Published when he was only eighteen, his first book got him noticed right away; soon he became his nation’s leading poet, lecturing (and raising hackles) across the country. He changed his style drastically several times, becoming not just a celebrated literary man but the famous head of a scandalous commune, and a public voice for the dispossessed. A devout Catholic, he enjoyed a reputation as a libertine; a noted drinker, he became an apostle of Alcoholics Anonymous. A master of academic technique, he considered himself an heir to Scottish bards; he also embraced non-European folkways, renaming himself in a local language. His last publications made him his country’s closest answer at once to Dylan Thomas, to Robert Lowell, to Walt Whitman, and to Allen Ginsberg; his sudden death occasioned national mourning.
The poet is James K. Baxter (1926–1972), of New Zealand, and most Americans—no, most Americans who read modern poetry—have never heard of him. Why? New Zealand is far away and small; Baxter never visited the United States; parts of his work sound defiantly local, keyed to New Zealand’s social and political history, as Yeats keyed his work to Ireland’s. Other parts of Baxter’s work, though, belong to the international 1960s, with its embrace of intuition, its flight from institutions, its attention to the young. To read Baxter’s best poems is to enter an English-speaking culture that bears surprisingly little relation to the contexts most American readers know. It is also to enter a passionate, tormented psyche, and to find an original verbal world.
If Baxter poses barriers for non-Kiwis, his work also holds special pleasures for Americans. The fight for an original national voice, founded in part on local landscapes and seasons; tragic mid-century tapestries of Catholic symbols; “confessional” self-abasement; poems as tools for late-sixties radicalism; and the open-ended process-poem, meant to end when the poet’s life does—these in America represent separate generations, from Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Flannery O’Connor to Charles Olson and Adrienne Rich. Baxter moved through them all within twenty-five years. (You could argue that Lowell undertook a similar journey, but he’s about the only American who did.) Baxter’s sense of Original Sin, and his self-dramatizing drive towards humiliation—derived, if you like, from AA, or from Catholicism, or from his defiant life-history—set his poetry above almost all the others that took up, during the 1960s, one or another Utopian program: the way we behave and the way we ought to behave, our bad track record and our lofty hopes, remain simultaneously visible. (By contrast, American poets most associated with the late sixties—Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, Robert Bly, even Rich—tend to ascribe only the best intentions to themselves and their allies: it is, perhaps, a deeply American fault). American readers might find themselves ambivalent about Baxter’s late identification with native ways (“Maoritanga,” as they are collectively called); and yet I can’t think of a white American poet who has done or thought half as much, within his or her poetry, about any of our racial issues as Baxter tried to do with New Zealand’s.
As with many poets, the poems track the life. I’ve pulled details from Frank McKay’s slightly hagiographic Life of James K. Baxter; if capsule bios irk you, skip down to part two. Baxter’s mother Millicent grew up in an academic, Anglophile family on New Zealand’s South Island. His father Archie—of Scottish descent, little formal education, and fierce pacifist beliefs—ran a successful farm before being drafted into the First World War, then found himself jailed and tortured (in New Zealand and Europe) when he refused to fight. James and his older brother Terence (born 1922) spent semi-rural boyhoods on the South Island, and part of their teens in a Quaker boarding school in England; back home, James’s high school years (1940–43) coincided with the Second World War, when Terence, like his father, was imprisoned for refusing noncombatant service. The contrast between uncaring institutions and the defiant men who oppose them fires many of James’s poems:
When I was only semen in a gland
Or less than that, my father hung
From a torture post at Mud Farm
Because he would not kill. The guards
Fried sausages, and as the snow came darkly
I feared a death by cold in the cold groin
And plotted revolution. His black and swollen thumbs
Explained the brotherhood of man….
(Pig Island Letters, 1966)
Coming in 1944 to the University of Otago in Dunedin, Baxter distinguished himself as a pub crawler, and as the university’s best young poet; by the end of that year his first volume was in press. That book, Beyond the Palisade, made Baxter a big fish in a small—but churning—pond; the NZ poet-critic Allen Curnow made him the youngest author in an influential 1945 anthology, calling him “strong in impulse and confident in invention, with qualities of youth in verse which we have lacked.” Today the book, and the rest of Baxter’s forties verse, seems less original than it did to Curnow, though it is stunning as student work, revealing a young man’s quick assimilation of Thomas, Louis MacNeice, and
W. B. Yeats. One of the best of the 1940s poems, “Wild Bees,” remembers how Baxter and his boyhood friends torched a hive; its melodramatic, self-chastising announcements prefigure the acrid guilts of his adult life:
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 bees groaning, we drew out our plunder.
