James K. Baxter


After the wake and speeches, when the guests in black
Had with the charm of ordinariness
Dispelled the gross terror of a fellow dead
(Eyelid grown waxen, the body like a sack
Bundled into the tomb) and the women with their mindless
Ritual of grief had murmured abroad all that could be said –

Then, as the world resumed its customary
Mask of civil day, he came, too late to mend
The broken vase (a cracked one could have been mended)
God’s image blackened by causality.
And the woman said, “Since he was called your friend,
Why did you not come then? Now it is ended.”

And when, the army blanket of grey earth
Put off, Lazarus from the cave mouth stumbled
(Hand, foot and mouth yet bound in mummy cloth)
To the sun’s arrow, furnace of rebirth –
What could they do but weep? infirm and humbled
By Love not their love, more to be feared than wrath.

– James K. Baxter, who died on this day, 45 years ago.

You can read more about Baxter here, and more of his poetry here.

‘The Christmas Meditation of Concrete Grady’

McCahon - NOUGHTS AND CROSSES, SERIES 2, NO. 2, 1976An old song of the music hall
I will sing, or none at all,
Though women lift their noses high
When I haul out to cool my throat
A bottle from my overcoat
And say a word to make their feathers fly.

On the hills above Kaitangata
A cord of old man manuka,
I cut it in a day.
Then I got my cheque and bummed a ride to town
For a pan of eels and a woman and a shakedown
And sold my traps for a bucket of White Lady.

Mad McAra, John O’Hara,
Swagger Joe and my dry father
In the marble orchard lie.
Their ghosts at daybreak in my room
Beckoning with a wicked thumb
Ask me for a bottle of White Lady.

When I was kneehigh to a gander
I learnt to fart against the thunder;
Big Mother Joseph broke her cane on me.
When the white Host rides in air
I bend my head and say a prayer
For that old harridan hot in Purgatory.

A burning orphan in the night
I took a wander by starlight
To where the Child in a loosebox lay –
‘Concrete Grady is my name
And I’ll be damned,’ I said to Him;
‘Then I’ll be damned Myself,’ said He to me.

– James K. Baxter

‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’, by James K. Baxter

Elicited by the decision of the Otago University authorities to forbid this practice among students

Dunedin nights are often cold
(I notice it as I grow old);
The south wind scourging from the Pole
Drives every rat to his own hole,
Lashing the drunks who wear thin shirts
And little girls in mini-skirts.
Leander, that Greek lad, was bold
To swim the Hellespont raging cold
To visit Hero in her tower
Just for an amorous half-hour.
And lay his wet brine-tangled head
Upon her pillow – Hush! The dead
Can get good housing – Thomas Bracken,
Smellie, McLeod, McColl, McCracken,
A thousand founding fathers lie
Well roofed against the howling sky
In mixed accommodation – Hush!
It is the living make us blush
Because the young have wicked hearts
And blood to swell their private parts.
To think of corpses pleases me;
They keep such perfect chastity.
O Dr Williams, you were right
To shove the lovers out of sight;
Now they can wander half the night
Through coffee house and street and park
And fidget in the dripping dark,
While we play Mozart and applaud
The angel with the flaming sword!
King Calvin in his grave will smile
To know we know that man is vile;
But Robert Burns, that sad old rip
From whom I got my Fellowship
Will grunt upon his rain-washed stone
Above the empty Octagon,
And say – ‘O that I had the strength
To slip yon lassie half a length!
Apollo! Venus! Bless my ballocks!
Where are the games, the hugs, the frolics?
Are all you bastards melancholics?
Have you forgotten that your city
Was founded well in bastardry
And half your elders (God be thankit)
Were born the wrong side of the blanket?
You scholars, throw away your books
And learn your songs from lasse’s looks
As I did once – ‘Ah, well; it’s grim;
But I will have to censor him.
He liked to call a spade a spade
And toss among the glum and staid
A poem like a hand grenade –
And I remember clearly how
(Truth is the only poet’s vow)
When my spare tyre was half this size,
With drumming veins and bloodshot eyes
I blundered through the rain and sleet
To dip my wick in Castle street.
Not on the footpath – no, in a flat,
With a sofa where I often sat,
Smoked, drank, cursed, in the company
Of a female student who unwisely
Did not mind but would pull the curtain
Over the window – And did a certain
Act occur? It did. It did.
As Byron wrote of Sennacherib –
‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold’ –
But now, at nearly forty-two,
An inmate of the social zoo,
Married, baptized, well heeled, well shod,
Almost on speaking terms with God,
I intend to save my moral bacon
By fencing the young from fornication!
Ah, Dr Williams, I agree
We need more walls at the Varsity;
The students who go double-flatting
With their she-catting and tom-catting
Won’t ever get a pass in Latin;
The moral mainstay of the nation
Is careful, private masturbation;
A vaseline jar or a candle
Will drive away the stink of scandal!
The Golden Age will come again –
Those tall asthenic bird-like men
With spectacles and lecture notes,
Those girls with wool around their throats
Studying till their eyes are yellow
A new corrupt text of Othello,
Vaguely agnostic, rationalist,
A green banana in each fist
To signify the purity
Of educational ecstasy –
And, if they marry, they will live
By the Cardinal Imperative:
A car, a fridge, a radiogram,
A clean well-fitted diaphragm,
Two-and-a-half children per
Family; to keep out thunder
Insurance policies for each;
A sad glad fortnight at the beach
Each year, when Mum and Dad will bitch
From some half-forgotten itch –
Turn on the lights! – or else the gas!
If I kneel down like a stone at Mass
And wake my good wife with bad dreams,
And scribble verse on sordid themes,
At least I know man was not made
On the style of a slot-machine arcade –
Almost, it seems, the other day,
When Francis threw his coat away
And stood under the palace light
Naked in the Bishop’s sight
To marry Lady Poverty
In folly and virginity,
The angels laughed – do they then weep
Tears of blood if two should sleep
Together and keep the cradle warm?
Each night of earth , though the wind storm
Black land behind, white sea in front,
Leander swims the Hellespont;
To Hero’s bed he enters cold;
And he will drown; and she grow old –
But what they tell each other there
You’ll not find in a book anywhere.



