Appeal for the Aged

In the West, many people (including some in the media) seem to delight in denigrating old people. That makes me sad, and not just because I’m more than 65 myself.

 In “The Blackthorn Speaks”, published this week on the back of Far East Magazine, I’m appealing for a more merciful view of the aged. Looking at blackthorn trees near home in England, and remembering many more in Ireland, I wrote this poem some years ago and have copied it here for you now.

blackthorn speaks

Thanks to the Columbans for the beautiful photography.


Willow in Yellow

Disabled tree: once
You stood at my gate, your boughs, near bare,
Dissecting the air,
Cross-hatching the sullen spring clouds
With runnels of rough bark, all
Water sculpted.

Disabled tree:
Your thinning leaves
Made Chinese characters on the parchment light:
Pale willow patterns on the white,
Shifting and weeping
In the chafing wind.

Disabled tree:
Only the ivy drew you;
And grey moths dusty as graphite,
And slow black mould, coldly
Inscribing final words
On vainly rising roots.

Disabled tree:
Your sap had stopped,
The well of your ink dried up.
Knotty, wild and old, you were,
Yet not so cunning as to gainsay the stinging sentence
Of blade and bow-saw.

Disabled tree: once
You stood at my gate.
How I lament the loss
Of your feathered brushstrokes on the sky.
Now I lament your loss
To green-singing leafy thrushes.

© Lizzie Ballagher



“A woman is a branchy tree / And a man a singing wind…” (James Stephens)

If this be true, what the Irish poet said,
Then the hour has come when
She stands here in wild miscellany,
Tricked out in a fluttering tatters-coat—
All loose ends and ribbons of threadbare leaves—
No rhyme or reason
In the unreeling lateness of the season:
Just a tree through whom long winds have blown
Yet found her sap still rising.

Halt. Hold. The Morris melody is slowing.
All outward shows—the dizzy dancing,
Aching two-part harmonies,
The crazy sawing of a break-down fiddle bow—
All tend to a low decrescendo.
Dressed up in folklore, got up in motley,
Clad in chaos & cross-stitch, colour & cacophony,
Her life reveals—now that this branchy tree
Is shedding leaves—no more than an autumn unravelling.

And should you look closer
At the leafy tracery, the intricate embroidery,
You’ll see, sometimes, the seams & stitches
Are shot through with golden threads;
The beams & branches
Are arrow-tipped with hopeful buds.
Though the manic wind may whistle
Round her delicately veined leaves,
It shall not stop her singing. Never.

No. Nor the birds
Within these silver branches.

(c) Lizzie Ballagher

2014-05-15 20.27.33

A change of direction for this blog!

Lizzie Ballagher welcomes you to her poetry blog. If you’re following her already, you’ll know she writes often about trees. For a few weeks, from today, however, she turns to poems about what it may mean to be human. She writes in today’s poem about what it’s like to watch a much-loved mother approach the end of her life.

Mother among the Roses

The mercury rises, like my mother’s age,
Into the nineties.

Bowed in a wheelchair,
Nodding among the roses,
She’s in the December of her life.

Australian January brands its heat
Upon her white head, pale
On a slender stem.

After months behind spring’s steel doors
In a hospital hot as a greenhouse,
She’s back in an Eden of air and roses.

Now for the first time out in sunlight
She lifts her face into the velvet:
Damask roses along a bowling green.

Like perfume, memory rises, too.
Standing unseen behind her,

Behind her bending head,
My hands dark as rose thorns
On the wheelchair’s wrists,

I hold on hard, mourning
Gardens made and left behind
By her.

I weep for gardens dug and planted
By those same hands, all crooked now,
By those same green fingers

That steady the red, the blush, the pink
To inhale the fragrant rose scent
Sharp with thorns, yet sweet:

Sharp, yet sweet as my mother.

© Lizzie Ballagher

Mum - grandma Joyce - in 1916 aged 3

Mum as a child 100 years ago


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, 2013


2014-06-25 15.18.37

The Blackthorn Trust in Maidstone, UK, is a charity which offers medical care, specialist therapies and rehabilitation through work placements in the Blackthorn Garden. The Trust offers help to people with mental or physical health difficulties or learning disabilities.