The Passion of James K. Baxter
On Frank Sargeson’s wall, up above the fireplace, there used to be (perhaps there still is) a wooden cross . . . . One day I found among cards and pictures on the shelf above the fireplace a photograph of the young Baxter in his alcoholic raincoat. I climbed up and pinned the photograph on the cross where it remained for years curling at the edges and gathering dust. -- C. K. Stead
If he is unfamiliar to you—few people outside New Zealand recognize his name—it may help you to think of him as the subject of a devotional triptych in negative. The first panel, like a page torn from Lives of the Saints, is engraved with a brief summary of the poet’s origins—his name, parentage, the date of his birth and perhaps the date of his death. The second panel of this hagiography in reverse unfolds the narrative of the myth—a figure wanders the New Zealand landscape, wending its way from shore to city to inland wilderness. It becomes, in turn, a writer of verse, a boy wonder, a man, an alcoholic, a smoker of marijuana, a postman, a celebrity, a Catholic and the founder of a Maori commune. After these trials, the final panel: the poet dies, national fame assured, ascent to heaven questionable. “What happens is either meaningless to me, or else it is mythology,” he writes—it is a statement of poetics as devastatingly, deceptively simple as many of his last poems. “HEMI,” (the Maori version of his name) reads the inscription on his tombstone, under it:
JAMES KEIR BAXTER
I WHANAU 1926
work he left us—though he died young, he was spectacularly
prolific—evolves radically in style (and quality) from early periods to
later ones. As Stephen Burt remarks in his essay on the poet: “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).” Sonorous and flamboyantly
formal in his first poems (as in “Prometheus”: "Here are the emblems of
perpetual day / Where the bronze horses standing in a field / Lean on the
wind and graze the hours away"), he learned to temper his penchant for
grand phrasing—his last poems, though no less formal than the early
verse, cannily trade overt sonic acrobatics for a relaxed line that
conceals the underlying intricacy of the poetic structure. A discursive
poetry, Baxter’s work owes much to Yeats, Eliot, Auden and Lowell and a
little to Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas. It draws on New Zealand poets R.A.K.
Mason and A.R.D. Fairburn and, by the poet’s own account, Lawrence
But it is not enough to point out Baxter’s influences, though his
early poetry has sometimes been accused of slavish devotion to his
literary heritage. To miss Baxter’s stubborn pride in the local—the
Maori phrases that pepper his language, the tricky subversion of classical
English meters, the strange fusion of Catholicism and post-colonial
baggage that drives the verse—is to ignore a great deal of what makes
his poetry worth reading. Baxter’s fierce insistence on relating the
specific to the mythological results in a kind of writing that pushes
against literary parochialism (though I doubt whether the mature Baxter
worried much about reaching non-Kiwi readers) and, at the same time,
castigates itself for doing so. It is, at heart, a poetry of conflict.
Even as it censures the sterility and viciousness of pakeha
(the Maori word for white New Zealanders) culture, Baxter’s poetry
takes up a dialogue with traditional English language forms—sonnets,
ballads, sestinas—stretching them or chiseling them down, pouring
indigenous language into the gaps where English seems to fail—aroha
(love), Hatana (Satan), tapu (sacred; forbidden).
Entire cycles of his poetry, Jerusalem Sonnets (Poems for Colin Durning) (1972), to cite an obvious example, work to clear space for New Zealand poetry in the English canon. Overtly addressed to Baxter’s friend Colin Durning, these poems reimagine the sonnet form in the post-colonial landscape of Baxter’s New Zealand, grounding the poet’s pungent account of his attempts to found a commune on the Wanganui river in a rigid scheme of Biblical allusion bound by a loose iambic:
The bees that have been hiving above the church porch
Are some of them killed by the rain—
I see their dark bodies on the step
As I go in—but later on I hear
Plenty of them singing with what seems a virile joy
In the apple tree whose reddish blossoms fall
At the centre of the paddock—there’s an old springcart,
Or at least two wheels and the shafts, upended
Below the tree—Elijah’s chariot it could be, Colin,
Because my mind takes a little fire there
Thinking of the woman who is like a tree
Whom I need not name—clumsily gripping my beads,
While the bees drum overhead and the bouncing calves look at
leather-jacketed madman set on fire by the wind.
As with much of Baxter’s work, the poems he wrote from the community called Hiruharama (Jerusalem) during the final years of his life straddle the difficult territory between public and private, aesthetic and utilitarian, colonizer and colonized. His is a poetry that asks whether it is possible to write verse that is altruistic rather than narcissistic, involved with the forms of its heritage but divorced from the burdens of imperialism and pakeha guilt. It is a question that the work—by design—never answers. Post-Romantic in the Keatsian sense, the best of his poetry describes a world of negative capabilities in which ambiguity, although it does not content the mind, is the only space where moral and artistic concerns can wrestle in the open:
It is the month of the dead,
The Bengalese will die.
The weakness in my head
Makes verse hard to try;
The fast like an iron tomb
shutting out the sky.
(“Two Songs for Lazarus”)
less successful poems almost always stumble when the work attempts
resolution—reduction—when religion or concerns about social justice
gain the upper hand over sonic and formal play (as in some of the “Harry
Fat” ballads”) and vice versa, although this ratio is more typical of
the early work.
The strong religious imagery—specifically Christian religious imagery—in the poems I’ve cited won’t have escaped your notice. It is nearly impossible to consider Baxter’s poetry in any meaningful way without some reflection on his political and religious stances. Vincent O’Sullivan, Baxter’s friend and one of his most perceptive critics, noted that
hawks of an anxious secularist criticism, and the doves of an uneasily
possessive Church, will, I suspect, dispute the pecking order as each
claims or reclaims portions of the Baxter corpus.
