All week this week we revisit the great poet James K Baxter on the occasion of a new book of his letters. Today: a selection of the letters written in 1969, dealing with his experiences at the Jerusalem commune in Whanganui, and a crash-pad in Grafton in Auckland.
To Robin Dudding, Christchurch
After the middle of February my address will be –
c/o Catholic Mission,
To Jacquie Baxter, Wellington
I write this to you so that you will know why I have done what I have done. To speak of it with any fullness would be impossible.
In March 1968, when my mind was troubled, Ihu showed his face to me. He showed me that in this country he has both a Maori face and a pakeha face, and that the Maori face is torn and bloody while the pakeha face is smooth and all but blind.
He told me to go to Jerusalem and learn the Maori language and live without money or books. I think that the name of the man who will teach me is Matiu. I am to learn the spoken Maori because in this country the pakeha has been the tuakana and the Maori the teina, whereas the pakeha is the teina and the Maori the tuakana in that suffering which belongs to God.
I am to live without money because it is necessary for me to be poor. I am to live without books for mental poverty, and also, I think, because the Ringatu do not use books. I am to live without tea or coffee or cigarettes because the Mormons live without them. I am to be a nobody and a door.
I asked him about you, since I love you more than any person on earth, and he showed me you wrapped in a dark cloak and suffering and going away from me, and showed me also that you would return to me, though how long this would take I was not shown.
Among so many gifts I have had from you, one is that a part of my heart has become Maori, as a part of your heart is made pakeha. Under all things we are one spirit. Either what I was shown was true and will come to something; or I am deluded, and it will come to nothing. I am of the opinion that part of it comes from myself and part from God. I had a great pain and horror that we might die apart from one another…
Your husband is either mad or he has been given a strange thing to do…I am in a dark night without windows. You know that I am a weak man with many faults.
E mana iti, aroha nui.
To Colin Durning, Dunedin
I’d be very glad to see you in Auckland. 6 p.m. Saturday – 22nd March on the steps of the G.P.O. Working in a sugar refinery just now – labouring – and also have the flu – so I am slightly non compos mentis. But probably no more than usual.
To Jacquie Baxter
I have been working at the Chelsea Sugar Company on the North Shore. If you wanted to get in touch for some urgent reason, that would be the place to contact. On Thursday (working overtime) I bruised the bowstring muscle on the sole of my right foot shovelling rock-hard sugar, and appear also to have sprung the tendon on the back of the leg. It is not painful when I am lying down. I saw the doctor this morning and he said it would clear up in a few days with rest. He gave me a certificate to get time off on compo. The work is exhausting and somewhat depressing but not beyond my strength.
Over at [Hone] Tuwhare’s I met various Auckland Maori people who are working successfully at teaching etc. At the Sugar Works I met truck drivers and so on who are successful on another level. In the streets there are many who fail to climb the ladder and hold on. The cold vacancy of the town – too much space, too few who care, nothing to be had except for money – grip them like frost and they brawl on street corners. One does not see those in the jails – but I hear that the new $6,000,000 Security Prison has steel cages inside it on the American model and invisible TV eyes that watch you even when you go to the lavatory. I would like to put a big bomb under it – seriously – when nobody was in it.
Success or failure are perhaps two sides of the same coin – adjustment or lack of adjustment to a culture that smothers its children as the old pig may smother her piglets. The faces of the ‘successful’ Maori farmers round Jerusalem – supporting one family on land that had once supported 50 families – seemed carved out of polished wood, I remember. The unsuccessful in the valley looked more human.
My heart is heavy here and the star is behind the clouds. I will go back to Jerusalem when I have enough money to keep me at least in milk and kumara till I have cleared land and grown something. But I will need a man who speaks Maori well to work alongside me….
My love, somebody to whom I mentioned my intention to go to Jerusalem, said to me – ‘Will you have a wahine there with you?’ They do not know this man. I have a wahine already. Her name is Te Kare – the wave of the sea that the wind moves; the whiplash of love in my heart that makes me do what would otherwise be impossible – I have a wahine already, my love – either that wahine or no wahine. If you were old and sick and your teeth had all fallen out, you would be dearer to me than the sight of the wind in the branches. But I have to go my road with a gun at my head – His road which I hope and believe will join yours again. You are always in my heart.
To Millicent and Archibald Baxter, Brighton
Dearest Mother and Daddy,
This place is the homing ground of all the junkies in the country – they come here with or without their needles and their pills, from the bin (mental hospital) or the clink (jail) – and I have a bed on the floor in one of the rooms, and collect rent for the landlord, and try to keep the house free of gear (drugs). The fuzz (police) are almost daily callers – I have now reached the stage where they will sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk, like persons (which they are) instead of like characters out of a horror comic.
Results: One long-standing user of drugs, a Maori woman, has come off them. I have put a statue of Our Lady on the wardrobe above her bed, and burn a blessed candle there each night to keep the actual night fears and possible demons away. The drug-users are very demon-minded.
