More than the myth he became, Tom Beard

I was four when Baxter died and living on the other side of the world. It seems that everyone here has a Baxter anecdote ‑ something along the lines of “I remember finding Jim passed out next to my letterbox” ‑ but Hemi was long underground before I became aware of his poetry.

It is customary to trace a poet’s development from his earliest poems through to his latest, but the post‑Baxter generation stands downstream of Jerusalem, among the flotsam of his reputation, and cannot see beyond the towering image of the late Baxter. So I decided to push on upstream and explore the misty upper reaches of James K Baxter.

Among the late poems, there is a clutch of sestinas. Successful sestinas use their structure to explore the different contexts in which the six end‑words can be used. Baxter largely ignores these possibilities, partly because of his choice of prosaic end‑words which don’t lend themselves to multiple meanings. The danger is that the reader follows the patterns of the end‑words and the content slips by.

In terms of content, “Sestina of the Makutu” is one of the more interesting. It combines maoritanga with christian mysticism and his social concerns.

On an old pakeha’s head let this

Makutu break its axe,

Since anger breeds anger.

The one who walked the water

has no voice in Te Whiro’s yard


The indirect reference to “The one who walked the water” seems out of place in a period notable for directness of speech‑Baxter was not usually too coy to write “Christ”. Was this just a way to get “water” as the end word?

The form that gave Baxter the most creative freedom was the sonnet sequence. Often written as a diary or letter, the late sequences have an easy, conversational rhythm characteristically Hemi’s. In “Letter to Peter Olds” he combines theology and revolutionary ranting with a self‑mockery that laughs at such pretensions.

The rain is falling, Peter, on the hill of pungas

And the light is still on in the middle room

At midday. The little flies that rustle on my collar

Mistake me, no doubt, for a parcel of dead meat.

They like my stringy hair.


“How to Fly by Standing Still” is quite different. The mysticism has an eastern tinge (“We have to see through the eyes of another man / In order to understand him. Be detached / if you are able”) and there are touches of a very contemporary restrained lyricism: “Winter comes to us with a slow drumbeat. / The light is sinking into the earth”. There are also indications of his prophet complex: ‘Last night I dreamt a demon visited me, … I have to be the sponge that sucks up the disordered / Humours of the tribe”.

Baxter’s main achievement with the sonnet‑sequence was technical‑by splitting the 14 lines into seven unrhymed couplets, he let the air into the poem, giving it a lightness on the page that is far more inviting to the reader. If the ease of this writing allowed his major sequence, “Autumn Testament”, to go slack at times (and he acknowledged that it was “a thing of rags and patches”), it also allowed him to encompass all of his obsessions.

In particular, the early poems of this sequence deal with the uneasiness that he felt when his catholicism faced more primal Maori concepts such as wahi ngaro, the void.

Wahi Ngaro, the gap from which our prayers

Fall back like the toi‑toi arrows

Children shoot upwards ‑ Wahi Ngaro,

The limitless, the silent, the black night sky

From which the church huddles like a woman

On her hillock of ground …


But “Autumn Testament” is primarily a record of everyday life in a small commune, and there is a constant undercurrent of hope in his depictions of his young tribe:

The chorus of their chaos becomes a possible Christ

When the light behind the face begins to shine …


The sequence ends with one of his standard obsessions, death. The spider, which Baxter often used as a female symbol, represents a return to mother earth, to the void.

The spider crouching on the ledge above the sink

Resembles the tantric goddess …

Therefore I don’t kill her,

… when I die,

And you wait for my soul, you hefty as a king crab

At the door of the underworld, let me pass in peace.

There is a bargain being made here, as if Baxter were making a deal for salvation (he once referred to christianity as “fire insurance”).

“He Waiata mo Te Kare” also describes everyday events at Hiruharama, emphasising the devotional aspects of a simple lifestyle, but it is quite a different sequence. The poems are unstructured, and the shorter lines lend themselves to a more condensed lyricism than the long, casual lines of the sonnets. Also, it is free of religious and political messages: it is a love poem to his estranged wife.