Little enough their gold, and slight our joy.
Baxter quit the university to work in an iron foundry, as a shepherd, and then at industrial jobs in Dunedin; there he met the university student Jacquie Sturm, and the pair fell in love. (Her Maori heritage would turn up in his later poems.) James and Jacquie moved in late 1947 to Christchurch, the South Island’s other university town; there Jacquie would finish her degree in psychology, and Baxter would resume his literary rise. (In the Christchurch university magazine, Baxter listed his address as “any pub.”) James and Jacquie married in 1948, then moved to the capital, Wellington, where James began training to teach elementary school. He also began to give lectures and write reviews: The Fallen House (1953) turned him from a rising star into a recognized literary light. In 1954, he joined AA, the first of the dramatic spiritual commitments that enter his later poems; the second came in 1957, when the poet announced that he planned to enter the Catholic Church. Separated from Jacquie, and from their two children, in 1958, James saw his first play produced, saw his first UK book (In Fires of No Return), and won a fellowship to Japan and India, ostensibly to research publications for teachers. (Jacquie rejoined him in Bombay, healing their split.) The poverty Baxter saw in India’s cities seemed to him to indict international capitalism, while the religious life in the villages gave him examples of ascetic vocations: he had, he wrote, “become almost unawares, a member of a bigger, rougher family.”
Back in Wellington, Baxter worked hard as a playwright, with national attention the result. “To an Adult Education Audience” (1963) asks his public “which of my selves do you want to eat?” Fed up with what he viewed as white-collar compromises, he left his job writing educational bulletins in 1963 and became a letter carrier. His postal routes, and New Zealand’s political climate (labor disputes and the nearby Vietnam War), inform the vigorous, cantankerous Pig Island Letters. A fellowship named for Robert Burns (one of his heroes) took him back to Dunedin’s university in 1966; there this outspokenly anti-academic poet wrote prose for Catholic newspapers, charmed students, involved himself in antiwar protests, and finished his last set of stage and radio plays. “On Possessing the Burns Fellowship 1966” showed Baxter hardly able to forgive the English and Scottish “hangmen and educators” who had built his collegiate “city of youth”:
If there is any culture here
It comes from the black south wind
Howling above the factories
A handsbreadth from Antartica,
Whatever the architect and planner
In April 1968 Baxter experienced a vision of Jerusalem—“not the city in Palestine, but the mission station on the Wanganui River.” He resolved to “go to Jerusalem without money or books,” “learn the spoken Maori” language, and “form the nucleus of a community where the people, both Maori and pakeha [European-descended] would try to live without money or books, worship God and work on the land.” In 1969 he did just that. First, however, he left Jacquie (and their new granddaughter) for Auckland, where he lived with junkies and hippies, seeing himself as their patron. Arriving at Jerusalem in September, he arranged with the local nunnery to use a cottage and build his commune, itself called Jerusalem (“Hiruharama” in Maori). The settlement crystallized the myth of his life, becoming a magnet for troubled youth, and an unintended tourist attraction. Baxter’s late poems describe his endeavors there: the first and most important batches appeared as Jerusalem Sonnets (1970), Jerusalem Daybook (1971), and Autumn Testament (1972). The poet built up the community he had imagined, but could not reconcile its antiestablishment ethos with the daily requirements of bookkeeping, maintenance, hygiene: he gave up in September 1971, traveling home to Wellington, but returned to Jerusalem in 1972 to try again with a smaller group of people. Again inspired, but physically exhausted, he finished a scary, resigned last set of poems (“The Tiredness of Me and Herakles,” “Ode to Auckland”) and died that October. Eight hundred people attended the funeral.
Baxter’s New Zealand profile remains far larger than life, larger perhaps than that of any living poet in the United States. A CD called Baxter, released in 2000 by National Radio (NZ’s equivalent of the BBC) presents twelve New Zealand artists singing the poet’s verse (among them Martin Phillipps of the Chills); the liner notes promise “it doesn’t get more Kiwi than this.” One of my students grew up in New Zealand; when I asked her what she thought of McKay’s Life, she answered, “How can you write a biography of a myth?” NZ poets now try to get out from under his shadow. Yet for all the cross-cultural, historical, travel-broadens-the-mind reasons to read Baxter—reasons which emphasize the distance between his New Zealand in 1958 or ’68 and America now—the best reasons have to do not with the politics or the history in the poetry, but with the poetry in the poetry: Baxter found sound and form for limitless anger, moral judgment, immanent religious feeling, and dramatic degradation, inventing a new kind of sonnet, even a new kind of line.
