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James K. Baxter Complete Prose Volume 4


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James Keir Baxter (1926-72) was a great poet and a highly accomplished prose writer. He was a profoundly religious man, an astute analyst of his own nature and human nature generally, an insightful commentator on society, a staunch defender of human rights and a compassionate friend of people who lived on the fringe of middle-class society, usually for reasons they did not choose. At times some of his roles and behaviours conflicted with others. He was, in fact, a man of contradictions, a man who was rarely at ease with himself and often at odds with conventional society.

In a memorable flashback he paid tribute to his first ancestors in New Zealand: ‘. . . those Gaelic-speaking men and women, descending with their bullock drays and baggage to cross the mouth of what is now the Brighton river; near to sunset, when the black and red of the sky intimated a new thing, a radical loss and a radical beginning; and the earth lay before them, for that one moment of history, as a primitive and sacred Bride, unentered and unexploited.’ (No. 411, ‘The Man on the Horse’).

John Baxter of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute in the Western Highlands arrived with his wife and children at Port Chalmers on 28 January 1861. After a short spell in the immigrant barracks they moved to Brighton, a seaside settlement squeezed between small hills and the sea about ten miles south of Dunedin. In this region of green, hilly farms and stony beaches most of the local men were fishermen, farmers or labourers. At first Baxter made a living as a cook; then, after he had saved some money he set up a cookhouse to cater for gold-diggers. It is said that at one stage he struck gold at the Dunstan. If this is true it did not increase the family’s prosperity for long because he squandered any money that came into his hands.

His son, also named John, was about ten years old when he arrived in New Zealand. He would become James K. Baxter’s paternal grandfather. He was a hard-working casual labourer, but because he was hard-drinking he found it hard to keep a job.

Mary McColl was born in 1858 at Glencrevan, Ballachulish, in the Western Highlands. So she was a baby when she and her family arrived at Port Chalmers on 12 September 1859. (She was fortunate to have survived because eight children died during the voyage.) After leaving the immigration barracks the McColls moved to Brighton, where Mary’s father Archibald began farming.

John Baxter wanted to marry her; he was twenty-eight and she was twenty-one. When he asked for permission her father replied that he would give it if page 2John could keep off the drink for six months. He couldn’t, but was permitted to marry all the same. The wedding took place at Winton on 16 August 1879. The first child was named John after his father and father’s father. (It was also the name of his mother’s brother.) After his birth the family moved to Brighton. The second child, Archibald McColl Learmond Baxter, was born in the sod cottage in his grandfather’s Brighton farm on 13 December 1881. (He would become James K. Baxter’s father.)

Mary, a short, stocky woman, was warm-hearted and had a sense of fun. She worked hard and was a good manager. She was also well able to cope with her husband’s drinking and spendthrift ways and was quick to evict him and his friends if they became a nuisance. She was a strong woman:

She carried a sack of oatmeal on her back
Twelve miles, walking beside the breakers
From the town to her own gate. (CP 389-90)

Her husband was an emotional man, a renowned bagpiper and a religious enthusiast. A practising Presbyterian, he hung religious texts around the walls to remind himself to keep the rules. But he was liberal enough to listen to Plymouth Brethren preachers when they came to town. As a result of their influence he gave up drinking for thirteen years. Because he was spendthrift and unable to hold down a job Archie (aged twelve) and John (his elder brother) had to leave school and go to work to support the family. Archie was hard-working and reliable. He did seasonal work and shot rabbits. (Later he became head ploughman at Gladbrook Station, sixty miles from Dunedin.)

Scottish clans had been devastated by English invaders and the landlords’ clearances and this fact festered in the minds of many expatriates. It may even have contributed to Archie’s steely resolve to confront militarism and social injustice. His programme of self-education included socialist tracts and poetry – particularly the poems of Robert Burns, the English Romantics, and the Australian ballads of Henry Lawson. He also composed verse and wrote a novel which was never published.

He won a small farm in a ballot and gave it to his father, who so mismanaged it that the bailiffs were brought in. At this stage Archie was rabbiting in Central Otago but he returned to Brighton, bought the farm back and then ran it until it became productive and profitable. He was already well respected throughout the district but his response to this crisis added to his reputation, causing others to seek his advice on their issues.

Archie was not a member of any Church but he was naturally religious and treated other people with respect. He was also patient. These qualities were put to the test at the outbreak of the First World War, for he was a pacifist and socialist and believed in universal brotherhood. One of the authors he read would have been Pat Hickey, my great-uncle, trade unionist, socialist lecturer, page 3 writer and editor, and secretary of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, who made his name leading the great Blackball Strike of 1908 and by his provocative speeches and writings such as his famous article headlined ‘To Hell with Agreements’ which sidelined him in more conservative Labour circles but made him a hero among radicals.

Like Archie Baxter, and for similar reasons, Pat Hickey was opposed to war. But whereas Archie was willing to accept the consequences of conscription in New Zealand, Hickey moved to Australia in 1915 to campaign against it. He believed that New Zealanders would support conscription because of their jingoistic militarism and inbred imperialism, whereas Australians might oppose it because they were more republican and ‘agin the Government’. He worked there for the duration of the War as a highly effective fulltime anti-conscription campaigner and his organising efforts, speech-making and writings contributed greatly to the success of the campaign – in two referenda the Australians rejected conscription.

It was different in New Zealand where compulsory conscription was introduced in May 1916 and many Labour Party members, leaders and rank and file, were arrested. Archie Baxter and some of his brothers were among them. (Eventually six of the seven Baxter brothers were gaoled.) From Australia Hickey wrote to the socialist press deploring these events and redoubled his efforts to prevent conscription taking root in Australia.

In New Zealand Archie Baxter was verbally abused, mistreated and manhandled. He was forcibly dressed in a military uniform which he always took off as soon as he could. After some time in a Wellington jail he and eleven others were forced aboard the Waitemata which departed for England. Because of a measles outbreak the dissidents were put ashore at the Cape of Good Hope. About three months later they resumed their voyage on the Llanstephan Castle. After the ship docked they were imprisoned for a month in Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plains. In January 1918 Archie was forced into a military uniform and handcuffed so that he could not remove the uniform and backpack.

He was sent across the Channel, first to Boulogne, then to Belgium where he was placed under the control of British military officers who subjected him to the highest level of punishment available to them under military regulations – a month’s torture known as No. 1 Field Punishment. This occurred at Mud Farm, a military compound where two other New Zealand pacifists, Mark Briggs and L.J. Kirwan, were similarly tortured. Archie was tied to a willow post by ropes which cut into his flesh and stopped his circulation. Very soon parts of his body were black with bruising and dried blood. His wrists were tied and pulled up high behind him, forcing him into a cramped hanging position with his heels off the ground. The ropes were made so tight that he could not move an inch.

After the crucifixion torture failed to force him to abandon his objections page 4 to war the torturers sent him up to the front lines. On the eve of his involuntary departure for the front he wrote to his parents:

As far as military service goes,I amof the same mind asever. It is impossible for me to serve in the army. I would a thousand times rather be put to death, and I am sure that you all believe the stand I take is right. I have never told you since I left NZ of things I have passed through, for I know how it would hurt you. I only tell you now, so that, if anything happens to me, you will know. I have suffered to the limit of my endurance, but I will never in my sane senses surrender to the evil power that has fixed its roots like cancer on the world. I have been treated as a soldier who disobeys (No. 1 Field Punishment). That is hard enough at this time of year, but what made it worse for me was that I was bound to refuse to do military work, even as a prisoner. It is not possible for me to tell in words what I have suffered. But you will be glad to know that I have met with a great many men who have shown me the greatest kindness. I know that your prayers for me are not in vain. I will pray for you all to the last; it is all I can do for you now. If you hear that I have served in the Army or that I have taken my own life, do not believe that I did it in my sound mind. I never will. (McKay 20)

He believed that he was about to be shot by his captors or deliberately put in harm’s way to ensure that his death was inevitable.

The day after he wrote the letter he was sent to the front lines near Ypres where he was placed alongside an ammunition dump during a German artillery barrage which exposed him to a ‘storm of mud and fire and flying fragments’. During the bombardment he feared that if he moved a yard in any direction he would have been killed by the shellfire. Afterwards he still refused to fight. Subsequently a doctor declared him insane, even though he was not, and this probably saved his life as it is likely that the authorities had decided to shoot him.

After the war he was returned to New Zealand where a vindictive Government deprived him of all civil rights for ten years and in the climate of post-War euphoria he was regarded as a traitor. Despite legal constraints and the hostility of local patriots, the Baxter brothers lived as before. They resumed seasonal work; saved some money, and then took a break during which they went hunting or fishing or attended race meetings. Archie was a successful rabbiter and careful to put more money by than he spent. He was away from home when a young woman called to see him. She had been greatly moved by the story of his heroic pacifism.

She was a daughter of John Macmillan Brown (1846-1935), son of a shipmaster, who was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. (He was to become James K. Baxter’s maternal grandfather.) Macmillan Brown attended Edinburgh University, where Thomas Carlyle was Rector. In 1865 he transferred to Glasgow University. Four years later he achieved first-class honours and won a scholarship which took him to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied page 5 philosophy and classics and became a pupil and favourite of Benjamin Jowett, the great Plato scholar, tutor and Master of the College.

In 1873 Canterbury University College was founded in Christchurch, New Zealand. One year later Macmillan Brown was appointed founding professor of English and of Classics. His appointment was justified but it was undoubtedly helped by the fact that the committee included both Jowett and his classics professor from Edinburgh. Almost immediately he travelled to Christchurch where his energetic, highly informed and eloquent performances as a teacher and philosophical lecturer inspired his classes.

Soon after his arrival he received an application from a mother on behalf of her daughter. Helen Connon was born in Australia in 1857. After an interview he agreed to accept her as a student provided that she undertook some preliminary courses. She then became the first woman student in the University of New Zealand. In 1881 she became the first woman in the British Empire to achieve an honours degree when she was awarded First-Class Honours in Latin and English. In the following year, at the age of twenty-three, she became headmistress of Christchurch Girls’ High School. By then she had been engaged to Macmillan Brown for about three years but for family reasons and also because of her responsibilities at the High School she did not feel free to marry until 1886. Their first child, Millicent Amiel was born on 8 January 1888 (named ‘Amiel’ in memory of the Swiss philosopher, poet and literary critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-81). When Helen became pregnant a second time it was thought that her life was at risk and the pregnancy was terminated.

In 1894, affected by ill-health and needing to devote more time to her husband and Millicent, she resigned from Christchurch Girls’ High School. In the following year her husband resigned from the chair of English which he had held for sixteen years, but he retained his position on the Senate of the University of New Zealand, to which he was elected in 1876. From 1916 to 1923 he was vice-chancellor; and from 1923 to 1935 chancellor. Another pregnancy proved to be free of complications and Viola Helen Lockhart was born on 16 November 1897. (She eventually married Angelo Notariello, an opera singer.)

In 1902, near the end of a two-year family trip overseas, Helen miscarried but never recovered properly. One of the symptoms of her ill-health was ulcers in her mouth which were not treated, possibly because her husband pooh-poohed illness and was reluctant to pay doctor’s fees. So when he mooted a family trip to Auckland she became anxious because she felt very unwell, but he persuaded her to go. While they were visiting Rotorua her throat became infected. She died on 27 February 1903.

Heartbroken, Macmillan Brown ploughed his energies into tutoring his fifteen-year-old daughter Millicent. But he was too demanding and expected too much from her. She resented this as well as the fact that he did not exhibit affection. Her feelings were intensified by the fact that her mother had alsopage 6 been reserved and did not show her physical affection. Millicent’s response to her father’s demanding tutoring was not to try her best. But she did better when she was away from home. In 1903 she was sent to Sydney where she was cared for by relatives and educated at the Presbyterian Ladies College in the suburb of Croyden. Afterwards she studied Latin, French and German for three years at Sydney University, gaining a BA in 1908. She then returned to New Zealand to look after her father in Dunedin, where he was acting Professor of English. In 1909 they toured England and Europe together. Then, after gaining entry to Newnham College, Cambridge, she began studying French and Old French. She passed with second-class honours but regulations did not permit her to take a degree. In 1913 she enrolled for doctoral studies in Old French at Halle University in Germany but her German was not up to it and she left after a year and a half. On the eve of World War One she returned to New Zealand to become her father’s hostess and companion. At times their relationship was uneasy because he was dictatorial and she was independent and strong-willed.

As a result of her upbringing her ideas about war were conventional. When hostilities broke out she joined the Red Cross as a sign of her patriotism and willingness to serve her country and Empire. But in 1918 the writer Blanche Baughan gave her a copy of the letter Archie Baxter wrote to his parents just before he was subjected to No. 1 Field Punishment, and its impact upon her was immediate and profound. Her sympathy for Archie and his fellow pacifists converted her to pacifism and made her more favourable to socialism. Thereafter she carried the letter around with her and became increasingly determined to meet its author. The opportunity came in 1920 when her father was invited to be interim acting Professor of English at the University of Otago and she accompanied him to Dunedin. She made several attempts to meet Archie at his family home but on each occasion found that he was rabbiting or doing farm work somewhere else.

Eventually she succeeded. Won over by his love, heroism, steadfastness and compassion, she wanted to marry him. He responded to her mixture of idealism and common sense by deciding that she was the only woman he could marry. Her father was opposed to their plans. He argued that their circumstances and backgrounds were too different, that Archie was too poor and not well enough educated; he insisted that they would never be happy and predicted that their marriage would end in tragedy. But they were determined to marry and did so on 2 February 1921 when Archie was thirty-nine and Millicent thirty-three. They did not have a reception, preferring to spend the day picnicking at a nearby reservoir. During the following week they had daily picnics on the banks of the Brighton River. Then Archie went rabbiting again.

Within a few months he had earned enough money to buy a small farming property at Kuri Bush, near Brighton, not far from the sea. Millicent choppedpage 7 wood for the fire, cooked and washed clothes in an outside tub and happily lived the kind of life that her father predicted would make her unhappy.

Their real problems came about because of Archie’s pacifism, which caused him to be persecuted. The district council enforced regulations against him, sometimes dishonestly, and fined him on the slightest pretext. Some neighbours broke down his fences or set his stock free. But hostility was not universal. Other neighbours, especially those who were Scots-descended, helped out at harvest time. As a result of hard work, despite the interference, mischief and criminal behaviour of local ‘patriots’, he improved the farm and made it more productive.

Their first child Terence McSweeney Baxter (born on 23 May 1922) was named after the lord mayor of Cork who died while on a hunger strike. Millicent then had a series of miscarriages but eventually, on 29 June 1926, her second and only other child was born in a Dunedin maternity home. He was named James Keir Baxter in honour of James Keir Hardie, union organiser, pacifist, and first Labour member of the House of Commons, who visited New Zealand in 1908.

After the Kuri Bush farm was sold in 1931 the Baxters moved to a cottage at 13 Bedford Parade, Brighton. The seaside settlement of about three hundred residents had become a resort for people from Dunedin. Archie became a paid farm-labourer, working throughout the district wherever work became available. He and Millicent survived the financial depression of the 1930s because he was a good worker, gardener, hunter and fisherman, and she was a good household manager (although, apparently, not much concerned about tidiness or producing meals on time). She and Archie were compassionate, generous, and shared what they could with the unemployed. They also found time to campaign against compulsory military training in schools.

Archie read Terry and Jim the poetry of Burns, Byron, Keats and Shelley, and the ballads of ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson. Their mother read them Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. As Jim grew older he read his mother’s books of classical myths and legends and became ‘a companion of Odin and Thor and Jason and Ulysses’. Neither boy was baptised but their mother sometimes read to them from the Bible. They were different in temperament. Terence was brooding, cautious; Jim was easy-going and impulsive but resented the fact that his brother was his mother’s favourite.

In the year they moved from Kuri Bush, Jim began attending the Brighton school. He could already read and so held an advantage over other children, but his advantage did not last because he was lazy. He said later that he did not want to learn because ‘I was already unconsciously erecting my defences around that core of primitive experience, that ineducable self which I like to call a dinosaur’s egg. Unfortunately the abstract analytical processes which the schools were able to offer me, and ram down my throat, if necessary . . . have the side-effect of neutralising this kind of experience page 8 and making it inaccessible to the conscious mind.’ (No. 376, ‘Recollections of School Days’).

His most memorable lessons were not learnt at school. He was just six years old when he and two other children showed each other their bottoms. His mother came in pursuit of him, angry, shouting his name. He never forgot his overwhelming fear, ‘God and all his bulldozers were on the march’. It was, he confessed later, the deepest fear he ever felt. (He was also to claim that in all the family marriages he had known the wives, not the husbands, were in charge and so the marriages were sterile.)

From early on he was bored by organised games and much preferred rambling, reading and writing. He began writing poetry when he was seven. On Brighton Beach his senses and imagination were put to use in his first poem:

O Ocean, in thy rocky bed
The starry fishes swim about –
There coral rocks are strewn around
Like some great temple on the ground . . .

As well as writing his own poems Jim memorised poems by Burns and others. He also memorised Bible extracts. Their rhythms were preserved in his mind.

He had two very different images of grandfathers. John Macmillan Brown was a fortune-making, go-getting self-made man, hard-working, smart and patrician. He had a utopian view of life founded on money and education. Jim saw him only rarely and had little reason to like him.

His second grandfather was John Baxter, a poor Scots-descended workingman, repressed, lethargic, almost sullen, a great piper and a heavy drinker. In time Jim came to see his own image in this impotent, much put-upon and inwardly raging man, rather than in his highly respected, highly achieving Christchurch grandfather. In a poem written in 1967 he addressed John Baxter as ‘my looking-glass twin’.

As a son of a known pacifist Jim was bullied at Brighton School by the sons of patriots; depending on circumstances he fought back. Some teachers did not like him because even though he was generally polite he could be smart and attention-seeking. He was clever but did not work hard or even moderately well. He also got into trouble for fighting and using profane language. His internal fire-storm found expression in the fact that he liked to light fires in hedges and scrub. Before long Prometheus the fire-bringer would become his most significant classical hero.

Later he would say that his true education occurred in the coastal landscape of Brighton. He came to know the local area like the back of his hand, and during the family’s annual Christmas expeditions to Central Otagopage 9 and Southland he investigated the landscape. Many of the images stored in his mind at that time emerged memorably in his later writings.

After John Macmillan Brown retired from teaching he busied himself with scholarly studies, especially anthropology. He travelled extensively throughout the Pacific and published the results of his observations and speculations. Since 1916 he had been vice-chancellor of the Senate of the University of New Zealand and in 1923 he became chancellor. He might have been knighted for his services but it has been said that the Governor-General Lord Bledisloe remarked that he would never make a knight of a man who profited from education.

When Macmillan Brown died in Christchurch on 18 January 1935, aged 89, he left an annuity of £400 p.a. to each of his daughters but the University of Canterbury inherited the bulk of his fortune. He also left to the university his collection of 15,000 books about New Zealand and the Pacific. (In 1988 the university honoured one of his intentions when it opened the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies.) His daughters contested the will without success.

In 1935, the year that Macmillan Brown died, his grandson Terence was given a severe thrashing by a teacher at Brighton School. As a result his parents became so angry that they removed him and sent him as a boarder to the Society of Friends’ school in Whanganui. In the following year Jim and his parents moved to Whanganui and he also began attending the school. He was still uncooperative. Each pupil was required to carry a notebook in which teachers could enter a black mark to indicate an offence and initial it:

At the end of the week one took the notebook to the headmaster’s study, and there was a close examination of the motives and causes, and penalties assigned if one had more than three black marks. Some stainless individuals had no black marks at all. The system induced in me a curious reaction. After I had acquired two or three black marks, a kind of impenitent despair would take charge of me, and I would acquire in rapid succession 15 or 20 of them. As a result I found myself more or less permanently deprived of privileges and confined to the dungeons. The sessions with the headmaster were both emotional and dramatic. (No. 376, ‘Recollections of School Days’)

His early experiences, like the experiences of his parents, set him on track to collide with conventional society.

Archie, who was a worrier and prone to melancholy, needed a change. Early in 1937 the family travelled to England and visited the place where Sling Camp had stood, the military base on the Salisbury Plain where he had been imprisoned. Subsequently Millicent wrote down his account of the atrocious treatment he had received, interrupting him regularly to ask him to add colour and feeling to the narrative. (It was published by Gollancz in 1939 as We Will Not Cease.) Jim was deeply affected by his father’s accountpage 10 of his suffering and the vindictive, inhumane and even criminal actions of the authorities, and one of his responses may have been a determination to be non-conforming. His father’s near-death experience also gave him a premature sense of death as ominous and proximate.

Terry and Jim were enrolled at a Friends’ boarding school at Sibford, in the Cotswolds. It was a Spartan place but Jim liked the countryside which the pupils were free to roam at times. During the summer vacation the two boys went with their parents to a War Resisters’ Conference in Copenhagen. Afterwards, while they travelled through Germany, Switzerland and France, Jim wrote poems about birds and trees but did not put into words the trials of puberty which beset him at that time. He also wrote about war because the drums were already beating. When the boys returned to Sibford early in 1938 their parents resumed their travels, generally staying with the extensive network of relatives and friends whom Millicent had met years earlier when she travelled with her father. The boys joined them during the holidays.

At Sibford Jim learned about sex: ‘The daughter of the wood-work master used to meet me secretly in the lane beside the school and gave me pies that she had made in the home cooking class. She was a large, square-built Circe. The attachment on my side was wholly gastronomic; on her side, maternal and romantic.’ But there was a less pleasant side to his sexual education:

This was aperiod of undesired sexual enlightenmentfor me. No doubt some turmoil at puberty is inevitable. But I think the transition from childhood to manhood might havebeen much lessgruelling under different conditions – in a Maori pa, let us say. Yet I remember the barbarities of the dormitory as the beginning of adult life – one could see clearly the irrelevance of any external authority in that world of violence and wry self-knowledge. I remember one night when the strong men of the dormitory were engaged in beating up a homesick German lad. One at a time they moved over to his bed in the dark and punched him. I had a choice to make – for I too was a foreigner, and the gang initiative could easily swing in my direction. So I put on my slippers and moved over and got in a few hard punches. I knew somebody had been betrayed – and I knew, too, that this was the underlying process of the world in which I had to live from then on – either to betray, or to be at the receiving end of group violence. These were things well worth learning.

There was an English teacher in that school who was kind to me. He read my poems and liked them and encouraged me to write more. There was some trouble between him and the art mistress. I think they were found in the art room behaving in an unseemly manner. But he was young then. No doubt he acquired the terrible discretion of his profession as he grew older. (No. 376, ‘Recollections of School Days’)

Jim was generally quiet and polite but could be a show-off (alternatively, his clowning may have been a hopeful attempt to ward off the attention of bullies). He also tried to talk his way out of trouble; if these measures failedpage 11 he was punished by his tormentors. He also felt that he was being watched by an avenging God:

Hard to forgive them even now,
Precursors of the adult nightmare –
Franey, Nero of the dormitory,
Holmes, with the habits of a jaguar
And the sleek animal hide,
Waiting in a bend of the high stone stair.

Plunged early into the abyss of life
Where the tormentors move,
At war with God, the terrible Watcher,
An octopus behind a round glass window
With knives and justice, but no love.

That guilt grew wrongly, driven underground
With the first prickings of raw sense. . . . (CP 194-5)

In common with the Jewish lads from Germany there was ‘Sharing of exile, and the habit, pain.’

Terry enjoyed Sibford but Jim was ambivalent about his time there, especially his unwanted introduction to ‘the adult nightmare’ of sex, guilt, loneliness and pain. Some of his feelings drifted in a cloudy, opaque fashion into his poems. He wrote many poems on this trip, copying them into a notebook and dating them – a fact which suggests that he considered himself to be a true poet and that his poems would last.

After leaving Sibford the boys joined their parents in Scotland. The family visited places connected with Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson and travelled to Rothesay, the birthplace of John Baxter; also to Ballachulish where Mary McColl was born. Millicent enthusiastically dug up Baxter and McColl connections and the family stories that went with them, including, no doubt, desperate stories connected with the Highland clearances. Those family and tribal connections in Scotland and Otago reinforced the Puritanism which Jim chastised most of his life, causing Oliver (p. 20) to describe the source of his resistance as ‘the religious Puritanism of his Calvinist forebears, and the secular Puritanism of his radical upbringing’.

In late 1938 the Baxters returned to New Zealand and early in 1939, when Jim was twelve years old, he returned to the Friends’ School as a boarder. There he continued his campaign against education and the school authorities. (A few years later he told Noel Ginn that he had been ‘a refractory pupil.’) One night he and another boy escaped from the dormitory and went to the beach where they were discovered sliding down sandhills by the headmaster andpage 12 staff who came after them with torches. They were wrongly suspected of a homosexual tryst.

This was a difficult time for Jim. He was experiencing ‘the first flush of puberty’ and no longer had contact with his Brighton or his Sibford friends. In fact, he had difficulty deciding whether he was an English boy or a New Zealander. He poured out his feelings in verse and often wrote three or four poems a week.

When Harold Pugmire, a Sibford friend, visited New Zealand in the autumn of 1969, Baxter walked across country to meet him. They spent three days talking over old times and the way their lives had gone, and Pugmire found him ‘the same old Jimmie’. But when they visited the Friends’ School at Whanganui, Pugmire was amazed at how vehemently his companion condemned the education he received there, contrasting its ‘colonial conventionality, with the more spacious ways of Sibford.’ (McKay 44).

In 1939, the year his eighty-six-year-old grandfather John Baxter died (his wife Mary died in 1932) Jim returned from Whanganui to Brighton. In 1940 his father bought the big next-door house, 15 Bedford Parade. Jim’s bedroom was an upstairs room with windows all around. There he ‘wrote poems, wished to die’.

Regarded as ‘different’, he grew up a lonely boy even though he had his brother and an occasional friend for company. He loved his mother but resented her interrogations and control; he loved his father but was somewhat fearful of his very moral code of behaviour. He also had numerous relatives, many of them living close at hand, and the company of friends of the family and their children. His feelings about his situation were mixed, causing him to say, ‘Objectively I remember my childhood as a happy time. My health was good. There were plenty of things to do. My parents, my schoolteachers and my companions treated me well enough. Yet a sense of grief has attached itself to my early life, like a tapeworm in the stomach of a polar bear. . . . the sense of having been pounded all over with a club by invisible adversaries is generally with me, and has been with me as long as I can remember’ (No. 411, ‘Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet’; in The Man on the Horse). As a child he had felt the pain of his and his family’s rejection by some of the Brighton community. He felt it when he was an exile at boarding school at Sibford, bullied and victimised, and again when he returned to Friends’ School in Whanganui.

Then he rejoined his family because it was time to go to college. He increasingly recognised the tensions in his life – between being ‘good’ and ‘bad’, between his parents’ expectations and his desires, the tension arising from a tide of sexual energy which needed to be suppressed, the tension between the creative and destructive forces within himself, the tension between the clever boy, the poet, the pacifist, the clumsy one, and the very different natures andpage 13 expectations of other boys. Later he wrote: ‘In contradiction . . . I was born’ (CP 255). The sources of his conflict were both internal and external. They never left him.

He was beginning to battle against his parents. His mother was a small but formidable woman, highly educated, demanding and extrovert. She was knowledgeable, talked constantly and ran the household. She was also courageous, equable and more physically affectionate than her husband, although, as matters turned out, it seems that she did not leave Jim with a feeling that he had been sufficiently loved.

His father was kindly, quiet, introverted, hard-working, and somewhat mystical (he sometimes heard voices or messages). He also had a stern moral authority which challenged his son. From early on Jim needed to ventilate these tensions. His poetry provided a record, analysis and escape:

From sour hills and wild water,
From my father’s truncheon,
From my brother’s envy,
From my mother’s bitching . . . . (CP 227)

(Terence, who used to enjoy talking poetry with his father, found that he was being supplanted by his more knowledgeable and gifted younger brother.)

Jim’s later poetry would present two wildly varying images of women, what Oliver has called ‘the bitch-goddess and hearth-guardian’ – the loose woman, often a goddess, who seduced a good man with love and creativity, and the stern kitchen goddess who kept men under control and emasculated them. The distinction was learned early. A neighbour’s wife was said to be wicked because ‘She did it with soldiers.’ He was too young to understand what this meant but many years later he recalled a night when she looked after him while his parents were away and how

She tied up my pyjama cord
Properly, and like a door opening,
A smell, a touch, a wave of the sea,

It reached me – what, I couldn’t tell you –
Earth, great trees, a nature saying ‘Yes’
Beyond all bargains. . . . (CP 352)

This woman, rather rough and definitely not civil, would become his Muse.

He identified Eden in the natural world. In fact, much of his real education occurred privately, in the surroundings which embedded themselves in his memory to emerge subsequently in poetry: ‘Waves, rocks, beaches, flax bushes, rivers, cattle flats, hawks, rabbits, eels, old man manuka trees . . . page 14provided me with a great store of images that could enter my poems.’ Later he remembered how ‘I loved the world, the one God made, water, air, earth, trees, what have you’. He called it ‘the first world’, because it was Eden, the world before the Fall. But by adolescence at least he knew that the Fall had certainly happened, that Adam and Eve had been shut out of Paradise. He remembered a ghost story that terrified him, in which a man scrabbled vainly at the door of a church, hunted by black dogs, and how ‘I had only to substitute auto-erotic practices for black magic, and there I was in the centre of the tale.’ But the Fall was not only about sex. It was also the Fall of a man from his manhood (at the hands of women) and the Fall of a people’s dignity and respect from culture and the land of which they (the Scots and later the world’s poor) were dispossessed.

When Jim enrolled at King’s High School in 1940 he opted for a ‘Professional’ course of studies and for Law as career. The change from the small private schools he had previously attended to the hurly-burly of King’s was a painful one.

On his first day his class had to call out their names. When his turn came his penetrating and plummy voice rang out: ‘Baxter, J.K.’ The whole class burst out laughing, and it was not a kindly laughter. With his travels, his voice, his odd appearance and his inability to adopt a protective colouring, he was bound to have a hard time at school. In addition, these were the first months of a patriotic and popular war, and he was the son of active pacifists and the brother of an objector. He compared his lot to that of a Jewish boy growing up in an anti-Semitic neighbourhood. The Baxters, who lived in a house that looked out to sea, were rumoured to signal at night to the Japanese. Police arrived to interrogate them about various matters and it seemed that they were trying to trap Archibald on a trumped-up sedition charge.

The school’s rector had been an officer in the First World War. He brought that experience to the school – conformity, obedience, emphasis on uniform, sport, teamwork, patriotism, military posturing. None of this suited Jim. In the school bus he did not join in with the others; instead, he read or did crosswords or wrote down notes for poems. When he walked he dawdled and day-dreamed. Despite his mother’s urging he dressed untidily and often went barefoot. He was naturally a polite, quiet boy and tried to stay invisible when trouble brewed – although sometimes, to avoid persecution from his peers, he adopted the role of clown. But nothing allowed him to escape from the initiation rites, when his genitals were nuggeted.

Instead of drilling with the cadets at school, which his parents did not allow, Jim weeded the gardens with the school groundsman and a few boys who were medically unfit. He was excused from parading with a rifle but still had to engage in physical drill. His personality, interests, upbringing, manner and pacifism guaranteed that he was an outsider. He was called ‘Conchie! Conchie!’ (McKay 57) and his father was condemned as a coward and traitor.

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He was often jeered at or scragged; his schoolbag was grabbed off him and tossed onto a roof; his shoes were thrown away or kept from him; and once he was chased into a shed at school by a gang of boys who abused him physically and verbally. He would have been the victim of many other abusive events but these have not been recorded, although they can be imagined. Later he put the best possible interpretation on them: ‘These experiences were in the long run very valuable, for they taught me to distrust mass opinion and sort out my own ideas; but at the same time they were distinctly painful. I could compare them perhaps with the experiences of a Jewish boy growing up in an anti-Semitic neighbourhood. They created a gap in which the poems were able to grow.’ (No. 411, ‘Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet’). He explained how he avoided team sports:

I didn’t have many cobbers because I never joined in much with sports. In summer I’d tell the tennis master I was taking cricket and the cricket master I was taking tennis, and go off in the afternoon to swim in the town baths. I thought I had them fooled, but maybe they didn’t think it worthwhile chasing me up. And I didn’t do cadet drill either, partly because my people didn’t think it right and partly because I couldn’t be bothered anyway. Still, by the time I’d been there a year or two I was counted all right and a bit of a dag. And I made friends with one or two that were a bit like myself. (No. 19, ‘To Wake the Nations Underground’)

As he noted, the fact that he did not engage in team sports had the side-effect of ensuring that he did not have many friends. This may be significant because the loneliness he experienced during his adolescent years caused him to seek out friends later.

Aware that he was different from others he decided to live by his own values rather than conventional ones. Some of these notions were drawn into his poetry. So in 1941, when he was fifteen, he wrote in his poem ‘Beyond the Palisade’, ‘Seek out thine own abode / By solitary sun’ and

Yet shall I hold in all
The faith that none may see –
The inmost citadel
Of strong integrity. (CP 4)

But he would not find it easy to live a self-denying life for from the beginning he had ‘a divided self and a perennial inner conflict’. (McKay 45).

In 1942, his third year at high school, his worries increased. He turned sixteen that year and, troubled by unfulfilled sexual desires, had begun to despair, as he told a woman friend later:

At sixteen or thereabouts I used to get down the sawn-off .22 I used for rabbits and put the muzzle in my mouth, and wanted to pull the trigger. Why? I was a wicked wretch who would soon go insane because of masturbation,page 16 I was right inside the mad Calvinist judgment crystal; a perfect frame for schizophrenia. Why didn’t I? Because I knew how extremely unhappy it would make my parents. Because I thought secretly . . . Boy you have never been in love. Wait till then and then decide. Venus was to be the Saviour. Sob stuff. (McKay 59)

Much later, remembering this episode, he gave himself credit for surviving:

I praise that
sad boy now, who having no
hope, did not blow out his brains. (CP 309)

Even though he attributed his despair to masturbation it was probably also caused by loneliness and the hostility and rejection he experienced at school and in the community.

During 1942 he began discussing his ideas about literature with a friend of his brother. In December 1941 Terry Baxter told a court that he would refuse military service and was sentenced to detention for the duration of the War. By early 1942 he was sent to Strathmore detention camp in Shannon where he met Noel Ginn (1916-2003), a Christian pacifist who was balloted for military service in August 1941 and soon afterwards sentenced to indefinite internment for failing to respond. But Terry did not strike up a friendship with Ginn until they (with others) were transferred to Hautu camp near Turangi. Subsequently they were transferred to Whitanui detention camp, near Shannon.