– James K. Baxter, ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’ in Collected Poems (ed. John Edward Weir; Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1979), 396–99.

‘The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune’: A Review

the-double-rainbowJohn Newton, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009). 224 pages. ISBN: 9780864736031. Review copy courtesy of Victoria University Press.

John Newton’s engaging book, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, examines the Ngāti Hau community that Aotearoa’s best-known poet James K. Baxter was instrumental in establishing at Hiruhārama, on the Whanganui River – ‘the country’s first and most influential experiment in “hippie” communalism’ (p. 38). As Newton notes in his Introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori … but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place-names and a great deal of plunder’. Pākehā culture’s material dominance was accompanied by an arrogance and ethnocentrism which left it spiritually impoverished.

He cites Baxter:

‘Ko te Maori te tuakna. Ko te Pakeha te teina …’ The Maori [sic] is indeed the elder brother and the Pakeha [sic] the younger brother. But the teina has refused to learn from the tuakana. He has sat sullenly among his machines and account books, and wondered why his soul was full of bitter dust …

And then offers the following commentary:

The cost was everywhere to be seen, but nowhere more plainly than among urban youth. For Baxter, their wholesale disaffection was a realistic verdict on the society they had inherited, a mainstream culture whose spiritlessness and meanness – to say nothing of its arrogance towards its neighbours – deserved no better. In the Māori world, by contrast, and particularly in Māori communalism, he believed he could see an alternative to this atomised majority culture – a system of values that answered to the longings and frustrations that he recognised, both in himself and in the young people around him. To establish an alternative Pākehā community that could ‘learn from the Maori side of the fence’ was to help restore, symbolically, the mana of the tangata whenua and to begin to resuscitate a Pākehā culture that was choking to death on its own materialism. (pp. 11–12)

Such constitutes the earth from which a functioning intentional community at Hiruhārama budded, a community made up largely of those for whom mainstream Aotearoan society meant fatherlessness.

