Buying into Baxter? Rob Jackaman

Beyond the Palisade
James K Baxter (ed Paul Millar)
Oxford University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 19 558406 6

Autumn Testament
James K Baxter (ed Paul Millar)
Oxford University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 19 558386 8

Not arriving in New Zealand until 1968, I’ve never really fully bought into the Baxter myth – except for having acquired the Collected Poems on special some years ago, and having written an article review for Landfall in 1983, when I was still too green to know better.

I suppose I feel about Baxter’s poetry much as I feel about that of D H Lawrence – a lot of it is so bad, so self-indulgent that it’s next to impossible to believe the brilliance of the isolated great works that crop up in the corpus. The two volumes published recently by OUP New Zealand, as well as being the first and the last that Baxter wrote (or perhaps because of it), amply illustrate the two sides of the writer, the poetaster and the genius.

Since Alice in Wonderland would have wanted it that way, perhaps it would be best to begin at the beginning, which in this case is 1944. Nearly every poet ever published has written bad early work that might best be decently buried. Baxter is definitely no exception: when Paul Millar writes in his “Introduction” to Beyond the Palisade that “the bones of his adolescence shaped and determined his development as a poet”, while that may be true, what isn’t explained is precisely why we should worship at this ossuary. And yet, much as one might wish to dismiss the posturing juvenilia of Beyond the Palisade, there’s a certain fascination to it that’s hard to pin down. Is it simply roadkill syndrome – the feeling that we need to go back to bear witness to the full horror of it all? That may to some extent be the case; but there seems to be more to it than that.

James Bertram is cited on the rear dust-cover of this latest version of Beyond the Palisade as admiring the collection’s “freshness”, which – one grudgingly has to admit – seems at least partly true at least part of the time. In another statement (printed out of sight inside the front dust-cover, though not necessarily less significant in spite of its lower profile), an anonymous commentator speaks of themes aired here for the first time “that were to recur with greater intensity in later collections”. That certainly seems valid. So there are moments of freshness, then, and the promise of greater things to come. As well, there are Baxter’s characteristic (but often neglected) interesting rhythms, assonances and vowel combinations, such as “mountains sea-born unking / Familiar idols, hold old sway” (from “Prelude NZ”). There are the moments of sharp clarity as the landscape is seen and verbally enacted (as in the first half of “The Mountains”); and there’s the impressionistic, wide-ranging and ambitious “Letter to Noel Ginn”.

On the other side of the ledger are manifold examples of awkwardness and fake rhetoric, perhaps the worst example of many being the lines (again in “Prelude NZ”), “Dream of the womb forgotten … lo, and see / (perchance angry) / the god-forsaken by the God-less broken”. And the ease with which Baxter slips into the Old Testament diction in “Psalm of the Defeated” is rather ominous, suggesting a grotesquely inappropriate but seductive prophetic posture. Other models are more recent but equally unhappy: on page after page the reader is offered poor substitutes for Dylan Thomas, queasy echoes of Audenesque self-importance, and the futile attempt to emulate a kind of Yeatsian mythic texture (“mythological miscarriage” being an accidentally apposite phrase that offers itself from Baxter’s “Prelude NZ”). As well, though Baxter may not at this time have been familiar with their work, the spirit of those ghastly 1940s cultural phenomena – the English New Apocalypse and the Australian Angry Penguins – runs rampant through the empty symbols littering the text, “with tongues of fire / Reiterating myth” (“In City Night”).

All in all, seeing this first volume of his work again tends to confirm my original impression of Baxter when I met him during his campus-guru phase at the University of Auckland in the late-1960s. I thought that he was very much a three “P” man (or four, if you count “P” for “poet”): he was prolix, a poseur, and passé. Of course, this was before the appearance of Autumn Testament (1972), which is none of these things, and (facetiousness and personality clashes aside) compels readerly respect, now as then.

In this remarkable volume, which culminates those other late works, Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) and Jerusalem Daybook (1971), the messianic stance, the mythologising, and the high-pitched symbolism are all full rather than empty. The experiences of Baxter’s own life (both writerly and otherwise) have fleshed out the earlier abstractions and obfuscating referents. And on the surface of the text the vacuous yet distracting bric-à-brac has been swept aside, leaving an elementally simple yet profound statement, such as:

I have seen at evening
Two ducks fly down
To a pond together.

The whirring of their wings
Reminded me of you.

There’s no room here for tigers or tongues of flame or Icaruses. We aren’t deflected or distracted from meaning by the words that are intended to convey it. The reader gets a sense of the writer working his way towards a tangible reality rather than leaping straight and easily into high aphorism. That is, the voice has the authority of authenticity about it, direct and convincing, without any of the earlier poeticising gimmickry; and the poetic act does not involve an appropriation of authority merely through self-importance.