In August 1942, when Jim was in the fifth form at King’s High School, he began what turned out to be an extensive correspondence with Ginn which reveals a great deal about his attitudes to poetry and a certain amount about his attitude to life. (See Paul Millar’s Spark to a Waiting Fuse.) He initially told Ginn that a keynote of his poems was ‘the ephemerality of time’ but he did not explain that his conviction was reinforced by his foreboding about war. On 16 October 1942 he told Ginn that the colonies were not ‘the right environment for the poetical nature’ and that ‘any poet of great fire’ would certainly try to move away.

In 1942, his third year, he came first in his class for English. He also passed the University Entrance examination. That year he wrote a draft of ‘Before Sunrise’, the earliest piece of prose to feature in this collection.

During 1943 he poured out to Ginn his thoughts about the poet and his poetry and other things. It was his ‘heart’s desire’ to visit Europe at the end of the War, partly because there wasn’t much intelligence among New Zealanders. His motto was ‘Never stop writing except when you want to’. He considered that poets should have ‘a basis of traditionalism and veneer of modernism to give facility of expression and mood’. (Anyone who couldn’t appreciate Burns was ‘a literary lost soul’.)

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He told Ginn that he had spent part of his holiday near Naseby and that his poem ‘The Mountains’ was written there. Every year the Baxters went to the mountains for a three week summer holiday. On their first trip they stayed at the Niger hut at the head of the Matukituki Valley but, according to McKay (p. 30) they found the mountains so oppressive that they moved to Lake Wanaka and camped by the shore. At Christmas 1931 they set up camp at Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo. On other occasions they camped at Lake Ohau and Naseby.

When Jim told Ginn that he was considering becoming a lawyer, Ginn expressed doubt about his choice. Jim replied,

About my being a lawyer: I’m not decided on that, for if I see any chance of a job as a lecturer or literary critic I’ll go for it. The ideal of course, is Professor of Poetry – but after all, that might lead to narrow-mindedness even more than law. The role of a prophet is a delectable one but would not provide one with a living. However, first and foremost, I will NOT sell my soul. Be easy on that point. If I should find it possible to live by writing I would gladly do so. Yet many men have thought they could, and found it an illusion. (‘No. 10, ‘Thoughts Concerning a Career’)

He added ‘. . . to me the only law is the Christian one – Humanity, humanity, and again humanity.’ Consciously or unconsciously he was quoting part of a Māori proverb: ‘He aha te mea nui o tea ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!’(‘What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!’) At this stage he had acceded to his mother’s wishes and wanted to become an academic, although, remarkably in view of the last three years of his life, he would have liked to have been a prophet. He always tried to tell truth even when its cost was great.

During his university entrance year (1943) his English course included grammar, composition and literary criticism. One of his essays recommended anarchism as his preferred solution to the problem of rebuilding the postwar world. Freedom from State or community control was a solution he sometimes proposed in later years. ‘Conformity, to Baxter, meant compromise and the loss of personal freedom.’ (McKay 60). In fact in later life he could be described as a Christian anarchist.

Looking back he said that he enjoyed his last year at school because ‘There was no one to bully you any longer and a lot of the time you could do what you liked. In a way I was sorry to leave.’ That year, 1943, was his most successful – he gained his Higher Leaving Certificate and was first equal in English in his class. The headmaster regarded him as the ‘most brilliant’ boy in the school. But nothing he said could compensate for Baxter’s grief and resentment at his rejection by the other boys. The only word of praise he ever had for King’s High School was that it had some useful anthologies in the library (McKay 31). Five years later he shared some memories:

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. . . there are some things that still stick in my mind. Not dates or verbs, but moods and smells and colours. For instance, there was Singing. We’d sit for an hour in the hall on benches. And we’d sing the same songs over and over again. The music teacher was a bit excitable. I suppose it got on his nerves the way the boys shuffled their feet waiting till they could get out to football. I’d sit and watch the clock and open and shut my mouth soundlessly, and think about poems and how much longer I was going to live and the cigarette I was going to smoke after school. Once I was put in the choir by mistake for a whole term, before they found out I couldn’t sing in tune. Most of the songs they sang made me feel tired, but there was one I always liked, a negro spiritual with two lines in it – ‘. . . hear the trumpet sound / To wake the nations underground.’ There wasn’t any more to it than what I’ve said. The feet shuffling, the different smells from the skins of different boys, the afternoon light coming in the windows, the clock crawling round, and the high voices singing. At the time it was something to get over quickly, but now it makes me feel sad. Those adolescent voices, the boys all waiting to grow up, thinking all the best times were still coming to them. And not knowing that in spite of all the guilt and uncertainty, they had something right then that they would never have again. (No. 19, ‘To Wake the Nations Underground’)

He met some of his teachers later and realised that they had nothing in common:

I’ve been round a couple of times to see the school. It looks pathetic, a small, rather meaningless world putting up barricades of Honour and football scores against the outside life. And not long ago I met some of my old school teachers in the pub. They just looked rather tired and nervy men. I had a yarn with them, but we hadn’t much to talk about except what had happened to certain old boys. It was a bit embarrassing to them and to me, as if there were rusty wheels that couldn’t start moving again.

On 19 February 1944 he told Ginn that he was leaving school and going to university. It was his mother’s wish, but he was unsure why he was going. It was not for knowledge as he could get that by reading. Not for a job because ‘It is what I am, not what I do that matters’. And not for prestige. Three weeks later he told Ginn (‘the father-confessor of my ideas on literature’) that ‘In spite of my decision to stick more to prose, the machine still functions.’ He meant the poetry-making machine.

On 24 March 1944, seventeen years old, he enrolled in English, Latin, French and Philosophy at the University of Otago and so began a tortuous journey towards a Bachelor of Arts degree. He told Ginn that he intended to do minimal work in Latin and French, that he was interested in Psychology, and that English would present no obstacle. The facility he most liked was the canteen where he drank gallons of coffee. He smoked without having to hide the fact and he had a few dances at the Freshers’ Hop where he managed to persuade ‘one or two long-suffering females to haul me round the floor’.

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He began drinking heavily. At the Bowling Green Hotel, one of his favourite resorts, he got to know other students and was given an audience for his poems and opinions. He frequently ate at the Silver Grille in the Octagon, and he often visited a women’s hostel and read poetry to the residents. He seems to have been welcomed, although some girls were wary of him. Generally, around the university, as at high school, he was considered ‘a bit of a dag’. But a mild depression was never far away and on 25 April he told Ginn that for some time he had been passing through ‘a black spot’. He did not say what caused it but it was probably the result of a low point in his relationship with a particular girl.

Doctor B.H. Stanley Aylward, medical adviser to coalminers at the Blackball Mine on the West Coast, admired Archibald Baxter for his socialist sympathies and heroic pacifism and asked him to recommend a tutor for his daughter Jane who was beginning a medical degree at Otago University. Archie recommended his own son. Jim had minimal qualifications for tutoring in Latin but he was well qualified for falling in love – the moment he saw his pupil in her flat in Castle Street he became so smitten that he was reluctant to let her out of his sight. (There is more information about the Aylwards in my essay in Poems to a Glass Woman. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2012.)

In May Baxter won the Macmillan Brown Prize (established in memory of his grandfather) with ‘Convoys’, an adroit but undistinguished piece of verse subsequently published in the Otago Daily Times. He told Ginn that he was thrilled’ to have received the prize, partly because it brought pleasure to his parents. Later in the year he won the Literary Society’s prize for ‘Prelude N.Z.’

Ginn was astute and Baxter sometimes felt forced to reply to his remarks. So on 3 June he told Ginn that ‘What you say about me needing friends, not admirers, hits one nail on the head. But friends are much more uncomfortable than admirers: one presents a façade of poems, printed emotion, to the admirers, and then one retires; – they can admire the empty lion-skin. Friends are not taken in, touch the man. And friends are apt to take the side of one’s own moral censor.’ (Millar 360).

During adolescence he had been scorched by loneliness. At university he still felt lonely and unloved. Those feelings of loneliness, deprivation and being misunderstood never left him – he attributed the genesis of this feeling to the fact that even though his parents loved him when he was a child they did not give their love a physical expression. Now, at the age of seventeen, determined to find love, he searched for sex. This quest and its occasional fulfilment (particularly with Jane Aylward) gave him a measure of satisfaction and pleasure but it also (and always) brought him pain and guilt. This caused him to get drunk more often.

He felt unhappy about the daily grind of his university course and reacted against it by refusing to study. When Ginn expressed concern about hispage 20 behaviour Baxter replied, ‘I am more solid than you think. I am growing up, changing gear as it were; or setting sail, inevitably shipping a few seas, but will not sink or run aground.’ (McKay 73).

After he turned eighteen on 29 June he was in danger of being called up for military service so he registered with the Armed Forces Appeal Board as a conscientious objector, enumerating his reasons in a letter. His appeal was important because, in succession to his father and brother, he was likely to be detained:

Dear Sir,

I herewith append my statement in support of my appeal on conscientious grounds.

My objections to military service are based on conscientious and logical grounds. Though not belonging to the Society of Friends, I have attended Quaker schools both in New Zealand and in England: the Quaker religious teaching is fundamentally pacifist. My parents have brought me up to regard all wars as futile and immoral; my father was a conscientious objector in the last war and suffered for his convictions. Nevertheless, I have arrived at my present attitude in the main by independent thinking.

During a trip to Europe in 1937 and 1938 I had opportunity to observe people of various nationalities, including Germans. My experiences reinforced my belief that the differences between nationalities are slight and that War in many circumstances is no more justifiable than any other form of murder.

I was exempted from cadet training while attending secondary school. I became a member of the Peace Pledge Union at the age of 16.

My conscientious objections are both religious and humanitarian. My logical objections are based on my knowledge of international politics and economics.

Yours faithfully,

James K. Baxter (VUW Library; Frank McKay Papers 20/1/2)

Subsequently the authorities did not pursue him, perhaps because the War was so far advanced. (The Normandy landings began three weeks before his birthday.)

On 13 August, after a month’s silence, he explained to Ginn that he had not felt like writing. His chief reason, although he did not say so directly, was that he was gravely distracted by his relationship with Jane Aylward. He did not reveal her name but he did claim that because of her he had written ‘one or two good poems’. He also remarked with melancholic resignation, ‘It is always far easier to write on any subject when one imagines oneself in love, whether it be true or not. This time it is – but I’ll get over it in time, I guess.’ (Millar 372). His closing assessment was probably caused by the fact that his love was not reciprocated and the affair had already ended.

As the months passed Jane became disillusioned with Baxter’s drinking, his wayward life, his lack of career motivation, his unscientific and untidypage 21 ways, and consequently she lost interest in him. By early August she decided that she would be better off with Raeside (known as ‘Rae’ or ‘Percy’) Munro, a science student whom Baxter knew. (In an obituary of Munro it was said that he regularly wrote poetry and that he and Baxter used to stand in the quadrangle reciting poems to anyone who would listen and joshing each other over who had written the better poem that week.)

Jane may have felt that in Munro she could have both a poet and a scientist in one. In any case she decided that he was the man she wanted to marry and ended her short-lived affair with Baxter. The impact upon him was catastrophic. At the time he raged against her and Munro and ever after he felt faint whenever he caught sight of someone who resembled her.

Late in August he and his mother went to visit Terry in Whitanui detention camp, Shannon. At Christchurch they interrupted their journey for three days. On one of them they took a bundle of Baxter’s poetry manuscripts to the Caxton Press. Lawrence Baigent recalled the occasion:

I was sitting in what was called the office, which was just a cramped little space inside the front door, just about time to close up. The door opened, this dumpy little woman came in followed by this youth. She marched up to the desk while he stood just inside the door. She said, ‘My son has written some poems. I wonder if you would be interested in reading them.’ I don’t think she even introduced herself; she certainly did not introduce Jim. Jim just stood there, gazing rather vacantly around him, didn’t utter a word and followed his mother out the door. I went home thinking, ‘Good Heavens, what am I in for?’ That night I sat down and started reading the poems and got the biggest surprise of my life, I think. I was completely bowled over by them. Next morning Jim himself came along. I said, ‘Yes, certainly we’d be delighted to publish a volume.’ (McKay 75-6)

At Whitanui Baxter enjoyed his time with his brother and met Noel Ginn for the first time, having corresponded with him since 1942. He gave him a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ‘one of the best novels ever written. The part about the Catholic Hell is overpowering.’ (McKay 74). At the time he was in his own Hell for he had been incinerated by his first real experience of love.

During the return journey he and his mother stopped again in Christchurch. This time he went alone to the Caxton Press where Baigent told him he was astonished by the quality of his verse and that the Press was keen to publish a selection. (It appeared early in the following year as Beyond the Palisade.)

Soon after his Caxton visit Baxter began corresponding with Baigent whom he considered ‘rather enthusiastic as midwife’ and told Ginn, ‘I find him friendly, sensitive, intelligent, poetical views sound but slightly narrow for me.’ (McKay 76). In November he received galleys of his book.

In September he had a bike accident which put him in hospital withpage 22 concussion. It caused him to miss lectures and get even further behind with his work.

In a negative sense the year was successful for he had not been detained by the military authorities. More positively, Baigent’s enthusiastic response to his poetry caused Baxter to think that a career as a writer might be possible. But an academic career was in limbo: in the end of the year examinations he passed English (barely) and Philosophy; but he had already failed Latin and French, in which he did not achieve terms.

At New Year 1944 he holidayed with his family in a rented house at Naseby. By this time his parents were extremely concerned about his drinking. (Several times he had been found drunk at the back of the bus when it reached the terminus; and sometimes he slept in the bus shelter near his home.) So they found a job for him on a dairy farm at Purakanui, a remote place where he would not be able to buy alcohol. Work began at 6 a.m. The family were members of the Salvation Army; they were wary of this scallywag from the city.

On 6 January 1945 Baxter told Ginn that he was in ‘excellent’ health, partly because he had stopped smoking. His work, which he started at 6 a.m. and ended about 8 p.m., consisted of feeding animals, milking, ploughing, sowing and chopping, and this left him physically fit and browned. It also left him time to think about various matters including his hosts:

The family I am living with are Salvationists: their calmly-hummed hymns of voodoo blood-sacrifice appal me rather. The father is dead. The mother aged about 60, intelligent, on the whole broad-minded, practical. Sons aged 22 and 19. 22 has a bad heart and turns to Salvationism. 19 is young for his years, eager for sex-instruction of which his family appears to have given him no iota. Daughter aged about 16, rather like her mother, outwardly very orthodox, not very attractive except by dint of proximity. (Millar 393-4)

Baxter later remembered that

The whole farm
Is hidden somewhere in my guts, as if
I’d swallowed it: the creek, the byres, the haybarn,
The crumbs of wood and resin in the sawpit.
All tracks led outward then. I did not see
How bones and apples rot under the tree
In cocksfoot grass, or guess the size
Of the world, a manuka nut in the sun’s gaze. (CP 271)

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It was a seeding-time, for he already realised that the cure needed to improve his situation was to ‘work at manual labour, keep off drink (which is to the mind and emotions like pouring sand on a sea-anemone), sexually find my own way.’

On 19 January 1945 he told Ginn that he was not going back to varsity. He wrote down his reasons in a document entitled ‘Thoughts Concerning a Career’ (see No. 10). He wanted to be a writer. He did not value ‘monetary success’ or much fear ‘death, poverty, or persecution’, but he did fear the loss of integrity. (A further reason, one he did not mention, may have been that he could not bear encountering Jane Aylward or Rae Munro on campus.) Ginn was unsure about Baxter’s decision. Baigent was sure about it – he considered that Baxter should return to university. Baxter replied that he did not want to become an intellectual because he was afraid that his mind might become closed. He talked about his predicament: ‘I remember how in my late teens my parents presented me with a tentative programme for the future – with their generous support I was to obtain a New Zealand degree in English, go to Oxford or Cambridge, obtain an English degree, and then become a scholar and lecturer in English literature.’ (No. 180, ‘A Writer’s Vocation’).

His parents hoped to save him from alcoholism and debauchery but they also wanted him to return to university. When he refused for reasons he explained to his mother she replied that he could always find reasons to justify whatever he wanted to do. But he would not budge. Then he went out ‘and wept under a gum-tree on the river-flat below the house’. He knew that his motives ‘were mixed and doubtful’; but he was also aware that ‘some obscure voice at the back of my mind said: “You are not meant to be a scholar and a lecturer, Jimmy. You would shrivel up like an old, cold potato. You are meant to be someone else, whom you have not yet become, and one of the ways you will find your true self is by writing.”’ (No. 180, ‘A Writer’s Vocation’).

That writing included poems about his experiences of love with Jane Aylward. He admitted this in a letter to Margaret Herbert, an English friend, when he wrote on 18 February 1945: ‘Last year I imagined I fell in love, the only fruitful product being a few rather fine love poems.’ (VUW Library, MS McKay 10/5/36).

By 4 March, still mourning over his loss of Jane, he started work in an iron foundry at Green Island. During his thirty-minute lunch-break he sometimes visited crew’s quarters on ships tied up at the wharves. He told Baigent that on his first visit he was thrown out but he went back next day with a pack of cards and magazines and was made welcome. He thought that the sailors were simple and aloof.

Beyond the Palisade had been printed by mid-November of the previous year but it was not bound and the demands of Christmas work meant that it had to be put on hold until the last week of March 1945, when the edition of five hundred copies was issued.

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Baxter spent that Easter at Baigent’s flat in Cambridge Terrace. He went there to talk literature with his host and to meet other writers, especially Curnow. He brought with him the manuscript of ‘Cold Spring’ which he hoped would become his second collection. (He had been planning it since October 1944.) It opened with a poem to Aeneas. He was Aeneas, ‘astute and priggish’, whirled ‘on the seas of fame’ and compelled by Venus ‘the mother in his mind’ whom he could not forsake. He made love to Dido but knew he had lost when he set out from the harbour upon ‘an inhuman unrepentant sea.’ (Cold Spring, 3). The last of its four sections was meant to express his emergence to adulthood. In the final poem he attributes part of his maturity to the loss of a woman who was no longer accessible because she had married. Her new happiness was balanced by his feeling of abandonment: ‘I speak accepting another loneliness.’ (‘To you who most unwittingly’, p. 64). The woman was Jane Aylward.

With one exception all of the poems in Cold Spring were written between March 1944 and March 1945. Even though Baxter made the selection, gave it a title and wrote an Introduction it was not published during his lifetime. (It appeared in 1996, edited by Paul Millar, published by Oxford University Press.) The love poems in the collection were focused upon Jane.

In Christchurch Baxter was introduced by Baigent to Curnow, Basil Dowling, Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn (who set Baxter’s ‘University Song’ to music). He drank Baigent’s cider, remarking afterwards to Ginn that ‘Drink often has the effect of an emotional upheaval on me’. When he returned to Dunedin he wrote to tell Baigent that he had done him good, ‘more than anyone else has ever done’. He was happy, ‘generally stable and forceful’. Years later he wrote appreciatively about the man who had opened up his world:

I remember too clearly how in the last stages of my own singularly painful adolescence I had the good fortune to make friends with a man of homosexual temperament – and how his charity and tolerance and a personal love essentially motherly and protective in quality helped me to grow and survive and understand myself.

He most scrupulously avoided influencing me towards a homosexual way of life. I regard his intervention in my life at that time as providential. And I am glad God gave one man the power to love his fellows so well. His conversation incidentally was humorous and scatological. It was what I needed most to add some salt to the porridge. And he had a deep understanding of the processes of art. (No. 445, ‘The Difficult Tribe’)

On 8 April Baxter sent Ginn six copies of Beyond the Palisade. He mentioned that he did not send one to Terry because he did not like poetry (Ginn had told Jim that Terry did not want a copy) but the reason he supplied seems inadequate, leading to a suspicion that there was some other reason as well – perhaps envy or some form of competition between them.

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Baxter was writing long letters to Baigent whom he would eventually prefer to Ginn as a literary mentor, but at this stage he was still happy to write to Ginn as well. On 1 May 1945 he told him that ‘Sexual feeling has the advantage of lasting emotionally for at least a week’ and might result in as many as seven good lyric poems. He also said, ‘At present I am in good health, have had nothing to drink for a week or two. My sexual thoughts turn to proletarian womanhood, but it is stony ground for any but animal emotion.’ (Millar 406).

Even though he was still living at home, when he was not working he was haunting pubs and eating houses, ships and the waterfront, student flats and boarding-houses. He chased alcohol and girls and his parents could never be sure whether he would come home at night because he would often fall asleep, usually drunk, in a bus shelter or terminus or park or some other public place.

Curnow read Baxter’s poems when they were at the Caxton Press late in 1944 and selected six of them for A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45. He wanted to include more but did not wish to gut the young poet’s first book. Curnow knew that he was handling the work of a remarkably talented writer:

His poems seem a new occurrence in New Zealand verse: strong in impulse and confident in invention, with qualities of youth in verse which we have lacked yet with a feeling after tradition and a frankly confessed debt (besides the unsought affinities) to some older New Zealand poets.

It seems to me that since Mason in 1923, no New Zealand poet has proved so early his power to say and his right to speak. He is directly aware of the great audience that is addressed by a poem in English. That is the hardest knowledge for a New Zealander; if it comes in youth it can only be by some rare accident of talent and circumstances . . . This in Baxter, and some assurance of self and history, has made it possible for him to use and not mimic his English influences – inevitable ones, George Barker, Yeats, Auden – and to write some poems which could be his and only a New Zealander’s. (A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923-45. Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1945, pp. 54-5)

This was heady stuff and ensured that Baxter’s literary reputation was established immediately. He was just eighteen years old. He would have enjoyed the fuss but he had other concerns. On 23 June he told Ginn that the only books he was reading were Burns and the Bible. He was ‘doing well enough’ at the foundry at Green Island, a suburb of Dunedin, where he made about two pounds a day after his bus fare was deducted. He expected a rise of ten shillings a week in a week when he turned nineteen and hoped for other increments. He was still employed there when he wrote to tell Baigent that in spring he hoped to go to work on a sheep station ‘in search of fresh air and perfect fitness’. He stayed at the foundry until September.

In July or August he had an affair with a young married woman who was ‘intelligent and good-looking’. Her husband forgave them but quitepage 26 reasonably insisted that it stop. Baxter reported, somewhat unfeelingly, that psychologically it did him a lot of good. It is unlikely that he told his parents about it.

He arrived at Wanaka Station, Central Otago, on 17 September; the station was set on rolling country under the high Alps, next to the lake. It was a beautiful environment. He wrote to his mother about his life:

In spite of the inevitable monotony and isolation of outside work I’ll have to incorporate it in my scheme of living somehow. It is much more satisfactory, satisfying than the town. Just to walk along the mountain, look down at the lake, round up sheep, smell, hear, see, is more than work as love is more than sex. Later on, separating stinking sheep dags from wool, I have to recite to myself to gloss over the unpleasantness of it. Am not writing just now, no poems, since no need of self-justification. Also it’s when they’re finished growing for the year that trees make flowers. (McKay 87, 1 Oct. 1945)

Among the books he borrowed from the public library at Wanaka township was A.S. Neill’s A Dominie Abroad. Years later he wrote that ‘the running fight I’d put up against education from the age of five onwards might well have come from a kind of sub-conscious wisdom, and not from any source of malign perversity’. Neill’s name was inscribed ‘with reverence on the wall of my spiritual bomb shelter’. (No. 411, ‘Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet’, The Man on the Horse).

In this remote rural environment he decided that he could do without women. He mused about this in a letter to his mother:

Though I’m quite capable of infatuation, I think I could do without women. Excepting you and one or two others, they do not attract me as persons; though I am over my earlier shyness. And it is intolerably humiliating to be attracted by someone you don’t like as a person. So I stand back with a nice smile and my heart in the highlands. Protracted childhood, some would call it; I don’t think so. Rather my own version of being grown up. Good for poetry. Not so good for marriage; but one can take that when and if it comes. The split between wife and art comes to all artists. The only unbearable thing being an arty wife. I am trying to be self-honest. What one is at 19 will not be fundamentally different from what one is at 40. The gentle and intricate music of the normal social pattern is not the music at the heart of poetry, which is the wind, pollen-bearing, infinitely desolate and all-embracing. One can remain outwardly a usual citizen; so these matters are not of interest and importance only to oneself – until the capacity to love another person completely is called upon. Even then it matters little, for few loves are complete. (McKay 88, 15 October 1945)

He explained that he was ‘Soliloquising on what is usually left unspoken. Poets have a certain licence to be queer birds anyway’, but he did not amplify his remark that ‘The split between wife and art comes to all artists.’

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When he looked for a wife in the future there may have been an extent to which he was subconsciously looking for a mother. A hint of this may be found in a sestina he sent her from Wanaka, containing the lines ‘O under the sky of time / He has no house but in his mother’s womb.’ These words may be the key to the locked box containing his life’s problems. Thoughts of this kind did not necessarily make him happy. In another letter he told his mother that ‘The inner man is always melancholy otherwise I wouldn’t write poetry’.

He liked and trusted Baigent, whom he treated as friend and confessor. On 12 October Baxter told him ‘I grow up, not painfully, am losing something of that hectic adolescent attitude. But will continue to be a poet, since whatever I do know or don’t know, and no matter how thick a skin I may acquire, I understand symbolism. Can look back quite objectively on all the poems I have written; some of them are surprisingly good.’ (McKay 88-9).

For at least two years his relationship with his parents had been uneasy. His mother, in particular, was critical of his choice of companions and girlfriends, his dress and drunkenness. His father may have said less but he would undoubtedly have felt that he was a wastrel. Baxter resented the constant criticism. But because he had lived away from home for a time and was making an effort to redeem himself he felt that he was getting on better with his parents, as he told Baigent:

Having found my own feet, I am friendly with my parents again, no lame antagonism since I no longer accept their standards. Complete self-honesty is perhaps the only morality. The Christian basis Love your neighbour does not seem essential to me, if active feeling is involved . . . Aloneness of the individual is I think symptomatic of a highly developed civilisation. Oversharpness of sensibility. Not a characteristic of men. Hence We must love one another or die only when we step a long way from the animal pattern. Mutual pugnacity and simple anger can be invigorating; not these, but paranoia permits war. (McKay 89)

It is likely that Baigent, although forbearing, was somewhat sceptical of this kind of cloudy waffle.

At Wanaka Baxter pined for the company of intellectuals; at the same time it both pleased and pained him to realise that he was one of them, as he told Baigent: ‘My father, I know, lived until he was over 40 showing only a fractional part of his thoughts and feelings to those among whom he lived. I have not got his drive or outward self-sufficiency; and am for good or ill bloody intellectual.’ (McKay 89). He may have been implying that he was not cut out for work among labouring-men and that it was time he found a position elsewhere. In any case he told Baigent that a friend suggested that he should apply for a job at the Caxton Press. But that door was kept closed.

Baxter left Wanaka Station on 15 November, after helping to muster the sheep for the shearing-gang. In the previous month he wrote what turned out to be his most anthologised poem:

page 28

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger. (CP 34)

He would never forget the two months he spent working on Wanaka Station.

On 11 December he told Ginn that he had not smoked for a week or drunk beer ‘for some time’. He considered that he flourished and was ‘astonishingly stable’. He seems to have been especially pleased to note that he had come out ‘more or less on top in the obscure conflicts with my parents’ (Millar 426). The rain did not dampen his pleasure.

After the war ended on 15 August 1945 Terry Baxter and Noel Ginn were permitted to leave detention camp so they came south to visit the Baxters. There and among the wider family they were treated as heroes. As a result of Terry’s return Jim’s five-year solo relationship with his parents was about to change. As far as he was concerned that was not necessarily a bad thing.

At the beginning of September Ginn’s favourable review of Beyond the Palisade appeared in Art in New Zealand. Jim was exhilarated by it and said so when he wrote on 11 December, before Noel and Terry made their visit. But the main part of his letter was devoted to another topic for he seemed to want to undercut the hero status given by family and friends to the two former detainees. He said that it was good Ginn had been released from detention (though he and Terry were to be manpowered to labour at the Gear Meat Works in Petone) but he considered that they would benefit from less dogmatism about pacifism. What was needed was empathy. He believed, like Ginn, that ‘care for the other must always be the first consideration’. What else was necessary? ‘It seems to me an undue arrogance to suppose that our brief hates and loves or lusts must have a cosmic significance.’ (Millar 415).

Ginn’s account of the time he and Terry spent with the Baxters is heady with excitement, but it also depicts Jim as standing to one side: ‘The air was thick with the names of dispersed friends and acquaintances, much news, always change. Jim was part of this ferment, but his disorientation was from a different base. There was exhilaration as we talked of poetry, of life and world affairs, there was much humour also, and I was learning of Jim’s first forays into the world of sex.’ (McKay 91). It is obvious that some people were exhilarated and excited, but it is not certain that Jim was one of them. If so, it might be because his mother’s favourite son had returned home. In December, when Terry and Noel arrived, Jim was drinking heavily.

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In January 1946 he gave up drink when asked to do so by a girl, a medical student, he was going out with. He also found some life direction as a result of reading Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul and his Psychology of the Unconscious and assured Baigent that even though an important relationship had been broken off (with the married woman) he no longer thought chiefly about death. In fact, ‘I think I toughen in fibre and am achieving a separation from my parents’ (McKay 92). By the end of March 1946 he was working in the Burnside Freezing Works.

Terry found it hard to get work because returned soldiers were given preference. After his years in punitive detention the young popular outgoing man had become withdrawn, sometimes morose. He also felt displaced at home. Once he used to talk poetry with his father. Now Jim did that. So Terry decided not to compete and withdrew even further. Then he met a young woman who fell in love with him and matters took a turn for the better. Lenore Bond, who worked in a nearby guest-house, had become a friend of Millicent’s. Now she started going out with Terry and everybody was pleased because they made such a good couple. When the marriage took place on 22 August Millicent and Archie gained a daughter and Jim gained a sister.

Meanwhile he started drinking again after another of his girlfriends left him. He was working intermittently, drinking in a sustained fashion at the Captain Cook or the Bowling Green, hanging around the university in an effort to pick up girls, or trying to discover where parties were being held, or searching for someone to drink with or talk to. After any of these episodes he was always keen to find a flat where he could crash for the night and so avoid another lecture from his parents. After one of these binges he would work for six weeks or so, save his money, and then spend it in the course of yet another spree which might last for some weeks. At parties he would stride the floor, reciting poems sonorously and endlessly; he drank other people’s drink and attempted to move in, usually unsuccessfully, on other men’s girlfriends. In the Dunedin cold or even not-so-cold he would wear a long coat buttoned to the neck and the rumour went round that he wore nothing underneath it. He did, but the coat was also intended to conceal the fact that his clothes were not veryclean.

It troubled him that Terry was sexually attractive to girls but he was not. In fact if he ever took a girl home she was likely to fall for Terry when she got there. If a girl talked intimately with him it would often be because she wanted his advice about how to gain the attention of some other man. But he was a determined philanderer and his efforts led to some flings in the bushes or in a room at somebody’s party. There was an uncertain desperation about his hunting which caused some girls to avoid him and all girls to be cautious. He did not find any of his brief relationships fulfilling and this depressed him so much that he wondered if he might be homosexual. He was not, but in thepage 30 interim he did have one or two brief homosexual flirtations.

At various times he mentioned homosexuality in his writings. In his novel Horse, the narrator (who represents Baxter) is uncomfortable with any exposure to it. But his friend Tony is homosexual. And in one of the narrator’s dreams his girlfriend Fern turns into Peter, a homosexual sailor who is bonded to a cabin boy. Baxter had considered becoming a sailor but the dream convinced him otherwise:

The boy looked up from his bucket with the pale eyes of a lizard on a wall, gaunt and fair, out of a world in which he was Pete’s wife, not by choice but because life went that way. Something of the hardness of iron flaked with rust and scraped and painted again was behind his look. Suddenly I knew that I would never sail with them, tomorrow or any other day. (No. 39, ‘Blue Peter’)

During July he composed a rather truculent manifesto. He wrote it on 21 July and sent it to Noel Ginn: ‘Am working in woollen mills at present with assorted company male and female. Very placid in mind, and rather cold, as I might be at 30. Not the right frame of mind for 20 maybe. But I have at last disentangled various strands – religious, masturbation-guilt, artistic, attitudes to school and parents – which I have long been unable to accept and dissolve.’ (Millar 424). This was like other declarations he had made: he knew the problems and the answers – even though they were not the answers that anyone else would have supplied.

His experiences of solitariness developed in him ‘a rather sour determination to go my own way by doubt and not by Authority of person, state, religion, or convention; to work out my own position and make no promises. For one thing, since I have thought out why I want to drink, I have had no inclination to do so except for enjoyment. The ambition is to fear “neither God, man, nor Devil”, and do whatever I like without tension.’ (Millar 424-5).

Having worked everything out he had no need to continue writing to Noel Ginn. This was the last letter he wrote in this youthful sequence.

Somehow in the midst of his emotional chaos he found time, mood and manner to write about the state of poetry in New Zealand. He began by mentioning colonialism:

When that first hereditary wound is healed, one can find here in New Zealand all the drama needed for a thousand novels, plays, or poems. For the world is here, not somewhere over the horizon. The West Coast bushmen fell heavy timber; miners hack out coal, are buried under falls, strike for safer conditions; the deserts and oases of the night life of the town are there for any man to walk in; the shepherd rides alone over ranges, cashes his cheque, and spends a week in the D.T.’s; the middle-class home keeps up appearances, men and girls grow up in their private worlds, the young couples make love in the sandhills beside the beating sea; the old woman remembers what no one else can. All the world is here, waiting forpage 31 us to heal our own blindness. A free mind and heart, that is the impossible request.

The successful poet will be anarchic in his thinking and feeling. For to understand his world he must understand himself, and an authority fully understood is an authority lost. But this is the land of Authorities: Government, Church, Monopoly, Democracy, Every-Decent-Man. So he is likely to seem a rebel. . . .

The poet’s right is that of every man and woman: to stay alive. He may find himself at times the only man out of grave-clothes. Fears shape our lives, religious, economic, social. We call them Duties, and then wonder why the bog is so sticky. In a world of free men the fisherman or ploughman might compose his own poems, and think little of it. But in a world of go-getters, bosses and employees, authorities and obedience, ideals and sin, only the man civilised to the point of simple spontaneity is likely to write poems unselfconsciously. The man without a master is the good citizen – for what man is fit to be a master? He will also be the good poet. (No. 15, ‘Poetry in New Zealand’)

This declaration resonates with the tone of the lines in the letter he wrote to Ginn. It is also resonant with the sound of a voice that was new to New Zealand literary criticism, rather rhetorical, but bringing socialist values and a therapeutic manner to New Zealand writing.

