Poem of the Month July 2022: St Stephen's Chapel by Michael Perryment
Following on from last month’s Poem of the Month – which shared poet Denise Bennett’s insight into the Jewish Cemetery in Fawcett Road, Southsea – this month’s selection takes us to the north of the City, where we visit the memory of a very special chapel.
St Stephen’s Church:
Established in 1899, St Stephen’s Church on Kingston Road survived for almost fifty years before it was destroyed in the Blitz. Only the chapel remained standing, and its tale from that point onward has been lovingly recounted by local poet Michael Perryment, who has a personal connection to the place.
With Michael’s permission, we have included the poem here.
It was nearly five years after D-Day,
the twelfth of February 1949;
they gathered at the small chapel
in sight of the bombed-out ruin
of St Stephen’s Church.
Nobody had a camera,
the image of my newly-wed parents
was never captured.
The high arched doorway
with its floral terracotta tiling
framed the happy couple
as they took their first steps
into the brave new world.
In time, the chapel was abandoned,
lost, and built over
by a 1950s department store
where it slept in the darkness
behind plasterboard panels
and bricked-up doors.
when for a brief month
it was revealed
when the shopfront was torn away
As the glass and plastic crumbled,
the plaster and brick bulldozed
into clouds of dust,
St Stephen’s Chapel emerged.
With my camera I framed the image:
the high proud roof,
the frieze of brickwork that bands the wall
and the archway
and the tiles
still bright and neat above the door.
St Stephen’s Chapel
survived the blitz to span three centuries,
clung to life for a few short weeks
as its fate was decreed:
to follow the bomb ravaged
mother church, its body savaged
I walked away
with a heart as heavy
as the dusty terracotta flower
that I cradled in my hands.
Photograph of the terracotta flower arch of St Stephen’s Chapel, taken by Michael Perryment on the day of its destruction.
There’s something unbearably tender about the image Michael Perryment relays for us here, of the chapel emerging from the cocoon of brick dust and debris. The glimpse of something old and deeply important. Through his words, we are connecting with a small and precious fragment of Portsmouth’s human history. The people who lived here before us, whose stories are trod into the foundations, who deserve to have their histories preserved even as Portsmouth continues to shapeshift and evolve.
A photograph of Michael’s parents in 1969, included at the request of Michael Perryment.
The Poet: Michael Perryment
Michael Perryment was born in Arthur Street, Buckland in 1949, and has remained local to Portsmouth and its surrounding areas since. A passionate defender of animal rights, he has been vegan for over 45 years, and the shop he had in Fawcett Road (Time for Change) was one of the earliest known completely vegan shops in the world.
In 2006, he won the Tongues and Grooves poetry competition with Rag and Bone Man. This poem – alongside four others, including The Surprise, which also discusses his childhood – are featured in This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry. Perryment has also self-published a small booklet of his poetry, titled Terracotta Flower, and is looking into publishing a more extensive collection in future. So if you’ve enjoyed reading his work, be sure to keep an eye out!
Of his work, he says:
I started writing as a teenager just for myself and it was only in the 1990s that I shared my poetry after attending one of Denise Bennett’s creative writing courses. I then became part of the Portsmouth Poetry Wordshop with Denise, Pauline Hawkesworth and Brian Wells and others, this continued until I moved to Gosport. I was encouraged to submit my poems to South poetry magazine and have several poems included over the years. Copies 36, 35, 31, 30, 28, 27, 24, 21 will find me. Also The Dawntreader the more nature based publication has taken quite a few of my poems, issues 53, 39, 32, 26, 21 will find some of them.
Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.
If you would like to get in touch with us about our poetry selections – to make us aware of yourself as a Portsmouth poet, or perhaps to recommend to us a poem you especially like – please do. We can be reached at Margaret.Bowers@port.ac.uk and Mark.Frost@port.ac.uk