The tone is sometimes pleading, sometimes apologetic (“One day, it is possible, / Hoani and Hilary might join me here”, “I was a gloomy drunk. / You were a troubled woman.”), but if one accepts his premise that God is responsible for calling Baxter to Jerusalem (“At the end of our lives / Te Atua will take pity / On the two whom he divided”), then his plea for Jacquie to join him is often moving.

Earlier today I cut thistles

Under the trees in the graveyard,

And washed my hands afterwards,

Sprinkling the sickle with water.

That’s the life I lead,

Simple as a stone,

And all that makes it less than good, Te Kare,

Is that you are not beside me.

Too many of the poems written between 1969 and 1971 are self‑conscious bohemianism or sour attacks on his detractors, but there are high points. “News from a Pacified Area” blends his personality with that of a Vietnamese, and there is some chillingly effective writing: “The day of anger after the holy night / Will bring down corpses from the broken hills / Rotating like rubber ducks. All corpses are the same‑.

That this was a time of flux for Baxter is evident in lines like “I have grown a face / Whitish and smooth, like new scar tissue, brother, / To hide the evidence that I am no longer I”. He was moving between Wellington, Hiruharama and the junkies’ house at Boyle crescent, Auckland. He was also coming to terms with his new persona of Hemi the barefoot prophet, by turns scatological (“What can a man do then / but put on his coat, / say the Hail Holy Queen / and have a long fat shit”) and righteously self‑flagellant (“I take off my thin belt / and hit myself with the brass rings / on the end of it”). His sad acceptance of the failure of the first Jerusalem commune can be seen in “Haere Ra”:

The peach tree at my door is broken, sister,

It carried too much fruit,

It hangs now by a bent strip of bark ‑

“‘ we are at peace

Like the fog, like the river, like a roofless house

That lets the sun stream in because it cannot help it.

The deceptive simplicity of the last lines captures his complex emotions with grace and dignity.

The “Jerusalem Sonnets” were written by the Baxter that we know best ‑ the hermit conversing with god and with his crabs. Baxter is alone at Jerusalem, waiting for his tribe to arrive (“The trap I am setting to catch a tribe / Is all but furnished”), and the poems have a more meditative quality than in “Autumn Testament”. He readily sees himself as “a madman, a nobody, a raconteur”, and acknowledges the ridiculousness of his image:

Man, my outdoor lavatory

Has taken me three days to build …

Like the gardens of Babylon, made to hide

My defecation from the eyes of the nuns…

This sense of humour puts these poems among his best.

Between 1966 and 1968, Baxter lived with his wife and children in their home town of Dunedin, first as Burns Fellow, and then as a Catholic teacher. The Otago landscape and the reawakening of family memories inspired poems of nostalgia and disgust, and there is a revealing identification of mother with death:

They say a man will shout ‑ “Mother!” ‑

As the bullet strikes ‑ perhaps ‑ I am aware of

A simple madman’s longing

… to die in the arms of the nymph.

Some of the most powerful poetry of this time was a sequence called “Words to Lay a Strong Ghost”, intended to exorcise the memory of one of his first lovers. These poems are free translations from Catullus, and it is interesting to compare these with a more direct translation and with C K Stead’s “Clodian Songbook”.

… the love that I had for you

once, and that you, tart, wantonly crushed

as the passing plough‑blade slashes the flower at the field’s edge

(Catullus, Poem 11, trans. Peter Whigham)

… as at the paddock’s edge

You’ll see in autumn some flower

(Let’s say a dandelion)

Go under the farmer’s boots

Like a faded sun

Cut with a spade.

(Baxter, “The Flower”)

Tell her

Catullus loves her

as the lone lawn daisy


the Masport mower.

(Stead, ‘The Clodian Songbook” 8)

Baxter’s version is even more rural than the original, whereas Stead’s reflects a quite different attitude to suburbia. Where Stead’s postmodernism strips the simile down to a minimum, Baxter cannot resist adding a further parallel, between the flower and a faded sun.

