Bethlehem draws us as the star drew the magi

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)


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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