While concerned to not diminish Baxter’s part in the formation of the Ngā Mōkai community but rather to place it in the context of a larger ‘utopian experiment’ (p. 88) he initiated, Newton seeks to ‘offer a stronger account of what Baxter achieved at Jerusalem by bringing into focus its collaborative dimension’ (p. 16). He properly contends that what the 41-year-old Baxter set in motion, and towards which the baby-boomer ‘orphanage’ of the damaged which was his living poetry bore witness to, was something considerably bigger than Baxter himself, and that the unique cohabitation and set of cultural negotiations which was embodied in the Whanganui River communities (particularly Ngāti Hau, Ngā Mōkai, the church – which was ‘threaded through the life of the river’ (p. 59) – and the Sisters of Compassion) draw attention to implications far beyond both Baxter or to the communities themselves. This, of course, is of the essence of Baxter himself, that before he was a hippie, he was ‘a Catholic, a Christian humanist, and an aspiring Pākehā-Māori’ (p. 36), he was a poet-prophet charged not simply with interpreting the social environment which he inhabited, but of actively improving it, of giving material shape to it. The book is loosely divided into three main sections: an introductory phase that addresses the pre-history of the community and Baxter’s first year of residence; a middle section that covers its heyday; and a downstream phase that describes the community’s various offshoots, and considers its legacy. The result – for the reader prepared to follow the narrative – is the stripping away of ‘cultural safety’.

Newton details further upon what we know of Baxter from other places while eloquently introducing us to a host of other equally-fascinating characters – Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, pā women Dolly, Alice, Lizzie and Wehe (who are often remembered as ‘substitute’ mothers (p. 89)), Aggie Nahona, and Denis O’Reilly among them. He also highlights Baxter’s visionary kinship with French-born nun Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert with whom he shared ‘a staunch commitment to Māori, and to spiritual love as the first principle of a hands-on social mission’ (p. 45). Newton argues that this part of Baxter’s history ‘doesn’t get acknowledged in Baxter’s rhetorical point-scoring at the expense of the mainstream church. Without it, however, his own Jerusalem “orphanage” would never have eventuated. In one sense the debt is symbolic or poetic: the presence of the church at Jerusalem draws te taha Māori into dialogue with the other key spiritual driver of his later career, namely his Catholic faith … Baxter brought his showmanship, and his personal (some might argue, narcissistic) sense of mission. But he also brought with him – embodied, or enacted – the self-interrogation and social radicalisation that had seized hold of the Catholic Church globally in the wake of Vatican II. After the Berrigans and the draft card burnings, after liberation theology, what did the Christian mission imply in the context of ongoing colonial injustice?’ (pp. 46, 47)

Jerusalem was Baxter’s riposte to all those Pākehā institutions – the churches, the university, the nuclear family and so on – whose lack of heart and small-minded materialism were now failing Pākehā youth in the same way that Pākehā culture had always failed Maori. In looking for a remedy for the failings of Pākehā society, he found his prime inspiration in the communitarian virtues that he saw among Māori: aroha, mahi, kōrero, manuhiritanga. This was ‘learn[ingJ from the Maori side of the fence’: his community was to be modelled on the marae. Of course, in offering this open door the commune depended entirely on the hospitality of Ngāti Hau … But the commune was not just a place to live – a material shelter for whomever happened to be there … it was also a piece of political theatre. And the commune’s significance as a political intervention depended for its fullest expression on publicity: it was intended, at least in part, to be a spectacle, a City on a Hill! At the same time, it was integral to the kaupapa that it be open to all comers. This was the paradox that Baxter was confronted by: the more effectively this vision was communicated, the more would it lead to a pressure of numbers that would overwhelm the commune’s own capacity to provide for itself, and which eventually must wear out the patience of the local community. (p. 65)

Yet Newton is at pains to point out throughout his study that Hiruhārama is bigger than Baxter. Indeed, the bulk of the book is given to defending and illustrating this thesis, that Hiruhārama after Baxter entered into a period of unforeseen maturity, and particularly the maturity of its relationship with the pā. Community life under Greg Chalmers’ leadership may have been less eventful, but those years from 1972 do more to fulfil Baxter hopes of regenerative partnerships than those prior.

Two chapters are concerned with articulating the events birthed following the final closure of the community at Hiruhārama, and to highlighting that while a distinctive phase of the Ngā Mōkai narrative had reached its end, its impulse didn’t die with the community itself. Newton draws attention to a network of loosely affiliated houses – from flats and private homes, to crashpads and urban shelters, to far-flung intentional communities – which functioned as homes-away-from-home for a diasporic Ngā Mōkai whānau, a ‘network of initiatives which imported the Jerusalem kaupapa back into urban contexts’ (p. 154), and there ‘offering a dispersed community the chance of reconnection, reaffirmation and renewal’ (p. 164). He recalls Hiruhārama’s various germinations at Reef Point, Wharemanuka and Whenuakura. ‘With the shutting of the original commune, these “shoots of the kumara vine” [became] the focus of the Ngā Mōkai story. It’s here, in this ramshackle archipelago, that those who had been touched by Jerusalem attempted to keep alive the kaupapa’ (p. 131).