All three convey the turbulent emotions of a love‑hate affair and they share a vigorous obscenity (this was one of Baxter’s specialities: “it’s much the same whether / you kiss his mouth or his arse ‑ the same / Dull buttock‑face, the same shitty breath, / The same red tuft of hair.”). But where Stead emphasises the grim humour and literary satire of Catullus, Baxter’s sequence seethes with vicious misogyny and self‑pity.

Catullus’ capacity for hypocritical indignation when one of his many lovers was unfaithful was a trait Baxter shared. Stead’s version may be more entertaining, but he writes from behind a mask, blurring the distinction between event and imagination: Baxter’s bitter rage leaves little doubt that his poems come from experience. Yet in each, there are flashes of tenderness that catch one by surprise; in Baxter’s case, especially in “The Peach Tree”:

… the peach tree will drop its flowers

Today or tomorrow ‑ after the light

Goes out, lady, we’re going to have

A long, long sleep.

Of the poems that Baxter wrote in Wellington during the early sixties, one sequence stands out for the quality of its writing and the breadth of its concerns: “Pig Island Letters”. As its name suggests, it is an epistolary sequence, and it was written to Maurice Shadbolt. Like “Jerusalem Sonnets” and “Autumn Testament”, it encompasses most of Baxter’s obsessions of the time; unlike them, the individual poems are in varying forms, some of which are rhymed.

“Poem 2” is a sour ballad of family life, partly recalling Baxter’s childhood:

From an old house shaded with macrocarpas

Rises my malady.

Love is not valued much in Pig Island

The theme of family life blighted by puritanism is also used in “Ballad of Calvary Street”. “Poem 3” (“In Calvin’s town / At seventeen I thought I might see / Not fire but water rise / From the shelves of surf beyond St Clair”), recalls “The Town under the Sea”: “At puberty, / Or the first deadly sin, the sea rose up”. This deluge must have been a recurring adolescent nightmare for Baxter and he clearly associated this watery apocalypse with the fall from innocence.

In “Poem 4″, one couplet, ‘Our women chiefly carry in their bones / The curse that stuck to the scattered oven stones”, is a reminder that Baxter frequently linked women and death. In “East Coast Journey” he writes:

In great dryness of mind I heard the voice of the sea

Reverberating, and thought: As a man

Grows older he does not want beer, bread, or the prancing flesh,

But the arms of the eater of life, Hine‑nui‑te‑po,

With teeth of obsidian and hair like kelp…,

and in “The Waves”, he refers to “The homed and processional / Goddess of sexual pain / Who kills the mandrake I”. These malignant images of woman can be added to the spider of “Autumn Testament”.

“Poem 8” begins “When I was only semen in a gland / Or less than that”, lines reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s “Before I knocked and flesh let enter, / With liquid hands tapped on the womb” (Baxter borrowed much from Thomas: his resonant rhythms, his earthy vocabulary, his polo‑neck). This poem begins as a tribute to Baxter’s father, a conscientious objector, and ends with a gloomy verdict on political movements: “Political action in its source is pure, / Human, direct, but in its civil function / becomes the jail it laboured to destroy.”

The final poem contains one of the clearest statements of his faith that he made during this period:

… diving deep, the downward swimmer

finds fresh water rising up,

A mounded water breast, a fountain.

An invisible tree whose roots cannot be found,

As that wild nymph of water rises

So does the God in man.

Baxter saw himself as someone who needed saving, and in “A Dentist’s Window” he makes it clear why he was drawn to the Virgin Mary, whose “concrete statue smiles / On floosies, taxi‑drivers, psychopaths, / The whole rough stumble‑footed town.”.

Baxter’s time in Asia during the late fifties was curiously unproductive in terms of poetry, but his exposure to the poverty of Delhi shaped his later beliefs. There were many attempts at ballads during the mid‑fifties, most of which featured fishermen or squatters (eg, “By the Dry Cardrona”), but the only ones that worked were “Lament for Barney Flanagan” and the highly political “Harry Fat” poems.