. .There are two distinct kinds in Baxter’s religious expression. One is
the poetry. The other is the prose commentaries and anecdotes which
profess, with slight modifications, the message of the Gospels. These
prose fragments may quite properly invite theological discussion. . .In
other words, the kind of writing in The
Flowering Cross—a book made up of pieces written for the Catholic
press—may be accepted as wisdom or rejected as simplistic, but either
way the judgment is not of literary importance. Baxter’s view of his own
life as something acted out permits him to write devotional or admonitory
commonplace, and at the same time to confess in verse which would distress
admirers of the first. . .My proper concern in this essay is with his
poetry, and not with what he wrote by way of exhortation or assistance for
those who shared his own faith. And poetry, as Baxter well knew, is never
a matter of direct alignment with belief. A poem is where a man’s mind
searches out the shape which for the moment best depicts the totality of
his life—‘where art form and suffered reality coalesce, and may be
more apparent to the critical reader than to the author himself, as
archaeologists unearth city after city from underneath a mound of simple
am reluctant to ally myself with O’Sullivan’s hawks—though I’m not
entirely convinced that O’Sullivan isn’t secretly a little hawkish
himself—but I will say that the attraction in Baxter’s work (what
attracts me to it is perhaps the more accurate way of putting it) lies in
its aesthetics and not in its theology. And that attraction, at times, is
countered by a repulsion that possesses its own fascination. What matters
in James Baxter’s poetry, at least for my purposes, is its skill—its
delicate formal decisions and rude, striking imagery, the concatenation of
fervent passions and contradictions that riot through every line (even the
worst, especially the best). There is a pleasure in it—Baxter can be
crabby, difficult, bombastic, tortuous and tricky. He is, in nearly equal
measure, astonishing and heartbreaking. Perhaps, as O’Sullivan suggests,
his readers and critics must come to him through the dry work of
archaeology but his work is well worth the trouble of uncovering it.
in 1926, dead by forty-six, James Baxter inspired fervent personal and
national devotion. The most readily available biographies have been
written by people who knew him personally (Frank McKay’s Life
of James K. Baxter ; Charles Doyle’s James
K. Baxter). James K. Baxter: A
Portrait, compiled by his friend W. H. Oliver, lays out a glossy pictorial history of Baxter’s family and
favorite New Zealand haunts. The most recent edition of Baxter’s
collected poetry was edited by another friend, John Weir. This is not to
undervalue the vital work his acquaintances have produced on Baxter’s
life and opus; their passion is not forensic but personal and this kind of
enthusiasm provides its own insights into the poetry. Baxter’s intimates
attempt to present a fully rounded picture of the man, less savory aspects
included—his alcoholism, marital troubles, problematic attitude towards
women—but these accounts often embed Baxter (and thus his poetry) more
firmly in the mythological niche he occupies in New Zealand’s cultural
memory. So, since we have no hope of getting at Baxter the person—since,
by the poet’s own admission, man-as-myth forms a central pillar of his
aesthetics, let’s allow the myth to stand as a framework through which
we can read the poetry.
are a few biographical details: His parents were Millicent Brown and
Archibald Baxter, the first a graduate of Newnham College, Cambridge and
the daughter of a professor, the second a pacifist and a farmer with
deep-seated Quaker principles and a healthy respect for Robert Burns,
Blake, Shelley and Byron. They met, married and, by 1926, had brought two
sons into the world—James was the younger. In 1937, the family briefly
emigrated to England, where James attended a Quaker boarding school. In
1939, just as the Second World War began, the Baxters returned to New
Zealand and the locations that would later be closely identified with
James’s poetry—Wanganui, Dunedin, Brighton.
1944, the same year that James enrolled at Otago University
College, also saw the publication of his first book of poetry—Beyond
the Palisade. He was eighteen years old. But the pressures of
university life, as Baxter would later remark with some humor, proved
daunting: “Aphrodite, Bacchus, and the Holy Spirit were my tutors, but
the goddess of good manners and examination passes withheld her smile from
He left university to work in an iron foundry. Meanwhile, Beyond the Palisade came to the attention of New Zealand poet and
critic Allen Curnow. Half a dozen of Baxter’s poems would find their way
into Curnow’s landmark anthology: A
Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45, including “Prelude N.Z.,” a
quintessential example of the elevated rhetorical style of much of Beyond the Palisade:
They had their gods to shield them—we have none.
None save the marrowless steel-blade.
On our wrists like leeches hang, silver of blood,
our hills, our forests; the alien sun
stares through silver and green on us; for here
even our fear,
our love loses its focus: the sad cretin
walks abroad in the rotten hearts of the failing towns.
New blood moves briefly; unPolynesian, our deaths are near.
From the hills no dream but death frowns.
caveat: alienation and disillusion mark Baxter’s work throughout his
career. He isn’t a poet you go to because he gives you solace—or
achieves it for himself—he’s a poet you go to in order to examine the
sources of despair and the kinds of aesthetic forms that the search for
comfort can take.
The early poetry dramatizes these tensions of order—the lyric “I” and its relationship to society and natural environments—through extended conceits and rich syllabics:
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
one love dying and another growing.
(“Rocket Show” 1949)
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.
is as if, like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, Baxter’s delight lies
in lifting something impossibly heavy off the ground, no matter how short
the duration of the flight.
After a series of odd jobs at rural Wanaka Station and a stay in Dunedin (this period marked the height of his alcoholism), James found himself in Christchurch in 1948. It was then that he became a member of the Church of England, concurrent with the publication of his second book—Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness. His relationship with Jacquie Sturm—a Maori woman who would prove a significant force in Baxter’s personal, poetic and political trajectories—had grown serious:
Statesman, prophet, dancer,
On their high tightrope walk.
A few fire-hardened verses
Shaped by a tomahawk
May help in an hour of storm
To hold the great tent firm.
And if it should blow over
As it has done before,
Let us go and plant together
A hedge of sycamore.
That windy scent will rise and grow
the fire, beyond the snow.
two mingled, awkwardly by most accounts, with the Christchurch literati
and married despite familial objections to their youth and Baxter’s
Throughout the fifties, Baxter struggled to support his young family—expanded by now to include a daughter and a son. The writing of that decade is decidedly uneven. For every ecstatically grim success in collections like The Fallen House, Poems Unpleasant, The Iron Breadboard or In Fires of No Return there are two or three poems that come off as leaden or merely unkempt—particularly the overtly political specimens, although some of the ballads make funny, bitter and robust reading:
Oh some have killed in angry love
And some have killed in hate,
And some have killed in foreign lands
To serve the business State.