A fellow-resident of Dunedin, Charles Brasch would have been impressed by this voice. After declaring himself a pacifist he had stayed in England during the War. But in 1946 he returned to New Zealand and met a number of people who interested him, including Baxter, whom he described in his autobiography:

The Caxton Press had published his first book of poems two years earlier, when he was only eighteen. He looked less than that now with his fresh round face and very clear eyes, and the frankness and warmth of his smile were quite unselfconscious. He stooped, or slouched rather, holding his head forward between his shoulders, but kept his heavy overcoat on even over lunch at the Savoy so that I could only make out that he was fairly thickly built. He left the university, he told me, because he was not interested; he seemed content to take casual labouring jobs which he said left his mind free, and to lead his own inner life. He wrote a lot, showing me a fat notebook from which he gave me a couple of poems to read. He seemed to have an untroubled, quite unassertive assurance that he was a poet and was accepted as one. He asked me with what I took to be unusually eager interest whether Dylan Thomas did not drink a lot? Rodney [Kennedy] had told me that he drank a lot himself, and I heard him give a talk at the university at which to my dismay he declared that Thomas was a poet and genius because of his drunkenness. And yet outwardly he appeared to be untouched by the world, by the impossible choices, incompatibilities and guilt that are forced on us; he seemed to live and write out of the original freshness of his perceptions and emotions. How incongruous a pair we made, I thought as we walked along the quays,page 32 he with his clear-eyed directness, I in the complicated mesh of my guilts. (Indirections, 421)

He did not realise that the fresh-faced youngster whom he admired was already entangled in a complicated mesh of his own guilts.

That year, in ‘Tunnel Beach’, Baxter had shed light upon one episode involving Jane Aylward:

Through the rock tunnel whined
The wind, Time’s hound in leash,
And stirred the sand and murmured in your hair,
The honey of your moving thighs
Drew down the cirrus sky, your doves about the beach
Shut out sea thunder with their wings and stilled the lonely air.

But O rising I heard the loud
Voice of the sea’s women riding
All storm to come. No virgin mother bore
My heart wave eaten. From the womb of cloud
Falls now no dove, but combers grinding
Break sullen on the last inviolate shore. (CP 53)

This is followed in Collected Poems by ‘Songs of the Desert’, a group of poems from 1946-7 which commemorated his lost love.

So obsessive was his love for Jane Aylward that it was not promising for Jacquie Sturm, another medical student who was next in line. She was born in the cottage hospital at Opunake, Taranaki, on 17 May 1927, second daughter of Jack and Mary Pupuni. (The name on her birth certificate is Te Kare Jack Pupuni.) Her mother, of Taranaki descent, died of septicaemia fifteen days after her birth. When her father, a member of the Whakatōhea iwi of the Bay of Plenty, left with his eldest child for the East Coast, Jacquie was cared for by her mother’s mother and spent four and a half to five years in her care in Taranaki and at Rātana Pā. But when she (the grandmother) became unwell Jacquie was given into the care of Ethel Sturm, a local nurse, and Ethel’s husband Bert, a market-gardener and auctioneer of fruit and vegetables in New Plymouth. Ethel was Pākehā. Bert was Māori; his iwi was Ngāti Porou. The Sturms were such compassionate people that they fostered a number of children, but Jacquie was the only child they formally adopted (when she was fourteen years old). Her name became Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm.

Bert’s business was a sound one and survived the Depression, but soon afterwards he was bankrupted. At that stage the family moved briefly to New Plymouth, Auckland and Hastings. They also lived for a time in Palmerston North where Jacquie became very unhappy and unwell. Her poor health waspage 33 probably the result of illness but it was exacerbated by the racist attitudes and bullying she experienced at school and sometimes in the community.

From Palmerston North the Sturms moved to Pukerua Bay, Wellington, where she was very happy. However when she was aged ten or eleven she again became ill and was off school for several weeks. She was a keen reader but because she had spare time and wanted to engage in something actively creative she did some painting. However she realised that the results were not very good. At that stage she began writing poetry and by putting her feelings into words she discovered the power of language.

The family’s odyssey continued when they moved back briefly to Palmerston North and then to Hawke’s Bay where Jacquie was regarded as such a clever student at high school that Rev. Manuhuia Bennett (later Bishop) encouraged her parents to let her attend university. He may have come to know the family when he was a Māori missionary for the Rangitīkei region, which included some suburbs of Palmerston North, and he seems to have hoped that Jacquie would become a role model for other Māori children. She was only seventeen when the Health Department provided a bursary to enable her to study medicine at Otago University College.

Among the flock of new undergraduates who arrived on campus that year she was that rarest of all birds – a young Māori woman. In fact she was the only Māori woman on campus. At the end of her medical intermediate year circumstances conspired to block her entry to the medical school. Returned soldiers were given entry if they achieved 50% in the qualifying examination; but other candidates had to achieve 96%. The result was that Jacquie, who scored an outstanding 92%, was excluded. So she enrolled for an arts degree with a special focus on psychology, hoping that a high pass level in her arts subjects would gain her entry to medicine. This time she succeeded but she also realised that she was more interested in anthropology than medicine and so decided not to enter medical school. The result was that she concentrated on a BA instead.

She had a poem published in Critic, the student weekly and was runner-up in the annual prize competition conducted by The Otago University Review – her disappointment at not winning was sweetened by the fact that it was won by a young man whose poetry she liked. His name was James K. Baxter. Her first encounter with him occurred at a poetry reading to which a friend invited her. She described what happened: ‘So I went along, and saw JKB, and I thought goodness me, what a dopey bloke! He was really dopey; he looked as though he was half asleep. The only thing was he had a beautiful voice. And he read poetry like nobody else.’ (‘Interview with J.C. Sturm’, by Roma Potiki, in Trout 14 [2007]: 7). She continued:

Then later on I met Dopey through another friend of mine and it was a very sort of comfortable feeling. The upshot of it was that I got to know Dopey and he started dating me. He introduced me to poets that I’d never heard page 34of. And he seemed to know Dylan Thomas off by heart. So quite a lot of our dates would consist of me walking beside Dopey while he recited poetry at the top of his voice. I learned a lot from that. The main thing I learned was that I wasn’t a poet, not what I’d call a poet.

Jacquie was self-deprecating. She set high standards for herself but she was also realistic and knew that she was competing with a poet who already exhibited signs of greatness.

Baxter showed some interest in Jacquie but it was only towards the end of 1947, after Jane Aylward fell in love with someone else, that he showed a genuine interest in Jacquie and began to monopolise her time, visiting her at St Margaret’s Hostel and often reading poetry to her and her friends. He might have lost Jane Aylward but he had not lost Dylan Thomas, whose book Deaths and Entrances he carried everywhere. Still drinking, posturing, selfcentred, the young eloquent Otago poet bore resemblances to the great Welsh poet. His life was taking him nowhere.

Aware of this he thought about catching a boat to somewhere. At a later time, in an article entitled ‘Blue Peter’, he talked about meeting a seaman and going on the booze:

By twelve o’clock my head was swimming and the floor undulated gently. Whenever I shut my eyes I fell down a black shaft towards the centre of the earth. Pete was less drunk. ‘Come and have a binder,’ he urged me. ‘I’ve not had a feed since yesterday.’ I let him lead me into the street. The movement and fresh air sobered me a little. We found an upstairs grill room and sat down to slabs of steak flooded with Worcester sauce. I was happy again, but felt as if I were cased in glass that might splinter at a touch. Sweat was standing out on Pete’s forehead. ‘Come down to the boat,’ he said, ‘and meet the boys. We’ll go back to the boozer after. The old girl sails tomorrow, and she’s short-handed. You can sign on as a deck-hand.’

The idea seemed a fine one. To cut clear from the whole tangle of shore life, father, mother, job, morning and evening anxiety. Strange pubs, foreign girls, myself a man among men. The world I knew drowned in an always widening wake. I could go in the clothes I stood up in. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘let’s go.’ (No. 39, ‘Blue Peter’)

But he did not go to sea; he moved to Christchurch.

He told his parents that he wanted to restart his university career but confessed to someone else that his real reason was to be able to have regular therapeutic sessions with Grete Christeller, who had done psycho-analytic training with C.G. Jung. Long tormented by dreams which sometimes had a formidable and threatening mother at their centre, Baxter had visited her earlier that year while he was staying in Christchurch with Lawrence Baigent. Now he wanted more therapeutic help from her.

That year in his poem ‘To my Father’ he wrote ‘There is a feud between us’. His problem was that he was ‘In love with my disease’ – his disease being page 35his attachment to his parents. It was true that he wanted to consult Mrs Christeller, but he was also aware that the move would give him freedom, remove him from the sphere of his mother’s periodic and forthright criticism, and put him back in touch with Lawrence Baigent and other members of the literary and artistic set he had already met. (He told Baigent that he was coming because he liked talking to him and Rita Cook.) He knew that Baigent would help him and that he would be stimulated by the writers and artists he had met through him. Perhaps, above all, the move would allow him to get away from the failures and sadnesses and betrayals which haunted him in Dunedin. It was time to move on, to make a fresh start. He went to Christchurch at the end of 1947.

Earlier that year Professor Ivan Sutherland of Canterbury University College arrived in Dunedin to deliver some lectures on psychology and anthropology. These included observations about his special field of interest

– issues relating to contact between Māori and Pākehā. Understandably, Jacquie was so impressed by him that she considered moving to Christchurch in order to become his student, particularly because anthropology was not a strong subject at Otago University. At the time Baxter argued against this, but when she made the move he was very pleased because they were once again in the same city. They did not live together but they spent a lot of time in each other’s company.

During 1948 he supported himself by working on and off at a series of short-term jobs. Even though he did not enrol at the university he became literary editor of Canta, the student newspaper, and attended some lectures, including some of Jacquie’s lectures. Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, his second book of poetry, was published to general acclaim that year.

The book and its reception undoubtedly brought him pleasure but generally he was not happy. As well as feeling lonely he had no life-direction and was considerably troubled by his overwhelming alcoholism and by sexual temptations. His consciousness of Original Sin and personal sin drew him towards the Anglican Church which he joined on 4 November when he was baptised at the Church of St Michael and All Angels. The Sturms were nonconformist but Jacquie must already have been Anglican because she was a witness at the ceremony.

In an undated letter that year Baxter assured his parents that he felt he could now regard them ‘without any mistrust and feeling of insecurity’. By October he felt free to talk to them about Jacquie:

She is a very fine girl, and I feel entirely at home in her company . . . I have grown fond of her. Not ‘infatuation’, just seeing more and more how much character and meaning she has. I might marry her in a year or two – but that is by no means certain, it will depend on how we both feel then. It is strange, the fact that she is a Maori draws me to her rather than repelling me. Still, you can be quite easy about it. There will be no marriagepage 36 of necessity in my case . . . Also her ‘pakeha’ foster-parents have no love for me, since they have set their hearts on her being an intellectual prodigy, and regard me as a feckless intruder. (McKay 118)

The Baxters questioned their son’s readiness for marriage; the Sturms did not approve either. Aware that Jacquie was highly regarded in the Psychology Department they asked Professor Sutherland to convince Jacquie to break off the relationship. After giving thought to the matter he told her that a writer was needed for an expedition which was about to leave for Antarctica and suggested that she persuade Baxter to apply. Jacquie resented his interference. It was a trying time for her but in November she succeeded in passing her exams. Immediately afterwards she and Baxter visited her parents. He told his own parents about the visit: ‘I think her mother found me not as bad as she expected, she has grown to accept me in the last two days.’ (McKay 119). Bert Sturm had initially refused to see him but he eventually relented.

On 9 December it became apparent that all negative pressure was counterproductive – because on that date Jacquie (aged 21) and Jim (aged 22) married in the Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist, Napier. Bert Sturm set aside his misgivings and came out of hospital to give Jacquie away. Jim did not own a suit so he borrowed one.

The newly-weds did not move back to Christchurch. Once again it was time to make a fresh start. That meant moving to Wellington where, initially, they lived with Jacquie’s sister. Then Baxter found work at the Ngauranga abattoir and they were able to move to their own place, a rented cottage in Park Road, Belmont, in the Hutt Valley. It was furnished but fairly basic (it had a detached toilet and no fridge). They did not have a car. The rent was high and Baxter struggled to earn enough to support them so he gave up drinking for a time, both because there wasn’t much money and also because he realised that it was time he settled down. But they had supportive friends, generally associated with the university and with literary circles. These included James and Jean Bertram and Arthur and Shirley Barker.

Jacquie continued her university studies. (When she graduated BA in 1949 she became the first Māori woman to win a degree from a New Zealand university but this was not recognised or celebrated at the time.) She also joined up with the Māori Women’s Welfare League and Ngāti Poneke. Jim accompanied her to some functions, but Jacquie revealed later that he generally stayed on the sidelines. Life was hard for them – to an extent this was caused by the fact that he was drinking heavily. Something of the flavour of his life is conveyed by ‘The Name and the Game’ (No. 37), a short story he wrote that year.

In a talk he gave in May to the literary society at the university he considered how literary talent was often extinguished by the weight of social and economic pressure. He cited Curnow, Mason and Fairburn as examplespage 37 but he could have included himself. However, he considered that there was a deeper reason:

The one quality which all the New Zealand writers I have mentioned have in common is pessimism. I regard this not as a morbid, but as an accurate reading of the spiritual temperature of the times. Their writing has dwindled or ceased, partly from fatigue and lack of time, but mainly from their inability to find meaning in a world either dead or disastrous. They required a philosophy which allowed for free will, took on the whole a kindly view of human behaviour (sensual failings in particularly), yet recognised irremediable moral conflict. I would indicate an unpopular choice – orthodox Christianity. (No. 38, ‘Why Writers Stop Writing’)

He could reach this conclusion because he was a believing and practising Anglican.

Hilary Anne Baxter was born on 18 June 1949. Beforehand Baxter was afraid that he would be punished for his sins and that either Jacquie would die in childbirth or that the child would be born deformed. He also decided that it would be a boy and that his name would be John McColl Baxter. But a girl came into the world instead. He enjoyed fathering her, telling a friend that minding her was ‘a great thing for knocking hot air out of the mind and hysteria from the feelings’ (McKay 121). Colin McCahon was godfather at her Baptism. To commemorate the occasion he gave the Baxters his painting ‘there is only one direction’ which depicted Mary and her child Jesus.

Marriage was not as full of charms as Baxter had hoped it would be. He told Brasch in a letter, ‘I used to think marriage had a lot to do with sex, find it has practically nothing. Affection, harmony, even washing nappies or worrying about money are far more central. A shared endurance test, not a garden of Greek statues.’ (McKay 121).

He was concerned about moral evil and wondered to his parents where the ‘thread of rottenness in one’s character starts from. Once I thought . . . it was because people didn’t get a chance to develop their potentialities for good, were born good and mis-educated into rottenness. Now I think rottenness is basic. As Paul says “for the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It is a terrible statement, but the beginning of clear thinking.’ (McKay 123; 30 June 1949). He never lost his belief in Original Sin.

When he wrote to his mother on 7 September he seemed to have become less socialistic: ‘Of course there’s a fine element in socialism (compassion for the oppressed), but this is apt to shift into fantasy, leaving only Envy of the oppressor. The old problem – can impure motives produce a social good? I’d say No. We’re none of us good enough to be like Christ with the moneychangers. Our indignation is rarely righteous.’ (McKay 123; 7 Sep. 1949).

In November, twelve months after his Baptism, he was confirmed by Reginald Owens, Bishop of Wellington, who said that joining the Church was like joining the navy. (He had been a naval chaplain.) Baxter was unhappypage 38 with the military analogy and told a correspondent on 4 November that he hoped the Church would soon break its ‘uneasy marriage’ with the State. He may also have been unhappy if he had known that the Bishop had on the wall of his office not a crucifix but the crossed oars of a rowing blue.

He did not enjoy his work at the abattoir and felt out of place there. On 4 November he mentioned this in a letter to his parents:

I don’t belong and never have belonged to the ‘working class’, much as I admire their virtues of patience, tolerance, and charity. By nature I prefer a scoundrel who knows and appreciates Shakespeare to a good man whose faculties have withered from neglect. Of course, more than either I prefer a good and wise cultured man. Daddy knows that the gulf between cultured and uncultured is greater than that between good and bad. He has always been lonely among his relatives. It is all a matter of manners and interests in common. I’d find it harder to condone bad manners in Jacquie, than lying. We all tell lies but we don’t all put our fork in the jam. – This lengthy explanation is just to show why I must get a white-collar job. (McKay 123-4)

That year he applied for a job on the Listener but was turned down, presumably because he did not have journalistic or editorial experience.

Money problems did not go away and at the end of the year Baxter accepted a loan from his parents for a year’s rent. The lease of the cottage was due to expire and he and Jacquie would have to find another place to live. This would not be in the Hutt Valley because he had accepted Arthur Barker’s suggestion that he enter Teachers’ College. After his training he would be qualified to take up a white collar job.

They moved to an old farmhouse at 105 Messines Road in Karori, where they had to share the kitchen, bathroom and toilet with an elderly widow. They had no phone or washing-machine and relied on an open fire for warmth. Baxter collected bits of wood at a nearby reserve and worked in the vegetable garden. He was drinking again. For some unknown reason he did not enrol at Teachers’ College that year.

In January 1950 he spent a fortnight based near Wanaka in the Mt Aspiring hut. The New Zealand Film Unit had commissioned him to write a script for ‘The Ascent of Mount Aspiring’, a film to be made by the notable photographer Brian Brake. Because of bad weather the film was never made but during the down-time Baxter wrote ‘Poem in the Matukituki Valley’ which subsequently became well-known.

Within three months he decided that he could no longer work at the abattoir and on 6 March he took a job as a postman. He hated the wind and rain and the trudge and plod up and down the suburban hills, but the job gave him the time and isolation he needed to compose pieces of poetry in his head and write a few lines down when he needed to remember them. He was often late delivering the mail but did not worry when people rang his supervisor to complain. His drinking inured him to the consequences.

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Glover remembered a day when he was in the pub and Baxter arrived: ‘[He] upset the whole mail-bag on the deck. I don’t know whether he threw it or just knocked it over. There’s the mail sacredly to be delivered in Her Majesty’s name throughout all of those outlandish suburbs in Wellington, up a hill in Khandallah or somewhere. There it is, all swimming in beer . . . he takes no notice at all. He’s making some point and he goes on having another few beers.’ (McKay 125).

In March he also began attending classes in Greek History, Art and Literature at Victoria University College. At the same time Jacquie was doing an MA in Philosophy, which she would pass with first-class honours. Her work included a thesis which was considered exceptional. It considered how national characteristics of New Zealanders were depicted in the novels of Sargeson, Mulgan and Davin.

Through the university’s literary society Baxter became more familiar with Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson, Bill Oliver, John Thomson, Pat Wilson and other writers. But it was a group of older university people who most helped him, including Ian Gordon and his wife May who lived near the Baxters. Gordon was Professor of English. Harold Miller and his wife Edith also gave Jim and Jacquie help, encouragement and hospitality. Miller was University Librarian. His son John became a close friend. The Millers encouraged Baxter to attend their parish church. Through them he came to know George Hughes, Professor of Philosophy, who heard Baxter’s Confession from time to time.

At Maria Dronke’s soirées he came to know various members of Wellington’s drama and music sets, including Douglas Lilburn (whom he had previously known in Christchurch) and Richard and Edith Campion. He continued to claim centre stage on the literary scene. That year he published a group of highly accomplished poems in Landfall. In May he published the first of his poems in the Listener. In June his first book review was published there.

The year 1951 did not begin auspiciously for him. On 17 January he was sacked when he was found in the Karori post office lying on the floor with his head resting on a full post-bag of letters. He was asleep and dead-drunk.

Perhaps he considered that it did not matter. On 1 February 1951 he enrolled at Teachers’ College. Now he and Jacquie had some security because he would earn a regular salary for the next two years. He would also qualify for a white-collar job – as a primary-school teacher. But to ensure that everything went smoothly he built up a support group, as he did earlier when he became a friend of the Bertrams, Gordons, Millers and others. This time it was the principal, W.J. Waghorn, the vice-principal, W.J. Scott, and two stimulating teachers, Anton Vogt and Pat Macaskill.

On Baxter’s first day at college he met Louis Johnson, who became his best friend. Thereafter they met regularly at college and elsewhere – including thepage 40 National Hotel in Lambton Quay where Alistair Campbell frequently joined them. There and at the Grand Hotel in Willis Street he was often at the hub of a group of students; those who did not know him well were sometimes shocked by his profanity and sexual stories or his nastiness when drunk.

His literary reputation, already high, received a boost in May when he delivered a memorable lecture to the New Zealand Writers’ Conference in Christchurch. Diagnosing the failure of the pioneer’s dream of a just city and referring to New Zealand as ‘unjust and unhappy’, he prescribed a link between poetry and morality and stated that ‘every poet should be a prophet according tohis lights’. The poet should strive to become ‘a cell ofgood living in a corrupt society’ and ‘by writing and example attempt to change it’. Like his grandfather, lecturing in the same building, he argued that poetry and morality were in partnership. The task of the poet was to speak the truth to an unjust society. His audience of fellow-writers and academics was hypnotised by the elegance of his argument and the eloquence of his delivery. Near the end of his talk he made the following observation:

The typical dilemma of the modern poet is one of divided aims. A man who is working as a schoolteacher, a tradesman, or a government official in a society which he knows to be unjust, cannot dare to think clearly on moral issues; for the society is part of his physical and even psychological security. If he breaks with the society and departs into the Wilderness in customary Romantic style, then he loses brotherhood with all but similar outcasts. What Justice demands is something more difficult – that he should remain as a cell of good living in a corrupt society, and in this situation by writing and example attempt to change it. He will thus and only thus escape the isolation of the Romantic. (No. 47, Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry)

Few realised that his argument was based in part on Auden’s The Enchafèd Flood. Remarkably, he had borrowed a copy of it from another delegate whom he met on the ferry on the day before the conference opened. His lecture was quickly published with the title Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry.

At Easter 1952 he attended the university students’ congress at Curious Cove in the Marlborough Sounds. He spoke on ‘Choice of Belief in Modern Society’. After announcing that he was a practising Anglican he declared that he was opposed to four popular views of life.

First was the ‘Comfortable View’ which ‘involves the assumption that we are all pretty good fellows; that all a man wants or needs is personal economic security; that compassion, horror and self-examination are alike morbid.’ Such tragedies as war, the breakdown of marriage, or the growth of personal insensitivity are regarded as ‘natural, inevitable, and not evidence of a disastrous flaw in human affairs and in the nature of man.’ People who forget that life is ‘demanding and terrible’ do so at their peril (No. 52).

The ‘Idyllic View’ assumed that human beings were inherently good andpage 41 that economic and social progress would bring happiness. The ‘Promethean View’ assumed that science allows us to ‘master our remorses, banish our bad dreams, and . . . be happy without being good’. The ‘Revolutionary View’ asserted human dignity and the need for social justice but it was usually undone by ‘an over-estimation of one’s own goodwill and the goodwill of one’s fellow-revolutionaries’.

In contrast, he preferred the ‘Tragic View’ espoused by Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, ‘that we are moral beings whose suffering proceeds from our denial of the Light of conscience and that this denial is universal among us’. People should be ruled by their consciences, ‘But we continue to be ruled in our sexual attitudes by the prejudices of our parents or in our political outlook, by some man who carries into a political group the kind of authoritarianism possessed by many Bible Class leaders. As I see it, the type of the successful revolutionary is Francis, standing naked before his Bishop and recognising no claims before the power of the love of God in his own heart.’

Finally, he said, ‘I suggest that people, if they can recognise their own freedom from all except membership of the human family, should have the courage to look hard at the cancers of the world and share the physical and spiritual suffering of others. In shared suffering, I believe, lies our regeneration.’

Christ’s crucifixion was not unique inasmuch as the Romans also crucified others; but it was unique in the sense that it was redemptive. On 10 July he gave a talk in which he suggested that the artist, like the child, is a natural delinquent. He explained that

The different attitude to delinquency springs from a recognition that conflict with social morals and the rejection of some authority is an inevitable part of the growth of any individual. Part of each person’s code of morals in fact belongs to the nursery. The strongest feeling among writers today seems to be that the State is by no means an absolute authority; yet in rejecting this authority, they suffer great insecurity. For the criminal is a loser in his conflict with society insofar as his creative powers have been turned to negative uses. This occurs often because he cannot break the deadlock between too narrow a code and the life that will not be contained by it. On the other hand, the social conformist is not likely to be a good writer. Criticism and growth are essential. The tension is easier for someone who accepts, as I do, the doctrines of the Christian Church. (No. 54, ‘Social Delinquency in Modern Literature’)

This passage adds clarity to some of the statements Baxter made during the last two years of his life when he can be described as a Christian delinquent.

He was at centre stage whenever he was behind the lectern, in the pub, or in the homes of friends. But he also inhabited another world, a more important one. John McColl Baxter was born into Jim’s and Jacquie’s first world on 29 October 1952. Once again Jim responded appropriately, taking his parenting seriously.

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His Teachers’ College course ended on 10 December. Scott’s report mentioned his ‘first-rate mind’ but said that he was sometimes irked by a ‘humdrum routine’. His understanding of and feeling for children was good but his manner was ‘too gentle’ and his speech ‘too deliberate’ to be effective in a general classroom.

Baxter wrote his own report. Just over three years later he told Scott, ‘I rarely felt at ease at Training College being near the centre of the manic-depressive booze mill from which by the grace of God I have walked out sane; but you more than any other person there helped me to adjust, as far as I did adjust, and that because you have not accepted the role of father-figure which we teachers so fatally tend to accept.’ (McKay 131).

The Teachers’ College authorities permitted him to attend Victoria University College full-time in 1953 on full salary. He passed two subjects (Latin I and Philosophy II) but failed English III because he had not prepared adequately for the compulsory Old English paper.

But he did not fail a different test. To general acclaim the Caxton Press published The Fallen House that year, his third poetry collection. Robert Chapman, who reviewed it in Landfall, recognised the basis of his achievement: ‘The power of his poetry comes from the violence of his feeling about this loss, this dialectic of damnation whereby the positive principle of outgoing love is changed into the cutting edge of tragedy and disorder.’ (Landfall 7: 1953, 209). He could have said that it was a dialectic of redemption in which the principle of tragedy is changed into the cutting-edge of love.

There was a great deal of power and urgency in the poetry, sometimes to its detriment, for it could sound like a rhetorical sermon delivered by a man who knew the answers rather than the musings of someone who understood that there might not be any.

A non-literary prose article he wrote that year asked ‘Is there a Colour Bar in New Zealand?’

Plainly the problem of Maori and pakeha is not whether the two races should mingle. They have already mingled, haphazardly, and often, for the Maori, disastrously. The problem lies in the deepest attitudes of members of each race towards the other. How many people with rooms to let refuse to let them to Maoris on the ground that ‘they’ are unmethodical and irregular in their attendance at work? These are blanket statements, and generally founded entirely on prejudice. They indicate the existence of a colour bar. We are also offended by an attitude less anxious than our own toward money, sex, and the rougher features of human living; though we could have learned much and let some air into our hutches of closed ideas. How many Maoris also have retreated (understandably) into preoccupation with the monuments of their own culture and rejected what good we have to offer? It is difficult to say whose loss is the greater – our own, who have not profited by our temporary propinquity to a rich and intricate tribal culture; or the Maoris, who have seen that culture disintegrate and arepage 43 offered in its place the worst features of our own anxious and acquisitive society. (No. 70)

As well as looking at New Zealand society through Jacquie’s eyes he was looking at it through his own.

On 1 February 1954 he became assistant master at Epuni School, Lower Hutt, where John Ward, the headmaster, had come to know him when he went there on section from the Teachers’ College. It would be a demanding assignment because many of the children came from a State housing area and some of them were very needy. Earlier teachers had encountered problems: of the twelve teachers on the staff in 1953 only four returned to the school in 1954. Eight teachers were new.

From the outset, as Scott had predicted, it was clear that Baxter could not manage a large class effectively. His pupils were often out of his control and that made it difficult for him to implement his teaching programme. But there was hope that this would change in time because he related well to the children and they liked him.

After nine weeks he sent his parents an account of his teaching experience so far, declaring that ‘the first desperation has worn off’. He had thirty-two pupils, half of them boys, half girls. They were in Standard One and were aged somewhere between seven and eight. His job was to teach basic writing and number skills. He liked the children but would have preferred to get to know them outside the classroom. His chief problem, as he saw it, was that it took so much energy to keep them engaged with the task in hand that he could not do much for individuals. He had also come to realise that the children who caused the most trouble or were most often disciplined were the very ones who might have responded best. But he did not know how to achieve this.

At some stage in 1953 Professor Gordon invited him to deliver the Macmillan Brown lectures in 1954. One member of his audience told me that when Baxter shambled into the room wearing his long drinking coat he was so disgusted that he left his seat and made his way to the door. He had just reached it when he heard his opening words and the mesmeric sound of his delivery caused him to look for another seat. Some people at other events were also intrigued by his compelling, grave and oracular delivery.

The three lectures were only good in patches and were justifiably rubbished by a Landfall reviewer. Baxter did not make great claims for them, telling his parents that they were merely ‘charts of progressive knowledge of aesthetics rather than statements of dogma’. In 1962, in ‘Nobody Loves a Critic’, he said, ‘I think that I, despite the formlessness of my three essays in The Fire and the Anvil, attempted something which was not reviewing, or a guidebook tour, or (though this is more doubtful) simply the expression of personal intuitions about life and literature.’ (No. 274). Some years later, in a copypage 44 of the published lectures, he acknowledged that the lectures were ‘confused’ and limited by ‘formlessness’ because, for the greater part, they were written ‘between or during savage drinking bouts’. (See Note 88.)

In the letter to his parents in which he acknowledged that his lectures were unsystematic he acknowledged that his life was also unsystematic. He couldn’t write poetry at that time because he had never settled properly or got a grip on ‘the various problems of work, life with Jacquie and the children, and actual or potential writing’. He dug around the root of his problems:

There is much one can be thankful for in personal relationships. But I do not easily find peace of mind and some such peace is necessary to build work and marriage securely. It comes, I think, from having 2 minds – the one careful, considerate and awake to necessary obligations; the other egotistical, erratic and much at the mercy of feelings. Love in marriage I know is pretty central; but it seems to be a product of many things including one’s own perseverance. Religion often seems to sharpen one’s existing problems. I have many ghosts of past folly or ill-doing which are not laid readily – a not unusual condition for a man to be in but I have always perhaps expected happiness on too easy terms. The readymade schemes – to drink only tea; to work to a set routine – are about as useful as firm resolves to control one’s temper. I think I will always have on my hands more than I can conveniently deal with. A clearer vision and a lack of egotism are what I need most, more than money, artistic reputation, or a first-class job. It is difficult to whittle down egotism when one’s line of country in art requires a close, even solitary preoccupation with one’s own feelings. It is difficult to keep the rules, even the basic ones, when one is concerned often so much more with the ‘feel of things’ than the rules. To want to be a good man is one thing; to want to be a good poet is another. I hope they are not incompatible, for if so I may well not make the grade. (McKay 142)

The Baxters spent more than four years sharing a house. Late in 1954 they moved to 166 Wilton Rd, in Wilton, a large building which had been a schoolhouse. They were now better off financially and Jacquie, who had almost finished her degree, had started writing again.

As well as teaching full-time Baxter was studying part-time at Victoria University College. In the same year I enrolled in English I, French I and Latin I. Even though I did not know it, these were three of the four subjects which he had attempted during his university year in Dunedin. I did not meet him that year, although he was well known in university circles and I could not help but hear of him. Miss Ethel Law, my Latin tutor, also mentioned him to me because in the year that I was doing Latin I under Professor Murray, he was doing Latin II and also being tutored by her. She knew that I was an aspiring poet and talked about his poetry to me. She became such a good friend to him that he remained in contact with her later, sometimes sharing personal matters in his letters.

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That year he passed Latin II but failed English III. He had failed it in the previous year also, and for the same reason; because he failed its compulsory Old English component. His life was in disarray. He was still sexually irresponsible and was aware that sex, not grog, was his chief problem. So in 1958, looking back, he was able to say that

I certainly thought that grog was only the second of my problems – the first seemed to be a total inability to keep my fly buttoned, even when I would consciously have much preferred to – or even more specifically, a free flow of violent language at the worst times possible, a tendency to rape my hostess at most parties I went to, and a recurrence of homosexual episodes, which things combined made life at home impossible and sat on my back like a mountain . . . (McKay 145)

He considered that ‘Booze turns us into schizophrenics . . . split men’. He believed that he was both ‘Jamie 1’ and ‘Jamie 2’. Jamie 1 was ‘no beauty but functionally sound’; whereas Jamie 2 was ‘a very pathological deadbeat’.

Of course he did not deny that he was a drunk and that this was detrimental both to his writing and his family. He was teaching Monday to Friday but on Saturdays or during the holidays he was often at the centre of a drinking group in the National, the Grand or the Britannia Hotel. At times he drank so much gin that he would pass out. He often spent his pay in the pub and was left with virtually nothing to take home. His health was affected by his drinking. A doctor had already told him that he had a heart condition and he began to see himself as a mirror image of his grandfather John Baxter. He desperately needed to reclaim his life. That meant reclaiming sobriety.

McKay wrote that late in 1954 Baxter rang the doorbell at the home of a leading member of Alcoholics Anonymous. The man opened it to find him sitting on the step with his arm draped around the family’s dog. The dog’s presence either seemed to Baxter to be an omen or tickled his sense of humour because after he was invited inside he launched into a performance of ‘The Hound of Heaven’, Francis Thompson’s poem about God and sin and guilt. Afterwards his host suggested that he attend an AA meeting. It was a start. There would be lapses during the next few years but a turning point had been reached.

Jane Aylward kept entering his literature. In September the university journal Salient published ‘Venus in her Western Bed’, his autobiographical prose essay. Picking up on an episode in his relationship with Jane, it tells of a young drunk who lost his girl to a rival at a dance.

At least two good things happened in 1955. The first occurred when Baxter was left a substantial legacy by his great-aunt Hester (Mrs Hurst Seager), sister of his grandmother Helen Connon who married John Macmillan Brown. Samuel Hurst Seager was a Christchurch architect who earned an international reputation before he retired in Sydney where he died in 1933. Hester survived until 1955. She left the legacy to Baxter because she approved of the fact thatpage 46 he kept up the family’s literary and academic interests, but Jim decided to split it in three and share it with Terry and their parents. He used his share to buy a house at 41 Collingwood Street, Ngaio. It was the only house he ever owned and remained the family’s home until well after his death.

His second success that year occurred when he passed the Old English examination. It was his third attempt and he would not have succeeded unless he had agreed to submit to a rather rigorous regime of coaching. But he did, finally winning the BA which he had started to work for eleven years earlier when he was seventeen years old.

