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Remembering James K. Baxter

Discussion in 'Off Topic [BG]' started by Shakin-Slim, Oct 22, 2013.

  1. Shakin-Slim


    Jul 23, 2009
    Tokyo, Japan
    Today is the anniversary of James K. Baxter's death. It's likely that not many on TB will know Baxter. He was a poet from here in New Zealand who is still regarded by many as the country's most astonishing literary figure. Some of the world's literary critics consider his talent to have placed him amongst the later modernists - Auden, Spender etc - had he not been from this little colony. Of course, this is a catch-22 as he would not have been the poet he was without something unique that a life in a young colony with pasifist parents offers. He died in a gutter in Auckland on this day, 1972, aged 46.

    I discovered Baxter years ago, when I was in high school. English classes were boring (yet I'm currently finishing my 4th year of an English Lit degree - go figure), and there was a bookshelf in the class that had many of his collections. He's been a sort of beacon for me ever since.

    He was a bright talent from his first publication, Beyond the Palisade, at the age of 18 in 1944. He lived a life of contradictions - he would tell the nuns to loosen up and embrace youth more readily, and then tell the kids to get to church. He was a womaniser, an alcoholic and a devout Catholic.

    In 1969, Baxter became a sort of figurehead for NZ's counterculture. He received a vision at night of god telling him to go to Jerusalem and start a community. He knew that it wasn't Jerusalem of Israel/Palestine, but a very remote missionary outpost on the Wanganui River, transliterated in Maori as Hiruharama. From Jerusalem, Baxter was thought of as a national enigma, a man you could find, barefoot and bearded on any of NZ's roads at night, or at a party down the road, or speaking at a local church or university.

    He adopted the name Hemi, Maori for James, and built a community that learnt "from the Maori side of the fence."

    Sorry for the essay, but I felt the need to share the (horribly truncated) story of one of the last centuries greatest poets. NZ's literary world still feels the weight of Baxter, as if his ghost still inhabits the collective literary mind.

    I've attached a picture of Hemi at Jerusalem.
  2. Shakin-Slim


    Jul 23, 2009
    Tokyo, Japan
    The Cave

    In a hollow of the fields, where one would least expect it,
    Stark and suddenly this limestone buttress:
    A tree whose roots are bound about the stones,
    Broad-leaved, hide well the crevice at the base
    That leads, one guesses, to the sunless kingdom
    Where souls endure the ache of Proserpine.

    Entering where no man it seemed
    Had come before, I found a rivulet
    Beyond the rock door running in the dark.
    Where it sprang from the heart of the hill
    No one could tell: alone.
    It ran like Time there in the dank silence.

    I spoke once and my voice resounded
    Among the many pillars. Further in
    Were bones of sheep that strayed and died
    In nether darkness, brown and water-worn.
    The smell of earth was like a secret language
    That dead men speak and we have long forgotten.

    The whole weight of the hill hung over me.
    Gladly I would have stayed there and been hidden
    From every beast that moves beneath the sun,
    From age's enmity and love's contagion:
    But turned and climbed back to the barrier,
    Pressed through and came to dazzling daylight out.

    - James K. Baxter
  3. Shakin-Slim


    Jul 23, 2009
    Tokyo, Japan
    Wild Bees

    Often in summer, on a tarred bridge plank standing,
    Or downstream between willows, a safe Ophelia drifting
    In a rented boat - I had seen them comes and go,
    Those wild bees, swift as tigers, their gauze wings a-glitter
    In passionless industry, clustering black at the crevice
    Of a rotten cabbage tree, where their hive was hidden low

    But never strolled too near. Till one half-cloudy evening
    Of ripe January, my friends and I
    Came, gloved and masked to the eyes like plundering desperadoes,
    To smoke them out. Quiet beside the stagnant river
    We trod wet grasses down, hearing the crickets chitter
    And waiting for light to drain from the wounded sky.

    Before we reached the hive their sentries saw us
    And sprang invisible through the darkening air.
    Stabbed, and died in stinging. The hive woke. Poisonous fuming
    Of sulphur filled the hollow trunk, and crawling
    Blue flames sputtered - yet still their suicidal
    Live raiders dived and clung to our hands and hair.

    O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
    Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
    A job well botched. Half of the honey melted
    And half the rest young grubs. Through earth-black smoldering ashes
    And maimed bee groaning, we drew our plunder.
    Little enough their gold, and slight our joy.

    Fallen then the city of instinctive wisdom.
    Tragedy is written distinct and small:
    A hive burned on a cool night in summer.
    But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
    Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
    To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.

    - James K. Baxter

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