Baxter is a poet of fireworks and hammer-blows, of vaulting flights and searing wounds to pride, and of emphatic rhythmic effects to match. Poems rocket away from their first, sudden phrases: “I do not expect you to like it” (“The Millstones”). “An afternoon of spitting/ rain, teaching nothing” (“House Painting”). “There was a message. I have forgotten it./ There was a journey to make. It did not come to anything” (“Letter from the Mountains”). These openings, like most of his best before Jerusalem, sound negative, aggressive; the Jerusalem poems begin no less rapidly, but invite a pastoral calm: “The circle of the hills contains my house;/ The house contains the tribe”; “When the spokes fall out of the wagon one has to wait,/ Unyoke the horse, hope for the kindness of heaven” (“How to Fly by Standing Still”). Sometimes Baxter launches such opening phrases into sentences indefinitely prolonged, as if the poet’s life might end at the first full stop. He learned to adapt the English pentameter into propulsive five-and-six-beat lines designed for immediate force:
This humid morning half the
town is waking
Like Jonah in the belly of the whale,
Uncertain whether the light is light or else
A delusion of the blood.
Even in more deliberate, slower forms, Baxter liked to depict Dionysian wildness: his pre-1968 specialties include violent seascapes, jeremiads, and drinking songs. One of his better, lighter, self-portraits is “Tomcat” (1964):
He has no
dignity, thank God! has grown
older, scruffier, the ash-
black coat sporting one or two
flowers like round stars, badges
of bouts and fights.
Syllabics (each complete line has seven syllables) guide, but do not tame, the poem, which ends: “They said,/ ‘Get him doctored.’
I think not.”
Few poets start out so skillful, and Baxter did not: his early writings borrowed the stanzas of W. B. Yeats, the heated sexual symbolisms of Dylan Thomas, the knowing pronouncements of the early Auden, and the clangorous aural shapes of the young Lowell. By the time of his return from India he had found clearer routes for his own thought and feeling, discovering (with help from Lowell’s Life Studies) a less ornate way to map his anger and bitterness. Take “Fishermen” (1962):
I invent nothing.
Those men in oilskins
Won’t ever stagger up the beach
And drop their bundles. Those who believed
Only in the sea and themselves—
Norwegian Maoris—one was dragged down
When his gumboots filled;
Struck the sandbar at low tide,
Drunk, with a load of fish and manuka.
(Manuka are leaves from which oil and honey are made; the dead sailors—themselves Lowellesque—are “Norwegian Maoris” because they are native New Zealanders who try to conquer the rough sea.)
Though Baxter enjoyed (and described) landscapes, travel, and sex, to flip through his most accomplished pre-1969 poems is to travel through often choppy waters of blame and gloom. (If you want happier poems, skip down to part three.) As in Lowell, existential outrage and political angst seem to merge, and people look worse the more we compare them to animals. The diminutive lizards in “Election 1960” “dodge among the burnt broom stems// As if the earth belonged to them/ Without condition,” while “in the polling booths// A democratic people have elected/ King Log, King Stork, King Log, King Stork again.” Drawn to rebels and extremes, Baxter complained in 1967 that his Kiwi democracy would never see revolution—
We are not that kind of people;
We have learnt to weigh each word like an ounce of butter;
Our talent is for anger and monotony—
Therefore we will survive the singers,
The fighters, the so-called lovers—we will bury them
Regretfully, and spend a whole wet Sunday
Arguing whether the corpses were dressed in black or red.
From a life of frustrations death might seem a welcome escape. Though he seems never to have approached suicide (unless you count self-destructive heavy drinking), Baxter long believed, with Plath-like intensity, in the supremacy of the Freudian death wish: he remembered his adolescent self as a “sad boy,” “thoughts crusted with ice,” “who having no/ hope did not blow out his brains.” “East Coast Journey” (1963) shows a pleasant-enough coastline until the “voice of the sea” arrives and explains:
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
Flashing and glimmering at the edge of the horizon.