In other respects the year was not so auspicious. He was finding it hard to keep to the AA programme and during the August holidays he fell spectacularly off the waggon when he visited Bob Lowry in Auckland. Almost immediately they began a drinking binge which lasted for almost a fortnight. Baxter disclosed this later, remarking that ‘We were stuck at the bar like two octopuses in an aquarium.’

Lowry lived in a large house on One Tree Hill and the enormous parties he organised there spilled out of the house and into the grounds. Anything could happen. Baxter found an abundance of wine and sexual partners; Lowry became so annoyed when someone phoned to complain about the din that he ripped his own phone out of the wall; and Denis Glover caused considerable damage to a Gibraltar-board wall when he punched the photographer Clifton Firth so hard in the ribs that he knocked him completely through it. Onlookers were surprised that only two of his ribs were broken.

Baxter and Lowry were joined in their binge by the physician Pat Hitchings. Maurice Duggan’s version of events is quoted by his biographer Ian Richards in To Bed at Noon:

Their boozing went on with scarcely a break for almost two weeks. Smithyman found Lowry, Baxter and Hitchings arriving one evening at his house in Nile Road at the tail-end of this prolonged binge. They looked dreadful. The drinking continued, with Smithyman joining in, although Hitchings soon had to depart and Lowry caught the last bus for the ferry. Baxter, however, remained talking until 3.30 a.m. and then stayed for what was left of the night. Feeling distinctly hung-over, Smithyman emerged later in the morning to find Baxter already up and berating himself for backsliding and sin. At ten o’clock Smithyman took him up to Forest Hill. Duggan met the pair at the door and asked Baxter, who was by now thoroughly in the role of the remorseful alcoholic character, if there was anything he could get him. To the surprise of the other two, Baxter announced that he had to take the Limited Express train back to Wellington that afternoon, so he would just like a glass of milk and a banana. It seemed a disappointingly prudent close to a visit already notorious for its lack of restraint. (p. 204)

On 8 September Duggan declared to Dan Davin that ‘Baxter dons the hair-shirt, joins both the church and Alcoholics Anonymous like a manpage 47 backing horses for a place who dare not punt for his picking to win’ (p. 203).

McKay (p. 145) has suggested three reasons why Baxter was alcoholic, including ‘a romantic idealising of Celtic bards like Burns and Dylan Thomas’ and a device to demonstrate his independence from his parents, particularly his mother. McKay’s third reason is the most convincing: Baxter used alcohol to armour-proof himself against ‘suffering, anxiety, and his own sense of inadequacy’. Its negative effects included shielding him from reality and the need to make responsible choices. He knew intellectually that he could not go on in this manner, but he could not break the habit that had grown essential during a period of more than ten years.

Fundamental to the AA programme was the need to admit that he was powerless in the presence of alcohol. He could not do that even though he knew that at his worst he was ‘abusing my friends (verbally), dragging my hostesses out the door, absorbing whatever grog I could lay hands on; and generally shouting down all opposition.’ (McKay 147). On 20 October he told Charles Brasch that ‘Drunk I am either a bore or a savage or both.’ (McKay 144).

Even so he became an active member of AA. He attended meetings where he did not make any attempt to dominate proceedings. When he spoke his words were quiet but memorable. He encouraged other alcoholics when he met them and if they needed food or shelter or transport he did his best to help them. He went with small groups to visit fellow-alcoholics in prison. He even took some drunks home if they needed a meal or a bed. Jacquie had found his drinking behaviour hurtful. Now she found it hard to put up with some of his reformed behaviour.

Early in 1955 he wrote ‘I have lately been trying for that understanding of my own past which is likely to unlock the prison doors of the present.’ (Oliver 71). That search caused him to make several trips to Dunedin and to Brighton and after one of them (during the Christmas vacation of 1955-6) he wrote the articles ‘As I Walked down Castle Street’ and ‘The Town that Sank under the Sea’.

His two years at Epuni School had not been very satisfying for him. He disliked enforced routine and could never settle in a job for long; he deeply regretted the hypocrisy in him which caused him to blame or punish a child for doing something which was really harmless. He disliked having to force round pegs into square holes and being unable to foster individualism among his pupils. Even so the headmaster’s reference praised his integrity and friendliness and considered that his pupils had been very fortunate.

In May he was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts. This fact obviously meant something to him because in his ‘Essay on the Higher Learning’ he remarked that ‘I got my BA and have it still’. A few months earlier he had enrolled for an MA. He must have been aware that a Master’s degree would qualify him to teach at university but the fact that he did nothing more aboutpage 48 it suggests that he did not want to become an academic. Certainly that was his point of view five years later:

Along with a genuine admiration for the character-shaping power of our institutions of Higher Learning – some of the toughest psychotics in the country inhabit those walls – I feel that they have had little effect, except a negative one, upon the processes that make me tick as a writer. Writing, in my case, has proceeded entirely from Lower Learning, learning who one is. And this is not learnt in a lecture-room or library, but in the jails and torture rooms of a private destiny, or conceivably planting potatoes, or conceivably kneeling blindly at the Mass. In fact, I believe that the gulf is so great between these two kinds of learning, that I would never take a permanent job teaching at a university, in case the seed-beds of my life should be turned, by accident, into a concrete playground or the foundation for a building devoted to Aesthetic Research. (No. 264, ‘Essay on the Higher Learning’)

He briefly considered teaching in the Cook Islands: the thought may have come to him in the course of a conversation with Alistair Campbell. If he did go to Aitutaki he would be removed from his drinking companions and perhaps from drink. There may also have been a supplementary thought that the experience might also be good for his wife and children. He did not pursue the idea.

Instead he won a position nearer home. On 16 May he began work at the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education in Upper Willis Street, where Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson already worked. There were coffee shops nearby, a lure for a man who had forsaken the pub. School Publications was deputed to produce the School Journal and also story bulletins with a New Zealand setting and language. The reading audience was aged nine to thirteen. His job was to write or commission and edit bulletins.

Because of his marriage to Jacquie he had a reasonable understanding of the predicament of Māori. He realised something of what they had lost and understood something of their strengths. In his new position, keenly aware that his own children were part Māori, he became interested in producing some stories for Māori children. That put him in touch with Roderick Finlayson whose bulletin The Return of the Fugitives he was seeing through the press. He considered that Māori children were torn between the double demand to become Pākehā and remain Māori. He appreciated Finlayson’s understanding of Māori culture, ‘its hierarchical strength, its ritual order, and its promotion of a closer unity of body and mind than is possible to pakehas.’ (McKay 152). In this manner his understanding of Māori began to sharpen after 1956. Trips he took into provincial New Zealand to collect information for bulletins allowed him to meet Māori outside the cities and further develop his understanding.

In the course of a talk he gave in 1957 to the Otago Literary Society he remarked that ‘I owe to Dunedin my identity. This is the place where I firedpage 49 the first shot in the long and difficult conflict with suburban values: a conflict chiefly productive, so far, of wounds and poems.’ (Oliver 52). (I regret that I have not been able to locate a copy of this talk.)

One of those wounds was caused by the breakdown of his relationship with Jane Aylward. He had her in mind that year when he gave a talk to the university literary society in Wellington: ‘Ten years ago, I saw Venus beside the Dunedin boat harbour [an extract from Horse follows]. The story ends with a lament for a dead self: the bohemian self, burnt out, blown up, buried under the rubble. But that self dies only to come to life again, more scarred, older, but still the source of one’s real knowledge.’ (Oliver 42). During that year, the tenth anniversary of the break-up, he wrote a poem entitled ‘Pyrrha’ about the medical student he used to visit:

The streetlamp tells me where she lived.
Re-entering that square, untidy room
Where cups lie mixed with finger-bones
I find her again. (CP 62)

He tacked the poem onto the end of a group of nine poems he had written ten years earlier, added a few more which would have been better left out, and published them as ‘Songs of the Desert’. He felt as if he would die there, in the desert where Jane had abandoned him.

Life moved on. Now he wanted the river of his life to flow into the ocean of Bohemia, which gathered the exiles from regular society. Some of these would be alcoholics.

The AA programme’s last step required him to help others since only by doing this could he help himself. He understood this. He already gave large amounts of time to alcoholics who wanted to talk to him, listening to and commenting on their stories. He made himself available at virtually any time of the day or night for a talk or practical assistance.

Usually he did not advocate solutions, preferring to work out a solution jointly with the other person. On one occasion I accompanied him to an AA meeting at which I knew he was scheduled to speak. After the meeting an alcoholic approached me and asked for ten dollars. Schooled not to give money to alcoholics I went over to Baxter and asked him quietly what I should do. He replied that St Francis de Sales said that whatever you give to a poor man goes through his hand into the hand of Christ. Then he turned back to the person to whom he had been speaking. This was typical of him. He liked to mention a possible response and leave the other person to work out the solution.

He understood the necessity of the twelve steps of AA and by 9 July 1957 told Rae Munro that for the first time in his life he felt liberated from ‘acute depressions, anxieties, dreams of judgment etc.’ and that ‘I have A.A. topage 50 thank that I’m not in gaol, under the sod, or in a permanent residence in a natty little villa up at Porirua.’ (McKay 147). He did not find the steps easy, explaining to Munro that ‘In my own case I took them slowly, haphazardly and reluctantly, making excuses, wasting time and deceiving myself; yet over a period of seven years they removed entirely from my life the alcoholic compulsion and brought in its place a workable pattern of behaviour.’

However no words can help the non-alcoholic realise the severity of what Baxter described in The Flowering Cross as ‘massive disturbances and irrational fears of an alcoholic who is drying out’. When he began experiencing these in 1956 he was aware that it was a process that could take many years.

The fifth step of the AA programme required the alcoholic to admit his problem to God, himself and one other person; the semi-final step required him to improve his relationship with God. During the 1950s Baxter’s religious poems depicted God as an adversary; but when he talked to individuals or groups on religious matters he depicted God as a friend. He often suggested to people that they should look for a religious solution to their problems and he sometimes surprised people by delivering religious monologues at parties. It was all part of his search for peace, for Eden.

McKay (p. 156) mentions that Baxter stopped him in town one day and asked him, ‘What are your reservations about Anglicanism?’ McKay, a Catholic priest, replied that the Anglican priesthood was not authentic. Baxter then said ‘If I thought that, I’d become a Catholic tomorrow.’ But it was not as easy as that. In The Fire and the Anvil he wrote of a tendency to ‘fear to accept orthodoxy lest their present armour should be called intellectual arrogance and stripped from them.’ In a copy of the book he gave me he glossed these words with the sentence ‘This was my point of tension before conversion.’

On 16 September he wrote to Roderick Finlayson, ‘It seems to me that it is time I became a true Catholic. There will be various difficulties along the road; though a secret desire in which I trust is leading me along that road, most private feelings and many intellectual habits pull against it.’ (McKay 156). Next day he lit a candle before a statue of Mary in the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott Street, in the inner city. He prayed there for a short time before going to the presbytery to keep an appointment with Father George McHardy, one of the priests of the parish. Baxter talked for a while about his spiritual condition and was then told that he should consider taking instruction.

He already knew a great deal from his time in the Anglican Church. He was also well read and had consulted with Pat Lawlor, Rod Finlayson, Frank McKay and no doubt others. He knew a great deal about some religious topics, including sin and Original Sin, and had experienced the Sacrament of Penance in the Anglican Church. He had a devotion to Mary, mother of Jesus, who could be both the ideal mother he felt he did not have andpage 51 the woman who would provide him with a chaste relationship. He had also learned much from AA about amendment of life.

Towards the end of his meeting with Father McHardy it was agreed that within a few days he would begin the first of a series of weekly conversations and instructions, which were to end in January 1958 when he would be received as a Catholic.

He told Jacquie this when he returned home. There was an instant explosion. She already resented the fact that he had more energy for helping alcoholics and urging them to join AA than he did for family matters. During his alcoholic days she felt that she had been left to manage the family, and after he gave up drinking and joined AA in 1956 she still felt that he did not pull his weight. His perception of this point was different. He claimed to have told her that he was ready to take over the headship of the home but that she, who had managed for so long without him, would not hand over the reins.

Nonetheless, the news that he was to become a Catholic left her incredulous and hurt, partly because it came out of the blue and partly because of the family’s existing Anglican connections. Moreover, like Ethel and Bert Sturm, she did not like or trust Catholics. Baxter told Finlayson that the timing of his communication was ‘just one more event in a series of injuries, alcoholism, and gross mistakes’ (McKay 157-8). As a result she felt that he was abandoning them and demanded that he leave the family home. After that she rigidly enforced the separation, refusing to see him or seek reconciliation.

At first he lived at 17A Boulcott St, close to St Mary of the Angels Church. Then he moved to 212 Sydney St, closer to his place of work and the railway station. Each weekend, in order to have time with the children, he went by train from Wellington to Ngaio, while, at the same time, Jacquie’s train took her from Ngaio to the city. The children were always sad when he left again because they loved him very much.

There had always been stresses in their marriage. His short story ‘To Have and to Hold’, written in 1956, conveys the level of tension, the resentment and failure to communicate which already marred their marriage. Each of them complained to friends about the other; in his alcoholic phase he had been an irresponsible parent and father; he had been sexually irresponsible with other women. He told Charles Brasch that there were temperamental differences between them. Yet he loved Jacquie and longed for reconciliation. A year would pass before that happened.

In December 1957 he made a week’s retreat at the Cistercian monastery at Kopua, in Hawke’s Bay. Afterwards he returned to Wellington. On 11 January 1958 he was rebaptised and then permitted to make his first Confession as a Catholic. He described the experience to Rod Finlayson: ‘I went to a Marist priest whom I knew by report to be a holy and gentle old man – and afterpage 52 he had lifted the edge of the dish-cover and peered at the dog’s breakfast underneath, he said “Well, you’ve had your ups and downs, more downs than ups I suppose: but from now on it’ll be more upward” – and absolved me. The incredible gentleness of the Church is more powerful than gelignite.’ (McKay 158). He then attended Mass and received Communion for the first time as a Catholic, having no difficulty with the literal belief of Catholics that the wafer of bread was the real Body of Christ. From then on, whenever possible, during his lunch-break he caught a tram to St Mary’s to attend Mass and receive Communion.

In The Flowering Cross he supplied the fundamental reason why he became a Catholic: ‘. . . the Protestants asked me to have an opinion; the Catholics asked me to believe . . . And I could see that the only possible certainty on matters which lay beyond the reach of human reason must come from belief ’. His starting-point, as he told me in a letter of 29 March 1961, was ‘that utter lack of credulity, that abyss of scepticism’ which caused him to have no illusions about any humanist theory of optimism and allowed him ‘to believe in the Unknown God who is also the Son of Man.’ (MB 599/12/Box 2).

Not all steps were in a forward direction. Some time that year he was asked to produce the text for a bulletin to be entitled ‘The Coaster’. After a visit to the bar of the Auckland University staff club he was dropped off at the ship with a bottle of vodka given to him by Bill Pearson. Years later he wrote

. . . north of Auckland I woke to see a sail-shaped rock
Standing up from the endless water. The boatl
Lumbered. The stink of vomit and vodka stuckl
To the craters in my brain. It isn’t simple
To be oneself. The void inside
Grows troublesome. . . . (CP 273)

Living apart from Jacquie and the children he experienced the void. There was a danger that alcoholism would again overwhelm him.

He told Finlayson that religious emotion, the enthusiasm which he had felt in January, had disappeared in February:

The gas has come out of my air balloon and I am back on the dry solid earth. This longing to be a somebody has deep roots in my nature: it is a cancer, not a plant. But now the longing to be a nobody, to be lost among the mountains and the rivers of the Mass, stands beside it, planted by God – and the two may well wrestle till I die, when, as Yeats tells us, at stroke of midnight God will win. Do you know why God made me a Catholic? Because I am like a diabetic and cannot live without His insulin; without conscious continual contact with Him I’d be a lost man; and He knows this and will not let me go even when I struggle like a child that wants to leave its mother’s arms. (McKay 161)

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Predictably, people responded differently to his conversion. Some said that he was much less self-centred, more open to the needs of others; some considered that he had found peace; some were intolerant or thought him hypocritical; some, like Glover, became angry; some predicted that he would write less well.

That year Oxford University Press published In Fires of No Return. The selection of earlier poems was adequate but the histrionic tone of his recent poems caused some readers to think that religious factors had made him lose direction. The clotted imagery and shrill tone of the late poems actually resulted from the fact that those poems were written while he was trying to break free from the trammels of alcoholism and reform his life. Moreover the influence of George Barker’s poetry was not helpful to him. But it would not be long before he would write well again.

On 26 September 1958 Jack Winter’s Dream, a play for voices, was produced by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, directed by Bernard Beeby. The national symphony orchestra under John Hopkins provided the music, which was written by Ashley Heenan. The tone of the play was suggested by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. As drama it is not successful; but as a radio production for the general listener it had merit. Ultimately Baxter did not think much of it.

He was not in New Zealand when it was produced. He had accepted a UNESCO fellowship which would take him to a conference about educational textbooks and then on to India to investigate any equivalent of School Publications. Another goal was to collect more Asian material for infusion into New Zealand publications. All year he had been longing for reconciliation but he knew it would take time and that, as he told his mother, he would have to remain ‘without resentment for things to take a turn for the better’. Now he asked Jacquie if she would go with him. She agreed. To reduce costs she and the children would join him in the Indian part of the expedition.

On 16 September he flew out of Auckland. In Japan he found that Western ways were absorbed into the culture against a background of dislocation, exploitation and economic difficulties. He had a memory of ‘pneumatic drills at work in the ashy Tokyo dawn’ and told Beeby in a letter ‘The most spectacular results of Western technology they have so far seen have been the giant bulldozer and the atom bomb. We will only win their confidence by learning to understand their ways of thought – not to change it or exploit it, but in order to meet them more than half-way with respect and even love.’ (McKay 167). He believed that the West needed aspects of Japanese culture more than the East needed bulldozers.

At the conference he was asked to consider going to the United States to write a children’s encyclopedia for Asian countries. The money would come from the Ford Foundation and it was expected that the project would take several years. He was quite interested but declined, partly because of hispage 54 marriage needs and partly because there were others at School Publications who were more qualified to do the work.

After the conference he moved to a Columban community at Choshi City, not far from Tokyo. It was a fishing port and the place was poor. There he wrote ‘Eioko’ about a nightclub worker in ‘a well-furnished annexe of Purgatory’. In Bangkok, on his way to India, he made love to a prostitute, writing afterwards ‘Such love is contraband.’ (CP 193). Later still he wrote ‘Love with sex, as I know it, is always sad.’ (McKay 170).

He met Jacquie, Hilary and John aboard their ship in Mumbai. Then they entrained to New Delhi where they rented a small house close to the Muslim quarter. The sounds and smells, the heat and dust of India enveloped them. They were troubled by the class system, by poverty and suffering, the corpses in the streets, the beggars, the lepers, the poor people in the second-class and third-class carriages. Baxter had severe dysentery all the time he was in India but he may have considered it a necessary Penance for ‘the wounding and repellent racial and social snobbery’ of the English colonialists. He travelled a lot by train, usually sleeping in luggage racks, and did the things he was sent to do: he visited schools, libraries, writers, and so on.

The cities dispirited him but he admired the villagers and many aspects of their lives – the reality of family relationships and the sense of community, simplicity, joy despite poverty, shared resources, lives lived in tune with nature. Some seeds of Jerusalem were implanted in him then. When his leave ended on 29 April 1959 he was a changed man. The condition of the poor in India had depressed him. But some time later he would say that his experience convinced him that he belonged to a larger human family than he had previously realised. He also belonged to his own family again. When he arrived back in New Zealand he returned to the family home in Ngaio.

At the end of April 1959 he went back to work at School Publications. Jacquie was more positive about their relationship. She had decided that she wanted to stay with him for the rest of her life, while he could readily admit that she was ‘a good woman, through and through, straight as a die, a good wife to me and a good mother to her children.’ (McKay 174). She was kind, compassionate, and her relationships with others were more honest and straightforward than his. But his poem ‘Mr Baxter’s Evening Liturgy’ indicates that their renewed relationship did not include a sexual dimension.

That year his play The Wide Open Cage, produced by Richard Campion, proved to be a local sensation, greatly helped by its production in a small theatre.

On 12 August 1959 he wrote to me for the first time. I had asked him to comment on a small group of poems written during the previous four years when I was studying for the priesthood at Mount St Mary’s, Greenmeadows. They were not good poems but they were the best I was capable of at that time. JKB recognised this:

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The fact that you have persevered with poetry is in itself a sign that it is no flash-in-the-pan with you. Certainly you must set right aside the notion that it may be a waste of time. But if it is not, what then? Can it just be a ‘hobby’? I think not – I suggest that you should regard it as a secondary, very difficult vocation. A man, whether priest or layman, may have one or more than one secondary vocation. For example, my own primary vocation is of course marriage: after that, poetry and membership of that interesting organisation Alcoholics Anonymous probably run a close second: and after that, who knows? . . . (MB 599/1 / Box 2)

After expressing some reservations about my poems he remarked that ‘Intellect on its own is not enough – the best poems are always written from the rack; and I see you as a poet (a real one) who has only begun to endure poetry rather than to enjoy it. Still the vast majority of writers never do begin; and so the word and the world never meet for them.’ He also remarked that

I am just beginning to realise – there is no such thing as a Catholic poetry – meaning, our Catholicism does not free us from an ounce of the burden of darkness, blindness, weight, pain, of the world we live in. The Faith gives us of course an entirely accurate aerial view of the countryside over which we have to travel; but in the poem, as in all relationships, we have to cover that ground yard by yard on foot.

More than a year would pass before I wrote to him again.

When Baxter was a teenage poet Allen Curnow identified him as the golden boy of New Zealand literature. But their relationship cooled over the years because Curnow did not approve of his protégé’s poetic progress and Baxter declared that Curnow’s aesthetic was too nationalistic and his editorial policy too restrictive.

Matters came to a head in 1960 when Alistair Campbell got hold of a copy of the proof sheets of Curnow’s the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse and showed them to Baxter. As a result he and others threatened to withdraw permission to include their work because of the complete absence of the work of some poets and the inadequate representation of others. In the end only Eileen Duggan withdrew permission and the anthology went ahead. But from time to time sniping was resumed, Curnow proving particularly tart.

Baxter also disapproved of the restrictive editorial policy of Charles Brasch, whom he once called ‘Uncle Charlie, the sheepdog of the flock’. But that did not stop him maintaining a correspondence with Brasch which was surprisingly personal. For example when he sent him some poems in December 1960 he discussed his marriage. He and Jacquie loved each other and intended to stay together even though that meant it would be harder for him to write honestly.

After writing to Baxter in 1959 I decided not to write again until I had produced some stronger poetry. Afterwards I kept writing poems while digging deeper into my life. In early January 1961 I wrote a second time.

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Included with this letter was a poem, ‘October Letter’, which I asked if I could dedicate to him. It owed something to his poem ‘Second Letter to Noel Ginn’. His setting was the Otago coast; mine was centred on the Hawke’s Bay coast near Waimarama:

Captive in this grey window after a day of rain,
I grind these slow thoughts out to you, impelled
by your last letter. So we will circle again
the worn silver of words, exchanging graceful
phrases, leaving that vital word behind the word
unsaid. Today in the whispering rain the dead

look down on the living struggling to answer
one terrible question before the cold nightfall.
Walking an iron beach drowned in the breakers’ roar,
while startled terns shot seaward and bright-eyed gulls
flowed on easy wing above the flooding tide,
I saw grey mist swirl from shimmering haze to hide

white waves pounding on sand or flashing under
the huddling headland. Men say there are storms
in the brooding south that high-rolled thunder
will rouse dead years like startled sleepers to haunt
the tumbling bay that is His garden Who alone is able
to unlock the tall tower in the green fable.

Now you who hunted death have found a harsher road
instead, Persephone, born to the bruising rocks and torn
surf of inhospitable seasons. You have gone out into the cold
under red rocks and whirling arms of storm,
while I am folded in need, lacking the strength to wear
the purpled cloak (clown’s coat) knowing it will tear

these dumb wounds open. In crypts of buried innocence
help me to find that love again. Write from the rack
you said, and so I strive to shape allegiances
among the tombs of martyrs, to fear the inmost dark
more than the muttering night. Simply to live
is not enough the slave is forced to love.

All here are well. Our lives, compounded in obscurity,
keep pace with the seasons. Winter has almost fled
these hills and each thing moves in a fantasy
page 57 of green among the many valleys, vivid
with morning. Though seas are quiet tonight under a gown
of foam, the trees speak of wild surf breaking.

He replied on 13 January 1961:

Dear friend,

Your poem has been a delight to me at a time when there was no other source of delight: like water from the dry ground. If it had been a half-poem, your friendly intention would still have pleased me greatly. But I dare to think that I have found at last one person within the visible Church in this country who knows the true problems of writing to the bone, and is coping with them. This penetrates a solitude which I had grown so used to that it had scarcely seemed a burden to me, as a man in a climate where the sky is perpetually overclouded may come to forget the look of clear sunlight. Can you understand what it is to me when I pick up your poem, in the inevitable conviction that it will be another poem with ‘possibilities’ (I value such poems for what they might lead to, but they give me little joy) and find poetry itself, the bareness, the boldness, the living, breathing voice, rooted in time and place? My very dear brother, you may certainly dedicate the poem to me. (MB 599/12 / Box 2)

He invited me to correspond with him with one reservation: ‘There is this though: our agnostic or rationalist or even (I think) our Protestant companions in writing can reveal only their true and secret need, the mystery of an inward tabernacle from which God seems absent: that is their truth and a very real one. But we know both the emptiness and the fullness and must contrive to express both.’

He had experienced a roadblock in the late Fifties. He referred to this when he added that ‘The silences and the famines are I think always the times that bear most fruit in the end.’ And he considered that the priesthood and the married state had analogous effects: ‘It appears to rob time, intellect and strength from us but obscurely and eventually gives us all we need.’ He wrote often to me that year and sent copies of the poems he was writing.

On 11 March he admitted that he really knew very little about God. The insights in the poems were ‘bits of fragmentary knowledge picked up on a beach’. He explained, ‘Of God I know so little that you could write it on a peachstone – He is Love; He is Jesus Christ; and I trust Him.’ Then he added,

There is hardly anyone at all here inside me – just a kind of perambulating vacuum, a body all right, but a soul from which God removes sin and where He does not choose to put much else – probably because I would misuse it anyway – no strength of will, no wisdom, hardly the capacity to hold down a job well or understand my good wife’s feelings. And then the poems rise up from time to time like water in a broken cistern. But the language of other people when they talk of politics and business and education and even the kind of thing you find in the Encyclicals – it is like a foreignpage 58 language to me, that I learn with difficulty. I’d like to be a contemplative; but I can’t pray except to say the Our Father or the Hail Mary, or ‘I love you, have mercy on my soul.’ It is generally only with hoboes and drunks, people as destitute and out of gear as myself, that I feel fully at ease.

He included a poem about the Fall in which Adam and Eve might be any wife and husband:

Descending by a rock-hewn stair
From the occluded green plateau,
Feeling the cobra’s bite of winter
In valleys filled with early snow,
They saw the baggy vultures wait
Like cruel nurses in the trees,
And that gigantic ruined man
Dug in his memory like an orphan
For the old words of power and peace.
‘Accept’ – he said, and – ‘Truth is best!’,
But the gaunt woman at his side
Tugged her brown sari to her breast
Reliving still the serpent hour
As if no Eden had been lost.

I did not realise then that he might have been thinking of himself as the ‘ruined man’ and Jacquie as the ‘gaunt woman’ in India failing to realise that the Fall had occurred and that men and women could not be perfect even if they wished.

In our letters we sometimes talked about matters of belief. His mind-set was such that this often meant we talked about the crucifixion of Christ and its application to human society. (He had just told me ‘Christ is crucified in the depths of my unworthy soul’.) ‘Cotton Trousers’ is an example of this. So is ‘Easter 1961’, a poem I chose not to include in Collected Poems because of its rhetoric:

Lord, to go like a blind beast is hard
To that Jerusalem we have not seen,
Were it not for the root of pain that you have planted
In the soul’s cloven rock. The scourge of sin
Is biting your children. We dream of the slaughter-yard.
Unknowable God, you who have charge of the dead
In the fields of fair sight, consider, remember us
In our confessing darkness. You have sown
The sparks of your pain in Adam’s flesh and bone
And faith itself is hard. Do not render
page 59 Consolation, if that pain is nearer
The heart of life than any joy could be.
Grant that I may hang on the right-hand tree
And hear at length the words you spoke to Dismas.

Lord, the Roman athletes and Greek ladies
Are dust of dust. Beauty is hideous
Compared to Golgotha, where we stand
Without excuse and gaze on the murderous
Meaning of the world. The meaning of
Our night is seen in your dismembered love,
And we will thirst till morning is at hand
Now that the pain of God belongs to us.
Unknowable God, our fatal toys
Of intellect and art are the jailor’s whip,
Cain’s boulder and the rage of hydrogen.
Reading our sentence in your mother’s eyes,
Mercy beyond hope we recognise.
The nails of mercy, Lord, go deep.

Master, I sleep. Under the cavernous
Night of truce that you have given us
I and my elder brothers dream of love
Without a cross. The rain will rust our harness.
Shall we wake strangling in the pain of Judas?
I do not know. The night, the dream,
Are cloths that bind your body in the grave
And all things, even sin, must bear your sign.
Unknowable God, break truce and come,
My Wrestler fairer than the noonday sun
Whose grip can burst and heal the heart of stone!
It is your face, your face alone
That leads me to the joy of man
Shining in the labyrinth of pain.

I did not know any of the circumstances of Baxter’s marriage. I did not know that Jacquie was not a Catholic, or that they had been separated for a year before the trip to India. Nor did I know that they had been reconciled or that this was radically incomplete. All I knew was what he told me in his letters. In any case I soon learned that he regretted speaking to me in one letter about his marriage. When he wrote again on 3 July he returned to the topic of his marriage, but shed a more positive light upon it:

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I regret that I groaned about my marriage . . . In fact we have our ups and downs – and the worst downs are invariably linked to my irritable, introspective, self-pitying personality, which gets in a flap because of a few words of criticism. On Saturday things went as they should, I think. I mean Sunday. I will mention Sunday because it gives a clear graph of a day of marriage. I went to Mass in the morning at 8 a.m. but could not take Communion because I had not had opportunity to confess a grave sin the day before. I returned and made the breakfast for J. and the kids. After breakfast J. got up and began to criticise me for having ‘talked about’ her to people we both know. She meant that I had spoken about her in a disparaging way. It is one of her fears that I may do this. I have done it occasionally, and wrongly, when I was raw and resentful at the time of our separation; but it is a habit I have nearly grown out of. Instead of accepting the criticism in a tolerant, friendly spirit, I flared up, and we exchanged harsh words. She shouted ‘Get out!’ I rushed out of the house, and halfway down the steps began to laugh inside at the absurdity of the situation – so returned and apologised for being irritable and childish. J. was not able to ‘come around’ until after lunch – she played records, and I did some work for a book of photographic prints for which I am writing a script. But after lunch, we all got in the car, J. and me and the two children, and drove out to the sea near Plimmerton, where we dug out four toi-toi bushes, loaded them in the car boot, came back and planted them at the back of the garden. (J. and I together – this took us till dinner time. After dinner I showed the kids some slides in a projector we had borrowed instead of reading a story to the boy, as I generally do. And after dinner, I worked on the script till twelve, while J. worked on a story she is writing, with friendly conversation and cups of tea between whiles. We went to our separate beds on excellent terms. This is of course the life the Holy Spirit wishes us to live. The snag was my imperfectly repented grave sin – one of self-abuse, rare now, thank God, but one which has always tended to make me feel unconsciously hostile to J, because I feel (unjustly) that the fact she does not recognise ‘marital rights’ adds to the temptation. Today I went to Confession and Holy Communion at midday; and life is good. Once I would have gone out and got drunk and enlarged the small wounds to great gaping ulcers in both of us. The Holy Spirit reached me, I think, at the point on the steps where I began to laugh inside. J. is a good loyal wife to me. I do not always praise, or reassure her enough; and that makes her sad and anxious.

He sent me a meditation on two points: ‘Ubi caritas, ibi Deus’ and ‘Ubi Crux, ibi Christus’ (‘Where love is, God is there’ and ‘Where the Cross is, Christ is there’). It was 17 September and he was meditating on his belief that ‘Christ is alive and crucified in the soul of each man or woman in a state of grace’ and that ‘Christ dies again in each soul that sins mortally: no man lives or dies outside the pattern of His Passion.’ He included a poem which illustrated these points and was based on his AA experience. After he gave up drinking he remained faithful to the movement, attended meetings and conversed with and assisted fellow-alcoholics when he met them in thepage 61 street. The sense of where alcoholics fitted into his belief-system is found in another unpublished poem, ‘That a Power Greater than Ourselves could Restore us to Sanity’:

‘Jimmy, I’ve got brains!’ The whitish-red
Eyes glitter in the punchbag of his head.
‘Concrete Grady never had the right
To bash me when I reached under the bed
To get my fiddle. Look at the bloody scar!
The johns are after me. On Guy Fawkes night
I pulled the American Consul from his car
To lift five shillings for another jar;
They’ll never prove that I was tight – ’
We sit two hours in the varnished bench
Waiting for the quack. The nurse draws back
With a screwed mouth from the white spirit stench.
Tonight in One-A, not the cemetery,
He’ll writhe upon the crossbeams of the tree.

Something of his dissatisfaction about his domestic circumstances is suggested by ‘Labour Day’, which he included with his letter:

Balancing on the rickety scaffolding
Under the spouting, I fiddle with a brush.
‘Somebody has to do this kind of thing’ –
Will Saint Gabriel grab me if I dive
Thirty feet
Down, like a bull seal, to the concrete?
My faith’s too weak. My wife
Suddenly respectful to the mainstay of her life
Sings in the kitchen like a thrush,
‘Ko tenei te po . . .’
My rigours make her thrive.
My daughter, in shorts and jandals,
Whinges down below
About some bad word someone said, or that
Fat-bellied Freudian mouse
Who camps under my bed.
We’ll have to get another tomcat.
She thinks I’m an acrobat
In a travelling show. My son
Brings me a spider in a bottle. Red
As old burnt clay its hypodermic head –
page 62 ‘Look, Daddy, look!’ The house
Of Atreus glitters in the midday sun.