The hangman’s hands are abstract hands
Though sudden death they bring—
‘The hangman keeps our country pure,’
Says Harry Fat the King.
(“A Rope for Harry Fat”)
Fire and the Anvil and Recent
Trends in New Zealand Poetry established his reputation as a prose
stylist and critic as well as a poet but his newfound stardom was an
uneasy burden. He gave well-attended lectures on verse but his employment
shifted with the rapidity of a weathervane. He enrolled, at various
points, in Wellington Teachers’ College, Victoria University College
and, simultaneously, Alcoholics Anonymous.
In 1958, a watershed year for Baxter, he converted to Catholicism,
the religion that would shape the rest of his life and his mode of
aesthetic production. Meanwhile, his radio play Jack
Winter’s Dream got national air play and James and Jacquie
separated. On the heels of these events, Baxter was offered a Unesco
Fellowship to visit Asia—specifically Japan and India with a brief side
trip to Thailand. The poetry that fomented during this time eventually
coalesced into Howrah Bridge
(1961), published just as the Vietnam war took shape—a book that
revealed a Baxter in some ways more sparing and subtle than in previous
iterations: “In Thailand, song of water dwellers, / Rivers like lizards
spreading / Brown silt into the sea” (“Air Flight to Delhi”).
Baxter’s first major publication of the sixties, Pig Island Letters (1966), built on the stylistic alterations just beginning to overtake his work in Howrah Bridge. Although it is as much a poetry of protest and disenchantment as his previous work, Pig Island Letters, divided into the numbered lyrics Baxter often favored instead of titles, exhibits a level of craft and economy that seems more equal to his subject than the statelier rhythms of the preceding work:
Tonight I read my son a story
About the bees of Baiame, who tell the east wind
To blow down rain, so that the flowers grow
In dry Australia, and the crow wirinun
Who jailed the west wind in a hollow log:
My son who is able to build a tree house
With vine ladders, my son
In his brown knitted jersey and dungarees,
Makes clowns and animals, a world of creatures
His disaffection with white New Zealand, always pronounced, had reached new heights. It was during this time that his alignment with Kiwi counterculture solidified in popular memory. Baxter’s ballads—“A Bucket of Blood for a Dollar” was a representative title—circulated at protest meetings. In October, 1965 he read at a prominent anti-war rally at the Wellington Library Lecture Hall. Ironically, his visibility would, a year later, secure for him an eminently respectable position as the Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University, an event he commemorated this way:
And I who wrote in ‘62
ghosts, let me abandon
cannot be held against
and educators, the city of youth!
Drink fresh percolated coffee, lunging
In the new house, at the flash red kitchen table,
A Varsity person, with an office
Just round the corner—what nonsense!
If there is any culture here
It comes from the black south wind
Howling above the factories
handsbreath from Antarctica
Possessing the Burns Fellowship 1966”)
Baster’s conflicted relationship with institutions (and institutional education) is a hallmark of his verse; he worried often about the power of the social establishment to crush individual thought and to flatten and co-opt protests against it:
When some cheese-headed ladder-climber reads
A poem of mine from the rostrum,
Don’t listen. That girl in her jersey and beads,
Second row from the front, has the original nostrum
I blundered through nine hundred parties and ninety-eight pubs
In search of. The words are a totem
Erected long after for scholars and yobs
make, if they could, a bicycle-seat of my scrotum
(“To Any Young Man who Hears my Verses Read in a Lecture Room” 1963)
Two years and a spate of publications later, Baxter had taken a job in New Zealand’s Catholic Education Office—in April of 1968, a “vision” called him to found a commune called Jerusalem (Hiruharama) on the Wanganui River. In 1969, after a stint in Boyle Crescent, Auckland, living with and counseling junkies, he began the work that would see him through the three years of life that remained to him. He planned to establish a community founded on the Maori ideal of aroha—a kind of all-encompassing spiritual love that Baxter saw as the antidote to the false values of pakeha culture:
is the salutation of the poor mat at the gate of the pa [Maori village]
the one who has no credentials. This is the pa of the dead, and I think
they do receive me. I kneel on the wet grass, beside the concrete tomb of
the kaumatua, the Maori elder who lived in the house before us, and say
prayers, both in Maori and in English, praying that the souls of the Maori
dead may have light and peace and asking them to bear with our stupidity
and put the coat of their aroha over us.
But in the difficult post-colonial atmosphere of New Zealand, Baxter’s community proved unable to escape the post-Lapsarian world. He chronicled his failed Eden in Jerusalem Sonnets, the prose fragments in Jerusalem Daybook and the final publication of his life, Autumn Testament:
I climb the long track to the where puni [meeting house]
Meditating on the words of Thomas Merton—
‘At the end of life God presses down a seal
On the wax of the soul. If the wax is warm
‘It receives the mark; if not, it is crushed to powder’—
be it. My own heart may yet be my coffin.
A disaster in two phases, Hiruharama attracted a fluctuating population of disaffected New Zealand hippies and a great deal of public attention. Under Baxter’s haphazard leadership, the “cell of good living in a just society”—apart from the poet’s own ascetic practices—was more about free love and recreational drug use than social justice. Broken in health, Baxter was asked to leave by locals who favored an attempt to entice Maori back to the Wanganui River; he agreed. In February of 1972, when the dust from the first attempt had had a little time to settle, Baxter returned to Hiruharama with a smaller, more cohesive community. But lack of funding and other practical issues still plagued his efforts. By October of that year, Baxter had exhausted himself speaking at youth rallies and schools. The last photos show a man with weathered skin and a long gnarled beard; he looked like an old testament patriarch, like a prophet. In October of ’72, his friends learned he had a bad heart. The condition was terminal. His death was national news.
