sweet mown grass cuts a wide swathe
through my memory
Words & Image © Lizzie Ballagher
Perhaps one of the most famous images of the past two centuries is the 1831-33 woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai known as The Great Wave off Kanagawa: that tsunami wave dwarfing all else, including Mount Fuji.
This summer, thanks to a local exhibition of Japanese art, I was able to stand and gaze at this image for as long as I liked. Hence the poem below.
Happy news! The response to this poem has, frankly, astounded me. At the weekend, some of my work (including this poem) was chosen as the only poetry from a British writer to be read and celebrated at the Houston Poetry Festival in the USA. Invited to read my work there, I could not travel the distance at short notice. Even so, this poem was among several read to the many assembled this weekend in Texas for this well-established festival; it is now to be published in the festival anthology.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa
after Katshushika Hokusai
I am the one in the lowest boat
my head flung back
my face the colour of rice
the colour of the distant moon
as the great wave too flings back crests
up over curving curling caving in
while I am only a white foam-speck
my face a pale flint-fleck
my blue fishing jacket
a drop of indigo water
at the foot of the glowering towering tide
our painted prow rises skywards
on the wave but we are overswept
the mountain shakes
even the very sea-bed quakes
heaves up the tsunami
soaring over me
by beauty are we so engulfed
in the unstoppable rising roaring wave
more mountainous than Fuji
that we are done for
small consolation to be dying a beauteous death
forever poised below the wave
immortalised by Hokusai’s deep dangerous ink
© Lizzie Ballagher
For five years I drove to work daily over the old bridge to the Isle of Sheppey. I came to love the island’s wild beauty: its low-lying marshes that mirrored the enormous skies and gleaming light; and its open-hearted hospitality. My work began there in mid-winter and ended in mid-summer – hence the “hail and farewell” of this poem.
Ave Atque Vale
The year’s midnight thickens.
Wind-raked, the island stiffens, tightens
Under the crack of ice;
Soil shrivels, earth dwindles
While the muted sun claws its way
Over a straight horizon.
My own skin shrinks, cold.
The year’s noontide widens.
Heat-baked, the island stretches, loosens
Under the weight of light;
Harvest bleaches all land blond
While the sun pounces like a tiger
Bellying its way over flattened fields;
And my own skin smiles, now warm.
(c) Lizzie Ballagher