The hangman’s hands are abstract hands

Though sudden death they bring ‑

“The hangman keeps our country pure,” Says Harry Fat the King.

These crude but effective assaults on the establishment expressed Baxter’s disillusionment as the country moved towards the political right.

This feeling of betrayal, together with his personal and marital difficulties, may have led to “Traveller’s Litany” being Baxter’s “Waste Land”. All of the ingredients are there: the polyglot quotations, the allusions to Dante, the swings between high eloquence and low demotic, even a set of pedantic notes. The language, at times, seems almost a parody of Eliot:

… The dream behind a dream

the fury in the cave of generation

steel tempered in the waters of desire …

In the early fifties Baxter wrote several poems about Odysseus. In “The Sirens”, Odysseus represents the extraordinary man, who suffers because he perceives what the masses cannot.

Your faithful oarsmen bending, their backs foam‑streaked,

Their cars stopped with wax, . …

The protagonist is hardened and cold‑hearted, and the sirens offer the only temptation that cannot satiate: “The dark dissolving tide can quench ambition”. Baxter could identify with this temptation, and the sirens share his attitude towards domestic “bliss”: “Ithaca is your remorse, / The home each sailor loves and runs away from, / And when you come home you will die of boredom”.

“The Homecoming” provides another twist on the theme. When “Odysseus has come home, to the gully farm / Where the macrocarpa windbreak shields a house”, Penelope is his mother, not his wife and all she offers is “A love demanding all, / Hypochondriacal, sea‑dark and contentless: / … the sour ground that nurtured a boy’s / Dream of freedom”. It would be trite to make comparisons with Oedipus, but Baxter seems to have gone out of his way to invite such parallels.

Back in the late forties, when Baxter was not yet 25, the land was his ambivalent mother‑figure: “For us the land is matrix and destroyer, / Resentful, darkly known” (“Poem in the Matukituki Valley”). To him, the wilderness was too pure for mortal eyes, and the domesticated life as a cowardly retreat from this land:

Therefore we turn, hiding our souls’ dullness

From that too blinding glass: turn to the gentle

Dark of the human daydream, child and wife

“Blow, wind of fruitfulness” (1948) is a collection that contains many striking lines ‑ “plants / Accept their death like stones / Rooted forever in time’s torrent bed”, “The grey smoke of rain drifts over the headlands” ‑ but few poems that seem successful to the contemporary eye. “High Country Weather”, by virtue of its simplicity, is one poem that does succeed:

Upon the upland road

Ride easy, stranger:

Surrender to the sky

Your heart of anger.

To our tastes, “Beyond the Palisade” is even more indigestible, even considering that Baxter was only 18 when this, his first book, was published in 1944. Nevertheless, among all the doths, thous, and cherubim, there are flashes of the simple, effective writing that demonstrate Baxter’s essential skills of observation and imagination: “Fishes like stars that swim / Within the dark abyss”, “This immense / and hump‑backed planet has cast the slough / of human habitation”. One can push back even further:

O Ocean, in thy rocky bed

The starry fishes swim about ‑

There coral rocks are strewn around

Like some great temple on the ground.

This, his first recorded poem, was written at the age of seven. Here is an imaginative connection (stars/ fish) that over 10 years later found a published form and it is through such connections (finding evocative similarities between disparate concepts) that poetry works its magic in the human brain.

Baxter is now the myth that he wished to become. Society likes its poets unkempt, substance‑abusing and self-destructive (which is profoundly frustrating to those of us who prefer to wear shoes), along the lines of Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski and Kurt Cobain. Baxter may have been the original grunge poet.

This image has gone out of fashion among contemporary poets, and so has Baxter’s poetry. It would be a pity to let Baxter’s excesses overshadow the fine achievements of his best work, which remains intensely memorable.

Tom Beard is president of the New Zealand Poetry Society. His poems have been published in Printout and Takahe.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Opinion
Search the archive
Search by category