It may be useful now to look at how several of Baxter’s enduring themes play out in one of his latest and, by many accounts, finest work—Jerusalem Sonnets (Poems for Coling Durning) (1972). An epistolary sequence (It is worth noting that Baxter spent several years as a postman in the sixties.), Jerusalem Sonnets spans the decline of Jerusalem’s first phase from 1969-1970. Deceptively conversational (In terms of sheer formal trickery, the closest modern analogue might be Paul Muldoon.), vaguely iambic and syllabic, secretly in thrall to a complex system of numbering based on Biblical verse, the poems seem to draw together the most resonant motifs and formal devices at Baxter’s command. His letter poetry, like much of his writing, builds a poetics based on the mythological and biographical—the poet’s obsession with formal inheritance, the Maori language, New Zealand as another failed Eden and the ethics of being at once a privately religious man and a public figure and poet. The Catholic heritage of letter form likely drew Baxter to correspondence poetry; there is a group of Biblical books collectively called Epistles. Of these original New Testament letters, Baxter seems most intrigued by those written by the apostle Paul both to proselytize and to clarify points of early Catholic doctrine. Jerusalem Sonnets appropriates the tone of these letters in order to craft an epistolary confessional narrative where the exigencies of the letter object muddle interior and exterior landscapes, where form consistently undermines salvation.
Baxter structures his sonnets as a
progression of Biblical allusions within a larger thematic skeleton of
Biblical epistolarity. The Pauline epistles ask: “Where is boasting
then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
Therefore we concluded that a man is justified by faith without the deeds
(Romans 3.27-28). Baxter’s letters reverse Paul’s doctrine of
justification by faith alone. His epistolary poetry strives to fit faith
into a material form, an act that, in a Catholic worldview, often provokes
problems outside the sacrament of Eucharist—“this is my body, this is
my blood.” Ownership, faith, and material don’t overlap comfortably in
Baxter’s version of Catholicism, and their union in epistolary form is
“what I stole from my father in a rusty tin / Under the house, mixed
with old rotted / Cabbage tree fibres” (JS
462). Baxter views his addiction to letter poetry as theft from God
the father. The pious man’s attention should be focused on God but
Baxter reserves his most intense concentration for self-contemplation, an
undertaking, as he describes it, that is the height of narcissism. “I am
incapable of being good—my soul is a mass of faults and
contradictions—but when I know I am nothing, then through the eye of
that needle God can do what he wants to do. It is when I think I am
something that my life backfires on me” (Jerusalem
Baxter thus co-opts the boasting Paul who trumpets his sufferings
to the world to illustrate the danger of “false apostles, deceitful
workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2
Corinthians 11.13). Baxter represents himself as an “ascetic hedonist”
(JS), one of the false apostles
that Paul cautions against. Yet he is also the pleading Paul of the
“Epistle to Philemon,” begging for the release of a slave: “for
love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such a one as Paul the aged, and
now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus,
whom I have begotten in my bonds” (Philemon 1:9-10). Like Paul, Baxter
is a prisoner in Christ—“my peace, my terror, my joy, my sorrow, my
life my death, but not my security” (Jerusalem
Daybook). Unlike Paul, Baxter pleads for his own release and not
another’s, the Jerusalem Sonnets close with Baxter’s signature as “Hemi te
tutua” (JS) or James the
epistolary sequence is full of national, religious, and personal
bric-a-brac. Weaving Maori, Biblical, and colloquial language into a whole
where the archetypal and the individual coexist uneasily, Baxter’s
sonnets carry on a Catholic tradition of mixing a secret life and a sacred
one: the sacrament of confession. By exploiting the tensions between
public and private inherent to the letter form, Baxter smudges the
boundaries between his internal and external lives to stress his
frustrations in both; the presences that intrude on Baxter’s epistolary
poetry dramatize his inability to resolve his natural egotism with the
demands of humility imposed by Catholicism.
At Hiruharama, Baxter contends with flocks of ghosts that hinder his attempts to distance himself from an individual past so he can move towards the archetypal experience of salvation. Absent acquaintances float in and out of the Jerusalem Sonnets both through Baxter’s recollections and his apostrophes to Colin Durning, his primary addressee. The epistolary form, because it allows and often demands direct address or reference to private experience, stresses the capacity of personal history, which these acquaintances represent, to modify language and present action. Baxter indulges in a reverie: “my visitors have now departed, / Jill and Maori Johnny—they taught me to swear again” (JS). Baxter’s past keeps interfering with his present aims, bringing him out of Hiruharama and back to “the streets of Grafton, where I was a king / For a little while” (JS). His guests alter Baxter’s language, renewing his store of vulgarisms. Their visit returns him from the mythologized setting of the new Jerusalem to the mesh of the personal, reminding him of his history of drug use and of the geography of city life. Nostalgia competes with the act of confession, which strives to erase the past. The strain between the two plagues Baxter:
House of sorrow, house of love
To which my riderless soul night after night returns,
Neighing—‘Where are you?’ . . .
The wise tribe have left—Gipsy, Norma,
Yancy, Robert—the bones of my arms are aching
To hold them. (JS)
The sonnet leaves the commune, removing Baxter from thoughts of his mission and the reader from the physical scenery of New Jerusalem. Jarringly present in a series of proper nouns, “Jill,” Maori Johnny,” “Boyle Crescent,” “Gipsy,” “Norma,” “Yancy,” “Robert,” “Grafton” (JS 458), reminders of a private past interrupt the Ngati Hiruharama [community of Jerusalem] setting that has dominated the preceding poems. Epistolary form insists on the relevance of personal history for sense and context, a requirement Baxter gives in to but not happily. Every mention of a past event or acquaintance distances him from his present goals. For Baxter, private life and public mission always move towards a state of opposition. If he concentrates his energies on his life before Hiruharama, he loses sight of his current aims, falling into the directionless habits of, “a riderless soul,” wandering “night after night” (JS). And if Baxter is a “little donkey / Saddled and bridled by the Master of the world,” (JS) then to go without a rider is to lose the presence of God.
Even when Baxter is surrounded by Jerusalem, he faces his inability to shed past baggage—the people he’s known leave their marks in his home and on his skin, “branded by that fire” (JS). Reminders of the poet’s life in the secular world pervade, like the insects, the sacred space of Baxter’s commune.
Can this poor donkey ever carry Him
Into Hiruharama? Everything stands against it,
But that is the Rider’s problem—on my kitchen shelf I keep
The square awkward tin that Agnes gave me
The day I left here going north. (JS)
twenty-first sonnet here sites the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, which
describes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The sonnet inverts
that progress, leading Baxter, the ass that carries Jesus, to the north,
away from Hiruharama “on that slow journey / To the mills of Hatana” (JS).
