode a humble donkey colt.
Surely this was the glory of God?

Stripped to a loincloth,
Nailed to a tree,
Shamed before friend & foe—

He was lifted high
On a cruel cross.
Does glory shine out here?

The temple curtain tore in two.
The voice of His Father was heard.
Glory. Glory!—more than ever in this world.

Stripped to a loincloth,
Nailed to the tree,
This—even this—was the glory of God.

© Words Lizzie Ballagher.  Image of Lampedusa Cross © Trustees of the British Museum only, used by permission.

Grief and Hope

So many people face bereavement at this time of year, and in the past few months three friends or close family members of friends have died. Remembering them, both in giving thanks for their lives (two short and the other long), I am today sharing a poem I wrote two years ago. Perhaps this poem comforts only me; but so many light candles to reflect and remember, all over the world, that I hope this poem reaches out to others, as well.

Seven Candles

Light me a candle for sorrow:
For the one on a journey with no returning
And pennies on his eyes for the burying.

Light me a candle for tomorrow:
For the tug of longing & the loss of hope,
For the winds of war & the stuttering of prayer.

Light me a candle for blissful memories
In the darkest hours of night:
For sunlit colours & the laughter of friends.

Light me a candle for thankfulness:
For the holy moments of marrying,
For childbirth & the first faltering prayers of children.

Light me a candle for blessedness:
For bread & wine on a sacred table—
To stand & burn in beauty & in tenderness.

Light me a candle for gladness:
For a welcome at windows late in the evening,
For the hush & stillness of soft sleep.

Light me a candle for peace:
For the swansdown drift of dreams;
For the gift of Christ at Christmas,
And for His rising on Easter’s radiant morning.
Yes, light me a candle for the breath of day’s dawning.

The hiss of a flame, the flare of a spark
Will raise us soon against the dark.

Words and image © Lizzie Ballagher

 

The Blackthorn Speaks

In spite of what some people seem to think, there is no such person as one with nothing to offer to human society. All of us have strengths, and all of us manifest weaknesses. That thought prompts me to repost this poem, which, despite its title and the pretty photo, obviously isn’t just about trees.

The Blackthorn Speaks

Before you lift the shaft
Of your bright blade on the bare bones of my black bark;
Before you come with the craft and crack
Of that cruel axe;
Before you take the cold-hearted hack
Of cheerless haste to chop me down—

Stop. Hold, & heed:

My roots run deep & steep.
Their old fingers, scrabbling & scratching, find treasures
In the filth, redeeming soot & soil
For lustrous pearls of blue-black sloes.
O, bitter they may be; while my spines
Stab out the scarlet sap of your dear blood—

Still. Show mercy:

Let me bloom among the greenwood trees
Another spring, another & another.
Let me unfold from twisted twigs the starry spray—
The foam & spume, white-frothed—of perfect flowers
To crown your head, your brow, though
Gathered, garlanded on such imperfect boughs.

Stand. Do your worst:

Cut my broken branches, if you must,
But let me long outlive you;
For you will surely turn as knotted, contorted, stunted as I,
Yet full of sweetness in the honeyed heartwood;
So shall I grow to be the prop of your old age,
A thorny shillelagh, if you will—

Stay. I, ancient blackthorn,
Plead for my life.

© Lizzie Ballagher

 

Reflecting and Remembering

     Lest we forget, living in the relative peace of Western Europe, just what war can do, November serves as a month for reflecting on the consequences of war and the sufferings of those who still endure it now, in 2017.

My poem “Merciless Day” was last year set to music by composer Simon Mold. If you would like to hear the music and poem, please follow this youtube link.

It’s National Poetry Day

In celebration of 2017’s National Poetry and in honour of a family birthday today, I hope readers of this blog will enjoy this poem:

Postcard to Two Grand-Daughters
(or She Stoops to Conkers)

On the day when you became a loving sister;
And on the day when you were born,
I waded ankle-deep in spring-like grass
Under a burnished tree to gather horse chestnuts:
Rich globes of silky wood still varnished
With the oil of their thick satin casings.
I chose the glossiest, the shiniest,
Just as your parents chose you, too, you two:
A pair of bright stars in their loving eyes—
And in mine four thousand miles away.

Look—take them! In your baby hands you hold
The world & all your two sweet lives. You could
Dry them, preserve them in vinegar & bake them,
Knot them on strings & bash them in that old playground sport
Until they split & you can’t play for giggling.
Or you could open up your mother’s precious oil paints
And portray each chestnut’s singular loveliness
On a field of springy grass & autumn leaves.
Or you might turn them into castanets
And dance a tarantella in a swirl of skirts.

Or else, like me, your wordsmith grandmother,
You could grow a shiny conker
From the chestnut tree
Into happy poetry.

Words and image © Lizzie Ballagher

 

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.

 

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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