The penultimate chapter, ‘Baxter’s Wake’, re-spotlights Baxter, and is given to argue that Baxter’s literary legacy and his social legacy are ‘shoots of the same vine’ (p. 169):

‘Jerusalem’ was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment. In his burial on the river we find Baxter the poet and the Baxter the activist inextricably entwined. This integration was precisely his ambition, and the fact he achieved it is what makes these events still resonate. (p. 171)

So Newton appropriately accentuates Baxter’s formulation of the poet’s ethical task to be no mere interpreter of society but one who endeavours to make society more just. ‘It is this sense of embodied ethics … which leaps into focus when we think about Jerusalem’ (p. 179).

The Double Rainbow is the fruit of an incredibly-impressive amount of extensive and laborious research. Newton commendably resists romanticising Baxter, Baxter’s vision, or the Ngāti Hau ‘classroom’ itself. Those engaged in Baxter’s work and who want to better understand his Jerusalem Daybook or are interested in his biography, those seeking to understand, assess and inform Aotearoa’s multi-cultural, historical and spiritual landscape, those wanting to listen and to speak intelligently into contemporary debates about the relationship between government authorities and badge-wearing gangs carving out their own neo-tribal identity, and, more broadly, to a nation fascinated with re-carving a new national identity which buries settler mono-culturalism in its wake, and those devoted to the challenging work of inspiring, creating, leading, building, replanting and closing local and grassroots communities will be well-served to have Newton’s essay in hand. An invaluable and timely record, it is also certain to inform, impress and inspire.

James K. Baxter: ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’

Wild Goose

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
You warm him gently, you give him life,
You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the mother eagle with her young,
Holding them in peace under your feathers.
On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
You bring us to our Brother Jesus
To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
In the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your songs in the hearts of the poor
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.

– James K. Baxter, ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’, in Collected Poems (ed. John Edward Weir; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 572.

James K. Baxter: ‘Letter from the Mountains’

Hemi at Jerusalem

Hemi at Jerusalem

Letter from the Mountains

There was a message. I have forgotten it.
There was a journey to make. It did not come to anything.
But these nights, my friend, under the iron roof
Of this old rabbiters’ hut where the traps
Are still hanging up on nails,
Lying in a dry bunk, I feel strangely at ease.
The true dreams, those longed-for strangers,
Begin to come to me through the gates of horn.

I will not explain them. But the city, all that other life
In which we crept sadly like animals
Through thickets of dark thorns, haunted by the moisture of women,
And the rock of barren friendship, has now another shape.
Yes, I thank you. I saw you rise like a Triton,
A great reddish gourd of flesh,
From the sofa at that last party, while your mistress smiled
That perfect smile, and shout as if drowning—
‘You are always—’
                        Despair is the only gift;
When it is shared, it becomes a different thing; like rock, like water;
And so you also can share this emptiness with me.

Tears from faces of stone. They are our own tears.
Even if I had forgotten them
The mountain that has taken my being to itself
Would still hang over this hut, with the dead and the living
Twined in its crevasses. My door has forgotten how to shut.

The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune

the-double-rainbowLast night saw the launch of John Newton’s new book, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, which examines the commune that New Zealand’s best-known poet James K. Baxter was instrumental in establishing at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River.

The book was lauched by Lydia Wevers in Wellington at Unity Books. Here’s what she said:

‘In his introduction John says he was fractionally too young at fifteen to have known Baxter or been part of the commune at Jerusalem, yet it is his book which makes sense of that world to me. I wasn’t too young. I encountered Baxter first as a poet – he was the NZ poet when I came to university in 1968. I loved his richly metaphorical formalist poems, his essays and broadsheets and later Autumn Testament and the Jerusalem Sonnets. He embodied, for me and for many other people, the spirit of the age. Baxter was a frequent presence at Vic, at student meetings, round campus, at class. It was said that when he needed money he rang Frank McKay, our NZ lit lecturer and later Baxter’s biographer, and arranged to teach a class. I remember one 8am lecture when he recited an ode he’d written on the way to class which began with the petrol station at the far end of the Viaduct. Even more excitingly he borrowed my watch-I kept it for years after it stopped working because of that. Soon after he died I was marking first year exam papers, and a number of them were dedicated to Hemi – the emotions of his death marked the end of 1972 in a way that I have never forgotten.