The nightmarish, motherly ocean looks startling enough; the lines stand out even more for their triple rhythms (arms of the eat-er of life, teeth of ob- sid– ian), into which the name of the Maori death goddess fits.
Baxter also attracted attention for rhyming political verse, modeled on Robert Burns, Yeats, and eighteenth-century broadsheets. “A Rope for Harry Fat” (1956) denounced the death penalty. “Ballad of the Three Monkeys” (1963) took on unemployment:
Down to the Wharf Commission I went
(A bag of nails and a union card)
For a regular job on the waterfront
(And the cash would have come in handy).
These poems remain fun, and surprisingly few sound dated: they take place in separate styles, separate universes, from the more personal Baxter whose unrhymed stanzas followed, “like salt and fresh inside me/ The opposing currents of my life and death,” and whose recurring characters were not prime ministers and union organizers, but his wife, close male friends, Jonah, the Virgin Mary, and Rhadamanthus, the classical judge of the dead.
“All/ Knowledge, my son, is knowledge of the Fall,” Baxter imagined his “inward guardian” announcing in a 1962 poem. Yet Baxter also gave voice to a kind of freedom, adapting Arthur Rimbaud and Catullus, or playing the Yeatsian wild old wicked man. A poem of 1967 shows him in a moment of relative calm:
To clean up after the party, emptying
Five ash-trays, washing the wooden plates,
Scouring the sink where someone has vomited,
Putting the screen up in front of the fire—
And afterwards to have a smoke, go out
And see the low grey shapeless clouds move
Above the Phys. Ed. building—I can only
Describe it as a form of prayer,
Because it is necessary. Without it I would not
Understand the joy that father Jonah had
In the whale’s belly—all but ashamed
To be cut off from human sadness,
Brawls, hopes, and the sexual rigmarole,
So quietly carried in the belly of what is not
That I would wish, if it were possible,
No other light, no other heaven.
All this brings us to Jerusalem—that is, to the last four years of his life, which make up a quarter of his Collected Poems, and represent his peak. Jerusalem Sonnets, and its several sequels, are documents of late-sixties communal life, of the back-to-Eden attitude which distinguished those years from our own. They show Baxter digging and planting, kneeling and praying, running interference with priests and nuns, trying to learn from Maori elders and to incorporate spoken Maori into his own written work. They show his habitual self-confidence and his learned (or not quite learned) humility: “when the wind flutters round my chest/ It seems to say, ‘Now, now don’t be proud that you are poor!’” And they show his often generous, occasionally erotic, frequently comic dealings with the young men and women who organized themselves around him, the group he called “Ngati-Hiruharama” (“Jerusalem tribe”) and “nga mokai” (“the fatherless”). Given the personality and the life they record, the writings from those years would be worth reading even if they were not works of great verbal power.
Fortunately they are. Here is the nineteenth sonnet of Autumn Testament—not the single best, but a good introduction to the whole:ll this brings us to Jerusalem—that is, to the last four years of his life, which make up a quarter of his Collected Poems, and represent his peak. Jerusalem Sonnets, and its several sequels, are documents of late-sixties communal life, of the back-to-Eden attitude which distinguished those years from our own. They show Baxter digging and planting, kneeling and praying, running interference with priests and nuns, trying to learn from Maori elders and to incorporate spoken Maori into his own written work. They show his habitual self-confidence and his learned (or not quite learned) humility: “when the wind flutters round my chest/ It seems to say, ‘Now, now don’t be proud that you are poor!’” And they show his often generous, occasionally erotic, frequently comic dealings with the young men and women who organized themselves around him, the group he called “Ngati-Hiruharama” (“Jerusalem tribe”) and “nga mokai” (“the fatherless”). Given the personality and the life they record, the writings from those years would be worth reading even if they were not works of great verbal power.
The bodies of the young are not the flower,
As some may imagine—it is the soul
Struggling in an iron net of
To become itself, to learn to love well,
To nourish the Other—when Mumma came from the bin
With scars from the wrist to the shoulder,
They combed her hair and put their arms around her
Till she began to blossom. The bread she baked for us
Was better kai than you’d get in a restaurant
Because her soul was in it. The bread we share in the churches
Contains a Christ nailed up in solitude,
And all our pain is to be crystal vases,
As if the mice were afraid of God the cat
Who’d plunge them into hell for touching one another.
