All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books revisits the great poet James K Baxter, on the occasion of a new book of letters. Today: CK Stead remembers Baxter, in this extract taken from his memoir in progress, South-East of Everywhere.
Early in 1966 the Otago University Students’ Association invited me to Dunedin. I was to be there for a weekend. On the Friday night there would be a lecture by James K Baxter and a poetry reading in which he and I would take part; on the Saturday evening I would give the lecture and this would be followed by more poetry reading and a panel discussion – all of which happened, with more or less the same quite large student and staff audience, causing me surprise at their appetite and stamina.
Baxter was impressive as always – that shaggy presence, the oversized head and hunched shoulders, the peculiarly resonant voice, the seriousness and weight of utterance, the sense of ancient, and even divine, authority invoked. It was all to my eye and ear more than faintly absurd – even ridiculous, while at the same time I yielded to it as to a natural force, a phenomenon, the Poet with a capital P talking about Poetry and how he had put one of his Poems together. I loved every minute of his lecture, but considered it, intellectually, tosh – the Catholic new boy (he was a recent convert) demonstrating a sophisticated grasp of sin and redemption, with a twisty Graham Greene-ish unorthodoxy, and a ‘liberal’ ability to shock the old dears of the Church, male and female, lay and clergy alike.
That night and the one before Charles Brasch had cooked dinner which he and I ate alone together. All I remember is that it ended with chocolate fish for dessert, and coffee; and that both nights after the University event we sat over his gas fire and toasted crumpets having, not so much a man-to-man as a heart-to-heart. Crumpets! Charles was very serious and very kind. I need to acknowledge that, because I’m sure I was in his debt, and felt that I was; but I have to say also that he was very precious. One felt he was almost certainly gay, but probably not happy about it, and not active. There was none of the easy openness that could prevail with Frank Sargeson on the subject of sex. I was not at ease with Charles, and I remember nothing of our talk – only its slight discomfort, and that I tried very hard to make it go well, and not to displease or disappoint him.
On the Sunday morning we drove to his crib at Broad Bay with Janet Frame and Ruth Dallas. Janet was skittish in this company. I’d had a warm letter from her in London the previous November, and it seemed we were to be friends again. Ruth took a photo of three of us, which I described later: “Janet sitting smiling at the camera from behind the safety-screen of dark glasses, Charles clinging to a veranda post and smiling down at her, me leaning back against another post, pencil-thin and formal, with a goatee beard, looking like a Viennese doctor.” But it was Baxter who made the strongest impression on that visit.
Afterwards, Jim moved into his full hippie phase. He had established his commune (he preferred to call it a community) at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River and now, using that as his base, went about New Zealand with bare feet, long hair, an untrimmed beard and clothes from St Vincent de Paul – though his deserted wife Jacquie, who wrote as JC Sturm, and in whose name he was making his way into Māoridom, made it known he had good shoes and one or two nice suits in the wardrobe at home in Wellington.
He called the young drop-outs and drug addled acolytes he gathered around him “nga mokai” – explaining that this meant “the fatherless ones”; but I think a more accurate translation would have been his “tribe of followers” (the disciples of Jesus could equally have been called “nga mokai”); and sometimes he referred to them romantically as “the tribe of the wind”.
In Auckland there was a sort of crash pad in Boyle Crescent and he was there from time to time. It was there he wrote his poem “Ode to Auckland”, which begins “Auckland, you great arsehole”, and also the “The Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz” with its Ginsberg/Howl echoes and its grim view of suburban folk going “home to their well-lit prisons”.
Now and then he would knock at my office door in the English Department and I would be wrapped in a hug and asked for “bread, man”. “Bread” was money of course, and it was understood he had to be received as a sort of semi-official self-appointed Catholic mendicant. Jim made his own rules, and he was famous enough for the Church to be glad to claim him. This was the time of the Jerusalem Sonnets which I hugely admired, and I still value my copy inscribed with his “Arohanui, Hemi”, and its characteristic hand-drawn insignia/design. I loved the poet in him and found the high-toned hypocritical moralist absurd, and at times almost intolerable.