By the end of 1961 Baxter felt jaded and was disillusioned with his employment. He disclosed this to me on 9 February 1962:

I have applied for membership of the Wgtn Waterside Union, and will know soon if they have accepted me. One never knows for sure if the decisions are right that go beyond prudence. But I am tired of lending my brain to Caesar and having it returned fagged and filthy. It had seemed for 6 years that God required this crucifixion of me; or for five years rather – in the past year I have stayed on as a man goes on wearing a coat that is really past wearing. But now it seems [God] requires a better thing – that I should sell only my labour, not my brain, in the urban brothel, and be free to look on the faces of other men and praise Him when I so desire. There are 3 brothels – commercial, educational, and cultural – and the second and the third are the worst, where one must praise the house and kiss the clients. You understand my view of culture, John? Writing is meant to be a function of the life, like work or prayer or conversation or the many possible human gestures of love; but the culture mechanics see it as a thing in itself, a commodity, a decoration, a literature, and ergo meddle too much without knowledge with the growth of the souls of their fellows. I hope my body is still strong enough for the wharf work. I trust there will be drunks down there. I feared last night that I was following my own will, and kept awake by giant moths, did what I rarely do – prayed to the Holy Spirit and opened the New Testament. It opened at the Acts of the Apostles and the first words I saw were those where St Paul on the storm-tossed boat told his fellow-travellers to take courage and trust in God – and that he would yet stand before Caesar – and that God had guaranteed their lives and safety. I hope this means that I will stand before Caesar with my mind unbought, till the day I die, and in chains as suits a Christian; and that my family will be all right; and that God approves my doubtful decision. I pray often that He will crucify me in the manner He desires and not in the manner I desire. To be uncrucified is an emptiness I fear and loathe; and I hope He does not desire just that of me. I mean that the sins of those we love crucify us, as well as our own hated offences, and that this is as it should be; and I think He wishes me, by this wharf work, to drink some nourishing bitter water in love and silences, and be nearer to Him and the men who do not wear masks, who carry His scars clearly upon them and within them. Writing does not matter, and money does not matter, and status least of all, but love and suffering are the bread of the Christian and I am hungry to have them in greater abundance. Yet I may well be wrong; for he may not wish me to be happy, in His great wisdom. So pray for this intention whenever you pray for me, my very dear friend.

He had already written ‘The Bureaucrats’ which summarised, chiefly by implication, his revulsion with his job at School Publications:

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Like salamanders we don’t realize
The element we live in – us

Bureaucrats I mean. A tight
Cramp like the impulse to masturbate

Squeezes me as I tilt back on a chair
Of bent tubes and sponge rubber

Between the loaded desk and the door shut
By a forgotten choice. It is not

New: this nausea, a flicker of
Cold fire. My wife’s photograph

With canoes in her eyes, and a steel crucifix
Pinned upon the wall, shatter the reflex

That yielded for an instant to the invisible flame
Of nothingness. Caesar is not. I am. (CP 249)

He did not win the position so he remained at School Publications a little longer, although he was still determined to leave. Meanwhile he hoped to advance some projects and leave in a better state of mind. But he was still angry. On 14 March 1962 he sent me the opening of ‘Song of a Civil Servant’:

In summer when the leaves are green
I shudder with cold hate;
Like an old moll in a knocking-shop
My brains belong to the State . . . (Uncollected)

In another letter he acknowledged my return of a collection of Robert Lowell’s poetry he had lent to me. He was glad to have it handy again because he dipped into it from time to time.

That year I was awarded the University of New Zealand’s Macmillan Brown Prize for a collection of poetry and Baxter remarked ‘. . . it particularly delighted me because M-B was my grandfather, a tough old Scottish academic, full of fire and prejudices and Utopian dreams.’ He hoped that my first book of poetry would soon be published.

On 8 October he sent me the closing section of a tragi-comic novel he had been writing, mentioning that it was ‘something of a self-portrait’ in which the protagonist was ‘my Pig Island version of natural man, that is, in theological terms, the fallen Adam who remembers, as if in a dream,page 64 his first state.’ Baxter wrote in his letter that Horse, his hero, was ‘just an unbaptised stumbling ratbag’. He remarked ‘I will salt it away for a little, not wishing to scandalise the faithful’. The springboard for the novel was Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade which he reviewed in the Listener in 1956. In 1958-9 he wrote some notes for a picaresque narrative which he was contemplating, but then he put the manuscript aside until 1962. After completing it he came to think that it was ‘unpublishable’. In fact it was not published until thirteen years after he died. Horse details a university student’s love affair with Fern Mitchell, a desirable woman with blondish hair and calculating blue eyes who leaves him for another man. She represents Jane Aylward. The male student, Timothy Howard Glass, represents the young infatuated Baxter.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived at Waitangi on the royal yacht Britannia on 6 February 1963. That date was the 123rd anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Next day they attended the Treaty celebrations. Afterwards they sailed to Auckland and then to other New Zealand ports. Baxter did not approve of the royal couple or the royal tour. There was no advantage in it for the poor:

While Big Ben bangs out stroke on stroke
And the circus wheel spins round,
The Maori looks at Holyoake
And Holyoake looks at the ground,
And there will be more things to say
When the Royal Yacht has sailed away. (CP 267)

On 27 March 1963 Baxter resigned from School Publications, resentful, as is indicated in his satirical play The Bureaucrat, of such things as repeated injunctions to use a semicolon instead of a dash. A year earlier he told me in a letter ‘I am tired of lending my brain to Caesar and having it returned fagged and filthy . . . now it seems [God] requires a better thing – that should sell only my labour, not my brain, in the urban brothel, and be free to look on the faces of other men and praise him when I so desire’ (McKay 191).

He did this while delivering letters – he seems to have started work as a postman on 11 March. It was not his first choice of employment. He had originally wanted to work on the wharf; then he thought of becoming a hospital porter, partly motivated to do this, perhaps, by the fact that he had spent a lot of time visiting alcoholics in hospital.

He had never held down any job for long; flight from a settled position seems to have been his natural recourse. In a review of a book by Kerouac he referred to On the Road as ‘that masterpiece of the psychology of flight – flight from marriage, from settled occupation, and from what other people think of us. I must confess a prejudice in his favour.’ Eight days after the reviewpage 65 appeared in the Listener he began work on a postal round.

There were advantages and disadvantages but his mind was free. He could think, pray, and write poems in his head. He had to report at 7 a.m. to the large sorting room in the Featherston Street Post Office where he sorted his mail. There was a considerable degree of interaction because there were about fifty posties. Oliver said that he maintained a non-stop monologue, even if he was the only person in the room.

He told me in a letter that he found the move ‘inwardly difficult, since it would look folly to many, and so might be folly’ and because he would earn less money for the family. But, he said, ‘For 2 years I had felt, to put it bluntly, that I had to eat a yard of shit a day’ (26 April 1963). He felt that society was ‘a depressing jail’ and he was happy to move closer to destitution.

His new position gave him reason to think about unionism. On 13 May 1963 he wrote to a correspondent,

The man who works on the emery wheel, making stoves, feels, among 1,000 dissatisfactions and deprivations, one source of joy – the love of his cobbers on the job, a profoundly actual & humorous love, bound up with a common sense of dispossession – all wage-earners are, via their ancestors, dispossessed hunters or peasants. But the Boss chooses private possessions, instead of the goal of communal re-possession – however difficult and unlikely this may be . . . An industrial union is a group which expresses the solidarity of the dispossessed. The Boss can’t enter this – or those who think like the Boss – his office staff – because they have chosen a different road. Many many times I have been healed by the love of my workmates – who did not basically care greatly about profit or efficiency – when I was sad or sick.

Do you understand this? It is not ‘Marxist’ or ‘Red-Fed’ – it is a certain kind of love . . . this love is a v. good thing, even if unions are at times unjust in their way of getting better pay or better conditions. Men rarely strike for more money, in fact, anyway – they strike because the old sense of dispossession has flared up again. So I understand and sympathise with the Commos v. much indeed, though their philosophy is truncated, since they imagine they can love men well without a God to give them the strength for this magnificent, terrible task. (McKay 195)

He also thought about the crucifixion of Christ. Trudging uphill with a bag on his back gave him reason to meditate on it; he also learnt more basic but still painful lessons:

There’s the heave and the drag, the weight of the swag,
The kids that yell out as you pass,
And a bloody great big boxer dog
With his nose stuck up your arse. (Uncollected)

The verse was part of ‘The Ballad of the Soap Powder Lock-Out’ which was published in New Zealand Monthly Review in 1972. This was part ofpage 66 his response to an industrial dispute. In mid-July there was trouble in the Post Office. Lever Brothers had arranged with Post Office authorities that the posties would deliver to Wellington households 18,800 sample boxes of soap-powder. Each one weighed 8 oz. and a postie had to carry fifty. But they refused and so were locked out. Baxter was an active member of the strike committee. On 23 July a compromise solution was found. The sample packets would be driven to drop-off points and the posties would deliver them after they had finished their usual mail delivery. Some weeks after the lockout Baxter wrote his sardonic ballad. It was favourably received by union members.

On 22 August, Jacquie’s mother died after spending her last days in their home. At first Jacquie nursed her with care and devotion but broke down when relatives, wanting to be helpful, employed nurses to assist at night. At that stage Jacquie went to stay with a friend, leaving Jim to care for the children and look after his mother-in-law during the day. So he was with Mrs Sturm when she died. The experience, which affected him intensely, allowed him to look directly at the terrible countenance of God.

Her death caused him to think of his own parents and of Jacquie’s goodness: ‘She teaches me who I am,’ he told his parents. ‘I know I have often wounded you in my struggle to become whatever I am intended to be. I regret this. You are my dear ones.’ He really did love them. ‘It has always been so and it will always be so.’ (McKay 204).

During September/October he wrote the ‘Pig Island Letters’ sequence for Maurice Shadbolt, the Burns Fellow in 1963:

The gap you speak of – yes, I find it so,
The menopause of the mind. I think of it
As a little death, preparing for the greater . . .

After Shadbolt said that he feared he had lost his creative gift Baxter wrote in reply. His letter was dated 22 September:

Talking of the gap – I think I had to be prepared to tear off the bandages, not use the poems as bandages, admit the hollow centre to which writing or psychoanalysis inevitably leads one, and make an act of trust in . . . something, someone, quite unknown whose image is the wound and the darkness itself – the Higher Power of A.A., or the Crucified One – but still in a sense unknowable. I mean, very roughly – The ikons had to go. Does this make sense? It is useless perhaps to anyone else. But it is a shift away from the aesthetic patterning, so dangerous to artists because it leads to idolatry of the work. The blind, the deaf, the dumb, are one’s closest companions from then on. But you will play it your own way, no doubt. The gap is the place where a new self is able to be born. All one can do is to avoid hindering the growth of this strange embryo. (McKay 196)

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The dominant chord of ‘Pig Island Letters’ is the tension between ‘the convict self ’ and the family man; or the search for a solution to the problem of how to keep creative power while still being a faithful husband and parent. The resulting tension had always loaded stress onto Baxter’s marriage. On 11 October, when he wrote Section 3 of the sequence, he thought of Jane Aylward:

. . . In Calvin’s town
At seventeen I thought I might see
Not fire but water rise

From the shelves of surf beyond St Clair
To clang the dry bell. Gripping
A pillow wife in bed I did my convict drill.
And when I made a mother of the keg
The town split open like an owl’s egg
Breaking the ladders down. It was
Perhaps the winter of beginning.

Frost standing up like stubble in the streets
Below the knees of Maori Hill,
Looking for the last simplicity
And nothing to explain it in the books,
In a room where the wind clattered the blind-cord
In the bed of a girl with long plaits
I found the point of entry,
The place where father Adam died. (CP 278)

The lesson Jane taught him was a negative one – that sex gives entry to death as well as life. He thought of her again when he wrote ‘Letter to Robert Burns’:

And I must thank the lass who taught me
My catechism at Tunnel Beach;
For when the hogmagandie ended
And I lay thunder-struck and winded,
The snake-haired Muse came out of the sky
And showed her double axe to me.
Since then I die and do not die.
‘Jimmy,’ she said, ‘you are my ugliest son;
I’ll break you like a herring-bone.’ (CP 291)

Towards the end of 1963 a row broke out over the contents of the following year’s Poetry Yearbook. The New Zealand State Literary Fund Advisorypage 68 Committee objected to some of Louis Johnson’s inclusions, including Baxter’s ‘Henley Pub’ and ‘The Girl in Yellow Jeans’. Baxter was a member of the committee, having served on it since 1961 when he was nominated by PEN. He argued that the committee was not a moral watchdog and that its brief was to make literary decisions but he was outvoted and that year’s Yearbook, which appeared without a grant, was the last.

Johnson may have felt aggrieved because Baxter seems to have been more concerned about his right to dissent publicly from the committee’s decision than about the loss of the grant:

. . . I can’t tell you what goes on
In the holy hutch of Wellington
Where Gordon, Garrett, Blaiklock, each
Gang-shag the Liberty of Speech . . . . (CP 291)

He made a similar point in ‘Pig Island Letters’:

The censor will not let my lines reveal
Pig Island spinning on the potter’s wheel. (CP 279)

He resigned from the committee after just one term. Afterwards he told Brasch that he believed that ‘works of art are commonly generated by a tension between an artist’s vision of life and the social norms of his generation. Without this tension the salt is lacking.’ (8 Dec. 1963).

A day or two before that, though he may not have known it at the time, Bob Lowry committed suicide in Auckland. He had been Baxter’s large-minded, warm-hearted host and his death signalled the end of an era of heavy drinking and camaraderie. He poured his feelings into ‘Ballad of One Tree Hill’:

When our friends go, as Claudel said,
Into their necessary solitude,
We are left betrayed. . . .

He was finding it hard to claim a home to live in here on Earth. On 13 December the Listener published his ‘Regret at Being a Pakeha’:

Sea egg, puha, pork and kumera,
Eaten among friends,
A bridge between the living and the dead:

These things should be enough. . . .

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But they were never enough. Death had always been close. It seemed even closer in the year that Bob Lowry died.

In 1964 Baxter hoped for an invitation to a poetry festival in Cardiff but it didn’t eventuate. He was disappointed for he was restless and wanted to do something other than be a postman. His problems were compounded by the fact that he really did not want to be either a blue-collar or a white-collar worker.

By 1965 the racial mix of his friendships had broadened and he had become a friend of Rowley Habib, a Māori poet and playwright; Albert Wendt, Samoan novelist; and Hone Tuwhare, the first Māori poet to publish a book in English. He spent time with them and with other writers and artists but he spent even more time with alcoholics, whom he visited in hospital or the Salvation Army Home. He also visited friends in Mount Crawford Gaol:

In Mother Crawford’s boarding house the company is grand,
There’s bludgers, thieves and con men, who will take you by the hand,
A bloody sight more human than the company outside
And very very seldom are you taken for a ride. (CP 215)

In the presence of alcoholics and prison inmates he identified the face of Christ more clearly than he did when he was in the company of bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen.

He was used to public protests. He and Jacquie had joined the ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ campaign. He also marched in an anti-nuclear protest in 1962. Now he took a stand against the Vietnam War. After the Wellington Committee on Vietnam was formed on 1 May 1965 he attended some of its meetings. He spoke to the crowd at a rally at Parliament House, wrote and published anti-war ballads, and spoke or demonstrated on other occasions as well. When he denounced the ‘militarist crusade’ he must have felt that his brother and father and uncles were standing alongside him.

Archie decided in 1964 that he wanted to talk to a priest about becoming a Catholic. When Millicent learned of this she decided to join him, as she had virtually reached the same conclusion. They were instructed and then baptised on 3 July 1965. She was 77, he was 84. At the baptismal ceremony Jim was their sponsor. Terry was also present. Archie and Millicent were confirmed on 15 August.

A few days earlier he wrote to me about their Baptism with ‘a curious lightness of heart’. He had sometimes prayed for their spiritual welfare but only rarely for their conversion, presumably because he did not want to impose his hopes and beliefs upon them. Yet he had felt sad that they were growing old and would die without belief. So he was surprised by the ‘wholly unexpected gift’ of the Faith. The example and teaching of Pope John was ‘the radar beam’ that brought his mother to the Catholic Church, but she waspage 70 also affected by her reading. His father who ‘moves as he has always done in an intuitive union with the Crucified [Christ]’ had also been affected by Pope John; his conversion process was more intuitive.

As a result of ‘the special generosity of God’ they were received side by side. That thought caused Baxter to think of his own situation: ‘Because my dear wife is not Catholic I have seen for years the incredible sensitivity of the Protestant soul to the least hint of spiritual withdrawal and any touch of – “You’re in the wrong; we’re in the right.” I have learnt to be very quiet and learn what I can from her undenominational goodness: in other words, to find Christ in her. We had feared that Christ could not be found there; but He had gone ahead of us and was waiting for us to find Him; He was there all the time’ (9 August). Included with the letter was a copy of ‘Henley Pub’. After many drafts he had completed ‘a modern statement of the Samson and Delilah theme’ in which

I weigh the figures of Our Blessed Lady and that other darker figure of woman seen as Temptress against each other in this poem – it may indeed scandalise some, yet I feel that some such duality lies deep in the hearts of Catholic men – it should not, since we should see all women as potential sisters in Christ – but since the deepest struggle is often at the level of continence not chastity, or not at first chastity – therefore we project our ideal love upon the Blessed Virgin and our sensual love upon the Temptress figure. I would hope for an integration beyond this – but perhaps in this world few actually move beyond it.

On 18 August he said that when he wrote for Catholic journals he was in a sense ‘lying’ but that in such poems as ‘Henley Pub’ he was making his ‘truest contribution to the Catholic body of experiential knowledge’. His ‘Catholic’ writing was for the converted but he felt that God wanted him to fish in ‘troubled waters’, to be among ‘the Greeks, a Greek . . . among the Bohemians a Bohemian’. He had recently listened to a young man who was considering becoming a Catholic but could not relinquish a sexual relationship with a Catholic girl he loved. Baxter then said to me

If I were a priest, I guess I’d have to stop it. But as a layman I could take a different line – I congratulated him on the love that existed between them, told him that I personally knew of no answer that wouldn’t do some violence, and gave him a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and recommended him to put the whole thing in her hands. Well – he surprised me last week by telling me he’d been received [as a Catholic] – and he’d been surprising himself by abstaining from fornication. If I was in any way instrumental (which God may well have permitted) it seems He encourages me to give my scruffy self to those whom He puts in my path, and let Him do the converting.

He went on to say, ‘My sympathy with sinners – which could be excessive comes a great deal, John, from knowing how hard it is for human beingspage 71 to live quite drily – unsalted bread, unirrigated fields, children weaned from the breast yet still reaching for it even in sleep – I’m sure most sin not from malice but from the fear of drying up, freezing to death. They long so deeply for paradise; they were never made for this foul, dusty, dry arena – yet here they must wait till after this our exile.’

He was worried about his tomcat which had a urinary infection and had to stay outside the house. He loved it ‘perhaps more than one should love an animal’ and feared it might die. He fed it and gave it pills. ‘It would be anguish to me if he were to die, especially in pain – am I mad, John? No; but too much a child still.’ The cat was better next morning. He rubbed its head and it spoke to him. His wife told him that he liked the cat ‘better than anyone else in the house’. He did not deny what she said and explained to me ‘. . . this is because I’m a drunk & basically fear people’.

Sometime in 1965 he applied for the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago for the following year. He needed an income to support his family and was tired of manual work. Nor did he have enough time to write. When he learned that his application was successful, aware that he had betrayed his long-term campaign against the academic life, he decided to balance his academic involvement by speaking obscenely in public. (He told Kevin Ireland that, in order to stay spiritually alive and creative, he would ‘speak bawdy on all occasions, on and off the stage’.) His reaction was probably an attempt to quieten his conscience but he used to say that it would help him to fend off the devil of puritanism.

He had not lived in Dunedin for twenty years. He was no longer a helter-skelter rumbustious bad young man, but thirty-nine years old, a mild-mannered man, a family man, a famous citizen, a converted alcoholic and a Catholic convert. He realised the ironies – twenty years earlier he had been a critic of status and the status quo, a rebel, a non-conformist, even an anarchist. Now he had a desk, an office and a salary which guaranteed comfort.

A Varsity person, with an office
Just round the corner – what nonsense! (CP 335)

He settled into his job quickly and easily, making himself readily available to undergraduates and staff, and began writing articles on literary topics which would be delivered as formal lectures and talks. In early June he accepted an invitation to give a talk to the Canterbury Sixth-form English Teachers’ Association. I had helped the secretary make the arrangement. Baxter did not seem to know this because he wrote inviting me to the talk ‘for it would give me much joy in that town-built-on-a-bog to see your face again’. He explained that the talk would chiefly demonstrate that ‘universal compulsory secular education is the black blight on the potato crop as far as the makingpage 72 of poems goes’. He and his family had walked the Milford Track at Easter weekend and ‘felt at least half of the chill of the grave shift out of my bones – chiefly by renewing the sense of my own physical existence’. He sent me two poems, explaining that ‘Easter Sunday’

. . . expresses obliquely a sense that the Eucharist can seem at times to us what the gas-chambers did to the Jews: it is very necessary to bring such ambivalences to the surface of the mind and know what they are. I think it chiefly because my father & mother are old, and loving them I hate to see them near death – and feel a shrinking of my Adam from their company at the very time I wish to embrace them – their religion (very real) is much of it very naturally connected to the theology of death. My own natural desire wd be for apples, wine & concubines & loud shouting! But no; very quietly one has to accept the Fall & love the fallen which means to feel in one’s bones the process of detachment from life: and the Eucharist will conquer death not by removing it but by changing its inward meaning.

It turned out he was not able to deliver the lecture at that time so it was rearranged for October. Remarking that ‘A poet should not perhaps be married!’ he explained that something that happened in his ‘married life’ prevented him from delivering the lecture.

He continued to oppose the Vietnam War. On 1 May he was a member of a panel which discussed ‘Ethics of the Vietnam War’. The meeting was held in the main auditorium of the Otago Museum. He regularly marched at the Friday night rallies and on the evening of 20 October was a member of a procession which walked from the Museum Reserve along George Street to the Octagon. He was one of three speakers at the rally.

In Brighton, Dunedin, and on the university campus he considered who he had been and who he was now. One consequence was that he wrote ninety poems that year, a prodigious output. Among them was his sequence ‘Words to Lay a Strong Ghost’ about his doomed relationship with Jane Aylward. It was composed in imitation of Catullus. Jane Aylward was Baxter’s Lesbia. She still haunted him. He was ‘hooked for life’: ‘It takes a stake driven through the heart / To finish off your kind . . .’ (Section 11, ‘The Streetlight’).

He saved much of his vitriol for Rae Munro, the student who lured Jane away from him:

. . .
Remember it’s much the same whether
You kiss his mouth or his arse – the same
Dull buttock-face, the same shitty breath,
The same red tuft of hair. (7 ‘The Counter-Lunch’, CP 360)

Even now there was a tremor in the voice that composed the following lines:

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They’ve bricked up the arch, Pyrrha,
That used to lead into
Your flat on Castle Street – Lord, how
I’d pound the kerb for hours,

Turning this way and that
Outside it, like a hooked fish
Wanting the bait but not the barb –
Or else a magnetized needle! . . .

Well, they’ve bricked it up – fair
Enough! You’ve sunk your roots in Australia,
And I’m free to write verses. . . . (13 ‘The Flower’, CP 362-3)

He was a successful writer, but he was also ‘a forty-year-old baby / Crying out for a lost nurse / Who never cared much.’

In August he read ‘Words to Lay a Strong Ghost’ with ‘electrifying passion’ to an audience of university students at an arts festival in Palmerston North. The residue of his feelings for Jane Aylward evoked that passion.

Despite the title, the ghost was not laid by the writing of the sequence – a year or so before he died he wrote, ‘When a woman I loved, youthfully and ineptly, with my head and heart and prick, went away with somebody else, the poems, the real poems, grew like a bunch of grapes inside the hole where my guts had been severed.’ (No. 682, ‘Talk to Training-College Students’).

He gave six talks and intended to spend the last part of the year editing his grandfather’s memoirs. He was generous with his time, giving lectures, seminars, talks and readings. (Some of the talks and lectures were published in 1967 in The Man on the Horse.) When he was in his office he made himself readily available to students or staff. The fact that students who wanted to see Professor Horsman had to go past Baxter’s door provided him with regular opportunities to embarrass Horsman by his comments on the physiques of the women who visited him.

Usually he preferred to meet people in coffee shops rather than his office, and he spent a good deal of time with Peter Olds, Colin Durning, Patric Carey and other friends and associates, including people who were not literary.

That year Oxford University Press published Pig Island Letters which was universally acknowledged as his finest collection of poetry. He told me that he did not expect to be able to write so well again, at least in part because poetry is ‘something given us, and that may well not recur’ (16 February 1967).

In October he received news that he had been awarded the fellowship for a second year. During the extension he intended to write more poems and lectures, finish editing his grandfather’s memoirs, and write plays. When hepage 74 talked to a reporter towards the end of the year he claimed to have laid all his ghosts. He may have rid himself of feelings of resentment – towards the home he grew up in, the schools he attended, Jane Aylward and the university – but his cupboard still held a healthy store of other ghosts.

Marshal Ky came to Auckland in 1967 as a representative of the South Vietnamese Government and a large group of people turned out to protest against his Government’s joint involvement with the Americans in the War. When the police responded heavy-handedly the images of their actions against citizens caused shock and outrage. Baxter wrote against Ky’s visit and on 1 August he took part in a poetry reading to raise funds for medical aid to Vietnam. Two days later he gave a talk in a lecture theatre at the medical school on ‘The Church and Human Needs in Vietnam’. His concern was always people and their needs. He never believed in the power of the State or of politicians to heal and transform people’s lives. Any Government was King for a time, but King Log was inevitably supplanted by King Stork. Neither King benefited the people they neglected or prodded.

For one reason and another Baxter earned a great deal of publicity that year. One event that drew a lot of attention was his response to the university’s ban on mixed flatting by students. He was on the side of the students and he fired an effective salvo in ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’, ridiculing the puritanism of the authorities who appeared to advocate masturbation as ‘the moral mainstay of the nation’.

By this time he was supplying weekly articles to the Tablet, a Catholic magazine. Its proprietor was the Bishop of Dunedin. The position he took in them was necessarily different from the one he took in ‘A Small Ode’ or, for that matter, in his poem ‘Henley Pub’ which was included in Pig Island Letters in the previous year. On 2 August 1965 he wrote to his father about it:

It is the Samson and Delilah story in modern dress. A heavy-drinking Catholic commercial traveller, not young, is considering suicide in the bar room of the Henley Pub. This, if you like, is the blindness of Samson about to pull down the world on his head. He remembers his mistress in Dunedin whom he can neither live with nor without . . .

The poem swings between those two great poles of Catholic manhood – the image of the Blessed Virgin (the created world redeemed) and the image of woman seen as the Temptress (nature unredeemed) – no doubt it shouldn’t be so. Catholic men should see women as their sisters and co-heirs in salvation, but in Chaucer and Villon and old Dunbar – and in the mind of a modern Irish drunk – the two poles remain separate and standing. (McKay 198)

Baxter’s contention that women were either wounders or healers (or both) injected tension into his poetry and his relationships. In his case both Bohemianism and domesticity might bring calamity. He wrote to me about this:

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There is a sense in which any artist will seek out calamities and privations and feed on them. The parallel in a different sphere would be that of the desert Fathers who went out and lived among the rocks and waited for the Dove to descend. What I myself have feared most in life was never some inward or outward pain, but the situation of being trapped in domesticity, in normality, in that segment of life which others no doubt quite properly find satisfying: I have feared it because it might choke up in me the double source of fantasy and truth. Thus in a sense whatever difficulties I have struck were probably partly chosen by me . . . (19 April 1967)

Since 1944 he had refused to compromise, to be ‘normal’. His experiences provided him with insights into life but they had also brought him suffering. Most of this, as he suggested, was self-imposed.

I had sent him a draft chapter of my thesis on his poetry. His letter of reply emphasised the degree of ‘primitive nature mysticism’ in his poem ‘The Bay’. There he contrasted his experiences of childhood and adolescence. The first included ‘some Edenic experience, a fairly warm relation with both parents (setting aside the usual Freudian facts)’. The second was ‘bloody grim and gruelling perhaps precisely because there had been some sense of Eden / relation with parents naturally well buggered up’. He wondered whether these experiences were unusual: ‘Do the bulk of the population have any other experience of growing up?’

On 20 April he wrote to say

It struck me you could be a bit over-cagey regarding your old cobber Jim’s alcoholism – I think it would be a good idea for you to mention it somewhere as a conditioning factor – the adolescent miseries are after all fairly common property, but the alcoholic ones are an extra. Dates for this would be roughly: age 17 to age 28 – active alcoholism; 28 onwards merely latent. Effects of alcoholism on writing: direct effects not much, except occasionally in subject matter, as when in ‘Lament for Barney Flanagan’ I take an alcoholic as centrepiece for my picture of fallen and redeemable Man. But I never wrote verse while drunk. But some qualities of violence and tension in my work no doubt derive from my having the explosive emotions common to alcoholics. I’m not in the slightest degree shy about this matter.

While encouraging him to write plays for the Globe, Patrick Carey advised him to turn to the Greek dramatists for ideas. On 19 April Baxter wrote to me, ‘Have just finished writing a couple of plays – and there is the backlash of the subconscious mind, which says to me “All you’ve ever done or said is utter bullshit!” I used to mistake this for humility in myself; but it’s not, it’s not calm enough – no, it’s just a kind of spiritual reflex that goes with making anything’. He was a one-finger typist and the process of typing out his new plays caused him to split his forefinger. In July The Band Rotunda was produced at the Globe. He described it to me as ‘an obscure recapitulation of the Passion in N.Z. terms, with floods of crude jokes and street language,page 76 but not without its moments of drama’. Other plays were The Sore-footed Man (September), The Bureaucrat (November), The Devil and Mr Mulcahy (November).

At Victoria University on 27 July he gave a talk entitled ‘Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand’. He dedicated the subsequent Caxton Press publication to me.

On 12 August he explained why he had difficulty visiting Christchurch to take part in a poetry reading. When he discussed the visit with Jacquie she objected that he was taking too much time away from home and said that she felt neglected and left with too much to do. (He had also been invited to Wellington for a television programme on unemployment – an invitation issued as a consequence of his Tablet articles on social matters.) There were clashes between him and Jacquie, ‘subdued, unspoken’, but ‘like sparks going off’. During those days he felt ‘violently crucified by sex, anger, self-pity, hatred of self and life’. His bad feelings shifted in the early morning when he got out of bed at 1 a.m. and sat up till 4 reading, writing a letter, and putting his situation into the hands of God: ‘And indeed the only sin I had committed was to charge through the house yesterday morning bellowing at my wife and daughter – the first time in several years – it may well have been helpful to them to hear me not like a child. Now the psycho-somatic thunderbolt has passed.’

In 1964 R.L.P. Jackson had written an unfavourable review for Landfall of my first poetry collection The Sudden Sun. At the time Baxter had written a defence of it, in the course of which he excoriated academic criticism. On 17 August 1967 he looked through the book again: ‘I sat down tonight with The Sudden Sun again, to see who was right, me or the critics – and by God (Who will understand the exclamation perfectly) it was me after all – there are plenty of good poems in the book – sharp, sensitive, sincere – and the bright boys have been talking bullshit, and may be even neglecting you out of a sneaking distrust for Catholic priests in general and you as one of them.’

He was a member of the congregation in his parish church when a group of girls and boys were confirmed. During the ceremony he felt God powerfully present ‘invisibly turning little boys and girls into martyrs and prophets’. When he wrote to me about this and other matters on 17 August he included ‘The Instruments’, a poem about a little girl martyr:

If this were indeed the final night
High up on the hill, above the gold claims,
Where wet needles fall on the shoulders,
Where voices out of the ground compel
Pity and recognition – if this night were final,
A drawing down of blinds
page 77 Over the human face and the instruments of torture,
I could understand it.
            But not yet; one must still go
Another journey to another place
Where without kisses, without the clasping of fingers,
The snake-haired women will appear
Naked, clothed in our own deformity,

And take us singly through the gate in the rock
To the paddock of the slavegirl Blandina,
To where the soul is broken or else becomes
A bird, born out of blood, another creature. (CP 401)

He annotated the poem: ‘Let us both pray to Blandina, the little slavegirl, one of the first martyrs – I read her story, and she seemed wholly of our own time – the centuries are coming full circle’.

He wrote many poems of this kind during his time in Dunedin – poems which contained precisely this note – grave but not sonorous, tragic but not morose, authoritative but authentic. He was now a master of his craft. When he explored the Otago landscape he simultaneously explored his past. The family took many small trips, picnics, holidays, tramps. They walked the Milford Track, visited Stewart Island, Mt Cook, the Fox Glacier. Oliver wrote about Baxter’s interaction with the landscape, especially in Otago:

This was the middle-aged man, wary and resigned, who inspected so closely the scenes of his youth and childhood – and just as closely inspected himself inspecting them. The Dunedin streets, the suburban beaches and hills, the Brighton and Taieri coasts, the harbour and the peninsula, the farmlands, lakes and hills of Central Otago, the mountains and fiords further west, all came under scrutiny, as did the child and the young man who had been there before, and the older man who had returned. (Oliver 108)

Baxter claimed in one poem that he had forgotten the wound endured by the younger self but Oliver has pointed out that ‘This is not wholly true – the wound still aches in many of the poems, but the older man’s inclinations to regret and anger are constantly checked by the third Baxter, the moral censor with no time at all for nostalgia. The poems regularly end by looking forward – to what will be there when the burden of the past has been discarded: “I inhabit the empty ground.”’ (Oliver 115).

When Baxter wrote these late poems he was compiling an inventory of loss. But he was no longer overwhelmed by grief. He had endured the grief, and then a time of waiting. Now he could accept his past and accept the young man who had endured it. Now he felt that he could move on.

In October it was announced that Ruth Dallas would be his successor. What he did next had already been decided. Knowing when the Fellowshippage 78 would end he took steps in July to secure his and his family’s immediate future. On 14 July he wrote to tell me that he had gained employment in the Catholic Education Office the following year. His office would be in the Catholic Centre in the Octagon. Bishop Kavanagh, who was a member of the university council, agreed that he could teach some upper-level English at Catholic schools, assist teachers of religion by writing catechetical pro-grammes, and write more frequently for the Tablet. Baxter also approached the rector of Holy Cross Seminary offering to give some instruction in English literature and in the composition of sermons. In addition he wanted to help the diocesan social services. His wife told him ‘That’s one up for the Church; the varsity haven’t offered you a job!’ He remarked to me afterwards that ‘She has (I think) a kind of reserved and canny approval for the Church but did say to me, quite wisely, that she hoped I wouldn’t get disillusioned by being “behind the scenes”.’ He remarked ‘I don’t think I will. I recognise the Church has her own bureaucracy; and I’m pretty sure it isn’t as dry and tough as the Govt bureaucracy – there’s a bit more room for personalities and mutual charity and courtesy. On the whole I regard the situation as providential.’