But this book The Double Rainbow is not a book about Baxter in a biographical or personal way. John calls it a ‘work of cultural history which aspires to be a work of bicultural history’ which is his typically modest way of describing what is a really remarkable achievement. Like the story it tells, this is a book inspired by Baxter but not contained by him.

First I want to say-this is a brave book. In February 1969 Thomas Wallace was chopping firewood when ‘a bare-footed, bearded Pakeha emerged from the mist’. This is how John described Baxter’s first appearance at Jerusalem & though John is not barefoot or bearded it made me think about the courage it takes to really engage with another culture. There are very very few scholars in Aotearoa who have attempted real bicultural work. Lots of people, myself included, have discussed Maori history or literature from a Pakeha point of view. But to try to see from the other side of the river requires courage, openness, and the willingness to actually learn something hard and new. Baxter could do that, and so did some of his followers. Ngati Hau did it and so did the sisters at the convent. And now so has John. I think it’s a remarkable achievement.

The second thing I want to say is what a huge amount of work has gone into this book. You can see it in the list of acknowledgements, and its contextual depth. From the ancient eel weirs of the Whanganui to what happened after Baxter died, the book provides a deep and rich slice into a particular place and what has happened there. John has journeyed the length and breadth of Aotearoa, to say nothing of the river, to talk to participants. He has spent months at Jerusalem talking to iwi and to the sisters at the convent. He has read the considerable number of books written about the river, intentional communities, the commune and Baxter – the result is a book that will take its place as a new and adventurous history and also as a cultural analysis that might tell us something about what we should do now. In a way it’s a call to action. Part of what is so striking about this story of Baxter and the diverse community that surrounded him is the loving-kindness and generosity that emerged between cultures, between generations, between city and country and between the pa and the Top House. John makes the point that there were many economic and social transactions that took place – gifts of food for gifts of work – but what struck me most was the way that something happened there, suggested also by what happened at Baxter’s tangi, that briefly transcended the fears and anxieties and moral failings that keeps most people living in the circles of their own skulls. What John’s book reveals, in the voices of the people who lived in it and through his own lucid prose, is something bigger than the people who took part in it.

Before The Double Rainbow the prevailing idea, as John points out and in my own idea of it, was that Jerusalem was Baxter. There’s no doubt that Baxter was visionary and charismatic. But what his vision resulted in was the product of many people – the old ladies at the pa and the Ngati Hau leaders are crucial, as were the sisters at the convent and the remarkable and saintly Father Te Awhitu – there are too many people for me to name and anyway they are in the book. But their collective story is a very powerful one – it is touching and charming but also inspiring – the way the pa educated the influx of city pakeha in tikanga and kaupapa, so they could be part of what happened on the marae. In this book the most remarkable generosity is that of the iwi, as Baxter noted, the tuakana, the older brother, and the response of pakeha to it – open minded to a vision of an alternative world, is what we should all be doing. When I read about how the kuia would march up to the Top House with a bottle of Jeyes fluid and insist they used it, I had to scrub my house from top to bottom.

The last thing I want to say about The Double Rainbow is that this book is a joy to read. I left myself slightly too little time for it – or so I thought, panicking slightly that it was Saturday morning and I hadn’t started. I needn’t have worried. I know John’s writing – it has flow and light. He sweeps you along. I had time to start on something else by Sunday. But at the same time I felt enlightened and excited by John’s lucid prose and even more importantly, his sense of conviction – this is a book with a commitment to what it describes. And it made me go and reread Baxter. So I thought, even though this book is a bicultural social history, an ethnography, a work of fact and not a ‘book about Baxter’, I’d give Hemi the last word

This is from ‘Sestina of the River Road’, one of his last poems from 1972:

I want to go up the river road
Even by starlight or moonlight
Or no light at all, past the Parakino bridge
Past Atene where the tarseal ends
Past Koroniti where the cattle run in a paddock
Past Operiki, the pa that was never taken,

Past Matahiwi, Ranana, till the last step is taken
And I can lie down at the end of the road
Like an old horse in his own paddock
Among the tribe of Te Hau. Then my heart will be light
To be in the place where the hard road ends
And my soul can walk the rainbow bridge
That binds earth to sky. In his cave below the bridge
Where big eels can be taken
With the hinaki, and the ends
Of willow branches trail from the edge of the road
Onto the water, the dark one rises to the light,
The taniwha who guards the tribal paddock

And saves men from drowning.