In section 10 of the “Waiata”, Baxter gives a clue to the origins of this down-to-earth directness when he says, “That’s the life I lead, / Simple as a stone”. The life-style becomes as well a writing style, interacting with and simultaneously being conveyed by a suitable technical vehicle, itself simple and to the point. In the stanza immediately preceding the lines I’ve just quoted, we read the following:

Earlier today I cut thistles
Under the trees in the graveyard,
And washed my hands afterwards,
Sprinkling the sickle with water.

This seems like no big deal, and that’s precisely (literally) the point. What we have here is a kind of documentary telling, making no overt grandiose claims, and yet carefully modulated and shaped by a linked pattern of alliteration and assonance that is unobtrusive yet fitting (again literally, since everything fits). So “thistles” becomes “sickle” through “Sprinkling”; and “afterwards” provides a bridge between “washed” and “water”. These are not pyrotechnic technical displays, but subtle indicators of the way words and experience fit together in the text and in the world of everyday reality. Baxter’s use of the unrhymed sonnet form later in the volume, in the title sequence, is to serve the same purpose, miming a sense of unshowy control.

In the “Notes” section of the book, Baxter carries on his forthright approach by remarking that

Trees are trees, hills are hills, men are men … Yet it is precisely then that the right thought, the right response, springs out of the void of the heart …

One of the things so striking about Autumn Testament is exactly the rightness of it (as opposed to earlier wrongnesses). The prose passages of the “Notes” are more polemical than most other sections of the book, providing a neat counterpoint to the simple passion of the “Waiata” and the usually stark dignity of the “Testament”; but the same undeflectable directness pertains throughout.

The last referent in the “Notes” – the “ordinary wooden cross” on which Christ was killed – leads straight into the first fine poem of “Autumn Testament” itself, where “King Jesus” presides over a poem (and a world) in which the poet/protagonist becomes the sufferer, walking barefoot on the sharp stones of the hill outside Jerusalem. But “penance” and “dust” are not the only elements here: as well there is the “cool”, and the loud “humming” of the bees promising solace and sweetness, even fertility. This pattern of oscillation between opposites – pain and solace; light and darkness; peace and fear; sterility and fertility – forms the essential architectonic, both within individual sonnets and from one sonnet to another. Particularly striking is the collocation of the “bare slab” in the graveyard of poem 7 and the swelling “green walnuts” of poem 8 (which might seem laughable and ludicrous were it not for the sureness of the touch and the conviction of the voice). And again the whole poetic project is realised with the sharp attention to small details that validates the wider sweep of the verse, as in the following passage from poem 6:

A sense of danger in the room half dark,
Half lighted, seen through a squarish doorway,
Sticky rings left by cups on the table,
Darkness, the flutter of a moth … 

There’s no need any longer (as Baxter admits in poem 15) for “tongues of fire” to be brought to bear on the hapless reader, because the fundamental clarity of statement is effective enough. The poet is by this stage confident enough to rely on a simplicity that has nothing to do with naiveté (quite the contrary: it’s the complication evident in the earlier work that is naive). And, on the far side of complexity, when the apocalyptic gesture does occur (as, for instance, the “blood-red dove of Armageddon” in poem 17), it comes grounded in immediate concrete detail – the drunks gathering “at the Hungry Horse”, and Sharon ready to sell herself “at the corner with five sailors”. By the time we reach “the door of the underworld” in the last sonnet of the sequence, the process seems acceptable, right, and not just some cheap and hollow reiteration of book-learned myth (as it does too frequently in Baxter’s earlier work). And the book concludes with the magnificent “tail piece” (“Te Whiori O Te Kuri”) where the message is, once more, “So simple, tree, star, the bare cup of the hills …”.

In both of the volumes reviewed, Paul Millar’s editing is scrupulous and helpful throughout. The ancillary information is unobtrusive yet handy, the introductions and footnotes containing often illuminating material, as well as the standard references to Baxter’s notebooks. The editorial adjuncts are particularly appropriate for Beyond the Palisade, where (as far as I’m concerned, at least) the poems are of historical value rather than being intrinsically meritorious, and need all the extra help they can get! It’s noticeable, in fact, that if one compares the two volumes, the earlier one contains just over 50 pages of primary text, framed by 26 pages of introductory essay and 10 pages of appendix; whereas the later one has 19 pages of introductory essay and just 3 pages of glossary for its 67 pages of primary text.

Certainly Oxford University Press has come up with a couple of handsome small publications here, with attractive dust-jackets, a neat format with unfussy and clear typeface, and durable hard covers and binding. Already these volumes have sold remarkably well given that the texts have been readily available over a number of years in a number of forms. As an editor myself, attached to a press devoted to publishing new poetry by generally less established (and less deceased) writers, I might have preferred the money spent in producing these most recent Baxter volumes to have been deployed for newer material; but considering what’s happened to OUP poetry publishing in the one-time metropolitan centre, perhaps we should be grateful for any crumb that the antipodes can throw up.

In the end, I still don’t quite buy into the Baxter myth – though several people whom I admire do: but with work like Autumn Testament in front of us, it doesn’t seem to matter at all.

Rob Jackaman teaches in the English Department at the University of Canterbury and is Poetry Editor for Hazard Press.

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