What can I say about Baxter? He was troubled, broken, burned too bright: died too young. In my view, he is the best New Zealand poet.
And the academics hate him. He’s too religious, too much a bloke. He’s accused of being horrible to his wife, a good poet in her own right (and he probably was). But most gifted men are prats.
What annoys the academics most was that he repented, was penitent, and died shriven.
The Jerusalem sonnets were published as a stapled booklet, set in typescript, on cheap paper. There are some books I do not want to ever lose. That booklet is one of them.
The small grey cloudy louse that nests in my beard
Is not, as some have called it, ‘a pearl of God’ —
No, it is a fiery tormentor
Waking me at two a.m.
Or thereabouts, when the lights are still on
In the houses in the pa, to go across thick grass
Wet with rain, feet cold, to kneel
For an hour or two in front of the red flickering
Tabernacle light — what He sees inside
My meandering mind I can only guess —
A madman, a nobody, a raconteur
Whom He can joke with — ‘Lord,’ I ask Him,
‘Do You or don’t You expect me to put up with lice?’
His silent laugh still shakes the hills at dawn.
James K Baxter, 1975
About twilight we came to the whitewashed pub
On a knuckle of land above the bay
Where a log was riding and the slow
Bird-winged breakers cast up spray.
One of the drinkers round packing cases had
The worn face of a kumara god,
Or so it struck me. Later on
Lying awake in the veranda bedroom
In great dryness of mind I heard the voice of the sea
Reverberating, and thought: As a man
Grows older he does not want beer, bread, or the prancing flesh,
But the arms of the eater of life, Hine-nui-te-po,
With teeth of obsidian and hair like kelp
Flashing and glimmering at the edge of the horizon.
James K Baxter, 1966
Most critics turn to Jung and to Freud, those unreliable guides, to navigate the mythos of Baxter. That is wrong. He was of the faith, and he knew that to all men come death, and after that judgment. He knew New Zealand was called one people by treaty, but was always two people: though he married into Ngai Kahu he was from that nonconformist socially activist faith of his Quaker father.
He found more solace in Rome, and at the old Catholic mission station called Jerusalem. For the first poem quoted was his last work, and his ending.