Wielding the jawbone of an ass, Fleur Adcock

I last saw Jim Baxter towards the end of 1962, eating steak and chips for lunch in a restaurant on Lambton Quay. I was about to leave for England, but not so imminently that I felt the need to make my farewells. In any case, ours was a fairly casual friendship, and we kept in touch after I left. Jim had more friends than anyone I ever met, and loomed in and out of their lives unpredictably; but no matter what his effect on those lives he was never less than a memorable figure in them.

The risk with memorable characters, of course, is that their private individual qualities become submerged into the legends. Jim began for me, before I had met him, as a collection of anecdotes (other people’s), and over the years since he died he has subsided into another collection of anecdotes (my own), To reconstruct the human being I came to know in the course of 10 years is not easy.

My first glimpse of him was in 1951, in the queue at the university “caf”, where he drew a much-folded clutch of poems from the pocket of his grubby raincoat and proceeded to read them to his companion. Someone whispered to me “That’s James K!” He would have been 26 or 27, a year older than Alistair Campbell, whom I met and married the following year. After that I heard anecdotes about Baxter the drunk, lying in the gutter wearing the same famous raincoat, with a bottle of gin and a flash of brilliant repartee to impress whichever acquaintance or admirer was going to report the sighting; and Baxter the precocious genius. If he had not already been the “Marvellous Boy” of New Zealand poetry his antics might have caused less comment; but to me, at 18, 27 seemed pretty old. For a long time I assumed that his drunkenness was an act ‑ he was trying to be Dylan Thomas.

I don’t remember when I first actually met him; no doubt it was at some party at 191 The Terrace, where Alistair had a room in a large house shared by half a dozen other young male students. I was delightedly appalled by the reaction of their landlady, Miss Gillon, to a midnight visitation: “I opened the door, and do you know, Mr Campbell, it was that horrible little dwarf!” Miss Gillon’s judgements were erratic; she was given to throwing buckets of water over her hydrangeas in case men were lurking among them. Jim was not a dwarf, and not, in my experience, horrible. He was an entrancing conversationalist, enormously well‑read, with an air of authority which came, I assumed, from his wide knowledge of the grimmer side of life. He could be solemn or rhetorical: one of the things I overheard him saying was “Myself, I embrace the Roman faith”, which struck me as a highly un‑Kiwi utterance. Rounded vowels and perfectly constructed sentences came naturally to him, but so did filthy jokes. I was in awe of him for quite some time.

At my wedding reception he took me aside and offered to read my palm. I stood in my long white dress with the buttoned‑up collar which made me look about 14 and heard him intone “I’d give you and Alistair about 10 years”. This was not the usual wedding‑day forecast of happiness ever after. Was he just being deliberately outrageous? (There was an undeniable streak of malice in him.) Did he do it partly, as he said years later, to annoy Alistair? Whatever the case, the marriage lasted for only half the time he predicted.

On with the anecdotes. In my mind, they come with shorthand captions. There was the one about Jim sitting on our bed one night drinking gin out of a teapot (actually the gin was in a glass, the teapot was the only container he’d been able to find in our kitchen for water to dilute it ‑ Alistair and I were in bed and not disposed to be helpful). There was the one about the fight ‑ a brief and confused flurry of fists when Alistair took exception to Jim’s holding not my hand but my bare foot, which he was examining with, I thought, detached aesthetic approval. Brian Bell, another notorious drinker, somehow got into the line of fire, and it was to him that Alistair apologised next morning. Jim was not a fighter, he merely lay down quietly on the carpet until things were calmer. On a floor was a not unusual place for him to spend a night; someone might cover him with a rug and he’d be gone by morning.

All this sounds so trivial, so long ago, so many times told. What about the poetry? Well, that happens in private. Even if you see someone writing you can’t see inside his head. The nearest we got to the process was when Jim called round asking to use Alistair’s typewriter for a few minutes ‑ “If I type this at home Jacquie might look over my shoulder and think it’s about another woman”. It may have been; or it may have been reminiscence or even fantasy. Normally, though, we saw only the finished product. “Here’s a good Dylan Thomas poem for you,” he once said, not pretending it was anything but pastiche. Imitation is practice, and practice is what poets have to keep up. He was always writing something.