One man, a user of amphetamines, who has been several times in the bin – a safe-cracker, part Maori, with a drug-induced notion that he may be the Second Coming of Christ – has improved a great deal. I put my arms round these people and talk to them. They are often like children lost in the dark.
Contact and good relationships with perhaps 200 people, especially among those whose ports of call are the clink and the bin. Few of them would be much over 30. The youngest – a runaway from a mental hospital, again a Maori girl, whom I hid from the police till she could hold a job and get well – is 14.
To be here is to be in the fiery furnace – their fears and their forms of agony become mine and keep me awake at night waiting for the squad cars to arrive. Yet the Lord gives me frequent tranquillity and a clear mind to work for and with them, as some kind of elder brother. I find these people basically very good and loving people – but riddled with many fears. Daddy would know what I mean – I mean he would know something of the thousands of basically good but emotionally disturbed people who fill our jails.
I have become them and them me – this is the torment and it seems what the Lord wants of me – to be devoured and consumed by the love of the many. I know they love me . . .
To Jacquie Baxter
Things have simmered down at 7 Boyle Crescent since the police shifted away the man in the house who was most prone to use and distribute drugs. I would not eject him; but I was not sorry to see him shifted – if the junkies insist on being out where the wolves (the fuzz, the doctors who break their Hippocratic oath and give information to the fuzz, and so on) are – well then, they run the risk of being eaten. To keep on using drugs is to carve a track to the clink or the bin…
A good many of the people round Grafton are at least partly Maori. E—, the man who was shifted by the fuzz, is half-Maori though he looks like a Viking. When under drugs he believes himself to be the Second Coming of Christ; though when free of drugs, he seemed to me a most vigorous and humorous man, with a great liking for farm life and the company of dogs. A long jail sentence in his teens smashed his marriage and smashed him in some degree.
O— is also part Maori. She had been using the needle and ‘stoppers’ (barbiturates etc.) for 15 years and is now about 30. She seemed to my paranoid mind at first a sinister character in the drug scene (one becomes affected by the prevailing fear attitudes of the junkies) – but she came to me eventually in the kitchen one morning, and opened out most freely about her hang-ups, and has shifted into the house and stayed off drugs for a fortnight so far, and is like a different person. This cheered me greatly. Her background includes a mother whose main drive has been not to have her kids regarded as ‘dirty Maoris’.
Z—, the hardest hit by drugs, is part Maori. Even a small dose of drugs could kill her now (she is 20 and looks about 35) – but she is remarkably practical and cheerful. Her present de facto marriage is breaking up but she has not gone back to drugs.
There are 4 or 5 Maori people on the outskirts of the scene who confine themselves to marihuana. They do not seem to suffer any ill effects apart from a certain sluggishness. From observation I am now sure that marihuana is less harmful than alcohol to the majority – a lawyer was telling me this morning that in all the violence cases he had handled alcohol was involved, and marihuana in none – and Macdonald the head of Kingseat Hospital holds that marihuana should be legalised. All I would like to see is a truce.
The Maori and pakeha people mix without any tension at the Grafton level. When I go down the street the young Maori boys come up and talk to me – apparently my beard and leather jacket and sandals convince them that I am in some way on their side of the fence. This is cheering.
V— is a girl of about 20 of Maori-Spanish extraction. Her boyfriend is in jail on a drug rap he took on her account. She has a very beautiful baby which I visited in hospital. The baby is being looked after by her parents. V— is at the Oakley mental hospital. She went out there to get off ‘stoppers’. I had been able to help her in her first effort to get off drugs. But the second time she had fits (common with withdrawal from barbiturates) and we had to shift her out to Oakley. She is now in good form.
W— came to the house running away from Oakley because they were going to send her to a Home – chiefly, I think, because they didn’t know what else to do with her. She is 14 and entirely sane; but she had a habit of swallowing pills. She is Island-Indian. A quiet girl who would come into the house and sweep it and then sit beside me on the sofa and say nothing and light cigarettes for me. Legally I should have sent her back to Oakley. Instead I got her a job in the care of a woman of 40 – where she stayed for a fortnight, and got her first pay packet before the authorities picked her up. Now she is back in Oakley. Her parents died when she was 5. She was adopted by pakehas in a fairly rigid church setting and reacted strenuously against it when she hit puberty.
Now I come to think of it, nearly all the ones I have been most closely concerned with are either Maori or have some Maori ancestor. I think this has been good training for me; since, if any get tired of visiting the bins and the clinks, and want to join me at Jerusalem, then I will already be on their wave-length. I have felt myself growing stronger, thank God, and less ruled by diffidence and fear of people.
To Colin Durning
Now I have what I desire – poverty – and I can hardly bear it!
Send me some chocolate from time to time, dear friend, when it comes naturally to you to do so – as I do not eat meat, it seems to supply a ‘meatish’ quality from time to time, perhaps protein, I don’t know – yet I can do a reasonable day’s meditating and sawing wood and digging, on –
(1) rolled oats and raisins plus coffee or else milk with hot water poured in – am trying to ease off coffee – that’s breakfast;
(2) a grapefruit plus chives and bread – but bread I have only after a trip to Wanganui – that’s lunch.
