J. C. Sturm, Wellington Library with cover of Dedications (1996). Image: Supplied.

Baxter, redux: Second thoughts on Jacquie Sturm and her lousy husband

Two scholars respond to our recent series on James K Baxter, and his wife, Jacquie Sturm.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, senior adjunct fellow in the School of Humanities at the University of Canterbury, writes:

Jacquie Sturm: Te Whakatōhea, Taranaki (1927-2009).

Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka Māori Tuhinga Pakimaero.

He Reta ki te Maunga – a letter to the mountain.

Jacquie Sturm is back in the news and not in a good way; a way she would almost certainly not have chosen, still wrapped up in Baxter’s story as his vast collection of letters, published in two volumes with his son John’s permission, reveal the husband’s take on the state of their marriage and his admission of marital rape.

Well, let’s stop talking about him for a moment and talk about her. Just over nine years ago, I was approached to write her obituary for the Christchurch Press. I heralded her as a pioneering Māori woman who was the first of her gender and ethnicity to publish serious literary fiction.

In 1955, the editor of a new journal for Māori writing Te Ao Hou, the Dutch anthropologist Erik Schwimmer, discovered her story “For All The Saints”, and promptly published it. It was the beginning of what should have been a celebrated literary career, like those of her male Pākehā peers at the time, including her famous husband. But Jacquie was to spend the next 30 years hidden under several rocks: the long shadow of Baxter, the darkness of the patriarchy, a bloody, largely suppressed colonial history and most of all, domestic loyalty to her whānau, her tamariki mokopuna, after she and Baxter finally parted in 1969 as he made his storied ascent up the Whanganui river to secular sainthood and his early death at 46, in 1972.

I’m going to speak for a moment on my own behalf, another Pākehā male who feels he has some skin in the game. As a returning mature student in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was learning te reo Māori and studying New Zealand literature, as hungry and thirsty as a madman might be, as one who had just escaped his own cultural desert, dying for want of food and drink.

I lucked into some very fine lecturers at Canterbury; with Patrick Evans and John Newton, to mention only two, I was given an education in the whakapapa of Māori writing in English. At the same moment, over in the Māori Department I began the process of learning te reo Māori that I still follow today (albeit now at seventy-plus, experiencing some losses on those gains). I mihi here to my language teachers Te Rita Papesch and Jeanette King and others, and to the historian who would later become my chief doctoral supervisor, Lindsay Head.

As a postdoctoral student, I was offered some papers to teach and for one semester, in 2009, I taught a course for Patrick Evans on Māori writing in English. He had opened several doors for me along the road from 1997 onwards, as my eyes were opened to the origins and contemporary presence of Māori literature. Now it was my turn to pass on some of what I’d acquired through his teaching. It was on this journey I discovered and later went on to teach Jacquie Sturm’s work. I spoke of her to my students in the same manner, with the same enthusiasm as I am writing to those who read this now.

I had been earlier challenged in my language and literary studies: who I was as a Pākehā New Zealander, as a writer, as tangata treaty, as tēina to my tuākana, as junior partner to the senior, Pākehā to Māori. In the new millennium I had a platform: by 2001, at last I had found a publisher for my poetry, as Jacquie Sturm had earlier – finally – in 1996, when the radical start-up company of Steele Roberts made her first collection, Dedications, their first book. Roger had taken my first collection, As big as a father – so there we were, tuākana Jacquie, tēina me.

I was a late starter too, but as Pākehā male, even with several longstanding issues of my own to deal with in getting free, I was given an easy ride compared to the one she had to take to get her books across the line. I needed to find her and was given that grace, coming along the way to appreciate and honour this great-hearted woman, a literary ancestor to any who magic the language on page or screen in this country.

I salute her now and if you have a connection to these realms of which I speak, have any care for our voices, I suggest you seek out her work, and especially, make the effort to source and view the powerful documentary Māori Television ran on her life in June 2009, the year of her death: Broken Journey – the life and art of J. C. Sturm.

I sourced my copy from a university library, but if this wero speaks to you at all, I know you will find one. Yes, there is Māori spoken in some of the commentary but don’t worry, there are subtitles which will help you, before you sign up for your first reo classes this year. Kia mau ki tō reo rangatira, ei!