Late in the year he considered a chapter of my thesis (the chapter was entitled ‘The Search for Order in Nature’) and remarked that

Behind the whole notion – I mean, the notion of finding order in nature – there is a definite transition from the feeling that there can be a part-time order found throughout nature by way of human sexuality (as in ‘Tunnel Beach’) and a shift to regarding death as the fundamental biological experience. The difficulty here is of course that while sexuality may be from time to time a part of the experience of the living, the death-experience is always unknown, always set in the future, a point of rest that one travels toward. Very bluntly – if the vagina becomes the grave, one is certainly freed from the tensions of active sexuality; but what one has in fact is neither one nor the other (neither the vagina nor grave) but the sense of a gap, what I refer to at the beginning of ‘Pig Island Letters’. The sense of aversion that quite a number of people have to my sexual allusions (generally symbolic) in my later work does not spring so much from their sense that sex is better kept unconscious as from their intuition that my allusions are anti-sexual, in the sense that when I do include sex in the equation, I see it as a movement towards the death-experience; whereas they, being romantic vitalists (as I once was), want to be told that sex is in itself a source of spiritual life. My own position is more a middle one: that in some circumstances sex helps us, in some circumstances hinders us – and this squares quite well with the Church’s view of the matter. . . . (25 October 1967)

He also commented on some remarks I had made about death:

My relation to death – it’s not so much my own death, John, for that is after all God’s business – it’s become more a relation to the Dead – the lost friends, the Holy Souls, what have you – and here the Church has helped me greatly by pointing the way to a relation of love to Them: as Ipage 79 indicate in the first talk of The Man on the Horse. The Dead as ancestors; then by degrees the Dead as the Greeks saw them, the heroes, the ghosts, the creatures of silence and memory . . .

On 15 February 1968 he told me that he was teaching various small senior classes of pupils at three Catholic colleges. On the following day he would begin giving talks about modern literature to the seminarians at Holy Cross College and instruct them how to write ‘a simple, lucid sermon style’. This was secondary. His main work was to write catechetical articles for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine under the direction of Father Leo Close. In his letter Baxter remarked wryly, ‘. . . the Church has me at last in the steel net of her educational programme, which has not a vast amount to do with souls but a good deal to do with intellect and feeling. So we are brothers in bondage.’ But he also remarked, ‘It is the first job I’ve had that actually makes sense to me’. He considered Father Close ‘a very good and loveable man’.

Mr O’Dwyer’s Dancing Party, which was performed at the Globe that year, cast a rueful glance at human relationships in general and female liberation in particular. The male lead considered that men turned into women as soon as women refused to bear any more children or left home to work. At the end of the play he is stripped and ridden round the room by the entire dancing-class, which included his wife. (Oliver p. 121, has drawn attention to Baxter’s depiction of emasculated men and female tyrants with their ‘domestic rituals’ and ‘sexual sanctions’.)

There were issues with Jim’s and Jacquie’s children. John was determined to leave secondary school and go to art school. Jim was not keen on that so he took John to Auckland to talk to Colin McCahon, who poured cold water on the plan. Hilary wanted to be independent. Tensions and squabbles resulting from these and other issues caused Baxter to feel that he was a failure as a husband and parent. There were other concerns. His parents were becoming frailer; his employment with the diocese was due to cease at the end of the year; and he felt exhausted from the numerous calls on his time.

One night in late March he had an experience which seemed to lower a lifeline from Heaven. He had prayed intensely that God would provide a solution to his desperate situation. What happened next became central to a remarkable letter he sent me:

John – heart of my heart – I have news that will bring you joy – to some sorrow, but to you joy alone. The Lord has gripped my heart in His fist, and I am full of terror and joy.

  • (a) I work down here this year as I have agreed.
  • (b) I have told the Bishop here of my hope, and he refuses to prevent it.
  • (c) I give away all money, all possessions, at the end of the year.
  • (d) I go to Jerusalem on the Wanganui River, in working clothes, without money, and wait there for the Lord to send me a man (Mathiu, He says, I think) – who will teach me the spoken language. He says Jerusalem – Ipage 80 am not sure He says Mathiu. The Maori is the elder brother and must teach the younger. We have reversed this to our sorrow.
  • (e) I will leave without books or money, working with my hands.

So, John, I am to be the naked seed from which Our Lord, if He wills, will bring a tree. The tree is aroha. Aroha is Christ in His Humanity. Christ has a pakeha and a Maori face The Maori face is distinguished by us. I must become a Maori in my heart – as I am already a little by love of my Maori wife – to help both Maori and pakeha. My wife will not come at first, for she has not seen the seed with the eyes of her soul. When the tree has grown, she will come to shelter under it.

Perhaps, dear son – for I am, among other things, an image for you a little of your father who was killed, in time your own destiny under the Lord will let you come and join me in the paradise of the poor. Kaore nga pukapuka – no books – but the Lord will let the priests use books among them. We will need a priest who can use the Maori Mass there. You, being a priest, may learn Maori from books; I may not – this dead man, this poor man, this joyful man whom the Lord has gripped in His fist. Then we will rest spiritually in one another’s arms. This is my desire. If it is the Lord’s will, He will bring it about.

This is to heal the broken ones – both Maori and pakeha – man and woman – those who are called Catholic and those who are not. I will obey the Church in all things since He is the Church – his Head, and then His Body, loved beyond measure. That ghost, that dead man, ‘James K. Baxter’, will haunt and trouble me. Pray for me, dear son, and wait. Pray also for His will to be done fully in your regard. If He wills, He will bring you to me when He is ready.

He signed his letter ‘Jim who is Hemi’ and footnoted it ‘My timidity has need of courage. Pray for this for me.’

I replied to the effect that I respected his choice and would help him in any way I could, but that I would not be free to join him in the foreseeable future. He replied:

You are a good man – to receive my oracular missiles and think – ‘Well, Jim may have something there.’ No, you do not lack faith; or at least you certainly have the requisite grain of mustard seed. I know in my own heart that only the teaching directives of the Church are infallible: and so my notion of private direction from the Holy Spirit, however deeply felt, could be mistaken. Nevertheless one has to try to follow what seems to be His will.

If things go as I think they will go, then I will be going to Jerusalem at the end of this year or early in the beginning of next year, leaving behind me my money and books, to learn Maori there and work with my hands. This will mean an apparent break with my family; but in fact this break will otherwise occur by a kind of rotting apart – brought about by various compromises which I could once manage to make – such as birth control, for example – but can no longer manage and I trust that God will in Hispage 81 own time heal the breach in a better way. My wife has not been able to live with me happily on the pakeha side of the fence. It is quite possible she will be able to live with me again sometime in the future more happily on the Maori side.

I wrote to Father Cleary at Jerusalem and got a helpful reply. I do not see how you and I are likely to be working together in the very near future; but my heart tells me that if I try to follow God completely, then He will let those whom I love be together with me in some way in the work He gives me to do.

The crisis came when my wife – finding the strain of life too heavy – went away for a few days without saying where she was going or for how long. While she was away I had the job of looking after the kids and found it was within my powers. And when she came back I assumed headship of the house – meaning, a general decision that from then on all final decisions would be made by me, though with careful attention to any suggestions she might have to offer – and this of course was unacceptable to her, poor woman, since she has grown up in an opposite tradition where practically all final decisions affecting the family, are made by the wife. It seemed that when I took on the Christ-role in my family which the Church tells me belongs to the husband – then I was immediately standing entirely on my own, adult for the first time, losing dread of loss of comfort – and simultaneously Christ united Himself to my soul in some new way, which I would not dare to try to define too fully. I feel (it may sound terribly arrogant) that now my soul is in joint, and what is round about is in several ways badly out of joint. Previously I had, as it were, stayed out of joint to keep in joint with other people whom I had to care for: but this had become more and more of an anguish and finally failed to work at all. Now, I am damned sorry for my wife; but if I altered my course to try and help her, it would not help – I know that. And my relation with my children is now much more frank and open. For example, I took them both up with me to Auckland – driving all the way – to keep me company while I kept a verse-reading engagement there. And the boy got drunk at a party alongside me (instead of secretively with his friends down here) and I was able to hold his head and look after him and be with him. He is a dear, good-hearted person. His favourite saying to me is – ‘The blessing of Buddha be upon you!’ – and I am sure it is effective. Perhaps he will come one day and work alongside me. As soon as I became head of the house I told my daughter to go and take instructions which she is doing. She will (God willing) be received into the Church in a few months. From my wife’s point of view, I would be corrupting them, the boy in particular; and though I can fully understand and sympathise with her maternal anxiety, I believe I am right to use my own judgment.

It is not actually my decision to go to Jerusalem which will fracture my marriage. It is two other things – this matter of assuming headship of the house; and the matter of ceasing to accept the practice of birth control. Quite naturally both things at this time will be intolerable to Jacquie. But I had reached in any case the stage where I was physically incapable of performing the sexual act with contraception – this is slightly differentpage 82 from being impotent – and I had to assume headship of the house in order to be of use to my kids. I believe that when she sees the fruits of a different way of life – particularly on the Maori side of the fence – she will be drawn to it, since all her inner impulses are very good, and I know that at bottom she loves me dearly as I love her. But whether or not she feels able to join me will have to rest in God’s hands. He does not, in any case, forbid that couples should in some extreme circumstances be divided; He only forbids remarriage. . . .

The trip to Auckland was helpful to me, as it let me sleep – something I had been unable to do for a while – and because it joined me to nature, that green vigorous abundant nature that one finds at Puhoi where I was staying 40 miles out of Auckland, with a painter friend of mine who lives not too far from the gates of Eden.

So – ‘Hieronymus is mad again’ – but I trust his madness is from God. Continue to pray for me, as I know you do already. (9 April 1968)

Baxter was referring to Thomas Kyd’s revenge tragedy The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo’s mad againe, which was written between 1582 and 1592. The ‘painter friend’ was Michael Illingworth who became a friend of Baxter’s in 1966 when he held the Frances Hodgkins fellowship at the University of Otago.

He had more to say about his call to live at Jerusalem:

These days I am a poor shapeless object – always have been, still am, and will be – but, God willing, I will do whatever He wants me to do. I have it in mind at the end of the year to put on old clothes and take a duffle bag of other things (the only uniform that ever really suited me) and go on foot from wherever I am at the time towards our local Jerusalem, the one on the Wanganui River. It would no doubt be very interesting if the cops had me arrested and put me in clink for being poor. But let me know some time in December just where you will be at the time – it could be ChCh, it could be Nelson, I suppose – because if you gave me your address I could call on you and let you be beneficent in my direction. On the other hand, [it may be that] He will not intend this. Either way, it will work out well. The only two places I’d be moved to call would be wherever you are, and at Kopua, to see those good quiet monks again. Strangely, my wife is not rigidly opposed to my maniacal choices. I think she obscurely recognises that our intricate and lavatorial civilisation will (left to itself) rot our marriage apart; and I have made it abundantly plain that I will welcome her to join me if and when I get settled down in Jerusalem. I am trying to get used to no-tobacco, no-tea, no-coffee, coldness, wet, and so on. Being a comfort-loving bastard, I find this very necessary. This winter for complicated reasons we have to keep an open window in our room; and my feet remain very cold most nights; and this is a helpful preparation. It is a wound to me that she is wounded because I can no longer sleep with her – in the marital sense of the phrase – since the Lord has taken away my capacity to do this. I think if she did not, very innocently, practise birth control, He would not prevent me. Of course I cannot explain these matters to her, poor girl. Religion ispage 83 to her like a strange paradise – but how are those outside the tower to know this? Ask Him to give her knowledge and joy and peace, John; and for me, that I will know exactly what He wants me to do, and that He will give me the full power to do it.

Write when you feel like it. Your attitude is as like mine as two fingers on the same hand. (18 April 1968)

Baxter came to know Peter Olds in 1966 when he was eighteen years old. They sat in coffee bars and roamed the streets talking – Olds clarified this last point: ‘By that I mean he’d be talking and I would be “listening”; if I did say anything vaguely important, he never seemed to be taking notice and when he was raving I never seemed to know what he was talking about, nor did I take much notice.’ (Islands 2.1. Autumn, 1973). Baxter assured Olds that his poems were good but suggested that he would do better to direct his efforts towards play-writing.

In 1967-8 their friendship became so close that at one point Baxter told Olds that he loved him. Olds found this ‘a bit much’, but after thinking it over decided that Baxter must be either homosexual or mad. He settled for thinking that he was mad. But he maintained the friendship – an important one in those years when he was learning to be a writer and the older man was his ‘teacher and friend’: ‘I was accepted into his family group, I ate in his home and smoked Calypsos non-stop, mentally thanking Jim’s wife, Jacquie, for putting up with my bum shadowy appearance. And when I rose to leave to head back to my shack in south Dunedin, there would always be the “come again” offer. Come again I did. . . .’

Olds thought that it was about July when Baxter told him that he was going to Jerusalem and asked him to join him there later: ‘He talked with much enthusiasm on the subject, and I must admit, I wondered whether his sanity was in good nick. However, I had by this time accepted his insanity and love and gratefully took from his hands a plaque depicting the Virgin Mary and said “yes” when he suggested that I should join him at Jerusalem at a later date.’

At the end of the August school holidays Baxter travelled to Christchurch to give a twenty minute talk to the National Council of Churches. It was the first time a Catholic layman had done this and also the first time that a Catholic layman had preached in Christchurch Cathedral. While staying with me at St Bede’s College he typed out and gave me ‘The Chariot’:

Though the god Technology has lifted
Me above myself in the dead metal belly

Of the thunderbird, over the winding silted
River bends and grey feathered willows,

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To a place where my father’s house is far too small
To live in, and I watch the waves bending

Against the buttress of Black Head
Alongside Green Island’s tidy cone.

The clouds my sisters do not disapprove
(Floating and blessing the brown husk of the land)

But grant me the right to an unreal vantage
From which birds and fishing boats

Are equal in submission. Because man is
Able to die, he earns one glimmer of sight,

Avoiding solipsism, to praise and weep
Over whatever engenders the sad human glory. (CP 423)

He agreed to publish a selection of his Tablet articles in a book which would take its title from one of them, The Flowering Cross. During 1967 and 1968 about forty of his articles were published, for he was comfortable with most topics, including doctrine or spiritual matters where his opinions were traditionalist, and social matters which drew their conclusions from the papal encyclicals. But other issues, especially those connected with sin or family, presented him with difficulty, probably because he had not yet resolved some of his issues, some contradictions. In particular he did not easily resolve the tug-of-war which occurred whenever doctrine and compassion met head on.

When his series of Tablet articles ended in October 1968 he began writing prose reflections on spirituality and social justice rather than on morality. Even before he began writing for the Tablet he realised that he was more comfortable writing about these topics. During the following years his concerns changed so much that on 18 June 1972 he told me that the Tablet articles disgusted him, apart from the one on Heaven.

At this stage in 1968 he sent me a poem for publication in Frontiers. ‘Four Words About Love’ is as bare as its topic:


eve said to adam
outside paradise
how cold it is
how bloody cold

page 85


it is life not the lover
that strips us to the bone


poor abelard
when heloise’s uncle
cut his knackers off
he could not love the same

he built a hermitage
of dry poplar branches
and sat there singing:
love that needs a body
was never true love


true love lady
is not of the body
but it can bring the body
to a high throne of pain

On 2 December 1968 he wrote from Dunedin to tell me that he had been unable to stop writing poetry, having ‘tried to give up verse-writing as boys (and men) struggle to avoid masturbation – but, as you see, not wholly successful! That bastard J.K.B. in whom many believe, but who is in honesty a hole in the wall through which the wind blows, will kill me yet unless I beat him to the draw.’ He had some news which brought him pleasure:

Gladness and heaviness together in my mind. Did I tell you that my daughter had the good sense to present us with an illegitimate child, while all around are tearing their guts out with abortions? The grace to do it may have come from her having been lately received into the Church – she discussed the matter closely with Our Lord and decided she would be doing a job for Him by having it. A most beautiful and amiable and vocal and cheerful and shapely and intelligent little girl who indeed tugs day and night at my heart. There is proof now that I have a heart! It could not be tugged at if it didn’t exist. I went into the chapel after I had seen her first through the glass nursery wall, new and uncomfortable in the unknown air, and asked Our Lord to give her to me. And He has done so. After many touch-and-go manoeuvres, and the risk of having her ‘adopted out’, Jacquie is rearing her with a little assistance from Hilary and at the moment quite a bit from me.

page 86

But I will go up to Jerusalem next year and perhaps not see her face again – unless the Lord intends otherwise – and that is no doubt as it should be, since He, though kind, requires the sacrifice of a loving heart, not a dead one. There are two millstones, I guess – the lower one, the heart; the upper one, the will of God.

Intellectually I can see quite clearly that a certain deep rapport which exists at present between me and my wife comes from our common spiritual objective: looking after the grand-daughter. But as Stephanie grows up, that will disappear; and anyway there will be no community of poverty established in the place where Stephanie will be fed ice creams and taught to regard the world as a kind of interesting funfair etc. etc. – I mean, she too will have no alternative whatever to our present unhappy society. But if her grandfather obeys what seems the will of God for him, she may have an alternative.

The ways of women were very much on his mind. In the course of a comment on my thesis he revealed what he felt about female emancipation:

Briefly – the emancipation of women has led to difficulties – even for women themselves. I’m not against it – but in practice, if a woman chooses to limit her family (and what husband would dare question her choice?), assume the lion’s share of parental authority and becomes more or less economically self-supporting – then the male-female polarity in marriage is likely to be gravely disturbed, as the husband loses dominance. It is (I repeat) a problem for the women as well as the men. They feel obliged to become Hippolytas or Venuses instead of Marys – and may end by being neither. Emancipation requires an enormous power of creativity and self-dependence from a woman; only one woman in five hundred may be capable of it.

He sent me a copy of ‘The Serpent’. It was a modern version of the temptation of Adam by the deadly glamour of triviality and things:

The snake of lights in the North-East Valley
Curves uphill into a darkness where

Monument and TV tower will wait
The coming of either a nuclear deluge

Or the slow winding down of all our clocks.
I do not worry much. If in Biafra

They bury children under mounds of red dust
My dollars will arrive too late to change

The manner of their dying. Rather I
Must remember the phone call I promised to make

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Yesterday – what was it about?
Did the number begin with five or seven

Or was it neither? My friend, perhaps the serpent
Has already eaten us. (CP 423-4)

Peter Olds, who had had a breakdown, was in Cherry Farm in December when he received a letter from Baxter: ‘It seems likeliest that I will be in Jerusalem at the latest by mid-February – leaving 4 generations of womenfolk, my mother, my wife, Hilary and Stephanie – groaning behind me, and there will settle down and try to live on nothing. Whether or not you come up there to stay, come anyway to see me and bring the plaque of Our Lady with you.’ (Islands, 6).

Olds received an undated letter in which Baxter declared ‘I believe Christ intends to give you to me as a brother and son, when you come to Jerusalem. The Devil, the father of illusion, hates poverty, because when a man is poor there is no hindrance between his soul and Christ. . . . What joy we will find – joy in what others call suffering – a new heaven and earth! Who needs “art” when the leaves of all the trees have become the book of Christ?’ Baxter had already told me that he hoped that those he loved would join him at Jerusalem and this letter to Olds reveals that Baxter did not intend to abandon family life altogether; he intended to exchange, at least for a time, one family for another.

He was clearly in a mood to leave Dunedin. On the eve of his departure, he made one set of motives quite clear – he was removing himself from ‘a pattern of death in the household area’: ‘The social-cum-family pattern is slowly rubbing me to an armless legless headless stump.’ His inclinations were to ‘found a local chapter of the Hippies’ in Auckland, but his ‘radar’ told him to go to the Whanganui River. ‘Whether the radar is God-given or self-given I guess I’ll never know. But it’s all I have to steer by.’ (Oliver 122).

After three years in Dunedin, impelled by his remarkable call, Baxter abandoned the city which had formed and strangled him. On the eve of his departure, in a poem named ‘Valediction’, he sent me an account of his feelings:

The death-blue sluggish river in the South
Like veins on a dead man’s arm . . . O you hills
Where I was born, the people at times were able
To light fires, to keep lamps burning
For their children to look at.
            There is more than one
Schoolhouse looking at itself in a lagoon
Where paradise ducks come down but I must
page 88 Describe also a sadness like flint
Imbedded in the eyes of brown-haired children.

It doesn’t matter. The country is dragging
Chains of words, chains of money,
Decorated with a necklace of petrol bowsers
And waiting to be blessed by a good
Psychiatrist. My dreams do not go South.
Parents, grandparents, the fire you lighted
Under my arse will keep me moving
For another day at least. I will go north
Tomorrow like a slanting rainstorm. (CP 431)

Prometheus was not yet burnt out. Energised by the change he intended to relate to young people. He had lost touch with his own children Hilary and John (19 and 17); but he intended to make up for this by relating to other teenagers. He felt particularly called to respond to the sadness of Māori, the ‘brown-haired children’.

In January 1969 he was busy shifting house from Dunedin back to Wellington. It left him feeling jaded and under pressure. On 7 January he wrote to me from the family home in Ngaio:

Yes, you are quite right, the King is giving me the Cross. In lucid moments I recognise this. In less lucid moments I see myself as ‘trapped’ – and ask Him for other roads than the one He has already shown. It is hard to see one’s near and dear suffer. Yet I doubt if the deep suffering is ever caused by other human beings – it proceeds within from the inner sense of chaos and alienation from the Divine Lover.

The solitude of the Cross has some calmness but is also terrible. I went up to St Gerard’s to speak with (to) my Mother Mary – and she forbade me, as it were, to re-enter the warm womb of religious comfort, but showed me plainly that the King had given me the Cross – and this was itself in quite another sense a deep clarity and ‘comfort’. And I remembered your words in your Christmas note – and knew for the first time that you were quite right, it was the Cross, not the pious approximation, but the natural one we dread and long for.

He told Charles Cooper, a priest in his home parish, that his reason for going to Jerusalem was that he wanted to help Jacquie find her lost Māori origins. He was not abandoning her, but trying to be helpful. He needed to learn more about Māori matters so that he could relate to her better in a Māori way. He had some doubt about going and said that if it didn’t work out he would return to Ngaio.

From Jacquie’s viewpoint it was absurd to think that she might join him in Jerusalem. She was now looking after a grandchild and needed to makepage 89 a living. Moreover, her origins were in Taranaki and she had no connection with Whanganui Māori. Later, dismissing this possibility, she would say that she never knew what his ‘real’ reason was. The truth was that he did not have a ‘real’ reason; he had a number of reasons, some involving his relationship with her, and their combined effect was compelling.

Baxter’s decision to leave Wellington was not caused solely by the marital discomfort he experienced between 1965 and 1968 but grew from seeds planted in him early in his life. The kite in his childhood story with that title represents his freedom from the constraints of family. Other early prose items indicate his preference for a bohemian mode of living. In the course of a review of a collection of poems by Paul Henderson (Ruth France) in 1955 Baxter remarked that ‘One hopes that her impulse will not be curbed or sterilised by the pressures from within and without, towards stale conformity, with which we each are obliged to contend.’ (No. 129, ‘Unwilling Pilgrim’). Conformity had long been his enemy. Two years later, in the course of a talk, he declared that ‘The “Bohemian reaction” was the detonator which set off the explosion of self-knowledge that may lead a man either to destruction or to further [knowledge?]’ (No. 162, ‘New Zealand Poet Defends “Bohemian Reaction” in Society’). He was quoted as saying,

For the poet is a man who, without sanctity, claims the original viewpoint and some of the spiritual freedom which society has granted (or refused to grant) to the saints. Jacques Maritain has pointed out the dangers of revolt against the norms of society; that a man may, in casting off the leading strings of the nursery, reject all transcendental values and fall eventually into idolatry, worshipping his own creations. It is questionable, however, if an artist once visited by the daimon is in a position to turn back.

The energy which first drew him to leave home and enticed him from Dunedin to Christchurch at the end of 1947 (when he lost Jane Aylward) and then from Christchurch to Wellington at the end of 1948 (when he married Jacquie Sturm) now, at the end of his Burns Fellowship years, drew him to forsake conventional suburban society and his marriage. This was under strain from the beginning and the stresses on it became so great that in 1958 he had been made to live apart from Jacquie and the children after Jacquie could not accept his decision to become a Catholic. As is seen in ‘Journal of Trip to Asia’ (No. 182) Baxter sought reconciliation but he already realised that Jacquie’s model of marriage was remarkably different from his.

His discomfort with the status quo seems to have been the chief factor which persuaded him to take up residence with other bohemians in ramshackle dwellings in Auckland and then Jerusalem. In the course of a talk that he gave in 1959 he revealed both his implacable opposition to the status quo and his determination to criticise it:

page 90

To me I’m afraid it [this country] looks like a plush coffin, cut out of heart rimu, with handles taken off the nearest beer pump,’ he said. ‘I do believe it is vitally necessary for a writer’s mental health and the health of the work done that he or she (whatever dreadful characters they may be themselves) should keep on criticising the society in which he or she is obliged to exist. Not criticism as the Marxist or religious propagandist imagines it. A writer serves truth alone. Some of you may remember that Chaplin film where a civic statue is being unveiled by the Mayor or someone. The big dust-cover is hoisted off the statue, and there is Charlie, curled up asleep in its lap. He slides down the knee of the statue, gets up, straightens his cuffs, swings his walking stick, and life has begun again, thank God. The speeches and the statue are shown up as dead words and dead concrete. The man behind the mask, the terrible, loveable fool, the everlasting hobo, has arrived. That is what I mean by the criticism of society. Charlie criticises everything by continuing to be himself. (No. 198, ‘New Zealand Criticism’)

The bohemian world in which he lived between his high school days and his marriage still attracted him. Three years earlier he wrote a paragraph which implies that he realised that he was having, or about to have, a mid-life crisis:

There is commonly a time of crisis in late adolescence and another at the beginning of middle age. In the first the girl or lad has more or less outgrown the need for the kind of authority that parents exercise over younger children – there must be some moment when filial obedience can rightly be replaced by respectful disagreement, when the tribal authority ceases to be binding, but exactly when is usually the bone of contention. (No. 355, ‘The Shaking of the Tree’)

In ‘Letter to a Young Poet’ (No. 310) he wrote, ‘But a lot of writers spend their twenties and even their thirties trying to catch up on what they missed out on in their teens. It leads to a disruption of home life.’ There may be a sense in which he was reliving his teenage years. If so, this may partlyaccount for his desire to work on behalf of young people.

He was also looking for God. Three months before his visionary experience in Dunedin he remarked in a Tablet article, ‘If someone were to say to me, “Where shall I find God?” I think I would be inclined to answer: “In the jails; in the hospitals; at deathbeds; wherever the soul is touched by destitution . . . .” I would not say, at least to begin with, “In the Blessed Sacrament; in the Holy Scriptures. . . .”’ (No. 489, ‘Central Icon for Christians’).

Towards the end of January he left Wellington for the Cistercian Monastery at Kopua, Hawke’s Bay, where he made a retreat in preparation for his new life. From there he went to Whanganui. After he was dropped off outside the city he began walking up the rough river road which ran alongside the Whanganui River and so reached Jerusalem. Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, the mission priest, lived there, and he offered Baxter a room in which to stay. There were only a few Māori families at Jerusalem and Father Te Awhitu page 91introduced Baxter to them. After a few days he decided to head for Puhoi, north of Auckland. Agnes and Wehi Walker, who provided meals for him, gave him a jar of jellied eels to take on his journey. By now, in line with the image he wanted to project, he had begun to let his hair grow long and had grown a beard.

At Puhoi he stayed with the painter Michael Illingworth and his wife Dene. When Michael was young he had lived with the whānau of a Ngāpuhi leader in the Bay of Islands and had been accepted by the iwi as one of them. Baxter was eager to learn of his experiences because he hoped to be given a similar privilege at Jerusalem. Illingworth assured him that it was possible, declaring that aroha would throw a cloak over him.

Baxter next went to stay with the poet Hone Tuwhare and his wife Jean in Birkdale, Auckland. He needed some money so Hone helped him find work as a cleaner at the Chelsea Sugar Works, where he survived unhappily for three weeks. This experience provoked him to write ‘Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works’. It was published as a broadsheet but immediately afterwards the printer became anxious about possible defamation and destroyed most copies.

While wandering through the Auckland Domain one day in March, Baxter met a community worker named Trixie who invited him to stay in his house at Grafton. It was a refuge and anyone was welcome there. They had no beds and slept on the floor. Trixie discussed with Baxter his Buddhist beliefs.

In Grafton there were many run-down buildings where university students flatted and other young refugees gathered. Some of them were drug addicts. Just after Easter, Baxter and Trixie moved into one of these tenements. It was No. 7 Boyle Crescent. The nearby houses had settled populations but now that Trixie and Baxter were at No. 7 transients arrived to stay a few days and move on, young people looking for kicks, or trying to get away from something. Many of them were from middle-class homes and were experimenting with drugs. Others were deeply addicted. Baxter found them on the streets or in the Domain and took them back to No. 7. There was normally a resident group of about ten but sometimes as many as twenty stayed. Of course the facilities could not cope with such numbers and people moved on. But then others came in. All residents slept on the floor. They had very little food or money and Baxter encouraged them to share what they had. Trixie, Baxter and Gill Shadbolt, the separated wife of Maurice Shadbolt, were the resident adults. They listened, helped and encouraged whenever and then did the same thing the next day or night. Baxter described his living situation to his parents:

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 ofpage 92 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 the 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 amphetamine, 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.

Constant and good relations 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 had [hidden] 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. (McKay 243; 25 June 1969)

Again he thought of these young strangers as family: he was their ‘elder brother’.

To take a break, to rest or meditate, he had to go to the Domain. But there he would get into conversation with other young people and bring some of them back to the house.

In July Peter Olds discharged himself from Cherry Farm and flew to Auckland where he joined Baxter. One of the first things he noticed was that Baxter was extending to everyone the love he had reserved for him in Dunedin. ‘The Hemi I had known back in Dunedin had changed. He treated everybody who came into the house the same, including the police who were frequent visitors to the street: “Come in man, make yourself at home.”’

Baxter was not always so welcoming to the police; he used the media to highlight the predicament of people on drugs and the misuse of power by the police. On 4 September 1969 an interview written by Michael King appeared in the Waikato Times. In the course of it Baxter said

Police are not helping drug users to recover – they only search for drugs . . . I have also learned from doctors and nurses that mental hospitals have no facilities to offer which are successful in breaking drug habits. In my opinionpage 93 this is because they are treating people as objects rather than subjects. The whole public attitude to drug using is loaded with fear, fantasy and punitive legalism . . . I want the police to be policed and not allowed to run wild. I want communal centres where people who have habits can help others who wish to free themselves. And I want this country to retain the democratic respect for the free will of the individual. (No. 589, ‘Poet Defends Scum’)

He believed that ‘The largest number of drug users may well be among the affluent, respectable people who cannot bear the nullity of their suburban home life. The most dangerous drugs, those which are most readily available and used, are amphetamines, which can kill people in four years. I would prefer these respectable drug users not to be abusive about their fellow junkies, who happen to be poor.

For their part, the police believed that Baxter achieved nothing, other than listening to people. They considered that he had no rules or code of behaviour, no moral code even, and that he did not instil any personal discipline. They considered the place dirty. Residents slept in and did not attempt to find work. One policeman described Baxter as ‘a dirty-looking old bloke with filthy clothes. If people saw him they’d think “Who’s that dirty old devil?”’ (McKay 248).

Far from abdicating responsibility, Baxter had assumed more responsibility than ever before. As well as lending a listening ear and providing gentle counsel, he collected rent, procured food, negotiated with landlords and police, met and settled new arrivals. He also tried to throw the cloak of aroha over everybody. This took a lot of energy because he was involved with up to two hundred young people, most of them on drugs. If someone protested that he was doing too much he would reply that his role was ‘to be devoured and consumed by the love of the many’.

After John and Hilary joined him in Auckland he wrote for John ‘Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz’.

One of Baxter’s refuges in Auckland was Newman Hall, a Catholic university centre, whose chaplain Eugene O’Sullivan, a Dominican priest, became his ‘good elder brother’. Newman Hall gave him a room to stay in, if he should need it, a chapel where he could pray or go to Mass. He could also use its library and tea-room where he drank coffee and talked to the students. He gave readings and lectures at Newman Hall. The Dominican spiritual tradition was humanist and anti-Jansenist and suited him admirably.

But he really needed a refuge away from Auckland, somewhere far from the pharmacies and the police and the city pressures, where he could truly help some who needed help. It was time to respond to the call he had heard in Dunedin. So about July or August he moved back to Jerusalem where Mother Mary Aubert and her community of nuns had once set up a home for orphaned Pākehā children from Wellington. It was a tiny Māori settlement – it had a marae, a resident priest, a church, a convent, residentpage 94 nuns and some abandoned dwellings. He arrived there with a beard, bare feet and old clothes. It was his new image for his new self, a man dedicated to poverty.

On 17 September 1969 he moved into a two-roomed cottage belonging to the Sisters of Compassion. A small community of sisters lived in the nearby convent. To get permission for a long stay he went to Wellington to speak to the mother-general of the sisters. He stayed briefly in the family home in Ngaio. Jacquie was now working in the public library and, helped by John, was caring for Hilary’s baby. It is not known what was said there but on 25 September he told his parents that as a consequence of his stay he realised that he was doing the right thing living at Jerusalem. I had a little time with him in Wellington and facilitated his meeting with Mother Philippine. After he returned to Jerusalem he wrote to me:

Sorry I did not see more of you in Wellington. But what I did see gave me joy. You and Judith Todd are the ones, outside my own family, I was most glad to see – this is to be right at the top of the ladder with me, man! – for I groove on that chick!!

I am settled into the Sisters’ cottage here, comfortable with a sleeping bag and so on. Things I need –

Nail scissors; holy candles; any cheap, old, small crucifixes you might dig up at Catholic Supplies, preferably from their rubbish tin; blankets (for possible visitors); one old winter shirt of yours, one pair of working socks; an old tea towel, an old dish cloth –

What I need to dig the ground with I will get in Wanganui tomorrow. Have dug out a picture of the Curé of Ars to hang in my bedroom – the old potato-eater, the patron of parish priests also – a Desert Father in disguise – I will ask him to look after you among the mental fleshpots.

If you can send me any of the things I mention above, pack them in a carton with used newspapers, a fair wad, as I can use them to cover shelves – and bless the candles and the crucifixes yourself, brother.

He signed his letter ‘Hemi’.

He must have been praying for reconciliation with Jacquie, or at least hoping for one, because on 3 November 1969 he told his mother ‘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.’ (McKay 258).