(3) potatoes crushed in boiled water, cress water, plus the boiled water cress itself – daily collected – but it will be a carrot and onion soup, thickened, tomorrow – that’s dinner, and not too bad.
To Millicent and Archibald Baxter
Dearest Mother and Daddy,
My health is good. From time to time visitors arrive. A magpie in the field, who still bashes against my windows in the morning as if urged by the devil – or by the Lord, as an alarm clock! – has been joined by two other black-and-white villains. They eat the eggs of the birds. But they are most beautiful in flight and praise God with their wings.
Last night I had a dream in which I stood a long, long time at a gate in the dark – my limbs were wooden and cold and I was near to losing consciousness. It was to be in the grave. But I could see as if through one lighter round area in a glass porch the head of a little Maori girl wearing a tam-o’-shanter – Jacquie when young.
Then suddenly Jacquie herself came to me from the dark street. She came as if from shopping; and as if we were going to go somewhere together. And I fell sideways, like a wooden man falling, and she caught and supported me in her arms – and the substance of her soul, its profound and hidden practical charity, was like the strength of a nurse at one’s bedside.
No such dream had visited me before. Then as I lay awake it seemed that in the dark He explained to me that the coldness, darkness, sense of imprisonment, of being in the grave – above all, the endless waiting upon His Will which lies now at the centre of my soul – was analogous to Purgatory. And I remarked being happy meditating in the field the day before, after Mass, and how Purgatory is both a place of pain and a garden of flowers.
I now have a true hope that my wife and I will be together again on earth – not just alongside each other – one in the spirit also. That is all I need to make me able to go on a thousand miles.
To Jacquie Baxter
Hilary mentions in her letter that she had told you there was a girl in Auckland having a child by me. That is the case. I guess the situation up there was too strenuous and disorderly for me to handle without something of the kind happening. I am fond of the girl and will give her what psychological help I can. But I haven’t the faintest intention of setting up home with her or any other woman. I can’t tell what the years will bring. But you are the one who has touched my life right at the core – that is the way it has been, is, and will be.
I had a dream recently of standing in the dark near a gate – so long that it seemed like centuries and my body was wooden – and there was a porch near the gate, and one lighted area about the size of a plate in the glass of this porch – and through it I could see your head as you were when you were a little girl, wearing a tam-o’-shanter.
Then suddenly you as you are now came in from the road, carrying some things – and I fell over, from having stood there so long, and you caught me as I fell, and simply to be with you, in spirit as well as physical presence, was like being in Heaven. So get it into your thick head, woman, whether I am alive or dead, mad or sane, celibate or fathering illegitimate children, I love you from the bottom of my soul and always will – I make no claim by stating this. I’m just recording the fact. And because of that, not principally because I’m a Catholic, you’ll never hear of me getting married to anybody else.
I have no guilt about the girl in Auckland – principally because I have done my best to behave in a human fashion and look after her and the kid, I mean on the mental level, which is more to the point than the financial one. I remember once you said to me – ‘If you actually loved these women, I think I’d respect you more.’ Well, as I’ve got older I’ve come to realise I probably loved them all – it’s a kind of mother hen instinct in me more than sex, at any rate as I get older – but when they wanted to bust up my relation to you, I would give them the axe, because I happen to love you 1800 times more than I ever did them. But in Auckland, because the set-up was different, I was able to look after the girl. It left me feeling clean, though of course my Catholic tribe will eventually hunt me down and nail me up on this score – not for having been with the girl, but for having refused to repudiate her – it is the great god of Respectability that has been injured by it. Well, I am a man now, not a boy, and carry the results of whatever I do or don’t do.
Either the money strands will come together, or they will not. Here I wait, as I did in the dream at the gate, continually in the dark. I guess it may be like that for a fair while to come.
To Jacquie Baxter
The birds are beginning to light on this old fence post. Three young Maoris from the pa called in and talked – a man, his wife and a younger man. They refused kai – said they had just eaten – but the wife gave me a chocolate bar from a box of them she was carrying. And the Sister who left today to work in town said – ‘They like you in the pa.’ Unhoped for news. Starting from zero, one sees every positive sign as lightning.
The girl in Auckland who was carrying a child of mine has lost it. I saw her when I was up there visiting the ‘tribe’ on request by urgent letter. They are not doing too badly. She was very melancholy, and I did try to cheer her up as well as I could. But I’ve at last decided from the bottom of my mind to keep my fly buttoned. For one thing, I’ve got too much else to do. There are other men in the country who can provide them with children. But it is probably necessary to know one is not being celibate out of fear or impotence.
This will probably reach you after Christmas. But I hope you have some times of rest and peace and joy over that time.
James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet, edited and introduced by John Weir (Victoria University Press, $100) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.