(“Kai”: food, meal; “Bin”: loony bin, asylum.) The poem typifies late Baxter in recording the commune’s daily life, praising Christ, attacking social divisions, and placing stark declarations of purpose—announcements about God, love, and the soul—right beside unpredictable metaphor. Those announcements may raise hackles with urbane readers, fans of James Merrill or John Ashbery; yet this confident, unguarded manner, risking preachiness to make clear each thought, seems to me an original, achieved style, as suited to Baxter’s charismatic sensibility as Ashbery’s involutions are suited to his.
Baxter’s new life at Jerusalem gave him what many sixties poets sought: some way to stand outside the Western, urban, industrial systems he denounced. Yet Baxter never repudiated syntax, allusion, or other Western techniques as he chronicled his new life: instead he made them work for him. The sonnets’ interdependence of concentration and abandon, of self-abnegation and conscious control, describes not only Baxter’s Jerusalem style, but the attitude he had to adopt as the commune’s de facto leader, the man who kept it—or tried to keep it—welcoming and minimally sanitary. On the one hand, he wished to abandon secular life, even to give up his own will: “Let the Maker of rainbows and mountains do what He wishes/ With this poor idiot, this crab in His beard.” On the other hand, he had new obligations:
The kids here don’t shout out, “Jesus!”
Or “Hullo, Moses!” as they did in Auckland
When they saw my hair—these ones are too polite—
They call me Mr Baxter when they bring the milk;
I almost wish they didn’t; but Sister has them well trained—
And soon she wants me to give them a talk about drugs…
The dual roles of penitent and authority figure, of recluse and superstar, exhausted, even destroyed him, and Baxter’s verse could welcome the destruction. He saw himself not as a fisher of men but as rod, reel, and bait, using himself up in a self-denying joy for which he gathered homely figures: “They say it is best// To break a rotten egg in the creek/ To get eels—I think I am that egg.”
You don’t have to be religious (much less Catholic) to appreciate the later Baxter, but you do have to appreciate Baxter’s religion—half would-be asceticism, half service to those in need, with a tinge of antinomianism too. His Christ is “the only Master,” yet He is “incurably domestic,” “An only son with a difficult mother” who “has saddled me again/ With the cares of a household,” a “Joker who won’t let me shuffle my own pack.” Often Baxter pushes guilt over First World citizenship, over the privilege of leisure and literacy, over his half-abandoned hopes for distinction (as artist or righteous man or saint) until it becomes guilt about being alive at all: “The wish to climb a ladder to the loft/ Of God dies hard in us”; “Some lightness will come later/ When the heart has lost its unjust hope// For special treatment.” Baxter even referred to himself in Maori, as Hemi (James) or “te tutua” (“nobody”), as if to give up the privilege of English names.
If you hear Baxter’s contrition as slightly stagy, his humility as forced, you may be right. His poems acknowledge as much. Baxter enjoyed—nobody has captured it better—the gesture of giving up, or of refusing, distinctions and powers one used to command, and of demonstrating those powers even while doing so. (Think of Prospero drowning his books.) These renunciations, as his poems track them, sometimes look like generous gifts to other people, sometimes like sacrifices before Christ, and sometimes like signs of despair. Written after the failure of his first settlement, before the start of the second, “He Waiata mo Tana” (“Song for Tana”) presents itself as a poem of repudiation, giving up on all Baxter’s vocations in a concussive lament derived from the 137th Psalm:
Grey and muddy the waters of Babylon
Flowing out of the broken hills,
The river serpent swollen with proud silt
Pushed down his gullet by our fires and our machines,
But the willow branches, green for the tangi,
Delicately flourish on the banks—
I have hung my harp there, the harp I made
Long ago, in a different time—
The wind can pluck the strings, and I
Am a stranger to myself, e Tana,
No longer a man of words, no longer
The master of the rostrum, but a man without a name
Lamenting for the fallen village of Zion
Into whose doors and windows the knuckles of bramble are growing.
(“Tangi”: funeral, or funereal cry.) Baxter did not remain long in such unrelieved moods. More frequently he presents his exhaustion as healing, even holy, and tries to make jokes of it: “The little flies that rustle on my collar/ Mistake me, no doubt, for a parcel of dead meat.// They like my stringy hair.”
