Cracks in Pavements

Throughout the 1990s (and to a lesser extent for a further decade) I worked with children who were on the autistic spectrum. In this poem, first published in 1994 by the National Autistic Society, (NAS), I imagine being parent to such a child – all too often quite misunderstood: a child who experiences information overload in almost every waking moment; a child who sees and responds to the world differently from his or her peers; a child, in fact, who is “differently abled”.

My Son

Someone smiled at him just now

When we were coming back from town

With Safeway bags bulging—

When we were trudging

 

Up the heavy steps to our front gate—

Someone smiled at him;

At a boy dreamy-eyed and humming, as he swung

The shopping, counting the cracks in the pavement

 

So he could tell his dad

The definitive count,

And no mistaking—

But someone smiled at him

 

And he lost count,

Cringed back against the wall,

Howled, howled

Like a parody of his toddler self…

 

And now sits rocking, rocking

By the radiator,

Counting to ensure

The folds in its metallic warmth

 

Still number twelve;

Counting for his security,

Counting to cast out

The yawning crack

 

In the pavement

Made by someone’s careless smile.

 

© Lizzie Ballagher

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It’s National Poetry Day today!

Paper Dolls

Scissored, yet not severed,

Hand in hand, paper dolls unfold
In concertina form:
Heads & hands all level,
Shadow hearts beating between;
Feet all dancing the same straight floor,
If not to the same time,
If not to the same dance.

Hands stretch in telespace.
I speak to you, & you, by text & telephone & Skype:
Daughter to mother,
Mother to grandmother
In the miracle of melting miles,
No daughter without a mother.
Holding hands to heaven, we tread

The endless Eden dance.

© Lizzie Ballagher

Paper Dolls

Those who have walked this way before us

On Old Winchester Hill

High on Old Winchester Hill, I wonder:

Did Victorian archaeologists miss the point

With their methodical measuring tapes,

Their neat white note-cards & their tapping trowels;

Their careful record books & counted shards

Of flint & iron & pottery?

 

The hill is healed now of all diggings: hollows & barrows

Softened by falling rain, by grass & honeyed clover,

By golden gorse & trefoil; by thistledown & scabious;

By poppies’ red splash & purple coils of rampant vetch.

Now rock-hard ramparts, humps & clumps of earth are blurred:

Jumbled by time & tempest, roots & rabbits.

 

What’s left to mark the memory of ancient ancestors

And long-lost clans?—those who lived before the builders of Stonehenge,

Before Romans drove their roads in dead straight lines & marched to ruin,

Before Arthur cantered out with wandering knights

Or Alfred was enthroned in royal halls at Winchester—

What’s left to mark their memory?

 

Only this: a gentle wooden seat to rest upon with you,

To stare back down & through the ages;

And this: our love shall last, not overlords.

We carry seeds of sweetness in our plantings

As surely as feathered corn-cockles flare

Open for another summer & another—

 

As surely as the children born to us

Will walk upon this hilltop once:

Their eyes fixed on the azure glory of the sky,

Their feet sunk deep in kingly blue of cornflowers

And golden hoards of seed-heads where today we go

In tracks of those who settled here six thousand years ago.

 

© Lizzie Ballagher

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Memories

Motherhood: perhaps not a commonly used word now, but beloved, nevertheless. Because most of my work is about inner and outer landscapes, poems which my children might read when they grew up have rarely come to mind. “The Cry of Birds” (below) is, however, one such. Recently chosen for Poetry Space’s 2015 spring showcase, this poem was in fact written for my daughter over thirty years ago.

The Cry of Birds

I pause for a moment
Weary and still
In the first spring rain
That falls uncertainly on my hair.
The splash and spit and drip
Are all I hear
On this country grey March morning
That hangs thin mist in my eyes.

The child in my arms wakes
From uterine dreams; her eyes
Wondering and still seek mine to explain
The sweet, the shrill, the shriek:
The cry of birds in the rain.
Hush! Never before has my summer-born child
Heard birds sing
In spring rain.

© Lizzie Ballagher

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Skipping Stones

Does this childhood memory of skimming stones ring any bells with you? Growing up near the North Sea, I often watched as my father skimmed stones over water. A marine engineer by trade, he taught me about Barnes Wallis, the much more famous marine engineer whose invention of the  bouncing bomb made such a contribution to Allied efforts in World War II.

 

With a flick of wrist & finger, my father—

Ankle deep in shallows or in shingle—

Sent those round, flat pebbles

 

Bouncing, scudding, skimming, skipping

Over the waves’ grey curls and ribbons,

Over their fleece-washed foam and crashing combs

 

While I—well, all I could do was stand

Marooned on sand, marvelling at his skill;

Or play at hopscotch on the sea-wall.