Hatana (the Maori name for Satan) has drawn Baxter away from Jerusalem and
away from salvation; however, the agent of that journey is not a devil but
a woman who provides Baxter with a tin of “Bread and cake and potted
eel” (JS 465). It’s not that
Baxter is casting Agnes as Eve—his ego won’t allow any villain greater
than an inner devil—but that he’s castigating himself for his failure
to renounce the world in the form of old acquaintances, those proper nouns
that surface and resurface despite Baxter’s best attempts to suppress
them. The letters, following the tendency of epistolary form to focus on
private experience, swerve towards human addressees, and away from God.
Gluttony is the metaphor: “The bread is gone, the eel is eaten, / And
Hatana has written on the marrow of my bones” (JS).
Like overindulging in food, a transitory pleasure that implies a lack of
self-control, Baxter’s trouble leaving behind the friends of his worldly
existence annuls the asceticism he tries to practice in Hiruharama. Any
movement away from Jerusalem is a movement toward Hatana. And though
Baxter writes from his commune, “now I am back here again” (JS 465), the token of his inadequacies is present on his shelf in
the form of Agnes’s tin and the interior scars he believes his sin has
the true Jerusalem seems to be anywhere Baxter is not; wherever the poet
carries his private shortcomings, the flawless world of Hiruharama cannot
exist. “Agnes, I think, is out of it— / In Wanganui in her sister’s
house / Where the trees are cut down by the chainsaw and the ripsaw.”
Another allusion to the Biblical entry into Jerusalem, the sonnet’s last
lines take the spirit of Hiruharama and place it outside the commune.
However, because this is Baxter’s poem, that spirit is a skewed version
of the original, full of environmental violence as much as joy. “And the
disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass, and
the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. And a
very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down
branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way” (Matthew. 21. 6-8).
Where the Biblical description of Jesus’ arrival has a crowd
stripping the branches from trees out of reverence, the image in the Jerusalem Sonnets links defoliation to an impersonal modern world
where machinery upsets ecosystems. Baxter has no access to the place which
is physically ready for a savior’s entrance. And even where the branches
are laid down in preparation, the spirit behind the act is wrong: Public
observances are not enough if the interior impetus that prompts them is
false. As long as the forms of religion collide with its essence,
Hiruharama will never thrive and Baxter never move through the impasse. As
long as the forms of his poetry undercut his intent, correspondence art
can’t resolve the inconsistencies between Baxter’s private and public
Colin Durning is a kind of ghost himself, a confidante who sits on the margin between a personal confessor and an eavesdropper on Baxter’s conversations with himself and God. When Baxter addresses Durning directly, a tactic that epistolary form almost requires, it’s frequently in conjunction with death. Apostrophe to Colin in the Jerusalem Sonnets often marks the places where Baxter is contemplating mortality: “you know, Colin, / What I mean when I say, ‘Te Kare’—my life winds out” (JS). “Dear one,” Baxter says in Maori, doubling the apostrophe, once to Colin and once to God to stress the personal present tense. The dash that follows those addresses to the reader creates a caesura that chokes the flow of the line so that it comes, like Baxter’s existence, to a sudden stop. The clause that follows the dash is full of assonant long ‘i’s, “my,” “life,” “winds,” that slow the progress of the poem even further. Breaking the fourth wall, Baxter reminds us that the text is directed to a specific audience and that extra-diegetic readers are as good as spies overhearing a deathbed confession. While Colin may listen in on Baxter’s struggle with God, he is also included in the text as a primary reader. “Colin, comfort / May kill the heart” (JS). Meanwhile, outside readers of the Jerusalem Sonnets become intrusive presences themselves, another population of ghosts, excluded from the principal path of exchange. In a sequence about Baxter’s inability to gain inclusion with the saved, that exclusion becomes a key thematic point. Baxter’s dilemma becomes the reader’s; we follow his trajectory towards death without any expectation that his story will save us. Public and private spheres are once again in opposition, the unintended reader at odds with the addressee named in the text. Baxter’s source material in the Bible calls for an entirely different kind of letter:
all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and
peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my
God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of
throughout the whole world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with
my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of
you always in my prayers; Making request, if by any means now at
length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto
you. For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual
gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted
together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me. (Romans 1.7-12)
the Pauline epistles, which strive to include and form communities by
conversion, Baxter’s letters confess an indissolubly individual
experience of Catholicism and so invalidate the representative experience
of salvation offered by the Bible and the Church. This strategy of
exclusion eventually renders Baxter a phantom in his own poetry, with his
intended reader acting for him: “but if you are consulted / One day,
Colin, about my epitaph, / I suggest these words—” (JS
469) and “Colin, if you meet him, give my love / To Patric Carey”
(JS). In the end, the
attenuation of the margins between confessional and correspondence
paralyzes the writer so that the reader must carry on in his stead.
Unnamed ghosts trouble Baxter as much as those he addresses specifically; when local and personal history intermingle in the Jerusalem Sonnets, crises of faith tend to arise, as in the twenty-fifth sonnet:
The brown river, te taniwha, flows on. . .
—he can also be
A brutal lover; they say he sucked under
A young girl once, and the place at the river-bend is named
After her tears—I accept that. (JS)
legend about the taniwha, the spirit or demon, of the river-bend is about
death and resurrection; for the girl who drowned in the river, there seems
to be none. The name of the bend, which Baxter doesn’t give us, is all
that’s left of her. “I wait for / The taniwha in the heart to
rise—when will that happen? / Is He dead or alive?” (JS).
Because all that’s left of the drowned girl is the local label for a
topographical feature, Baxter wonders if the Christian resurrection story
is a matter of dogma lingering in name only. The taniwha drowned in
Baxter’s heart can only be Jesus, whom he believes died for his sins. To
question whether Jesus is alive or dead is, for Baxter, both a way of
asking if he is a worthy vessel for a divine spirit and a confession of
doubt. Letter poetry, by nature a form of question and response,
encompasses both of these sentiments without giving greater weight to
either, a parity that threatens Baxter’s convictions because it allows
doubt to equal the power of faith.
