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James K. Baxter Complete Prose Volume 1

Arawata Bill, a sequence of poems

Arawata Bill, a sequence of poems

In this recent volume, to his other gifts Mr Glover has added those of a raconteur. It is a sequence of poems derived from real and imagined incidents in the life of William O’Leary, gold prospector, eccentric, and explorer of the South Island hill country. Inevitably, however, Mr Glover has written more than a verse chronicle: as a successful poem must, the sequence moves at two levels, actual and symbolic. And as Dylan Thomas expands the dithyrambic ‘A Winter’s Tale’ from three lines of an earlier poem, so Mr Glover has developed Arawata Bill consciously or unconsciously from the imaginative kernel of an earlier five-liner:

Ancient and crazed, with eye a-glitter,
The prospector crossed the laborious range
Like a beetle, and was drowned in the bend
Of a river that’s not yet named:
Not the gold but the dream was his end. (‘Not On Record’)

His other published verse, excluding perhaps The Coaster film commentary, has not been directed toward a conscious dramatic end. Nevertheless, in his ‘Sings Harry’ lyrics he created in the enigmatic character of Harry a highly successful unifying focus for oracular statements about human life and destiny; it may be an actual poetic persona. Harry was an ironic spectator. Arawata Bill is a man committed to a definite search, that of the alchemists, for gold, but symbolically for some unnameable good, whether it be reality, power, or beatitude:

page 133

What metal lies
Between those granite thighs,
What parturition of earth
Yields the golden miraculous birth?

Bee carries golden pollen,
Mountain and mist breed schist,
And the swollen river runs sullen
With the dust I have missed. (‘To the Coast’, II)

The peculiar power of Mr Glover’s landscape poetry rises from the fact that mountain, river, bushland and sea assume in it the proportions of animistic powers; and the chief importance of Arawata Bill is that it constitutes an extension of this frame of reference. Arawata Bill moves and perseveres in the arena of indifferent, even antagonistic spiritual forces: he is the dilapidated demigod of a nature myth. In that ‘wicked country’ prayer is legitimate, but a packhorse a more suitable companion than a man. Virtues count less than tactics. There are also protective powers:

And Paradise Pete
Scrabbling a hole in the sleet
When the cloud smote and waters roared
Had scrawled on a piece of board
RIVERS TOO DEEP. (‘Camp Site’)

These lines have the untranslatable significance of a Chinese ideograph.

It is a measure of the strength and weakness of Arawata Bill that the poem on the opposite page to ‘Camp Site’, though superficially similar, lacks entirely the symbolic force of its companion piece. Where Mr Glover falls back on the factual skeleton of the story of William O’Leary the myth fails and he stumbles easily into sentimentality and banality. His method of direct and apparently casual statement makes him run the gauntlet of these faults, which are peculiarly the faults of Georgian poetry. In this sequence his very real debt to the Georgians is made clear – hitherto camouflaged by irony and deliberate bathos. Yet by walking a stylistic tightrope he has extended his poetic technique, and at his best has carried symbol and image to an ultimate simplicity. He has rarely written more perfect lines than those of the opening poem of the sequence (‘The Scene’) where one is introduced to the giant protagonists of earth, air and water, and the fire of the gold which emerges like a flower from the ‘womb of the storm’, the core of Heraclitean cosmos; and certainly nothing more perfect than this six-line prayer:

page 134

Mother of God, in this brazen sun
Lead me down from the arid heights
Before my strength is done.
Give me the rain
That not long since I cursed in vain.
Lead me to the river, the life-giver. (‘A Prayer’)

These are not the sections of the poem which one regrets. But it is fair to state that Mr Glover has written some of his worst as well as his best verse in Arawata Bill. Because the sequence is direct and not at any simple level humorous, he lays bare his Achilles’ heel – the sentimentality into which he frequently lapses when the tension of the poem slackens or cannot be sustained. No doubt this criticism could be made aptly of any poet living. But in Arawata Bill the new cloth at times rends the old garment. The sequence bears the relation to his earlier work which a series of rapidly executed yet on the whole masterly charcoal sketches would bear to a group of watercolours by the same hand. I must confess a liking for charcoal sketches. The price of the book is reasonable and the typography of the usual Pegasus standard.

1953 (72)