I considered his solemn convert-Catholicism only a little short of idiotic, not least when he wrote lengthy, convoluted, self-contradictory defences of the church’s rulings on birth control. “Your correspondent,” he wrote in one such, “has astonished me by the claim that artificial birth control ‘rests with every woman’s individual choice'”; and he went on to invoke “Christ’s injunction to His followers to remember their bodies were the temples of the Holy Spirit.” Baxter’s own temple of the Holy Spirit was known to be widely available, and quite frequently sought by young women with an appetite for Poetry-in-the-flesh.
My first novel Smith’s Dream was launched in a hardcover on October 28, 1971, 11 days after my 39th birthday. It received some slightly puzzled but mainly warm reviews; and it was to be the first work of fiction to win one of the New Zealand Book Awards. It was something unexpected in our writing, and I had a feeling it puzzled people who knew me.
Sargeson was silent, and I guessed it puzzled him. Clearly it was political in intention; but such an unabashed story, as if EM Forster’s precious and more than faintly disdainful, “Oh dear yes, I’m afraid the novel tells a story”, was being flouted. What was I aiming for? John Buchan? Graham Greene? Entertainment? This kind of thing from a poet who had so far made his mark as a literary critic, an academic – something of an intellectual, was confusing.
On a Saturday a few weeks later the phone rang and an unmistakable patrician voice told me it was Hemi. He was in the University Bookshop in Auckland where he had spent yesterday and this morning reading my novel. It was an important book, he said, and we needed to talk about it. So he was soon at our door and, after greetings and hugs all round and a quick survey of the house, he had established himself comfortably on the floor of the small upstairs sitting room that caught the morning sun.
Kay, who felt a certain affection for him but would sometimes interrupt his monologues with “Oh come off it Jim”, welcomed him. Lunch was soon ready and he preferred to take his up there where he’d made himself at home. Charlotte has recorded a memory of the outrage the almost five-year-old felt finding her favourite space in the house occupied by this “lordly bossy hippie” with his beard and bare feet.
The talk was mostly about the war in Vietnam – what else at that time, with Nixon and Kissinger still recklessly in charge of the mayhem it had become? – and the Smith’s Dream idea had been inspired or incited by it. Kay and I got on with our day, stopping off to chat with the guru and then continuing our preparations for departure. We were to leave in December and would have Christmas at sea somewhere between Auckland and Panama, so the preparations were beginning to seem urgent.
In addition was the fact that Kay’s nephew John Laurie had had a serious motorbike accident. His mangled leg had been saved, but only just, the repair was going to take time, his parents were living in the Waikato and we – Kay in particular – were his regular visitors. A visit was scheduled for today and we had only one car. What was to be done with Hemi, who was already known for moving in with friends and taking up residence for indefinite periods?
I decided our situation had to be explained with the clear implication he should move on. This was received in silence but with unmistakeable and dark displeasure. It was a breach of the protocol he had invented for himself, which he conceived to be Māori. He phoned Stephen Chan (now Professor of World Politics at the School of African and Asian Studies, University of London) to come and collect him, and drove off beside Stephen, staring ahead, refusing all our warm waves and signals of fond farewell. It was the last I ever saw of him.
October 17, 1972 was my 40th birthday – just the family and a cake with significant funny presents, and a special one from Kay. Five days later Baxter died in Auckland of a heart attack.
The news when it came to us in Menton was of something like national mourning: it was said no poet’s death had so affected New Zealand. Baxter was 46 – another of those deaths present-day cardiac surgery would have rendered unnecessary. I remembered sadly the grim non-farewell at our gate and regretted the circumstance that had brought it about. I also felt a sort of anger with him for the stupid regime of piety and self-laceration he had endured – semi-starvation, the long barefoot walks in cold wet weather over stony roads, the flagellation with a buckled belt – its theatricality and hypocrisy.
But what a talent, and what a loss! Some years before I had reviewed a book of his less than generously, chastising its religiosity and extravagance, and then had grown to love the more recent poems, the Jerusalem Sonnets and the ones that followed. Irrationally I was bothered by the thought that he would not read what I had to say about him now – the sense that a conversation had been cut short.
James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet, edited and introduced by John Weir (Victoria University Press, $100) is available at Unity Books.