James K. Baxter: ‘Shalimar’


Guava slices pierced by a straw
Eaten with rough salt and lemon;
This orchard where the trees have made
Stadium, refectory, high tent
For water carrier and camel boy. 
The mind’s great door is swinging now.
The musical water washes
From mouth and hands and heart
Memory of the peine forte et dure
Experienced in life. With balls of clay
The bearded guardian scatters birds.
Long waiting, brief illumination:
Outside the grass hut rustles on the ground
An empty snakeskin. Characters of fire
Without origin, without curb,
On the soul’s narrow walls
Blaze, as the sun strides in a broken house.

James K. Baxter: ‘Song to the Lord God on a Spring Morning’

The guitar is playing in the morning
And the tame goat browses on heads of grass
Close to the sawing block. I hear the voices
Of many friends on this spring day
Like music to me, because God has lifted
A mountain from my soul, and the winter has gone.

Alleluia. Adonai.

I need not complain that youth has gone
Or that the sins of morning
Haunt me at noonday. Whoever has lifted
The burden of Christ will find that an armful of dry grass
Is the same weight as the cross. Man only lives for a day
Yet he can hear the singing of strong voices.

Alleluia. Adonai.

Love is the answer to the dark voices
Of the demons that trouble us when youth has gone,
Saying, “You fool, you have had your day
And wasted it.” The spirit of a spring morning
When the wind moves gently over the grass
Is enough to tell us that the stone at the door of the tomb has
been lifted.

Alleluia. Adonai.

I have seen the boulder lifted
From the back of the tribe. I have heard their singing voices.
I have felt their hands like the wind on the grass
Stroking my cheek, when it seemed all hope had gone,
“Piki to ora ki a koe. The morning
Has come. E koro, be glad and eat a kai with us today.”

Alleluia. Adonai.

Therefore, whatever another day
May hold for meexile, darkness, and the rod of Pharoah lifted
to scourge my backthis brightness of morning
Cannot die. The murmur of many voices
Will stay with me when the light has gone
And my days are like an acre of burnt grass.

Alleluia. Adonai.

So small a price to pay! The Maori bones beneath the grass
Of the graveyard sing of the resurrection day
When chains of darkness will be gone
And the yoke of sorrow will be lifted
From the necks of the poor. A choir of many voices
Goes with me into the blood-red morning.

Alleluia. Adonai.

The light of a new morning is bright on the grass
And the voices of the poor are welcoming the day
When the cloud of night will be lifted and Pharoahs kingdom gone.

Alleluia. Adonai.

– James K. Baxter, ‘Song to the Lord God on a Spring Morning’ [1972]

James K. Baxter: ‘Air Flight to Delhi’

Air Flight to Delhi

In Thailand, song of water dwellers,
Rivers like lizards spreading
Brown silt into the sea.
Moisture in the hollow of a hand.
The old ideograph of peace
Tempted me, with card-playing
On a hard mattress, light between
Bamboo slats. Such love is contraband.

In a room taken for the night
Sluicing the chest and thighs. Dressed
In loose pyjamas. Lying
Insomniac under the giant fan.
I knew the undesired accomplice
Some sky or water demon
Twisting the locks of the mind.

Light will come at length to the dark room
Where the blind soul to its own incubus
Murmurs, ‘I am.’ The Goan shepherd
Sleeping at noon below the pepper vine
Is held alive in Xavier’s smile,
Has diamonds to lose: but here
Egyptian darkness staggers in the sun.

Seven plagues. Black beaks of crows.
Vultures in grey dinner suits.
Nepotism and the leper’s stump.
The stone of Sisyphus rolled on the heart.
These wounds that I must understand:
This country of the banyan and the ape.

The homeless in the Mogul tombs
Cannot despair because they do not hope,
On the great star wheel pulled apart
Show the disastrous innocence
Of one who murders in his sleep.

The cross is clouded here with market dust.

James K. Baxter: ‘He Waiata o Hemi’

He Waiata o Hemi

I came to Hiruharama
With a leather coat;
Now the coat is cloth
but the cuffs are still leather.

Kua timata te mahi –
The work has begun.
There are beans growing
And Karl planted them;
There are pumpkins growing
And Heto dug the ground;
There are eels in the pot
And Peter caught them – Yes,
Kua timata te mahi–
The work has begun.