While Jim was being a poet, Jacquie was keeping the family going. Like me she was largely excluded from the male world of pubs and bloke‑ish companionship. These were the 50s; pubs closed at 6pm and after that drinking had to take place elsewhere ‑ which is why Jim spent so much time touring the households of his more domestic friends who, like Alistair, went home in the evenings to their wives and children. To some extent things changed when Jim joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I must confess that at the time I saw it as just another piece of attention‑seeking, but I came to realise that he had a genuine problem. He was incurably gregarious, so instead of (or as well as) hanging, out with boozers and lowlife characters from Wellington’s underworld he went to AA meetings and took his ex-drinking colleagues home for endless cups of tea.

Or that was my impression. Jim inhabited a multitude of worlds, most of which I was not privy to. In 1958, after my divorce, I moved to Dunedin and into a new ambience of my own. One effect of this was that I began writing seriously, and to my delight Jim approved of my poems and began to see me as a person and not just a woman. Some of the constraint which had existed between us when Alastair was the poet in the family and I a mere onlooker evaporated,

Our next notable encounter was a late‑night conversation between Jim, Maurice Duggan and myself, in a hut in someone’s garden in Wellington, after a meeting of the 1959 Writers’ Conference. He talked for what seemed like hours about “the battle of the sexes” (one of his obsessions) in his high‑flown, oracular style, making pronouncements in which nowadays I should find plenty to disagree with. Then, my memory tells me, I mostly just listened, carried along by the stream of images and metaphors: figurative language was his natural and instinctive mode of expression. But I must have demurred at some point: twice in subsequent letters to me he mentions my question: “What have you ever given Jacquie?”

The letters began in October 1960. Jim was then working for School Publications, and wrote to ask me whether I had ideas for any more contributions to the School Journals ‑ or whether I had any poems to show him, “as you have a vein of your own”. He said in passing “Life seems more bearable in the thirties than it did in the twenties. I always thought it would be the other way around.” In a later letter he enlarged on the effect this had had on his verse: “The techniques I developed earlier in life ‑ the Louis MacNeice conversational style: the Dylan Thomas rocket‑in‑the‑guts style; the Thomas Hardy sin‑and‑bear‑it style ‑ don’t exactly fit the way I find things. Things leave plenty of space between them. I’m not sitting on a hot stove any longer. But one might prefer less space and more heat.”

Most of his letters enclosed poems, or early versions of what later became poems: two drafts of a fragment about a tomcat, for example, very different from his published poem on that subject, but the seeds of it; and an apparently finished poem called “Samson to Delilah”, in three rhyming nine‑line stanzas, which he later expanded into “Henley Pub”, altering the persona and distancing it more from the memories of his medical student girlfriend which a visit to Dunedin had stirred up in him.

I can’t remember when it was that I looked out of the window of my university flat in Clyde Street and saw the familiar raincoat advancing up the path ‑ only how pleased I was by the sight, and by the good talk which followed. Jim came to Dunedin again in January 1962, for a refresher course, and arrived at my door with a huge clanking carpetbag laden with a dozen or so bottles of lemonade and CocaCola to satisfy his alcoholic’s thirst and something stronger for me. He also brought me a piece of moa bone, from a dig he had taken part in.

I was still in my turbulent twenties, and that happened to be a time of particular turmoil. In March 1962 I returned to Wellington and at the end of the year I left for England. Jim and I kept in touch intermittently for a few years more: my last letters from him are dated 1967. (When Frank McKay was working on his biography I let him see all Jim’s letters to me. One or two, I thought, called for an explanation: they gave the impression that we had been having an affair ‑ which, as I assured Frank, had never been the case. “Don’t worry,” he said; “Jim often wrote to women like that. ‑ I have often suspected that a good deal of Jim’s sex life was conducted on paper rather than in the flesh. What I felt for him ‑ a mixture of affection, admiration, curiosity and irritation ‑ was complicated enough without anything extra.) In 1968 he received his call to Jerusalem, grew a beard and turned into the guru whose death was so widely mourned in 1972. The final phase of his life grew naturally out of what had gone before, but that shaggy, bare‑footed figure is not the man I see in my mind.

When Jim first suggested that I should put a book of verse together he advised me to “pick for the life in the poem, not for its formal excellence: that comes second, I think”. Elsewhere, in the letter accompanying the Samson poem, he said (continuing his image of a war against the Philistines) that writing was, for him, “not just a way of whiling away the gaps: it is a weapon, the jawbone of an ass, and when the battle is over I will make gumboots of their foreskins.” Reading that, I feel slightly guilty: have I let my poems become tame? I may no longer be wielding the jawbone of an ass, if indeed I ever did; but although I don’t see Baxter as an influence on my work, perhaps I learned something from his precepts. And I still have the piece of moa bone.

Fleur Adcock is a poet who lives and writes in London. She is an occasional contributor to the London Review of Books.

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