 

© Lizzie Ballagher

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The Wrong Kind of Leaves

Raking leaves was an autumn task I enjoyed when I lived in the US. British Rail once coined the phrase “the wrong kind of leaves on the lines”, but I don’t think there are any such things as the wrong kind of leaves. They look more than all right to me!

Raking

When first I heard them say
They ought to rake in all New England’s leaves—
Fiery eruption and fall-out from every hot
Volcanic tree in Massachusetts—
I laughed the madness of it
After leaves were soaked and sodden,
But raked beside them anyway:
Cooled coals in the rake’s dark teeth
On the cloudy coldness of a sullen,
Snow-driven Thanksgiving
With ashy whiteness in my heavy, leaf-brown hair.

And now the clear October ten years on
Sees me rise to this autumnal ritual
I was not born to, raised to
Under the damp, knobbed trunks of English lindens
Lined lovely in a leafy row down Derby Road,
Where leaf led to loam beneath in days, not weeks.

My sapling son, still seed then
In another’s body, unopened acorn
Then unknown in the branch of my own,
Now laughs the folly of it—
Leaps, shoots leafily as we rake
The conflagration of all of New York’s leaves.

I bend to the sweat of them
Making blazing mountains, raking
Wetly clinging leaf on leaf
Shining with showers, still—light,
Frosted frigid by night on night,
Parched paper-thin by molten sun on sun.

My mouth opens round crisp air
As I rake to the rasp and gasp of it,
And my arm aches to the heave of leaves in the barrow.
Now my back breaks to the turn of the steep shovel
In the black clay of the autumn day as I furrow in
This year’s glory for next year’s plenty.

© Lizzie Ballagher

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Midsummer Passionflowers

‘Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children.’ T S Eliot, The Four Quartets

June, & at the solstice
The sky’s blue iris widens—wing-wrapped, leaf-lapped—
Drawing out from the apple of midsummer’s eye.

In the crab-tree, a collared dove croons & clamours;
A ruffled wood pigeon clatters away
Scattering breaths of fluff & feathers
While, higher still & higher over all,
Far above the heat-prostrated fields & trees,
Buzzards rise & ride the thermals,
Their screeches borne on the breeze:
As distant & despairing as the prey they hunt below.

Beside the water—coiled, oiled—a grass snake
Basks & smoulders in the tangled weeds,
Olive brown & waiting, waiting…
And so the world turns on its wicked way:
the way of speaking, or of silent breathing;
the way of seeing, or concealing;
the way of feasting, or of being eaten.
Slick, its little, beady eyes
Like pools of bottomless darkness,
The grass snake flinches,
Twitches, flicks away.

Look now.
Look here.
Be quick!
In the green & glossy holly hedge,
Sky-blue eyes open wide in infant innocence,
Blink, wink, spark, laugh,
And—here and there among them—roses drop
Rubies on the holly’s shine.

Oh, we cannot count the blue-eyed children chuckling,
Giggling, rippling through the prickling foliage
On sinuous, twirling bines & twines!

© Lizzie Ballagher, 2014

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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

 

Oak, Oak

 

Planed smooth as babies’ skin,
Your robust rocking arms
Sheltered me, cradled me, your child, from harm.
Slower than an acorn then I grew
Into a sapling child: chafing on
The wicker seats of bees-waxed
Ladder-back chairs, ungrateful,
Knowing you not. Outside again,
I hung in you, laughing, swung in you,
Clung to the cleft of your branches:
Climbing, climbing.

Slowly suns moved; time dawdled past.
Later, I stepped below your arching ribs
Solemn, trembling with armfuls
Of lilies, roses, ferns, carnations,
Regarding you not at all
But closer to your heart, until
I climbed, climbed the turn
Of your branches, the spindle shaft
Of a newel post, the twist of oak-beamed stairs
Through the tolling bell-tower of an ancient church
To the rocking wooden bed of a marriage.

Here in middle age,
Severed by a death
From the trunk of my own tree
I write these words at an oaken desk
And feel, gratefully now, the patina
Of venerable wood: warm
Burnished, shining
Beneath my splintered hand.
Brass handles yield up life’s secrets.
In the sheen of gold-grained oak
I find the wisdom of my mother’s heartwood.

One day I’ll learn to love
Those ladder-back chairs,
The oaken rocker where I’ll rest,
At last, rest until I rest the last
Rest, slough off this sullen skin
In the arms of a robust oaken box
Planed silken smooth as shrunken skin;
Cradled like wine in a wooden cask,
But, now, without the rocking:
Cradled in your open arms again,
Climbing you, oak, oak, to heaven.

Then out of me, yes, even me,
Will grow another oaken tree.

© Lizzie BallagherOak Pathway