As I watched the film again, I was struck anew by her humility and deep intelligence, her courage and wisdom, her essential place in our literary and cultural history. She said, “Writers should be allowed to do what their emotional memory tells them to do, never mind about their ethnicity, never mind about their gender, just let them do it…I write to the work and for the work – you‘re not sure that you can do it but you’re going to give it a go.”

And Witi Ihimaera said that her work was the missing link between whatever came before in New Zealand letters and the emergence of Māori baby boomers like him in the 1970s: “All credit should be given to Jacquie as the very first Māori writer to write a book of fiction in English…my being published first was nothing more than an accident of timing”.

The Green Parrot in Wellington, 2003: Jacquie Baxter, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Father Paul Bergin, Roger Steele, Christine Roberts and Robin Brew.

In the year 2003, after I too had the privilege of being published by Roger Steele, I met Jacquie, through his kind invitation to a meal at The Green Parrot in Wellington, on the day she had deservedly been honoured by Victoria University with the degree of Doctor of Literature. How apt: a doctor indeed, broken times over herself on the wheel of multiple losses and abandonment, losses that even at that late stage in her life were not yet over – broken but unbowed, revived and reviving on that great day in our literary history.

E Te Kare Papuni, Jacqui Sturm, Jacquie Baxter: you who spoke of the power of emotional memory in literature, whose bruising, wounded yet triumphant life, whose dedication to your whānau, your iwi and your art have you standing now before us as anything but a victim. E kui, it was a privilege to meet you even that once, even for a moment, to sit by you during that meal, to ask you about yourself and have you with the self-effacement born of long practice, turning the conversation back onto me, deflecting my gaze, asking me questions, another Pākehā male, slowly waking up.

E te wahine toa, e te rangatira, e te tau ihu o te waka tuhituhi nei, haere rā, takoto mai i te taha a tō māmā, ki Opunake, i waenganui i te moana nui me Taranaki maunga – haere, haere, haere atu rā!

J.C. Sturm’s grave in Opunake.

Stephen Chan, Professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, writes:

Karl Stead, in his account of how Baxter left his home in Tohunga Crescent, Parnell, has me driving him away. I don’t remember this, but I am sure it is an accurate recollection. It seemed sometimes I drove him everywhere. Sometimes to drug parties where my only real recollection is the first playings in New Zealand of Van Morrison’s LP, Astral Weeks. I certainly encountered him emerging from Karl’s office, where he would have asked for money. And I remember him commandeering large slices of my breakfast in Gibraltar Crescent, Parnell, during the weeks I lived in the dirt basement of Tim Shadbolt’s People’s Republic.

Baxter was a sponger and unashamed about it. His sense of Catholic sainthood was keenly felt but also a self-conscious impersonation. He really did care for his druggie children and Jerusalem commune. His Boyle Crescent druggie den in Grafton, Auckland, was opposite to where I had lived as a child, and I would visit out of sentimentality as much as a desire to see him.

And this is the point. It was obvious that much about Baxter was charade. He enjoyed the charade. However, there was also very much that was real and caring and genuinely communal. And this leads to the question about how he cared for women.

I want to get this straight. He enjoyed women. He used them. He got his saintly rocks off. They too. There was something patriarchal about him that many troubled young women wanted and needed. The good thing was that, while he was patriarchal, he was not patrimonial. He did not think he owned them.

For them, it may not always have been fully comfortable. He really did have lice that he complained about in his ‘Jerusalem Sonnets’ and other writings of his late era.

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Was he a rapist as he boasted in a letter about his wife? Possibly. But to layer some perspective upon the scandal developing about this, Baxter was a poet whose great gift was exaggeration about himself. He could be a bastard and a liar. He may have forced himself upon Jacqui Sturm. He might have been a flagrant embelisher of his own masculine and macho capacity. Either way, it was sad and, if the former, reprehensible.

I am too far from New Zealand and too far in years gone by since I moved about with Baxter – yes, chiefly by being a chauffeur of sorts. He helped me grow a lot. Often by adopting a perspective derived from him of how men make legends of themselves – and vowing not to do it. But I learned also of how much, under all of that, he cared in his own way for very many people. And he was a bloody good poet. Had he lived, he would have deserved nomination for the Nobel Prize.

I am convinced his line in his infamous poem to Sam Hunt about a sly pus-ridden tomcat was a reference to me. He was ambivalent about me, but kind, as I tried despite ambivalence to be kind to him. When he died, I mourned him much.

James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet edited by John Weir (Victoria University Press, $100) is available at Unity Books.


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