Ka whakaiti taku mana,
Ka whakanui te aroha –
As I shrink down to death
The love will grow greater.
The old kumara has to rot
For the young ones to get life –
When the hangi is ready
They dig them out of the ground,
The young ones red and strong,
but the old one is pulpy –
They throw him over the fence
With mildew round his neck.

He parapara iti,
The little seed in the ground
The all-but-nothing thing –
The soul that sleeps naked
In the arms of Te Atua –
No good at all if the seed
Was wrapped in cellophane.

Because our God is dark
The blindness does not matter –
Because our God is silent
The deaf man gets no blame.

What can I do in the morning?
I can put on my coat;
I can make a cup of coffee;
And light a cigarette;
I can kneel down like a camel
On the grass beside the fence;
I can eat and walk and sleep;
I can pray for those I love –
Ko te aroha, i te Ariki –
When we love, it is the Lord –
And this dead man is permitted
To give with empty hands.

When we share our fags and blankets
Christ begins to shine –
Our flesh becomes the bread;
Our blood becomes the wine –
I am cowshit in the garden
So that the crops can grow –
Ko Ihu taku wai,
The Lord is my drink –
Ko Ihu taku kai,
The Lord is my food –
Ko Ihu taku moni,
The lord is my bank account –
Ko Ihu taku mana,
The Lord is my good name –
Ko Ihu taku aroha,
The Lord is my heart –
Ko Ihu taku mate,
The Lord is my death pain.

To be a dead goat
That the flies gather on –
The sun in his mercy
Can make the teeth shine.
Even our sins are His
Let the new pain begin.

The business of a poet

‘It is the business of a poet, I think, to be destitute as well as honest. He may have money; but he should recognise that it is dirt. He may have prestige; but let him hate it and wear it like an old filthy coat. Then he may be able to stay awake a little better. Love will not harm him, though. It will slice him open like a fish, and hang him by the heels, and let the sun into his private bag of dreams and idiot ambitions. He will think he is dying when he is just beginning to wake up’. – James K. Baxter, cited in Paul Millar, Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K. Baxter’s Correspondence with Noel Ginn (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001), 72.

James K. Baxter: ‘Rocket Show’

‘Rocket Show’

As warm north rain breaks over suburb houses,
Streaming on window glass, its drifting hazes
Covering harbour ranges with a dense hood:
I recall how eighteen months ago I stood
Ankle-deep in sand on an Otago beach
Watching the fireworks flare over strident surf and bach,
In brain grey ash, in heart the sea-change flowing
Of one love dying and another growing.

For love grows like the crocus bulb in winter
Hiding from snow and from itself the tender
Green frond in embryo; but dies as rockets die
(White sparks of pain against a steel-dark sky)
With firebird wings trailing an arc of grief
Across a night inhuman as the grave,
Falling at length a dull and smouldering shell
To frozen dunes and the wash of the quenching swell.

There was little room left where the crowd had trampled
Grass and lupin bare, under the pines that trembled
In gusts from the sea.  On a sandhillock I chose
A place to watch from.  Then the rockets rose,
O marvellous, like self-destroying flowers
On slender stems, with seed-pods full of flares,
Raining down amber, scarlet, pennies from heaven
On the skyward straining heads and still sea-haven.
Had they brought death, we would have stood the same,
I think, in ecstasy at the world-end flame.

It is the rain streaming reminds me of
Those ardent showers, cathartic love and grief.
As I walked home through the cold street by moon-light,
My steps ringing in the October night,
I thought of our strange lives, the grinding cycle
Of death and renewal come to full circle,
And of man’s heart, that blind Rosetta stone,
Mad as the polar moon, decipherable by none.

– James K. Baxter, Collected Poems (ed. John Edward Weir; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 81.

James K. Baxter: ‘A Pair of Sandals’

A Pair of Sandals

A pair of sandals, old black pants
And leather coat – I must go, my friends,
Into the dark, the cold, the first beginning
Where the ribs of the ancestor are the rafters
Of a meeting house – windows broken
And the floor white with bird dung – in there
The ghosts gather who will instruct me
And when the river fog rises
Te ra rite tonu te Atua –
The sun who is like the Lord
Will warm my bones, and his arrows
Will pierce to the centre of the shapeless clay of the mind.

James K. Baxter