The Biblical passage sonnet 25 is based on, verse twenty-five of the twentieth chapter of John, clarifies Baxter’s uncertainties about the way geography and his experience of Catholicism interact in letter poetry. “The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” The crux of the narrative of Doubting Thomas, whose belief depends on material evidence, is the classic representation of a problem of faith. Baxter casts himself as Thomas, giving weight to the connection by repeating the disciple’s identification of Jesus’ wounds. The spear puncture shows up in Baxter through the speaker’s reiteration of a word which Thomas also uses, “side.” As Baxter puts it, “he could even be on my side, / I suspect, if there is a side” (JS). Baxter goes farther even than Thomas, not only calling into question whether Jesus is with him but questioning whether the side—Christ himself—even existed at all. The “notches worn / In the cliffs downstream” (JS) stand in for the impression of the nails, so that the whole picture is of the river as Jesus’ body.
Baxter, neither as trustful as Paul nor as perceptive as Doubting Thomas, becomes the butt of his own joke as he fails to read the evidence of God in his own landscape and his own letter. As Baxter’s biographer Charles Doyle puts it, “For the pakeha [white] New Zealander, peculiar problems arose from the historical fact that pakeha society was a transplant from Britain grafted, with incomplete success, onto an already existing native society in the islands of Ao-Tea-Roa. Although the graft was virtually to consume the original plant, the attempt to transport the soil from which it had originally grown was doomed to failure.”[xi] Misunderstandings between colonial and indigenous inhabitants figure even more prominently in the poems I discuss below.
The fate of the drowned girl in sonnet 25, who doesn’t seem to Baxter to achieve rebirth, takes on a different significance in light of the Biblical source, becoming another example of misinterpretation; her distinguishing feature, her tears, lead back to earlier verses in the same chapter of John. These verses have implications for the division of personal and common experience in letter poetry:
But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid him. 14And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. 15Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 18Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her. (John. 20. 11-18)
unnamed victim, killed by a “brutal lover” (JS),
i.e. the river, is also Mary Magdalene, the messenger who bears witness to
the disciples. But Baxter is oblivious—“A car goes by on the road /
With an enormous slogan advertising / Rides for tourists on the jetboat at
Pipiriki.” It’s tourists who ride on the water and so come into
contact with the body of Jesus. Baxter has literally missed the
“enormous” sign as the car that carries it passes him by. Preoccupied
with labeling the figures in his past, Baxter can’t tap into deeper,
nameless levels of meaning. His concentration on individual experience
impairs his ability to understand the mysteries common to everyone.
What’s not there frequently eclipses what is—“if I had said, /
’Have my coat; have my money’— / She would have gone away; but
because I gave her nothing / She came again and again to share that
In Baxter’s epistolary poetry, where absence and distance prompt
creation, too much evidence of an individual history damages the ability
to listen for silence, the space that makes it possible to hear voices
besides one’s own. If the river ghost is a failed messenger, it’s
because Baxter is too preoccupied with making a record of his own life. He
leaves her no room to be heard. Because external voices rarely manage a
dialogic exchange in Baxter’s narrative, his habit tends toward
monologue. Rather than allow a pause for alternate perspectives, Baxter
fills in the silences with his own musings, a “stupid prayer” (JS 459). No wonder, then, that in the Jerusalem Sonnets, what’s unsaid is often more important than what
actually makes it into print.
In some ways, Jerusalem Sonnets is an exercise in misreading, “But the sane half
tells me that newspapers were made / For wiping arses and covering tables,
/ Not for reading” (JS). The
voices that do manage to get through to Baxter often interfere either as
angels or devils; where words other than Baxter’s invade the text, they
disturb the progress of his spiritual narrative, pulling him deeper into
an internal struggle even when they strive to force him to look outward
for a new perspective. Religious figures, righteous and not, are, besides
Baxter, the only characters who manage to get a word in edgewise. Baxter
personifies his devil, giving him a name, Hatana, and the power of speech.
Satan serves as a conduit for Baxter’s ambition, the “noonday demon”
who says “’You should be somewhere else, brother, / Anywhere else;
this stagnant life is bad, / Much too limited for a bloke of your
talents” (JS). When Hatana
speaks, it is always to tell Baxter that his poetry will be his salvation.
Art, then, becomes an instrument of vanity, words an indulgence that can
be turned against the poet. Letters, as physical evidence of an obsession
with language, preserve Baxter’s temptation and not, if it exists, his
triumph over it.
Baxter actually breaks from sonnet form—the regular couplets and allusive numerical order are the only evidence of something like divine order in the sequence— to add a fifteenth line in the poem that says, “The image of Hatana—he bashes at the windows / In idiot spite, shouting—‘Pakeha! You can be / The country’s leading poet’” (JS). Because the term “pakeha” alienates Baxter as a foreigner in a New Zealand setting, it divides him from Hiruharama where he might find God. Hatana’s use of a Maori word to bring about that separation between Baxter and his mission convinces the poet that the land itself, a domain of religious mysteries, will deny him. Baxter reinforces that sense of isolation through the image that caps the sonnet: “and from my grave at length / A muddy spring of poems will gush out” (JS). In Baxter’s mock harvest lurks a comment on writing as compromised fertility. Instead of subsistence or cash crops, Baxter’s commune produces letter poetry, the vehicle for Baxter’s pride and through pride, damnation. The harvest also looks a lot like a scene of rejection, the natural world literally purging itself of Baxter’s offerings. The grave retains Baxter’s body but not his correspondence. Epistolary forms may confer a type of immortality on the writer—they survive burial after all—but the extended life, hardly to be desired, goes on in a jet of mud.
