The Passion of James K. Baxter: Part II


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.

The 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?” 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.” 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” 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 thepakeha [white] New Zealander, peculiar problems arose from the historical fact thatpakeha 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.” 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)

Baxter’s unnamed victim, killed by a “brutal lover” (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 nothing.”

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.” 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.” 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.” 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.’” 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.” 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.

When 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” 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 inJerusalem 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.” 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 letter writing.

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.’” When Father Te Awhitu, “the Maori angel,” 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?’” As Baxter rambles on, telling the Father how he passes his days, he says: “I spend a lot of time writing letters.” The Father ignores him, suggesting he “write a play / About the fight down on Moutoa Island; A Brother was killed there.’” (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.” 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!’” 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.” 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. This is the verse in which 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.

Just as his letters became 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 Charles 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.” 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!’

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.” 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” as he does in other poems where he refers to a Catholic God, “He is kind to my infirmity.” 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, the 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 betweenpakeha 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.’” 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.” The pahas 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 allusions in sonnet 34 stress 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.

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