Wednesday 16 February 2022

Porter at the Shrine

As today is the birthday of Peter Porter (born 1929), I shall fire another small shot in my forlorn campaign to keep the name of this extravagantly gifted poet alive. Here is one of his church poems (the best of which is surely 'An Angel in Blythburgh Church'). St Candida and Holy Cross, Whitechurch (more usually Whitchurch) Canonicorum,  is an impressive church, mostly Early English and Perpendicular, known locally as the Cathedral of the Vale (Marshwood Vale in Dorset). What makes it unique is that it is the only English parish church in which a saint's shrine, complete with relic, has survived in situ the otherwise total destruction of such treasures in the Reformation. It might have escaped simply because it is so plain and inconspicuous; it could easily be taken for some kind of supplementary altar or table. 

Devotees of the saint could place their limbs in the oval openings to bring them into the force field of her bones and affect healing. Porter, it seems, presented something more unusual to the shrine (in another version of the poem, the relevant line, in the fourth stanza, is bowdlerised as 'my love-starved body, for fear and doubt'). 
As so often with Porter's poems, the casual tone belies a tight formal structure: each stanza consist of two cross-rhymed quatrains, all in iambic pentameter. It was first published in his 1970 collection, The Last of England.

At Whitechurch Canonicorum

This is a land of permutating green
and can afford its pagan ghostly state. 
Only from the recurring dead between
the well-dark hedge and talking gate
can mystery come, the church's graveyard,
where now the sun tops the stones and makes
shadows long as a man work as hard
to live as he did, rotting there till he wakes.

That he will wake to trumpets they believed
or tried to who bought him ground to hold.
His dead eye takes in the high coiffure of leaves, 
the pebble-dash tower, the numbers in gold
upon the clock face. For once he has reason –
this undistinguished church, whose frown
lies in the lap of Dorset rebuking each season
its appropriate worldliness, has a saint, pale and home-grown.

St Candida, white in her Latin and cement tomb,
has lived here since rumour was born.
A woman's pelvis needs only the little room
of a casket to heal the flesh it was torn
from: an enlightened bishop lifted up her lid
and pronounced her genuine, a lady's 
bones who if she healed as they say she did
I ask to help me escape the further elbowing of Hades.

I tried to put once, while no one was about,
in the holes for the petitioners' limbs,
the crotch of my trousers, for love locked out
not impotence, and spoke to that air which held hymns
like amber from the stained-glass sides
a prayer to the saint to be given love 
by the person I loved. That prayer still resides
there unanswered. I gave the iron-studded door a shove

and stood again among the unsaintly dead.
St Candida is also St Wite,
the Latin derived from the Saxon misread,
the death clothes she sings in as bitter
to her as when her saintly heart stopped.
England has only two saints' relics confirmed
and hers are one. Three times now I've dropped
by at Whitechurch and asked her her easiest terms

for assistance. The old iron trees tend to roar
in the wind and the cloud seems unusually low
on the fields, even in summer. The weight of before
stands here for faith; so many are born and go
back, marvellous like painting or stones:
I offer my un-numinous body to the saint's care
and pray on my feet to her merciful bones
for ease of the ulcer of feeling, the starch of despair.