Other benevolent external voices come up against Baxter’s private wrestling and are either invalidated or fail to get through:
‘Moderation suits our time; moreover
An educated rational approach
May set the young folk a good example
‘In their adjustment’—any priest in town could tell me that;
I do not go by priests. (JS)
he mocks city religion, which seems to Baxter a sham compared to life at
Hiruharama, he sneers at anything less than complete asceticism in service
to God. In response to that ineffectual kind of Christianity, Baxter
adopts a new creed where “money and prestige are worse drugs than
morphine” (JS). He quotes his son Hoani, who “left the Buddha to use a
hypodermic—‘Live sparely; laugh at money; /
Follow uphill the track of the bull.” Baxter’s alternative has
problems. If drugs are “an herb of darkness” that lead people to
“prefer Nirvana to Heaven” (JS),
then the source of Baxter’s doctrine, a son who moves farther and
farther from a Christian ideal, looking for truth in the Buddha instead of
the Bible and finally choosing an intravenous drug over either, is
discredited. While drugs are often a welcome relief from disturbance in Jerusalem
Sonnets, their use runs counter to the ethic of renunciation Baxter
tries to hold to. Neither his son’s Buddhist perspective nor the
institutionalized views of the priests offers Baxter much to go on. All
that’s left is, as Baxter tells Mother Mary Joseph Aubert who immigrated
from her “native France to these rough hills,” to “pray for
converts’ great-grandchildren / Who need drugs to sleep at night” (JS).
Baxter relies on his own addictions, the worst of which seems, even more
than the alcoholism which plagued him throughout his life, to be his
When Baxter follows inner dictates, he winds up in an “Eastern” perspective where addiction threatens to undo any spiritual progress; when external human voices try to address him from a Christian worldview, either they don’t convince Baxter of their sincerity or, even when he agrees with them, they don’t have the power to move him out of his stasis. When Baxter listens to an internal voice, he becomes more deeply embedded in the problem of interiors. The more he succumbs to influences from within, the less able he is to move into an external space where salvation might be possible. A guest at Baxter’s home in Hiruharama exclaims “The house is filthy, ‘Mr Baxter! That’s not the way / To cure anybody’” (JS). When Father Te Awhitu, “the Maori angel” (JS), comes to visit Baxter, the priest tries to jar Baxter out of his navel gazing, answering with a curt “Yes” Baxter’s question, “‘Do you think, Father, / The sins of the flesh are mainly mortal?’” (JS). As Baxter rambles on, telling the Father how he passes his days, he says: “I spend a lot of time writing letters” (JS). The Father ignores him, suggesting he “write a play / ’About the fight down on Moutoa Island; A Brother was killed there’” (JS). (The works that, in fact, brought Baxter the most renown were several radio and stage plays written and produced in the 1960s. He wrote none while at Jerusalem.)
If drama, the spoken word, is Baxter’s example of language with an external focus, then epistolary poetry, which generates illusory speech from internal resources, interferes with socially responsible art. While Baxter’s epistolary poetry looks inward, drama looks outward, is always in need of an audience. Epistolary form, as Baxter uses it, asks the writer to attend to interior debates rather than external action, a quality that makes his poetry a failure as a spiritual purge even when it succeeds as an aesthetic project. Baxter feels “put in his place” as the “Father leaves without his coffee” (JS). It’s a humility that doesn’t last. Far from taking his visitor’s advice to stop writing letters and turn his talents to a more altruistic task, Baxter goes on addressing poetry to Colin for another eight sonnets. In all his attempts to mortify his flesh, Baxter has never really managed to mortify his spirit.
Nature also speaks in Baxter’s letter-poems: it delivers messages, some false, some true, where it’s never clear whether the origin of the voices is divine or in Baxter’s arrogance. The elements reproach Baxter as if they were godly warnings, as in his twenty-third sonnet, “when the wind flutters round my chest / It seems to say, ‘Now, now, don’t be proud that you are poor!’” (JS) The word “seems” puts the origin of the voice admonishing Baxter into doubt. The speaker isn’t clear. What Baxter is proud of is the difficult labor of gardening, “hoeing beside the cowshed,” and of his charity clothes, “my pants and shirt / From Father Te Awhitu; my boots from the Vincent de Paul / Society” (JS). His description of his poverty marks a failure of humility. The emphasis on dress points to the Biblical narrative Baxter is thinking of in the third chapter of Genesis, verse twenty-three to match the sonnet number. That verse is the place where God dispenses punishment for the Fall: “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken” (Genesis. 3. 23). When Baxter takes pride in his manual labor, he is taking pride in what is actually a punishment for transgression. His intellectual labor—the verse epistles—also form the source of Baxter’s conceit.
Like his letters a physical marker of internal and external spaces, the clothes that signal his poverty correspond to the fig leaves that Adam and Eve sewed together to cover their nakedness a few verses earlier. In his Jerusalem Daybook, Baxter muses that “to be poor is not to become good. Poverty is availability.” Showing off his charity wardrobe, Baxter seems to embrace through correspondence form the loss of innocence and divine grace rather than doing penance for his sins. His biographer Doyle believes that in Baxter’s poetry “memory of Eden gives the natural man his consciousness of himself as man-beast, and his drive to rebel against the society which otherwise encourages all that is basest in humanity, particularly inertia and indifference.”[xii] Baxter the writer may subscribe to rebellion as a legacy of paradise, but Baxter the character does not. In the Jerusalem Sonnets, Baxter doesn’t resist his disgrace. He appears to welcome it. Baxter is caught in a crisis of solipsism where the landscape becomes a metaphor for his religious predicament and epistolary art, instead of a refuge, is a mark of shame.
Hiruharama is also Eden, a locus of betrayed expectations:
Yet when the sun rises my delusion hears him shout
Above the river fog—‘This is the hill fort
Of our God; it is called Hiruharama!
‘The goat and the opossum will find a home
Among the rocks, and the river of joy will flow from it!’ (JS)
Baxter strengthens that parallel by using only one rhymed couplet in the lines that precede the jubilant prediction for the New Jerusalem that ends the sonnet: “If Ngati-Hiruharama turns out to be no more than / A child’s dream in the night—well then” (JS). The homonyms that end the lines anticipate a regular rhyme scheme that should carry through to the finish of the poem. Instead, not a single rhyme occurs for the following twelve lines. As the poem proves a body of promise gone awry, so is Baxter’s commune a site that refuses to flourish. The exclamation points that punctuate the prophecy of Baxter’s “delusion” work counter to intention. The more emphatic the rosy outlook, the less possible it appears to be. Baxter doesn’t capitalize the pronoun “him” in “hear him shout” (JS) as he does in other poems where he refers to a Catholic God, “He is kind to my infirmity” (473). That lack of a capital reinforces the origin of the statement in Baxter’s hope rather than in reality. God is not present in this sonnet, even in the pronouns.