He was still writing poetry, not much perhaps, but enough to remind him that he had failed to rid himself of the habit of composition. Now he had the necessary silence both for writing poetry and for meditation and prayer. In an undated letter he spoke of his situation in Jerusalem:

Blessed be God – He takes me into strange places. I mean spiritually; but He promised any inner trial He sent would stop short this side of madness, page 95so strictly speaking I have no cause for worry. These scraps of verse I send you mean nothing – that is, they reflect the reflex movements of a soul in the flea pit, scratching itself miserably and waiting to be delivered – when is His business! So if you pray for me, pray that His most holy Will may be done most fully in my regard – that it may be all that He desires – and that my response may also be precisely what He desires – offer a Mass for me for that intention – I remember somewhere in St Augustine, the saying that God not only gives us power to love Him – that the impulse to love Him itself is planted by Him in our souls – not only the rain and the sun, the seed itself. I believe it is so – may He be praised continually by all creatures!

The demons are His creation, and it seems they do not – even cannot praise Him. Then let His absolute mercy descend on them in the form most suited to their special condition – if it is possible; let it flood them out of Hell, and all the damned with them – Blessed be His holy will!

He sent me two poems (signed ‘Hemi’) which anticipated the form and tone of the poem sequence he would soon write for Colin Durning.

Man, He has given me the cross of a child,
Simply to knock off smoking

And dig a few square yards of ground!
But you know, John, as well as I do,

The cross we carry is ourselves,
The dog that tugs at its collar, the fence-breaker!

‘He alone can count the stars,
And give each one of them its name’ –

And if I say – ‘alas, that I was born,
‘Alas for the trees and the river where I played as a boy,

‘Alas for the warm pubs, alas for the streets of Grafton,
Alas for the faces I cannot see again!’ –

He, the counter of stars, accepts the lamentation
For what it is worth, the soon-dried tears of a child.


There is peace in the mountains the clouds move over
Because no man walks there,
page 96
But in my house and heart no peace
Since I am Adam – the red flower unfolds

Below the crucifix I put in the corner
And our Brother Wind is sighing at the house corner wall

As if in grief – I lie down on my bed
To dream of witches, fat and thin,

Who take away one of ten schoolgirls
To work for them and their familiars in a cave by the sea –

I wake thinking – ‘Oh, it was better when
I worshipped the Nothings!’ – and I say to the crucifix –

‘I hate being chained to a dead Man!
Nevertheless I love You and will follow wherever You take me.’

Before long he wrote to me again:

An attempt to state what of course cannot be stated. For your eyes only – though if you choose to show it to anyone else, it would not trouble me, since what you do with anything of mine would be for me as if I had done it:

Life is the same as it has always been,
My tongue lies yet. My loins will disobey me.
Like a great stone dropped in a well He came
To fill my heart. The waters are quiet.
I will invent no visions to explain
The unexplainable. Imageless, absolute,
God at my centre is my other Self.
My cross is that I cannot know His Presence.
If it were certain, it would not be God.

He explained that this was ‘Not the Union the mystics write of – just the experience of being a Catholic, I suppose – or more especially, of being a convert. How poorly, how miserably, we always write of what we really care about!’

On 17 November 1969 he disclosed his motivation and his situation – the interior and the exterior loneliness, the question he asked of himself which was a pondering, not a doubt. His only companion was God – and God remained far from him:

Dearest John –

Sometimes my life looks strange, even to myself. So I take out the private pack of cards, my credentials as it were –

(a) God has planted me here. He wants me to act as seed, door, anchor page 97perhaps, of a life of communal poverty. If I am a hermit at the moment, that is a preliminary situation. I have no warrant for this but a call, a vision, a promise; yet what more had any patriarch or prophet or the smallest man He speaks to – which is myself? If I am mistaken, I still have to follow – then my faith would be valid but erroneous, as the faith of the heretic is, who honestly follows a false doctrine – and such are not outside His providence and mercy.

(b) He told me ‘Jerusalem’ – there is no other Jerusalem, this is the Maori Jerusalem, the seed-bed of Catholic faith among the Maoris, now gutted by our civilisation, but still the seed-bed – and the calling He gave me was in terms of Maori communal life – and He clinched the telling with the only certain vision I have ever had, a vision of the Blessed Trinity – unexpected, unasked for – and one other sign, the physical and spiritual warmth in the region of the heart that rises when I feel love for Him or for my neighbour.

(c) He is true to His promises, even if we are not to ours – and as for my sins, they are committed in process of doing His will, as a stupid man might fall in a ditch while running an errand. He forgives all our sins; and you, as a priest, know that His calling is not vitiated by the sins of those He calls. David was a sinner, yet he was His king and priest.

(d) Paul writes in Hebrews about the office of high priest –

The purpose for which any high priest is chosen from among his fellow men, and made a representative of men in their dealings with God, is to offer gifts and sacrifices in expiation of their sins. He is qualified for this by being able to feel for them when they are ignorant and make mistakes, since He too, is all beset with humiliations, and, for that reason, must needs present sin-offerings for himself, just as he does for the people. His vocation comes from God, as Aaron’s did, nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this. So it is with Christ . . . Son of God though he was, he learned obedience in the school of suffering . . .

This letter is perhaps a little selfish. I’m letting you ‘listen in’ when I am in necessary difficulties. The difficulties come from a number of questions –

(a) My own extreme and childish weakness, so that even to remain off cigarettes is sometimes too heavy a burden for me to bear.

(b) From this source, fear of the dark, sometimes fear of particular demons, ghosts etc., etc. That is, fear of the Nothings, – since either what one fears is non-entity, a lie, a pagan god – or else it is a creature, a human being or a spirit and thus all but nothing – and who should fear any creature since no creature can harm us without the will, and the will is wholly loving, so that any ‘harm’ would be beneficial.

(c) Depression because of a sense of inaction and a lack of wholly congenial company. The point is, though, I must accept in this place precisely whoever He sends me; and the ‘kind’ people who might suggest ways of occupying myself – other than manual work, prayer, conversation with visitors, reading of the Psalms or letters or papers Sister brings me, preparing meals or cleaning this cottage, writing some letters or verse such as I am doing now – they would be interrupting the passivity of mypage 98 present relationship to Him. Thus my inaction is the action of waiting for Him to deliver me; and the waiting itself is an entirely necessary means of purification. I must become supple and pliable in His hands – curse myself! In the past I have been most rigid, wilful, prone to distraction even to the point of grave sin – praise Him! He delivers us all by even that ‘cruel’ mercy Buber wrote about after Auschwitz. Blessed be the holy Name! A Jewish girl – a Judaic believer – whom I know in Auckland most kindly sends me certain provisions which are an expression of her love – a most pure and lovely and holy person, whom He gave me the immense privilege of knowing – she had the humility to regard herself as this poor man’s daughter.

(d) A precise fear of demonic action – or, in my own terminology, diabolic. I distinguish thus between what comes essentially from the layers of one’s own subconscious mind – sexual images, autonomous constellations of ‘happenings’ – such as, the fear images of children – as in the childish dream I mention in the poem – these are ‘demonic’ – and the much surer ‘diabolic’ visions present with me most surely. But I think the demons are annoyed by my attempted submission to His will, and by my use of the ‘flagellum’ – the belt with brass rings I wear which I use as a discipline before sleeping, praying – ‘Dear Lord, I use this to join myself to Your scourging – may it be of use for the expiation of my own sins and the sins of others’ –

For this I had the permission of a most kind and intelligent director He gave me in Auckland – a Dominican. Of course many would throw up their hands in horror, John, at this ‘mediaeval’ practice. But I have a strong peasant back, inherited by His will from my Scottish ancestors. It can be put to use to carry weights or take some moderate whacking. Masochist? No. My intention is to be of use. And this practice, by His great mercy, does relieve me of obsessions and [?] towards impurity. After all, those who would mock at the practice have their own obsessions – how precisely do they deal with them – or do they in fact deal with them? They and He alone can know.

I have a sense of being of some use to the beloved Maori people in the pa, below the church, whom I go most gently and timidly towards, remembering the many evils done to them by people of my race, accepting their inevitable stand-offishness and bewilderment in dealing with a man like myself who has no obvious role. When I use the discipline I think of them in particular, trusting He will permit me to be of invisible use to them – in this respect I gain confidence from the example of dear St John of Ars, whose picture hangs on my wall.

(e) A fear of Maori people and Maori matters – natural enough since in this I go like a man without a skin – or Hans Anderson’s little mermaid who had to walk on knives, as it were, when she came out of the sea to join her Prince. Well, my soul is that mermaid, and she walks (bless her!) on knives in order to be with her Prince, Our Divine and human Master, who indeed embraces her in her strangeness, dripping and stinking like a fish. The impotence of my love for my Maori neighbours is sometimes a crushing weight to me, I wish to be embraced by them also, to share theirpage 99 sorrows and their joys – but am aware how delicate a thing it is to do this, far too delicate for my awkward impurities and wincing nakedness of spirit! There is a radical fear in me also of the process of total identification – its annihilating quality. But He who rules and knows all spirits, Maori or pakeha, can make this possible – and if it occurs, John, you will know it as a thing beyond me, effected by Him alone.

(f) ) A sensitivity springing from vanity, regarding the strangeness of my appearance, what makes the little children most prudently call out

– ‘There’s Mr Baxter with his silly hair!’ They have been trained by their parents and the nuns to be tidy. Yet He wishes this; since the absurd can be loved, and He wishes me to become His aroha, His vacancy, His gate of communal love, His heavy donkey, small and absurd, who will carry Him into Jerusalem – may He be praised continually!

(g) An attitudinising – a desire to be thought holy and good by others

– most obvious when I consider the multitude of sins whose effects pursue me like wolves. This attitudinising is not exactly wilful – it comes from my chameleon-like temperament. Thus, I will talk of prayer with a Sister, and tell coarse jokes to a different kind of visitor – I prefer perhaps the second – these things are not in an absolute sense incompatible, but on a human level they may appear so. I have always had this difficulty and see no way round it except to endure it. But – on a different level – a certain sensitivity of expression, an actor’s unconscious capacity to lift the eyes and look ‘holy’, might lead a nun to misjudge my actual character. Should I, for example, in honesty have given Sister Philippine, the Mother Superior who so mercifully gave me the use of this cottage, an exact though brief account of my relation with the 35 or so women I have slept with in the course of my life, excluding one at least who is pregnant (joyfully, God help her!) by me in Auckland at the present time? It would have bewildered Mother; it would have meant no cottage; and God did not urge it upon my consciousness. I do not walk Niagara Falls on a tightrope, John – I walk on the air itself! One day God will most justly let me fall into the chaos I move above. But in the meantime this very sinful, loudly braying stupid, smelly and absurd thistle-eating donkey must work for Him. Later on his hide can be used to make shoes!

(h) All my ‘difficulties’ can be summed up as self-involvement and lack of true abandonment and trust in Him. Yet I love Him from the bottom of an arid and rebellious heart. What can we do but love Him? He is Our Love. . . .

Now, apart from the priesthood of the laity, I am obviously no priest. Yet to intercede for others – as I do, groaning – and to father them into spiritual life is a priestly function. Thus, within the priesthood of the laity, He has given me a role and a burden and a privilege. He has not taken from me my nature and temperament, or its flaws, but He does teach me obedience in the school of suffering. To become an ‘alter Christus’ all I can do is follow Him and wait on His will.

The girl in Auckland who is having a child by me is taking instruction. As women often do, I mean in their relation to men, she saw me as her ‘sun’, her source of light and warmth. Now in His mercy He is leading her page 100beyond this creature to the only true source, Himself, the Creator. Often I wished to ditch her, but the obstacle was that she looked to me as her spiritual centre. The problem was not essentially sexual; though its danger was that from time to time it overflowed onto a sexual level. Well, if He looks after the results of my incapacities – I wished often I was a eunuch – all the more reason for me to follow Him and try to obey Him better – not to be discouraged and turn back.

Tell me, do these arguments make sense to you? To me they do. Apart from a capacity to write verse, I have only two assets – ‘being able to feel for them’ (an ineradicable sense of painful identification with others) and faith. These, though, are perhaps the only essential prerequisites for the priesthood of the laity.

I enclose a poem I might not have written if I had not been communicating with you at the back of my mind. Allegorically it describes – or expresses – the wish of a soul to return to earth from Purgatory – eventually it is of course an expression of certain states of my own soul.

I feel the warmth I have spoken of strongly in my breast as I write these words. It is because of your tender love for me in the Lord. I embrace you, my dear friend. May He give you too warmth and light and peace and joy.

The poem he sent me is entitled ‘The Rocks’. In the poem the soul longs to return to a place where everything seems familiar. It is, perhaps, an allegory of Baxter’s wish to return from a desert place to childhood, to places where he had once enjoyed companionship, peace:

If I could I would go to the rocks at Mackenzie’s corner
Where the river and the road both take a sharp turn
And the high broken rocks have given
Room for some thickets of green hard fruit,
The wild gooseberry. If I were to pluck and bite
One hard berry the taste might bring me

Out of the flame in which I burn,
And the touch of it on the tongue might bring back
The power of human speech. If the master of the flame
Would let me, I would gather from the tree at the gate
Where few go out, a leaf to cool my head,
And come back darkly at nightfall.

Like a wind among the houses
That shifts the spikes of grass but is not heard,
That does not need to turn a handle
Or knock. I would not wish to scandalize
Hearts I have loved, eyes that have answered mine,
Or the child asleep in her cot below the window

page 101

Who won’t wake because the blind cord is swinging
But must not be touched by a burnt hand.
It would be better then to go the outside way
Where the rocks are piled like the stones of Solomon’s temple
And nobody will come, no footfall breaking
The silence of earth where, they tell us, the dawn can be seen. (CP 483)

After he mentioned an experience of diabolic presence and temptation we had a further discussion which resulted in my writing a poem entitled ‘The Demons’. I sent it to him and in reply he sent me ‘Letter to John Weir’:

Dear John, – They’d have us locked away
If they knew how from day to day
Our minds work; and, true enough,
Demons are made of mental stuff;
They mask the naked malady
The soul has in its nullity,
As Buddha taught. But he has gone
To sit upon the diamond throne
And you and I lost in the dark
At times may hear Hell’s watchdogs bark
And see their fangs, and throw a clod,
And turn again to pray to God,
Our King and Shield, though, as for Him
Who rides upon the cherubim,
Man, He could thump the deck at times
Rebuking Israel for her crimes!
‘Daughter, harlot, you who stray
Blue-jeaned and pot-stoned through the day,
You saw them painted on the walls,
Chaldaean captains with big balls,
And thought – “I’ll write a note to them” –
Now blood will be your diadem
And you’ll repent your vanities
Scrubbing floors upon your knees!’
Thus any Kiwi father will
Do his block and spout his fill
But afterwards bring toast and jam,
Peace offerings for his pet lamb,
Or so I take it. Thus I find
A precedent for my coarse mind
That aggravates our bourgeoisie
To call on God to throttle me
page 102 Before their children catch the word
One can be happy with a bird.
But Frank McKay is much to blame;
He has defiled the Holy Name
And dragged me to the edge of sin
By sending me the Scriptures in
The bright-eyed Ronald Knox translation;
I comb the Prophets, chew Galatians,
Along with garlic for my dinner
To prove God likes a lively sinner
Better than some sad muttonhead
Who hates his wife who farts in bed
And makes his money out of Gas
And passes round the plate at Mass.

Why do I hammer Poor Blind Nell,
Our pilgrim Church, our Israel,
Our Mother Mild? Well, John, it is
An old grass-widower’s emphasis;
My wife, because intelligent,
Mainly adorned the Sacraments;
And Our sweet Lord must feel annoyed
Married to a mongoloid;
I sympathize with Him.
Dear John! The garden still looks rough
And I must go there with a spade
Before my first intentions fade
And bend my back and stretch my arse
Sifting out the bits of couch grass
That like my sins will sprout again
Whether I work or not. Amen.

He also sent ‘The Labyrinth’, which he dedicated to me. It recalled his original pilgrimage up the River Road to Jerusalem:

So many corridors, – so many lurches
On the uneven filthy floor
Daedalus made and then forgot, – ‘What right
Have you to be here?’ the demons thick as roaches
            Mind fixed on the Minotaur,
I plugged onward like a camel that first night,
page 103 Thinking – ‘Not long, brother, not long now!’ –
But now so many nights have passed,
The problem is to think of him at all
And not of, say, the fact that I am lost,
Or the spark of light that fell upon my brow
From some high vault, – I sit down like a little girl
To play with my dolls, – sword, wallet and the god’s great amulet
My father gave me.
         In the bullfights it was easy
(though heroic no doubt) because their eyes, their eyes held me
To the agile task. Now I am a child
Frightened by falling water, by each nerve-pricking memory
Of things ill done, – but I do not forget
One thing, the thread, the invisible silk I hold
And shall hold till I die.
            I tell you, brother,
When I throw my arms around the Minotaur
Our silence will be pure as gold.

In an undated letter he remarked that he had been reading St Paul on faith. Then he asked himself

Without faith, would I be here at all? Of course not. I would either be sitting in Wgtn waiting for my wife to get tired of me . . . and go out the door, leaving me to the unctuous commiserations of those who would fail to recognise it was her love that was offended; or I would be working in protest movements and raising strident cries in the New Left; or I would be settled down with a young mistress and a squad of camp-followers in a house on the beach near Auckland, gathering pipis and smoking pot being the ‘natural man’; or I would have put on my space-suit and angled for a prolonged lecture tour of London, the U.S.A., and the ancient towns of university England.

O.K., brother, I am here because God spoke one word, and one only, in my heart – ‘Jerusalem’. Thus I do not choose my life; I follow His showing, over sticks and rocks and stones; and this in faith . . .

He was at Jerusalem because God had told him to go there. No other reason. Not money, or pleasure, or women:

Women? No. I have no woman here, though I would always endeavour to keep any woman who had been however briefly, a mistress of mine, as a friend, in honour of the love so often obscurely hidden under the dark of that sin, and so that they should not be discouraged and despair of human values. But here He is kind enough to preserve me even from the reflexes of impurity.

Approval of others? I try to rubbish this by showing myself as I am – morally rough, stinking, uncouth – even to strangers. By writing, say,page 104 ‘Letter to Sam Hunt’, I lose more approval than I gain. Yet it is an honest poem. The mask of the false prophet is this looking for approval. I could be a kind of king among the hippies, with their fond and earnest approval; or an elder statesman of A.A.; or a man much revered in the Church as we know her, for writing Tablet articles that were perhaps poultices for the ulcers of the middle class, when a blood purifier would have been more to the point.

God knows it is sweet to this man to be loved! But I do not hold I have deliberately effected this by seeking approval, or falsified whatever truth He has planted in my heart.

At Jerusalem he did not receive any religious consolations. It was different in Auckland. Once, while meditating, he saw the sun rise ‘like a fiery spirit’; and he had seen ‘a light like the shekinah in the faces of my friends, and thought – “Ah, man, you represent Him here; among this tribe who love you so dearly, you yourself are required to be the Bridegroom who dies for the Bride.” And my soul was wrung out like a wet sponge.’ But at Jerusalem he was ‘the nobody I always was, “serving” the Maoris without a Maori voice or Maori face beside me, except for Joe (who keeps a secondhand shop in Wanganui) and a Ringatu woman I met briefly in Palmerston and old Father Te Awhitu, who is kind to me.’

Making poems did not console him: ‘I do not care now whether they are good or bad. And when I write the primary motive is now charitable communication.’

Late in the year he visited Auckland. That may have been the occasion when he watched the destruction of his former home in Boyle Crescent:

Pardon me. The facts are simple enough. The junkies loved one another. When I saw the bulldozers crash through the walls of the house, for the first time in years I began to weep. In the dust-laden cloud a great wild bird rose and fluttered and died. And the souls of the confessors of the junkie church who had taken an overdose and died in that neighbourhood blazed out to meet it like white stars in a black sky . . .

The weeds are growing high on the site where the house stood. The landlord has not yet erected the new honeycomb of concrete in which people will be able to watch identical programmes at different tellies, not knowing their neighbours’ names. When he does, he will get four times the rent that he got from the house that stood there. . . .

The house of prudence is different from the house of love.

A part of my heart is buried in the empty section where the junkies’ mother house once stood. Because she gave me life when the city was killing me. She taught me that I can become Us.

Broken pill bottles and rusted needles are also buried there. The furnace of the winter stars blazes above the spot. (No. 698, ‘Elegy for Boyle Crescent’)

A man who searched for love all his life found it among the junkies. But then the landlord decided it was time to destroy the junkie house. It is notpage 105 surprising that Baxter cried. His tears fell because love died there and some deaths were dishonoured when the house was brought down.

The letter he wrote to me after he returned from Auckland does not mention the tragedy of Boyle Crescent. Its chief topic is another matter:

Dearest John,

A strong feeling of love towards you this morning – brother son, friend, father – so it is a good time to write. I love those I love, but naturally the feeling is not always strong. Otherwise one would be pulled to pieces.

Enough griefs to keep me human, I visited the Tribe in Auckland. The child I told you a girl there was bearing to me has died – a miscarriage – well, no limbo for that one – I remember more than half of the joy of its mother and [it] was the joy of seeing His light break where darkness was before – and more than half one grief was grief for the pains of others – the child is in His arms now and on His knees.

I said to Y— ‘What will you do when you get to Heaven?’ ‘Go and see our children.’ Two miscarriages. Now I will wear if He gives me the strength the iron chastity belt. What

use is poverty without chastity? What use is there in trying to carry the weights of others if one’s feet do not sink into the ground at each step? I hate an element of sin in any relationship. But a good reputation is rubbish if it makes us unloving. The purity I need is the purity of the clouds and night stars I saw last night with a full soup-plate moon.

Y— is being instructed to come into the Church. A pelican soul who feeds others with her blood. Disordered, some might say, and perhaps rightly, – but her disorder is that she [you, me, too] must love entirely (Eros, Agape, charitas, the lot) or die – like a torrent of water or a fire burning. Her eyes burn like two blue lights when she looks at me. How does one answer such eyes? Not with a carefully contrived sermon. I say to her – ‘Now you must bear me another child, Y—; the Love of the Many, which is Him Himself? – and I think she will accept chastity on those terms. BUT ONE DARE NOT ABANDON THEM WHEN THEY PUT THEMSELVES WHOLLY IN ONE’S HANDS.

One can’t say – ‘Lord, take them away, I’m too weak.’ He says – ‘Then get strong by loving them better and taking the whole weight, not half of it.’

Y— humanised me by making me move against my fears. Always, in the past, if I sinned with a woman I would run to safety and ‘goodness’, saying – ‘Lord, now I’ll be good’ – and leaving her to cope alone. The theology of occasions of sin, watertight and foolproof. But the sin of fear and a selfish prudence remained with me. Now I do believe He will permit Y— to become my sister.

If one does not love them enough to be damned for them, what use is one’s love? A mad saying, but true.

He has put me back in the box – and solitude, intense darkness, the continual burning of the foul gases of an old stale tomb – good, that is His business. The box is where one learns wisdom. . . .

I lay down in exhaustion yesterday, and shut my eyes. And I saw a mostpage 106 beautiful landscape – rolling green steppes, rocks, cliffs, waves breaking, the empty paradise of the earth without men – and I knew that paradise was not for me – my paradise is the tight close dark furnace of the human heart – to be there, where the seed of His Kingdom is sown in pain and darkness. . . .

The Flowering Cross was published that year. So was The Rock Woman, a rather eccentric retrospective selection of his poetry which included twelve previously uncollected poems. The final poem, ‘The Waves’, was a postscript to his earlier life:

Poems are trash, the flesh I love will die,
Desire is bafflement,
But one may say that father Noah kept
Watch while the wild beasts slept,

Not knowing even if land would rise
Out of the barren waves.
That ark I keep, that watch on the edge of sleep,
While the dark water heaves. (CP 288)

Colin Durning and Baxter became friends in Dunedin, where Colin held the chair of prosthetic dentistry. He had never wanted to make a career in dentistry and had a deep-seated interest in social service, particularly the needs of Māori. They became such good friends that Durning felt called to visit Baxter in Jerusalem where his uncle had been mission priest for many years. After Colin left, Baxter went to Auckland and came back with a young man and a girl who lived with him for a time in the cottage. They did not stay long. Baxter was still writing poetry and he sent a collection of poems to Durning:

Keep these ‘sonnets’ I send you – I’ll have no copies here, or not likely – and just at the minute I mean to go on writing a few more, to get myself mentally settled in – so keep them, stack them away somewhere – I asked the Lord about it and He said He didn’t mind – I guess it doesn’t come under the ‘No books’ heading – someday they might be of use to other people, if only as a curiosity. If you want to, get copies typed – but I’d rather you showed them to people very sparingly and didn’t give them copies. (McKay 258).

He wrote again, this time emphasising the bond that linked the two of them. It was more than just an emotional bond; it was a ‘spiritual cable’:

Those poems I have sent you – good or bad, who cares? – spring from my sense of the spiritual cable between us – and you will see how nevertheless they are all ‘I’ poems!, I think, we don’t have to be ashamed of ‘I’ – the thing is what does a man know except his own experience? – which includes page 107experience of such bonds – the ship knows only the ends of the ropes that moor her to the wharf, nevertheless they have other ends. (McKay 258)

During the months that he was in residence at Jerusalem in 1969 he lived a largely solitary life. From it came the searching, meditative, poems which were published a year later, at Durning’s suggestion, as Jerusalem Sonnets. They are a substitute for the diary that Baxter did not keep in 1969, the year when he undertook a desert experience as a prelude to the flood. But in 1970 he could no longer claim isolation. The year began quietly enough. On 16 January the Listener carried a letter from him, ‘Civilisation and Drugs’, which argued that if alcohol and tobacco can be tolerated in a society, then marihuana should be tolerated as well.

He was talking everywhere: on radio and television, to reporters and to public meetings. This was partly because he needed to make a little money, partly because he wanted to promote a conversation in the community about some matters. In Auckland he stayed at Newman Hall, the Catholic university chaplaincy centre where the Dominican priest Eugene O’Sullivan had already become his friend and confessor. In Christchurch he stayed with me at Rochester Hall, a university hall of residence; in Wellington with Jacquie; in Dunedin with his parents.

When he talked to school groups his reception was often in doubt. In Palmerston North, for example, the college students laughed and jeered when he shambled into the assembly hall but before long they were listening with interest.

He also spent time at Jerusalem welcoming people who made their way there out of curiosity or because they needed sanctuary. In June the Sunday Times carried an article about his commune which attracted a good deal of interest. About this time two houses were lent to Baxter by their Māori owners. They were needed because in winter there were about twenty-five residents.

At the university graduation service in Christchurch Cathedral he told his audience ‘I have found that to do as far as possible without money or books has brought me to the fringes of a new universe, a universe of great beauty and powerful involvement in the lives of others. Poverty has not made me chaste or wise or humble. Yet it is a beginning. It opens up roads towards other people.’ (No. 618, ‘The Relevance of Ordinary Christianity to Human Concerns’). He was making the point that he did not embrace poverty for its own sake but so that he would become more available to people. He believed that poverty and availability went hand in hand. Ultimately it was poverty which allowed him to respond to people’s needs.

On that occasion, while he was staying with me at Rochester Hall, I arranged a radio talk-back session for him. After he left the studio I returned with him to Rochester Hall where I gave him a version of the Gilgameshpage 108 legend. Next morning he gave me ‘Poem for John Weir’, in which he blended the legend and his own situation:

On the plane that sways and bounces between the two islands
Or speaking through static on the NZBC

To housewives who fear that their daughters will break fences,
I confess, John, it is hard to be

Among the stone men, the ones who have married their jobs,
But what can I expect? As I plunge down

With rocks tied to my feet through the bottomless sea of death
And the water mutters round my ears,

Truly I seem to be the man Gilgamesh
Who left behind his friends, food and kingdom

To pluck, they say, that herb from under the sea
That gives man life. Grasping it, he cut his fingers

Till the bone showed: and later, as he rested
In a comfortable bath, the serpent, smelling that sweet

Fragrance from beyond earth, came and ate it,
Leaf, stalk, and all. A very natural thing.

Gilgamesh wept. His tears became our legend.
He wept because his people had to die. (CP 493)

Baxter was often away from Jerusalem that year. In July he marched barefooted in a torchlight anti-war procession in Hamilton. In August, when his father was dying, he stayed in his parents’ home, helping with his nursing. On 10 August, when Archie took his last breath, his son was at his bedside. He made the funeral arrangements.

He must have left Dunedin soon after his father’s funeral because on 15 August the Waikato Times carried an interview with him in which he criticised the police: ‘. . . if they tell lies in Court, if they use violence either in interrogation or as a private revenge on people they are holding in their custody, or else if they plant drugs or other articles on people and then arrest them for possession of them. In each of these cases the police are acting illegally. I object to this.’ (No. 631, ‘Poet’s View of the Policeman’s Lot’).

During that year my second collection of poems, The Iron Bush, waspage 109 published by Albion Wright at the Pegasus Press. I sent a copy to Baxter and on 18 November he replied in a poem entitled ‘Letter to John’:

Below this Taihape farmhouse
Brown water rumbles on the creek bottom.
Waking early, I reach for your book,
And find what is not wholly usual:
Words like matagouri thorns
That cut through leather and sinew to break on the bone.

At some stage in 1970 he drew a hand on a presentation copy of Jerusalem Daybook which he gave to Kendrick Smithyman. On each finger and the thumb he wrote one of the goals he had devised for members of his community:

To share one’s goods

To speak the truth, not hiding one’s heart from others

To love one another and show it by the embrace

To take no job where one has to lick the boss’s arse

To learn from the Maori side of the fence

On the palm of the hand he wrote, ‘When these things are done, the soul rises to the surface of the friend’s face, like a fish to the surface of the water, and the soul is always beautiful. / When Maori and pakeha do these things together, the double rainbow begins to shine.’ (Oliver 130).

Alongside a sketch of six buds of a fern frond symbol he wrote aroha (love), korero (conversation), mahi (work), kotahitanga (unity), tangi (communal grief ), matewa (meditation, or ‘the night life of the soul’). Below these he printed ‘Ko whakaiti taku mana, ka whakanui te aroha’ (‘When I begin to see how little I matter, then I begin to learn about love’; Oliver 131). Ultimately he proclaimed that the group lived by five principles:

  • Arohanui: the love of the many
  • Manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and stranger
  • Korero: speech that begets peace and understanding
  • Matewa: the night life of the soul
  • Mahi: work undertaken from communal love

His relationship with other members of the community was a simple one: when McKay asked him, ‘What do you do for them?’ he replied ‘I give thempage 110 my friendship and they give me theirs.’

Mike Minehan was one of those with whom he exchanged friendship. In early January 1971 when she met him in Vulcan Lane, Auckland, she was a middle-class suburban refugee and he was ‘a small gnome-like man in baggy pants, / a rosary swinging from his belt, / arms open to embrace her.’ (Minehan 16). As his ‘long matted hair and beard’ grazed her face he said ‘Why don’t you join us, sister?’ So she did. She described what she saw at Jerusalem:

. . . and there is chaos and there are people coming and going always, and food arrives like manna to feed the tribe on the back of some hiker or by the Transport truck, which comes hurtling up the road from Wanganui with its sack of spuds, Marmite, bread and someone has to do it, cook, tidy up maybe but more often than not there is sitting around with guitars and books and talking and singing and laughing and wandering through the long dry grasses that hiss as you pass and the river always there for swimming or sitting and the sun is hot and the hills buzz with insects, and the song of birds and you can see sheep clinging to the cliffs across the water and a wild goat. And you wonder how to cross over. . . .

And the travellers arrive to stay or look and someone leaves, hitching up or down the dusty road, hoping for a ride on the back of an old ute or a Maori van on its way out. It’s a long walk but you do it, sleeping in an abandoned hut somewhere along the way or by the river amongst the bush. . . .

And your stomach rumbles and there are turnips to be flogged from the farm, or a sheep maybe. Someone brings in a duck, a goat or a possum. You’ll eat anything after a while, even a stew with fatty coagulated goat hair floating on top. You’ll smoke anything too, including the roots of prickly lettuce and mint. You’ll get high and fly down the hills and valleys like a dream, which you are of course, up here dressed in your rainbow clothes and hair like glistening waves trailing behind you. This is never never land and you are all children and you pray never to grow up. Please. (Minehan 26)

Living conditions were far from ideal: ‘. . . and the fuzz have come searching for drugs again and parents looking for a child and escapees from the wards and running through the night chasing someone who’s lost their mind for a time and acid dreams and tension snapping and too many bodies, too much anger, too little food . . .’ (Minehan 37).

In May 1971 about forty people lived in the community. They were aged between sixteen and twenty-five. (In the course of a year Baxter considered that about one thousand people stayed.) He had three abandoned houses at his disposal. He stayed in Middle House along with up to thirty others; they slept on the floor, the verandah or on the ground alongside the fire burning outside. There was no work roster; everything was filthy. There was one stove for cooking but very little food – eels from the river, goats from the hills. Two deep holes served as toilets. Residents washed in the river. Nude bathing offended the local Māori families. There were particular difficulties during page 111the university holidays when students arrived and strained the facilities to breaking-point.

According to Minehan, Baxter said that there could be no rules, ‘That rules were what had driven the kids to revolt, to flee their families and seek freedom. That they had to find the way through themselves. Unconditional love, you said, was theanswer, andtotal acceptance.God wouldsort itall out.’(Minehan 44). But at the time she did not feel that God was sorting it out for her:

The truth is I was hurting. And I was tired. Too many nights of raving, listening, watching you go off to the Church for your vigils where you tortured your wrecked body and went through the misery of the damned. Too many dramas at the house and cottage, not enough food, dirt and no hygiene. The commune was a mess. And you would come and go and dispense homilies, play jokes, take off to the Pa for cards or the Presbytery to write and we were like unruly children, not really grown up enough or sane enough to cope, although we thought we were. And because there were no real rules of any sort, not even unwritten guidelines and it was all some kind of kaleidoscopic game, we were in danger of unravelling completely. Already that summer there were grumblings, minor power struggles. Too many people coming and going, hundreds, and simply not enough room. The Maori in the Pa were concerned and so were the Sisters at the Convent. Jerusalem was the ‘in’ thing of the time. People wanted to say they had been there. We grew tired of ’having them on’ and began to resent the sightseers, the day trippers, old mates of yours who came to view us as they would animals in a zoo. It was changing. A small group held things together, tried to keep things running smoothly but it was becoming a trial. Out of control. Food was wasting and rotting. Blankets and clothing were strewn everywhere outside and rubbish accumulating. The local Health Department was insisting on proper water pipes, safe electricity. More seriously the Maori people of the Jerusalem Pa, who were the tangata whenua, the guardians of the land and its river, its people, and who had been so accepting of you, us all, were now very concerned with the situation at the commune and wanted you to close it down. They believed your promise to control things had failed. There had been damage to farm property, stealing and hordes of undesirables through the commune. There was much talk. Letters between yourself and Mother Philippine, the Superior General of the Congregation of the Sisters of Compassion, were written, and the Sisters at the convent in Jerusalem had their worries too. (Minehan 44-45)

There was discontent in the wider community. Baxter was never immune from the criticism but he was often absent from Jerusalem participating in protests. On 8 February 1971, for example, he joined Ngā Tamatoa in their protest at Waitangi. His feet were stamped on by a sailor and he was booted in the shins. The flag was burned. If he was not engaged in some protest he was talking to groups, trying to raise money to pay for food for the community.