If Baxter’s drama lay in lowering himself, it lay also in elevating the fallen—appreciating people, places, even animals and vegetables, elsewhere overlooked or disparaged, from Mumma to “the small grey cloudy louse that nests in my beard” (crab lice are recurrent figures in Jerusalem Sonnets) to a more appetizing “sprig of wet wild mint/ That should go well tomorrow with the potatoes.” Sonnet 27 from Autumn Testament remembers his time in Auckland. Here it is, whole, from the journalistic first eight lines to the thunder-and-lightning final phrase:
When I stayed those three months at Macdonald
In the house of Lazarus, three tribes were living
In each of the storeys—on the ground floor, the drunks
Who came there when the White Lodge burnt down;
Above them, the boobheads; and scattered between the first
And second storey, the students who hoped to crack
The rock of education. The drunks are my own tribe.
On Sunday, the pubs being shut, they held a parliament
In the big front room—Lofty with his walking stick,
Phil the weeper, Taffy who never spoke much,
And one or two others—in conclave they sat, like granite columns
Their necks, like Tritons their faces,
Like tree-roots their bodies. Sober as Rhadamanthus
They judged the town and found it had already been judged.
You can admire the poem for its sincere praise of the drunks’ circle, a serious parody of the AA meetings on which Baxter earlier relied. (“Boobheads,” writes the lexicographer Tony Deverson, in NZ are “chronic recidivists,” especially those who want to return to jail.) You can also admire—once you notice them—the interplay of long and short sentences, or the hammering hexameters, with their grim resolution in the last two lines (stress falls on “judged” twice).
The casual feel of the late verse, with its stretched-out lines and associative movement, reflects Baxter’s (impossible) desire to write poems which were both less (because less finished, less premeditated) and more (because more consequential, or more sincere) than works of art. Nor did he confine that desire to sonnets—take, for example, his 1972 sestinas. With six six-line stanzas, each with the same six end-words, the sestina form normally connotes frustration, rigidity, circular motion. Baxter made it suggest ease instead. “Sestina to Frank McKay” begins:
The winds of spring are starting
Even in June to blow
From a wild sky, and round this house
Where a cat sleeps on a bed
And my friends bring me in some kai,
Goat chops roasted a bit too much
In our family oven. But that’s not much
To gripe about. When we were starting
Here we often had no kai
Except onion, and the rain would blow
Through broken windows. Now I lie on a bed
In what the cops would call my house
Though it is in fact a Maori house
Under the wing of the marae too much
For many to like it.
(“Marae”: meeting-ground of a tribe; tribal council.) The alternating guilt and pride, the self-accusation and the sense of freedom, that animate the sonnets work almost as well here. I do not expect you to like all of Baxter, nor even all the poems from the Jerusalem years (though his sets of sonnets make beautiful wholes). The 1988 paperback Collected Poems, edited by John Weir, tops 650 pages—longer than the standard edition of Yeats’s verse, if not for the latter’s long notes. (Baxter’s Collected Plays is a separate book; Collected Prose would be hefty if it existed.) Baxter rarely stopped writing, and he composed far more than he chose to publish: seven full books of previously-uncollected verse saw print in New Zealand after Baxter died, with more new poems revealed in the Collected. Baxter offers the pleasures peculiar to prolific talents (you can read him for years and still find overlooked gems) along with the disadvantages (some poems repeat one another; some are just bad). The sheer amplitude of his work (and the often derivative nature of its first half) means that though we should be glad a Collected Poems is now in print in America (thanks, Oxford University Press!), that mountain of a book makes a hard place to start. Better to begin, if you can, with New Selected Poems (published by Oxford Australia-New Zealand, edited by Paul Millar), or even with Weir’s slim Essential Baxter.
“Poems and stories,” Baxter wrote in 1956, “are not pills, manifestos, or blueprints of Utopia, but ways of coming at life, as private as a kiss and as public as a morgue.” By the Jerusalem years he had become at once humbler and more ambitious: the poems warm themselves at “the flame of non-possession// That burns now and always in the heart of the tribe.” Baxter believed—as Americans like to say—that his poetry could “make a difference,” and that he as a poet could save at least a bit of his nation; he grew increasingly ambitious, and increasingly rueful, about the part he played. Late poems addressed, and apologized to, the Father, the Son, Baxter’s wife, children, friends, country, even the Maori source of life and death, “the dark unknowable breast/ Of Te Whaea, the One who bears us and bears with us.” The last word on how to hear Baxter might come instead from a sonnet addressed to Satan (“Hatana” in Maori), which also speaks to Baxter’s posthumous readers: “you sift and riddle my mind// On the rack of the middle world, and from my grave at length/ A muddy spring of poems will gush out.”