“St Helier Migrates after his Martyrdom” is obviously a migration poem, but deals with more than just movement in space. It also tackles movement through time and, less obviously, the power of a name.
When I moved from Jersey to New Zealand, I was hugely entertained to find myself living in St Heliers, an Eastern suburb of Auckland. Being born and raised in St Helier, Jersey, this seemed almost like living in a reflection of what I had left behind. St Heliers had the feel of St Helier in my childhood, with its sense of community and self-containment, right down to being able to go into town, to parkland like Dingle Dell reflecting my early playground on Westmount, and to the beach being on our doorstep. Of course, there were huge differences as well, but the circularity of the movement was unexpected and startling.
This set me to asking how this could happen, or rather, how St Helier could have been imaged in such a way. The history was displayed in the St Heliers library, but this seemed too prosaic and actual, unable to satisfy my sense of root. So I set about the thought experiment of migrating St Helier himself across the planet, a migration in both space and time. This poem was the result.
I chose to migrate St Helier in a raft, a simple vessel for a simple saint. But I chose to reference a canoe or waka in the Moon, as something cross-culturally spiritual, referenced across so many cultures. (recently in a visit to Vancouver I learnt about the canoe “Loo Taas”, built by Bill Reid and its journey from Haida Gwaii to Hydaburg as part of a campaign to revitalise indigenous peoples of the region).
I also migrated St Helier in time, maintaining the original myth of him being beheaded by saxon invaders only to pick up his head and walk away before transporting him forward to the 19th century and New Zealand in the poem, then on to present migrations. In some ways the myth has become real, with migrants cutting themselves off at the roots – their historic roots. In other ways the poem has a hidden irony – the saint becomes the invader.
The poem is ambitious and difficult for the outsider to interpret. I have never made apology for that, and do not expect my poetry to necessarily mean the same to a reader as it has to the writer. However, the central motif of St Helier is clear cut in this poem. For me, the poem is as much about the power of names and the naming of places to fix them into a heritage. To most readers this poem will be no more than a restatement of the St Helier legend. Does this matter? Not if you enjoy the poem.
St Helier Migrates after his Martyrdom
Saxon ships ride across the reach,
The fresh whet axe falls on the neck,
The waves curl up the muddy beach.
Heavy breakers cushion the head,
The saint gathers it in his arms
And walks away to leave the dead.
They cannot take away his corpse,
They cannot steal his power away,
Assimilate his vital force.
The tides they ebb, the tides they flood,
The sand lies exposed on the shore,
The rip carries body with blood,
Transported on a bed of gull,
White as the surf, white as the spume.
Slicing, the raft bisects the swell.
Sun floats above a drift of cloud,
Moon rises carved as a canoe,
And land appears, slender and proud.
The platform drifts towards the land
Beneath the white bar in the sky.
The bow cuts deep into soft sand.
Now he will grasp the life he lost,
Will not reject the knocks and cuts,
Will not regret the sea he crossed.
He will construct the island home,
Will excavate the hermit cell,
He will be buried here alone.
© Martin Porter 2005
Postscript: St Heliers also has a Maori name “Whangi Nui”, or “Large Bay”. The name St Heliers dates back to 1883, only a short time in the past.