A New Haiku for December
white blades of winter
crushed diamond powder: false ferns—
frost blooms on holly
Words and image © Lizzie Ballagher
Cold it may be, but I wish you all a joyous and peaceful Christmas!
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
Vine-Leaves over the Lintel
“Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel.”
(T S Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”)
A dry bundle of tied black husks
And dusty twigs tangled in among the trellis rods,
The grapevine planted in the year that King Uzziah died
Spreads knotty cables, curls brittle tendrils
Like a dying miser’s fingers
Grasping, rasping on the shingles:
Transfixed & tortured over the crosspiece
By rotting twine and rusty nails.
You enter beneath it, sir, the taller of two,
Dipping your head in courtesy unexpected
From such a rough-hewn Nazareth carpenter: your beard grizzled,
Wispy as the wild clematis interwoven with that vine.
And you, too, enter beneath it, Lady, the smaller of two,
Lifting neatly patched skirt-hems; tugging that sweep
Of sea-blue cloak once more over the same
Right shoulder that brushes the mezuzah on the door frame.
Hear, O, Israel:
Thou shalt write these words upon the doorposts
Of thy house…
Even so, O Israel, strike the lintel
And the two side-posts with blood;
For then the Lord will overpass the door;
He will not suffer the destroyer
To enter in & smite you.
Your mind lays up God’s word
While your warm woman’s body curves around
Its gravid weight: an ark to shield, enfold the one true Word;
An arc of love & longing;
An ache of bewilderment at birth’s first pangs,
At the shrewd conniving of a canny king,
At the morning’s rising lark bubbling over thirsty fields—
Hear, O Israel!
But if you raise the vine’s most shrivelled sticks;
And if you pause to push aside the tattered remnant
Of last year’s passionflower with clotted purple bloom
And yellow, desiccated fruit,
Why, then, you will assuredly find a shoot
As green as Eden’s farm where Adam your first father walked;
As green as your sweet maiden’s face
When first you knew you were with child.
From this unpromising beginning
Below the cedar lintel of a bawdy, tawdry tavern
Will grow a stem, a branch, a leafy vine;
And from the sap now running slow at this year’s dark low-water mark
Through the parched veins of wizened winter wood
Will flow the healing blood
Bled, shed by God’s only Son, our Saviour:
Your babe now born behind a brawling ale-house:
Here, yes, even here, O Israel!
© Lizzie Ballagher
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’… And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:2-11, NKJV)
For those in the south-east of England over the coming weekend, November 28th to 29th, 10a.m. to 4p.m. both days, there’s an event not to be missed: the annual Christmas fair at The Friars, Aylesford, ME20 7BX. I’ll be there with baskets of poems – come and join the fun. Entry £4, with free entry for children.
I know I’m not alone in finding winter a difficult time of year. But when I look closely at what’s around us, I feel hope for what’s to come.
No Death in Winter
Whoever says these trees are dead
Come here, and see upon the brown
The small bud swelling.
And you, who say the birds have gone,
Stand still, and hear the thrushes’ song,
The wild birds’ calling.
Who says the frost will kill and chill?
Who says the ice has drawn its dagger?
Who says the wind will pierce the seed?
I say that sun will come again,
That melted ice will feed the seed,
That warming winds will draw the shoot,
That bud will break; that green will grow,
That flower unfurl—for winter shall conceive the spring.
© Lizzie Ballagher
Over the most recent weekend Lizzie and her friend and colleague Jacqueline Trinder worked together to create an exhibition and sale of watercolours and poems held as part of the annual Christmas fair at The Friars, Aylesford: a happy, warm weekend with some wonderful conversations with the many hundreds of visitors about poetry and paintings, music and pottery.
Many thanks to all who came to The Friars and joined them on the stand.
In the northern hemisphere, November has long been a melancholy month—even before services of remembrance or stories from No Man’s Land. That phrase has always resonated with me; that’s why I wrote this short poem.
November: No Man’s Month
Fields ploughed, but not yet sown—
Except by pearls in spider webs
Or frost on tarnished stubble (scythèd sheer to
Earth’s crude clay).
Trees void, but still no snow–
Except where snowberries grow close to birches (flashing silver),
Or ash-trees (sprinkling grey among
Dark elm trunks).
Christ promised, but not yet come—
Neither among the stubble stalks and razor wire of battlefields
Nor under cross-shaped stars
Nor to the lap of waiting Mary;
But only in the myrrh and frankincense of human lives.
© Lizzie Ballagher
To all who live in South-Eastern England: bring your family and come to the wonderful annual Christmas Fayre at The Friars, Aylesford, Kent on 29th or 30th November, entry between 10a.m. and 4p.m. both days. Full of all sorts of Christmas present ideas, including framed poetry by Lizzie Ballagher and watercolours by Jackie Trinder. Not to be missed. Oh, and bring your ice skates, too!