Though God appears absent, he Maori
language saturates the poem; Baxter translates Christian titles into New
Zealand terms and uses Maori words and phrases in an attempt to bridge
geography and ideology, two worlds that connect raggedly if at all,
through epistolary form. He’s not always successful. Language doesn’t
transfer perfectly from one cultural context to another and that
disjunction further confuses the internal / external border in Baxter’s
poetry. “Te Ariki,” the lord, “Te Tama,” the son, and “Te Kare,”
the beloved, make appearances in the sonnets. More often, Baxter uses
English names—“the Dove,” “God,” “Christ.” Through
epistolary poetry, Baxter tries to create a hybrid language to talk about
God, mixing English and Maori words to try to resolve the cultural
opposition between Catholic dogma and the customs of native New
Zealanders. Yet history interferes with Baxter’s new language. The
trauma of colonization lingers, rendering a harmonious mesh of traditions,
especially in the interior landscape of a pakeha New Zealander’s
letters, difficult if not impossible.
Cultural misreading in Baxter’s epistolary poetry emerges as a problem of translation, a dilemma that shapes the way he uses letter form. From the first contact between Maori and Europeans to the time of Baxter’s writing, miscommunications, sometimes deliberate ones were the rule. The most famous instance of literal misreading, the controversy over the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, perpetuated Maori / pakeha hostilities for more than a century after the signing event. A British government invited Maori chiefs to gather at Waitangi to ratify a treaty intended to protect their autonomy within a colonial system. While the Maori chiefs had read a document written in the Maori language that promised to preserve their sovereignty, what they signed was an English version that gave consent to nearly all forms of British encroachment. The resulting violence after the betrayal of the Treaty informed all political relations between white and indigenous New Zealanders up to and following the writing of the Jerusalem Sonnets. Baxter was a strong proponent of the Maori independence movement that would eventually establish the Waitangi Tribunal to redress the swindle of the original treaty. Along with Maori activists, he joined protests at the site of the Treaty’s signing in 1971, a year after the completion of the Jerusalem Sonnets. That is to say language and the interaction between pakeha and indigenous cultures were pressing concerns for Baxter. His epistolary poetry, in its pursuit of an integrated colonial and native language in a letter object, attempts to challenge the mistranslations of the Treaty of Waitangi, another material document that circulated and prompted exchange to disastrous effect.
In his thirty-fourth sonnet, Baxter
foregrounds language as a key to reading culture by beginning with the
image of a children’s reader, “I read it in the Maori primer, / ‘Ka
timata te pupuhi o te hau’” (JS).
This sonnet, which, more than all the rest of the Jerusalem poems is
packed with Maori phrases, works through Baxter’s guilt about his
heritage as a descendant of an imperialist culture. He translates the
sentence from the primer a line later, “the wind began blowing”,
clarifying that wind as an agent of instability and destruction for the
Maori. “it blew for a century / Levelling by the musket and the law /
Ten thousand meeting houses—there are two of them in the pa, / Neither
one used; the mice and the spiders meet there” (JS). The pa has suffered
the effects of colonial occupation. Its people have no sovereignty. Their
administrative center is empty. It’s not coincidental that the phrase
from Baxter’s primer is a statement about transience. The Maori can only
write their history in terms of subjugation, even in a book meant to teach
children to read. The legacy of their oppression manifests itself in the
language of the primer and trips up Baxter’s attempt to meld colonizing
and colonized cultures through a form that recalls the treaty that put
them in contention.
The Bible under sonnet 34 illuminates the conflict that Baxter
faces when he asks the Maori to accept the tenets of Christianity, the
religion of their oppressors. “And the tapu mound where the heads of the
chiefs were burned / Will serve perhaps one day for a golf course” (JS).
The detail that Baxter chooses to describe the atrocity of conquest gives
away the allusion. The tapu—sacred—hill of severed heads is, of
course, Golgotha, the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified. The
question, then, is whether this scene has Baxter or the Maori playing the
martyr. “What can this pakeha fog-eater do? / Nothing; nothing! Tribe of
the wind, / You can have my flesh for kai, my blood to drink” (JS).
While a superficial reading says that, like Jesus initiating communion at
the Last Supper, Baxter offers himself as a redeemer, the thirty-fourth
verse from Matthew reveals Baxter’s true intent: “And when they were
come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull,
They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted
thereof, he would not drink.” Rather than likening himself to Christ,
Baxter casts himself as one of Jesus’ tormentors, offering vinegar
instead of water; he knows that nothing he sacrifices can compensate for
what the Maori have lost. They are the wronged people who have been given
a bitter drink and should rightly refuse Baxter’s offering as an
unworthy one. The body that he presents as forfeit proves traitorous in
the same way the Treaty of Waitangi as document turns out to be a curse in
disguise. The poetry follows suit: it apes sacrifice on the surface but is
actually indulgence. Baxter distrusts external forms because, in the New
Zealand landscape, they don’t always match internal sentiments. When he
takes up the task of uniting Maori and pakeha language through letter
form, he sets himself up for failure. Documentation hasn’t made
communication between New Zealand cultures possible in the past and, in an
unreliable epistolary medium, it can hardly build rapport for the future
no matter how much Baxter wants it to.
Baxter uses language to shape his perception of a world where public and private spheres don’t intersect neatly. He frames his life in religious motifs, trying to reconcile interior voices with the presences of the outside world, whether insects, priests, nuns, friends, children, foreign language, or the Devil. He consistently comes up short, painfully aware of his failures. In a form of poetry predicated on capturing individual experience through physically discrete pieces, Baxter finds it impossible to allow the body, a repository of personal history and material culture, to surrender. “The Cross is only for those who can “die / The death of others, having loosened the safe coat of becoming” (JS). Jerusalem Sonnets jumbles the boundaries between the public and the private and jams these snarled margins into a material frame so that Baxter’s letters always court the “ministry of death” instead of achieving the solace of redemption. The more plainly they encounter their failure as prayer, the more effectively these poems succeed as aesthetic objects.
Part II: Appears Next Month