Monday, March 26, 2012

An Aotearoa Affair #2: Past Myths, Present Legends

Frankfurt Bookfair 2012: An Aotearoa Affair edition #2: Past Myths, Present Legends features the blog entry St Helier Migrates after his Martyrdom as one of the contributions. Take a look at the home site that introduces German and Kiwi poets, storytellers, bloggers and artists as part of the approach to the Frankfurt 2012 book fair, where New Zealand is the guest of honour.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

St Helier Migrates after his Martyrdom

"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

I have posted this poem partially in response to Kes Young's blog entry "Naming Places", which I found reference to on "An Aotearoa Affair Blog Carnival #1: Crossings".

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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Crepuscule with Nellie

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane
Carnegie Hall November 1957
They were not in his canon. Dizzy,
Billie, Ray, he stomped the same boards,
Chet and Sonny too
Humph he did not meet
but that did not stop
him writing
Effortless his playing
Unique undoubtedly in genius fashion
as peculiar as his hat
The angular notes
strike from the piano strings
like crimes
of Epistrophy:
angular dancesteps, complex,
astringent, roll like a spiked ball
John’s sax is calming. Laminated
sheets of space flow in long solos, probing
discovered corners of this difficult man. The joy is evident
while he plays, not one, not two, but
Many notes, all at once, or in rapid

Do you feel you have to get up
And dance?

Do you feel you have to sit down
To seize the opportunity?

Well, you needn’t.

© Martin Porter 2009

First of all, let me make it clear I was not at the concert listed at the start of this poem. "Crepuscule with Nellie" is based on the serendipitious discovery of a film clip from this concert which I stumbled across by accident and by which was instantly fascinated. I do not know much about jazz, and cannot say what is jazz and what is not. But like many inexperts, I like what I like. I tend not to discard the remainder out of hand, having learnt that some works can gradually develop an understanding and affection for me. Other works, of course, also become less interesting with time and end up somewhere in the back of the memory to be almost forgotten.

In "Crepuscle with Nellie" I have tried to capture the spirit of the concert through my responce to one piece in particular. But I have only concentrated on that piece, and not dealt with it exclusively. In that sense the title is misleading, but by stating the time and location I have tried to clarify these expanded boundaries to the reader. The poem is rather more irregular than the piece itself, something that has raised comments, but I wanted the structure to reflect the canon, rather than the individual piece. Perhaps this is a failing in the writing.

The poem is structured in its placement on the page, but I have also tried to capture the lyricism when the poem is read aloud. It is a poem that I take great delight in reading aloud, much to my surprise. In particular, the contrast between Monk and Coltrane pleases me considerably, offering a challenge during a recitation.

The subject matter embeds the titles of works by Monk. This needed a degree of caution when writing to integrate the actual words into the piece in such a way that they entertain the knowlegable reader or listener, while not detracting from the poem for the reader who does not know Monk as well as others. In the poem there are clear hints that something is going on. "Humph he did not meet/ but that did not stop/ him writing" hints at this without being too explicit (Monk never played with Humphrey Lyttleton but did write a piece by this title). Much to my entertainment, "Well you needn't" is often missed as a Monk title, being tucked away at the end.

I have tried to evoke the jazz nature of the poem using some techniques that I normally avoid. "Uniquely undoubtedly in genius fashion" is not easy phrasing, but has the sensation of the detailed semi-rhythms that excite me in jazz. The placing of "Erratic", dislocating it from the central justification of the sequence in which it is placed, stresses the angular nature of much of Monk's playing.

Much to my surprise, the most unusual part of this poem did not occur in the section about the main protagonist, but in the section based on the secondary character of John Coltrane. The punctuated ",fluent," has also given me some entertainment by allowing me to start a line with a comma, but is deliberate as an attempt to capture that way Coltrane would occasionally pause unexpectedly before playing a note or phrase, rather than after the previous phrase. Yes, a pause before, not after, something only an avant garde artist with the skill of Coltrane could express. It should be remembered this is a poem, not a prose work, and I have felt free to use punctuation to express the lyricism rather than to conform to a set of rules more suited to the syntax of prose. This is one of those times where I begin to crystalise my thoughts in the rather fluid mix of distractions when dealing with the perrenial issue of "what makes a poem different to prose?".

One of the deepest impressions left by the clip was the contrast between Coltrane and Monk. Initially I thought Monk to be the complex, unpredictable musician, with Coltrane the smooth artist. This soon changed with my re-discovery of Coltrane's penchant for bebop and the avant garde, something I had vaguely registered and then forgotten because it simply did not interest me at the time. I have tried to capture this contrast by the change in style at "John's sax is calming".

The last section deals with my initial astonishment on discovering this particular performance. I did feel I had to get up and I did feel I had to sit down to grasp it, both, simultaneously. I also felt the freedom of the performance and its absence of compulsion. That was the magic for me, the competing impulses and sense of sheer exhilaration. I wish I had been there!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

An Aotearoa Affair #1: Crossings

Frankfurt Bookfair 2012: An Aotearoa Affair edition #1: Crossings features the blog entry Pasifika Queen Mab as one of the contributions. Take a look at the home site that introduces German and Kiwi poets, storytellers, bloggers and artists as part of the approach to the Frankfurt 2012 book fair, where New Zealand is the guest of honour.