Discontent grew in Whanganui and on the farms along the river and a newspaper survey in March revealed that many who lived along the riverpage 112 wanted the community shut down. Meanwhile the regional authorities demanded additional and improved facilities. In April 1971 Baxter agreed to make some changes even though he believed that ‘The state of people inside themselves is more important than whether they have two toilets or one.’

About mid-year some of the local landowners asked him to disband the community because they wanted to clean up the area and attract Māori back to Hiruharama. He agreed. A general meeting was called and in early September it was decided to disband. On the 17th newspapers reported that he intended to found a community at Takapau, Hawke’s Bay. Its first members would be a group of stable people who wanted to help others. Then it would be turned into an open community. He intended to build good relationships with local people. (The proposed community did not get off the ground.)

In August he attended a meeting of Church folk in Lower Hutt and campaigned for homeless young people. He called upon the Council to allow them to live in unused houses in the city centre, highlighting the issue by squatting in one himself, spending three nights there.

That same month he spoke at a youth seminar ‘71’s the One’ in Christchurch. During his visit he gave me a typescript of a poem sequence and an accompanying group of poems written in Dunedin between 1966 and 1968. The title of the collection, taken from the sequence, was ‘Words to Lay a Strong Ghost’. He put it in my care, saying that he thought it might suit Price Milburn, but that its language might make it unsuitable for Oxford University Press.

I sent it to Brian Turner, then editor of OUP. Turner liked the collection and was willing to send it on to Jon Stallworthy at the London office. But it became clear that Turner had some reservations. In a letter of 20 September, he mentioned these – ‘excessively colloquial language’, some obscenities, and a few pieces which he did not regard as entirely successful. But he liked the collection overall and wanted to see it in print. He asked me not to show his comments to Baxter as he would not want ‘to be stung’ by him: ‘Others have been and he seems to be, shall we say, quite good at it.’

When Baxter left Christchurch he flew to Dunedin where he attended a nephew’s wedding. He made a hit when he addressed young people at an event organised by the Union parish of West Dunedin. Towards the end of September he rejoined his family in Ngaio. It was much more peaceful there than contending with councils and landowners and public opinion elsewhere:

The possibility of peace tugs at the very roots of my soul. The old wooden bridge across the creek at the bottom of our bush section needs mending. There is wood to be chopped. I tuck my grand-daughter down at night, as she shouts and plays a game of raising her feet in the air. Charity begins at home.

Precisely. This power will strangle my life as a vine chokes a tree. (No. 665, ‘Extract 3 from Draft of Autumn Testament’)

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He had always resisted the pressure of domesticity. Unless society changed, his grand-daughter would be choked by it too. This thought caused him to remark, ‘My grand-daughter can grow up and find herself at fifteen in Arohata Borstal.’ He added ‘For years I fought on the home front. Now I fight on the open ground. It is the same truth. I need a house that will hold at least thirty people.’

He found a disused residence at No. 26 MacDonald Crescent and moved in with others. He and thirty-four others managed to stay there for six weeks but he was soon hunted down by journalists who turned a spotlight on their living conditions. On 14 December Truth reported that the house had been declared ‘unfit for human habitation’ by the Council. Then Kelvin Dick described it to readers of the Sunday Times:

The rooms at 26 MacDonald Crescent wouldn’t qualify for even one star in tourist accommodation ratings . . . . There is no running water, no toilet, no gas, no electricity, and no garden. There is a primus stove and understanding neighbours with amenities. But they are neighbours under an eviction notice . . . . A notice on the door gave its name – ‘Wuthering Heights’ (26 Dec. 1971: 7).

To highlight the plight of the homeless Baxter fasted for twenty-five days on coffee and lemon juice but the authorities were unmoved. After he and his friends were evicted they found temporary accommodation at a house in McFarlane Street.

He had suspected that political activism would not work but hoped, nonetheless, that he could persuade the Council to supply old houses at low rent to hard up young people. He also wanted the Vagrancy Acts written out of the books. When neither of these things happened his thoughts turned again to Jerusalem. He would live there like a Māori man with his Māori wife and children. In his mind the place had already changed: ‘The tree is pruned back to the stump. If it grows again, it will be in family, not in a special Jerusalem community.’ (No. 658, ‘The Pruning of the Tree’).

But first he went to Auckland. On 19 September Mike Minehan had given birth to a boy. Late one night she had a phone call from a coffee bar. It was Baxter. She drove into the city to pick him up.

She takes him home, and they talk all the way, as the child still sleeps peacefully in the crib. When they arrive at the flat she passes the baby to him and he peers close. ‘He has the Baxter ears,’ he says. And grins. He looks odd holding the child. This is a moment. He stays looking deep into the baby’s face for a long time, murmuring words she cannot hear. ‘I have blessed the child’ he says. And she is grateful in her heart.

Later he lies in a bath she has run for him, singing loud bawdy songs. His long matted hair floats above the grimy water. She sits on the toilet seat laughing. He relates what’s been going on with the commune. Says he is proud of her coping alone and is apologetic for not being around. She says page 114she understands but wishes silently he had been there somehow. It’s been a hard six months. Still, he is here now and she prepares lettuce leaves for him and a tomato, coffee. He is on another fast. Skinny, pale but still with the gift of the gab. On into the dawn they talk. She listens more. He is disturbed by feelings of guilt. He misses his family. Feels he has let them down. Especially his daughter. There are problems with the commune still. The authorities have been a hassle, the ongoing publicity. He knows he has to keep travelling around seeing people, getting ‘bread’ to survive, giving interviews.The strain is telling andhe looks tired, not well. She argues with him over the food, the fasting. It is a necessary thing, he says, for the spirit. But he still smokes when he can get cigarettes, because he cannot give up. He enjoys them. He has guilts about that too, because he has promised one of the tribe he’s quit. He’s been dodging around on the sly, having the odd puff. He wants to know whether she thinks the commune is a good idea. Whether his motives are right. He has grave doubts about his intentions. About its survival and his role. Maybe he should leave them all to it. She reassures him over and over because this is what he needs. Soon he shuffles off to bed and sleeps for hours. (Minehan 60)

At Oxford University Press Ralph Gooderidge had taken over from Brian Turner. On 28 October 1971 he wrote to Jon Stallworthy in London about Baxter’s latest poetry manuscript:

We have another small collection of Baxter’s poetry entitled WORDS TO LAY A STRONG GHOST. These poems were written during the two years that he held the Burns Fellowship in Dunedin. No doubt you would like to see this collection, and your comments would be much appreciated. If you feel you cannot publish them, we could have them published locally in spite of the somewhat aggressive obscenities. I rather doubt that Baxter would welcome any pruning. His attitude at the moment is that he has perhaps been with us for too long. Now that we have made him, there are plenty of bystanders who will take anything of his that is offered to them, and I would rather that this did not happen. (MB 1184, Box 4, Folder 1)

Wanting to see Baxter’s Dunedin poems in print I had sent the collection to Oxford. At the time Baxter left the matter of publishing to me. He was still trying to do without books. Also, just then he was trying to find a solution to the experience of homelessness which afflicted many people. He was one of them. In late February 1972 he returned to Jerusalem with the approval of the property holders. He could bring his ‘family’, understood to be no more than ten residents, but there would still be financial problems. He described the difference between the first community and the second:

The aim of the original Jerusalem community was to perform works of mercy – to share materialgoods and console the lonely. In part it succeeded. No doubt in part it failed. What then is the aim of the ‘family’ to which I now belong? If wecan’ttakethe drowning on board, whatgood is our boat?

Well – we might set an example, as any family can, by the peacefulnesspage 115 of our life, our lack of quarrelling, the way we share things, the way we love one another. We are certainly in a better position than the original community to absorb the principles of Maoritanga. We can on occasion feed a guest and put him up for the night. I suppose that our direction is ultimately a religious one. (No. 680, ‘Things and Idols’)

After settling down he wrote the poems which would be published posthumously as Autumn Testament. They began with a sequence of love poems for Jacquie. The second major sequence began with a group of poems about the void, the spiritual centre of dispossession. There were more vignettes of Jerusalem life and then another closing group about the void which is the grave.

At one stage he arrived in Auckland with a young man from the community. Mike Minehan had seen him at Jerusalem but did not really know him. Baxter told her that this man had agreed to become her protector and the protector of her child. Together they set up an urban community to help troubled young people. On several occasions afterwards they brought young people to and from Jerusalem.

Mike Minehan has revealed that Baxter had become disillusioned about his dream of Jerusalem. She seems to have been talking about the previous year when Jerusalem was overwhelmed by residents and visitors, but the residue of feeling spilled over into 1972:

. . . The magic had gone. Jerusalem, that vision you had so long ago now, was a myth. There were too many outside influences, too many conflicting factors to make it work. We were not fit enough, or well enough, or willing enough to be organised to make it happen. We tried. Some held it together for you for a while but mainly it was a chaotic lifestyle. There was arguing and dissent up there among groups. The Maori people of the Pa were thoroughly disenchanted. The Sisters, who were patient to a fault, were still concerned. And of course, people still kept coming in droves to visit. It was hard to say they couldn’t stay and it never really worked successfully. People followed their dreams to Jerusalem. They saw it as an escape. A haven. Some were sadly disillusioned by the reality that faced them up there.

During Baxter’s visits to Auckland she saw that he was exhausted, sad and regretful. He had doubts about Jerusalem, doubts about himself, and asked her if she thought he was a ‘bad man’. She remembered that conversation:

. . . You had arrived at the house late one night and spent some time bending over the child’s cot, talking to him in the light of a street lamp outside his bedroom. Michael and I listened as you told him about your own father and the dream you had had lately about losing a parcel. This was important. You were walking along a beach somewhere, looking for your father, needing to give him the parcel but without it. This caused great distress to you. You wanted to know what it meant. Later we sat and talked. Was I ‘pissed off’, you asked.

I told you I didn’t think I was and that I thought you were a ‘good man’ page 116but that I believed you were a victim of your own myth. All these years later, Hemi, I see a tortured, sick man and it grieves me that we didn’t do enough to help you. (Minehan 63)

She did her best to console him but because he was a deeply religious man he feared that he would go to Hell. He mentioned this in his ‘Confession to the Lord Christ’:

Lord Christ, I do not know you. My bones are taking me towards the grave. Soon I will go back to my mother, the earth. Though I do not know you, in my heart I find a small secret hope, hidden like a seed in the winter ground, that at the moment when I die, you will reveal yourself to me – shine upon me, remove by a miracle the sins I cannot remove, and take me into your holy kingdom.

Lord Christ, it is a small hope only. It is a little glowworm underneath the ferns, on the edge of the cemetery. You are like the sun in the noonday sky. You light up the whole universe. I cannot demand salvation. I cannot expect it. If at the hour of my death you say to me – ‘Old liar, old sinner, you wasted whatever I gave you. You are like a pot that has melted into mud. Go into the darkness where your soul belongs’ – What could I say then, except – ‘Yes, Lord, your judgment is just. I will go where you tell me to go. (No. 710)

On 24 April he wrote to David Chalmers, agreeing to join in Impulse ’72, a carnival for young Christians in Dunedin. He would stay on for a few days afterwards. He wrote again on 30 May with suggestions about his contribution to the programme: he would read ‘Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz’ about the drug scenario and, later in the day, ‘Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works’ about factory work. He intended to join small discussion groups.

Next day Carol Buckroyd of Oxford University Press wrote on behalf of Stallworthy, then on sabbatical leave, to say that they enjoyed his new collection ‘Words to Lay a Strong Ghost’ and that the publications committee would propose publication to the Delegates of the Press who were to meet in a fortnight. She hoped that he might find another title. Baxter was in Wellington for part of May 1972, but he was at Jerusalem on 30 May when he replied to Buckland:

I am happy that you are going to propose publication of my new collection of poems to the Delegates of the O.U.P. You may be right about the title. I had in mind originally a much simpler title –


and perhaps you may consider that instead. Runes are inscriptions, and I think people associate them with the dead.

(That remark suggests that he thought he would die soon.) Buckroyd replied on 9 June that the Delegates of the Press ‘warmly endorsed’ management’s proposal to publish the book.

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On the 16th Baxter wrote to me from Jerusalem accepting my suggestion that he stay at Rochester Hall in Christchurch for four days before July 30th when he was required to be in Dunedin. The Catholic Graduates Association in Christchurch would pay his fare. Baxter had asked that his fare be paid, remarking, ‘I am not avaricious – but I bludge for my children, the fatherless who come my way’. He added, ‘Though I will spend 4 days with you that will be a joy.’ I would arrange speaking engagements for him so that he could, as he said, satisfy his conscience. He also told me that Oxford University Press had accepted the manuscript of poems he left in my care: ‘Thank you, brother. I am ashamed, but not too ashamed, of my endless writing.’

In late July when he made his way south for Impulse ’72 he stopped with me in Christchurch. During that time he gave a poetry reading at the university. It was recorded and the text of his commentary is included in this book. Afterwards he told Professor Garrett that he did not have long to live.

One of the organisers who visited his mother’s house in Dunedin found him lying on top of a bed. He had been reading the prophet Jeremiah and identified with his sufferings. In the Dunedin town hall he addressed five thousand people about the suffering of the poor. He lacked energy and spoke without much expression. Even so, during the informal discussion which took place afterwards he was surrounded by people who wanted his attention. His mother recalled his state of health and mind when he stayed with her: ‘He seemed to be in excellent health and to have gained a serenity and a very spiritual outlook on life.’ (In fact his health was very poor.)

When he returned to Christchurch he stayed a few more days. He read A Walking Stick for an Old Man to a public gathering at Rochester Hall, and read and discussed Autumn Testament to me and, separately, to Jeff Pratley, the Catholic chaplain at the university. During his stay he spoke of the power of the Holy Spirit and seemed to be reconciled with the world. But I noticed that he was very thin and did not eat much and that his health was fragile. After I took him to the airport he told me that he had received the gift of healing from the Māori prophet and hugged me. Then we said goodbye. I did not see him again.

He stayed with his family in Wellington for a time, before returning to Jerusalem near the end of August. During a visit to Auckland he was forced to confront the fact that Mike Minehan was bringing up their child without financial support. To ensure that she could receive a maternity benefit she and Baxter had to attend court to describe the nature of their relationship and confirm the fact that he was the child’s father. He seemed to be untroubled about this, realising that she needed the financial support, and the prospect of his court appearance seemed to appeal to his sense of the ridiculous, causing him to remark that a spell in jail would allow him to ‘rest a while and write’. But the actual courtroom experience, as Mike Minehan described it, was far from pleasant: ‘I remember standing in the courtroom, dressedpage 118 in borrowed clothes, replying to intimate questions and the amazed look on the magistrate’s face. He was clearly astounded that such an apparently well dressed, educated young woman could lie on the floor of a hovel and make love with the likes of you. There was disgust on his face but they gave me the benefit and we had some money at last.’ (Minehan 64).

Baxter was at Jerusalem on 2 October when he wrote to Barbara Milburn (of the publishing firm Price Milburn) proposing a change to a word in the third stanza of his ballad ‘Oh early in the morning’ which was to appear in Autumn Testament. She had expressed concern about his reference to Ben Scully, a Wellington magistrate:

And I go down to the Courtroom
To watch old Skully there
Riding with an iron saddle
On the backs of the poor . . .

She thought that ‘Skully’ was too lightly disguised for ‘Scully’ and asked him to revise the line on the grounds of potential contempt of court. In his reply of 2 October he proposed ‘Gabguts’ as an alternative and remarked, ‘This should be satisfactory’. He then said, ‘I will be glad to see you when I am in Wellington again.’ (MB 1184/4/1, Box 14).

About this time he wrote ‘The Tiredness of Me and Herakles’ which he sent to McKay for publication in Poetry New Zealand. The speaker in the poem is cynical, dejected, angry. So was he. Soon afterwards he told one of the commune residents (Greg) that he needed to start something (presumably in Auckland) and asked him to take over responsibility at Jerusalem, and he asked his old friend Wehe to look after the members of the community. Then he left for Auckland.

He went to a community house run by a friend named Kathy in Carrick Place, Mount Eden. She witnessed his illness and vulnerability, sensing something like panic in him. McKay described what she saw: ‘As his health deteriorated he felt the vulnerability of a person who had given up even minimal security. He was full of self-doubt, questioning everything he had ever done. He felt defeated and wanted to start a completely new life, to settle down and receive the love and care he needed. He even wondered if he should remarry.’ (McKay 281). He was unable to shed his ‘lonely wish to be loved.’ (CP 593).

It is not clear what he had in mind when he spoke to Greg at Jerusalem about starting something new but in Auckland he visited prisoners, helped young people, and visited friends, Newman Hall and the university. In these two places he gave some talks. He was obviously not at peace, as McKay learned:

His mood did not lift. For several weeks he visited a retired psychiatrist every day. He wanted to go back to his childhood and try to work things page 119out. He was obsessed with his relationship with his mother, and believed he had not received enough love from her. These daily visits wore him out, but there was enough of his old humour left to describe them as ‘going to the cleaners’. He still assisted at Mass every day and brought back to Carrick Place people he had met in the street. At Kathy’s urging he smartened himself up, trimmed his beard, and took a job assembling electrical components. But he had been away from routine work too long: to his great disappointment, he was fired. (McKay 281)

He complained that he had given to others and to God everything he had but that he had received nothing back. He was desperately dispirited. Part of the reason was that some of his past sexual relationships with women were haunting him. Peter Olds has said that about this time a woman was threatening to talk to the media about his sexual escapades. He was deeply troubled, Olds said, about this prospect, because it would cast a dark shadow over the Jerusalem project. He must also have been anxious about what it, and any ensuing investigation, would do to his reputation.

Perhaps these pressures motivated him to get out of Auckland for a time. In any case, he went north to speak at some schools. He addressed the children at a Catholic primary school in Whangarei, and spent a weekend with a parish youth group at Marsden Point. On the final morning of the camp he arrived about 4.30 a.m. alongside the bed of one of the priests running the camp and raved on about his mother and her relationship with his father. The pagans had remarked of the early Christians ‘See how they love one another’ but he thought it would have been much better if they had said ‘See how they love us’. He desperately felt a need for love.

Back at the Catholic presbytery at Whangarei that night Father Jim Beban, a friend from his Wellington days, persuaded him to write to Mother Philippine of the Sisters of Compassion to apologise for any harm done or offence caused during his time at Jerusalem. He did that, acknowledging her courtesy to him and the many kindnesses shown to him by the Sisters and asking for forgiveness for any offences or negligence for which he was responsible. He ended his letter with the remark that even though he had written from Whangarei his permanent address was Jerusalem.

On Monday 16 October he was driven to Puhoi where he intended to spend some days with Michael and Dene Illingworth. Lacking energy he lay down most of the time. At night he got between them in their bed because he was freezing and could not get warm. His heart was failing. He talked incessantly about the need for a major change in New Zealand, which would be achieved by a blending of something like Marxism and Christianity. (The Illingworths did not realise that he was talking about the theory of Liberation Theology, a term coined by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest, in A Theology of Liberation, 1971.) Baxter insisted that Māori street kids in Auckland needed to go back to their iwi and work on the land.

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Two days later the Illingworths drove him to a position overlooking the Kaipara Harbour where he clasped the great kauri tree Michael had wanted him to see as if trying to draw its life into himself. He talked frequently about death and asked Michael to arrange a jazz band to play at his funeral and to arrange for a stone to be put onto his grave. They talked until dawn.

While staying with the Illingworths he wrote two poems on the wallpaper of one of the rooms. After breakfast on the morning of Thursday 19 October, he wrote ‘Ode to Auckland’ in a mood of sustained concentration. Michael Illingworth then drove him to Auckland and after coffee and two hours or so of talk in the Babel Café next door to the Barry Lett Gallery they said goodbye to each other, probably aware that this was the last time they would meet.

Soon after Illingworth’s departure the young poet Dave Mitchell walked in. He sat at a table with Baxter who gave him his handwritten copy of ‘Ode to Auckland’ and asked him to arrange for it to be printed and sold, with the profits going to the support of the Jerusalem community. On the back of an envelope Baxter then wrote for Mitchell a heading, ‘Rigorous Emotional Honesty’, following this with what he regarded as eight essential steps to achieve it. (See No. 709.) Soon afterwards they walked together along Victoria Street West until they reached Queen Street, at which point Baxter told Mitchell that he was going to Newman Hall. Mitchell noticed that he was puffing and seemed shaky but Baxter insisted that he was all right and soon disappeared from view.

He cannot have stayed long at Newman Hall because in the late afternoon he arrived back at Carrick Place. He looked exhausted but went out that night to dinner with friends. Afterwards he walked more than a mile home, during which he had to stop at times to catch his breath.

It may have been the next day, Friday, 20 October, on the eve of Labour Weekend, that Baxter received a phone call from Mike Minehan to say that social workers were pressuring her to surrender her son to the care of the State:

You arrived at the house looking bedraggled, worn out. As you sat listening to the social worker’s reasons to have our child cared for by strangers, and my pleas for this not to happen, you stood and delivered the last rave I heard you make. You stood, seeming to tower over them, feet planted firmly apart, raising and lowering your carved staff, resolute in your view that Dominic belonged to Jerusalem and that you would be responsible for him.

He belonged to the tribe you said and would be raised with them. You would sort things out in the next few days. Until then, everything was to be left as it was. (Minehan 65)

Afterwards she drove him into the city and left him on the side of the street ‘on your way to somewhere’. That evening he visited Paremoremo prison – visiting prisoners had become a lifelong practice.

That day, Friday, 20 October, Carol Buckroyd wrote from Oxfordpage 121 University Press to Baxter’s Jerusalem address to say that Runes, his new poetry collection, was about to be sent to the printer and that the book would be published in the English spring.

Next morning, 21 October, he went to Jean Tuwhare’s in Birkdale to ask if he could stay for a few days. In the afternoon he worked with her in the garden. Next morning he experienced pain in his stomach and chest. It was Labour Weekend and it would not be easy to get a medical appointment but she rang a doctor who agreed to see him at 7.30 that evening. During the day he took a sauna with Jean and a Māori woman friend of hers. When the latter asked him why he had left his wife he replied that even though ‘he loved Jacquie and wanted to be buried with her, he believed that his creative gifts required him to be able to move around.’ (McKay 288). On the way home they bought some medication from a pharmacy because they thought he might have an ulcer.

Just before 7.30 Jean dropped him off at the surgery in Glenfield Road, saying that she would return for him when he phoned at the end of the consultation. The doctor wanted to arrange medical tests, a full checkup, but Baxter said that he would not have time for one. The consultation ended when the doctor received a call to attend another patient. He left to make his visit, leaving Baxter outside his surgery. At that point Baxter had a violent heart attack.

He dragged himself across the road and knocked at the door of No. 544 Glenfield Road. He looked so disreputable that they were reluctant to let him in at first but had a change of heart and did so. At his request they phoned Jean Tuwhare who came over immediately. When she arrived Baxter was lying on a sofa in the lounge and experiencing pain. She remembered hearing him say ‘I have a wife and children in Wellington.’ A doctor was phoned but he preferred not to come, saying that it was not his area and that they should wait for Jean’s doctor to return. When he did Baxter was still alive but soon afterwards had another heart attack. The doctor tried to resuscitate him but without success. The golden boy of New Zealand Letters had died. He was aged forty-six. The date of his death was 22 October 1972.

It was after midnight before the police informed Jacquie. At 1.30 she rang Colin Durning and asked him to accompany her to Auckland, with Hilary and John. Ngā Tamatoa provided the transport to take Baxter’s body back to Jerusalem on Tuesday, the 24th. When they eventually got there, after losing their way in a heavy mist, they found a large group of people waiting. It was after ten at night when the family was summoned onto the marae; the coffin was placed under an awning.

The Dominion billboard for Monday, 23 October, read ‘James K. Baxter Friend 1926-72’, a declaration that Baxter was a friend of numerous people. His funeral on the 25th was attended by eight hundred of them. They came to that remote spot from all over the country. History had been made therepage 122 several times previously and it was being made again. While the crowd assembled, people approached the casket to view Baxter’s body. Most, like me, were surprised to notice that his beard had been neatly trimmed. Jacquie and Millicent Baxter, Hilary and John were the chief mourners. Many people hugged each other. Many wept. Almost everyone was surprised to see how many grieving friends Baxter had in some age group which was different from their own. Most obvious were the many grieving young people who had stayed with Baxter in Jerusalem, Auckland and Wellington, or met him somewhere, sometime, elsewhere in New Zealand and been so affected that it seemed only natural to make the journey up the winding river road.

The tangi included tributes of varying length. After a short debate it was announced to applause that Baxter’s community would continue to exist on the site. The lid was fixed on the coffin and Father Te Awhitu, Baxter’s old friend and supporter, began the Requiem Mass, supported by eight or so concelebrating priests. Colin Durning read a lesson. Earlier, Father Te Awhitu had invited me to give the homily but I asked to be excused because I felt too sad. Frank McKay gave it instead. After the Mass, members of the Jerusalem community carried the coffin up the hill to a site above the marae close to the Top House. While Father Te Awhitu recited the final prayers for burial, James K. Baxter’s body was lowered into the hole in the earth which was to be his final resting place looking out over the pa, the valley, the trees and treeferns, while the great river continued to run from its source to the sea.

Of course there were some, particularly among his fellow-writers, who originally expressed scepticism or cynicism when Baxter became a tribal patriarch. Glover was one. He and others became increasingly impatient with Baxter’s patriarchal role at Jerusalem and vented their feelings when they learned of his death. Frank Sargeson expressed no regret when he mentioned his passing in a letter to Karl Stead: ‘Poor dear Jim, that former pink gnome but latterly Greek patriarch swinging pectoral crosses etc has rapidly passed through all preliminary stages, and I would expect final canonisation to be announced any day now. I am expecting that Curnow will probably be invited by the Church to function as Honorary Pope.’ (Sargeson 489). Their verdicts would have seemed nonsensical to the thousands of New Zealanders who counted Baxter as their friend.

One year after his death a river boulder was placed on the grave. It was inscribed ‘Hemi’, his name in Māori. By then the golden boy of poetry who became a troubled man had truly become an ancestor, a New Zealand icon.

He was a man of remarkable contradictions. An extract from his play The Wide Open Cage expresses his lifelong tendency and predicament: ‘There’s two men inside me, Eila. One’s a good old codger. Waiting for harp and crown. He’d never harm a hair of your head. The other one’s sad and bad and mad. He wants to grab hold of life with both hands [. . .] The troublepage 123 is, I want you to like them both.’ Baxter had devoted admirers and vitriolic detractors. His difficulty was that few people were prepared to like both men inside him.

During the last week of his life he told some people that his mother had not loved him sufficiently when he was a child. At school he had been victimised and treated as an outsider. During adolescence he wandered down a lonely road: he did not feel loved and he could not find love. Jane Aylward, the woman he wanted to marry, left him for another man. Then it was his fate to marry a woman who, he felt, loved him but did not fulfil his needs – just as he did not fulfil hers.

In some respects, especially in his sexual relationships with women, this lack of love proved to be a recipe for disaster. But he was a courageous man who was not easily dissuaded from speaking the truth as he saw it or from acting compassionately. Four years before he died he made a remarkable decision – to live outside conventional society, in the gap, and there introduce a little love into the lives of people who felt unloved. He once said that he would die happy if he could change the emotional climate of New Zealand one per cent in a more loving direction. Perhaps he did. The blueprint he used to try to achieve this is found in his Complete Prose.


Baxter’s first calling was to be a writer, and because of his wide-ranging concerns and unconventional ideas virtually everything he wrote is of interest to some reader. In the context of writing he was primarily a poet. On one occasion he described Boris Pasternak as a great prose writer and a minor poet. The reverse was true of him. He was a poet first; a prose writer second. In the course of an interview he gave in Dunedin in 1966 he mentioned the range of his writing:

I’m not just a poet, although the best writing I have done is verse. I’ve written plays, a couple of short stories and articles in which I was not just shooting my mouth off. I like to feel I have more than one horse in the field because verse tends to be narrow. My best verse is like a liqueur. A good poem may affect three hundred people at the most, but the effect will be considerable. Short stories are more like wine. They are taken in more quantity by more people. An article would be like beer. It’s shallower. It might affect three thousand but the butter is spread thinner. (No. 374,‘ Robert Burns Fellow “more than a poet”’)

With exceptions, especially late in his life, his prose is more important for what he said rather than how he said it.

Like his mother he always had a great deal to say. Laurence Baigent remarked that when the young Baxter stayed with him on one occasion he talked all the time – compelling Baigent to seek refuge in the toilet. But even page 124then, like the baying of the hound of heaven, Baxter’s voice pursued him through the door panels. For the greater part, it is fortunate for his readers that he had so much to say and the desire and energy to say it.

After he died some of his words were gathered into his Collected Poems, others into his Collected Plays; now many more are preserved in his Complete Prose. This book reveals that he was particularly concerned about five topics – himself, the nature of literature and art, spirituality and religion, social injustice, and, a thread of this, the plight of Māori.

There is a sense in which these matters are connected. It will become obvious to readers that Baxter was a profoundly religious man, a Christian, a Catholic, whose beliefs underpinned his life and writings. He was devout, committed to the religious practices of the Catholic Church, and he never lost sight of the fact that Jesus Christ was conspicuously present in the lives of those who lived on the margins. But he considered that the Church was at fault when it gave priority to the teaching of doctrine and the dispensation of the Sacraments over the works of mercy (such as bringing food to the hungry and sheltering the shelterless).

He inherited pacifist and other ideals from his parents but before long he extended them to include a variety of other issues. He became involved with the anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam War movements and advocated for alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill, unmarried mothers, young people, educational dropouts, the unemployed, Māori, Pacific Islanders. His compassion was not merely notional – he took a practical, hands-on approach to such matters as poverty and addiction and encouraged his friends or audiences to do the same.

He was progressively affected by the injustices, often unrecognised, of Pākehā towards Māori. By the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying, issues of Māori dispossession – from their land, culture and language – had become his chief topic. He also identified the face of the crucified Christ as that of a Māori. In his mind he was no longer James K. Baxter, the famous poet, for he had adopted the Māori form of his name and became Hemi, the poor man. And when he expressed the hope that he might be buried in Māori land with ‘Hemi’ on his gravestone it was as if he had chosen to identify himself with suffering Māori in death as well as life.

The vow of poverty he took in 1968-9 included books. He also intended to give up writing but he never managed this because he was addicted to words and, in any case, he had points of view which he felt he needed to promote. As a young man he told Noel Ginn that when he was older he would write more prose than poetry. This happened.

The quality of his prose writing is uneven. It is strongest when he is emotionally involved with his topic and when his language sounds most like his speaking voice. He always needed an audience and wrote best when he had a particular person in mind. He mentioned this in 1964, in the context of poetry:

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One has to have somebody in mind when one writes a poem. A friend perhaps; or somebody imaginary to whom nothing has to be explained. I have in mind an old Dalmatian butcher with whom I worked for a year and a half in the city abattoirs. After many years on the chain, his hands were seamed with fine scars from the times when the knife had slipped. He could read a little, enough to follow the horses. A poem that he could not understand at all would have something wrong with it; and if he could understand it, it wouldn’t matter that a university man could not make head of tail of it. Education is a disadvantage for writing poems. (No. 321, ‘[Poetry 1964]’)

He also wrote well when he explored the creative act or when he argued coherently, plainly and sometimes vehemently against injustice. Even when he wrote in a low-key manner, as in his book reviews or discursive literary articles, the words were always well put together and, in any case, he usually had something interesting, revealing or perhaps provocative, to say.

In 1954 in the course of a review of a collection of Wordsworth’s letters he remarked that ‘One reads the letters of a great poet for various reasons – not least among them, the hope of discovering some part of the circumstantial scaffolding of his poems.’ (No. 99, ‘A Poet’s Letters’). He was talking about letters, not prose in general, but it is equally possible for other forms of prose to illuminate a writer’s poetry. He was careful to say that we read a poet’s other writings ‘for various reasons’, only one of which was to cast light upon the poetry. In his own case his prose is worth reading because of the light it casts upon his life and times – his opinions, beliefs, prejudices and hopes. No other New Zealander has commented so publicly, so often and so freely upon our society. His verdicts, always challenging, often disturbing, are contained in this book.

When he was young almost all of his writing was in verse but he occasionally experimented with narrative and descriptive prose, as in his versions of ‘Before Sunrise’ and his little story ‘The Kite’. In his early letters to Noel Ginn and Lawrence Baigent he experimented with critical prose.

In 1944, while attending the University of Otago, he began writing prose for Critic, a university journal – book reviews, prose poetry, and short prose narratives with an autobiographical slant. However it was not these items but his poetic achievement which led to an invitation to write ‘Poetry in New Zealand’ for the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand (1946). This article established the blueprint for his later critical writing – it was a discursive overview of his subject, impregnated with philosophical and social comment.

Poetry journals increasingly opened their pages to him and in 1948, when he turned eighteen, his poems appeared in Canta, Critic, Poetry Commonwealth, Canterbury College Review, Kiwi, Landfall, Otago University Review and Yearbook of the Arts in New Zealand. He moved to Christchurch that year and even though he was not an enrolled university student he waspage 126 appointed literary editor of Canta, the students’ weekly newspaper. (Bill Pearson was editor.) Baxter’s own contribution included several prose poems and articles on three of his literary and artistic favourites – Frank Sargeson, Colin McCahon and Henry Lawson.

One item glanced back at his school days. ‘To Wake the Nations Underground’ prefigured other autobiographical sketches such as ‘Some Time Ago’ which indicates the bohemian nature of his life in the years between his school days and marriage:

I could have got a meal at a friend’s house, or borrowed a pound. But I didn’t. It was one thing to borrow money for drinking, when everyone was drinking – ‘Could you lend me half a dollar, Tom? I’ve not got enough for the round’ – but it was different to bring private hunger to someone else’s table. So the distance widened, a gap between me and the substantial world, and a dark wind was blowing there that scattered every wish like the sheets of newspaper in the street outside the theatre foyer where I picked up quarter-smoked women’s cigarette butts, tinged with lipstick, undid them, and rolled them again with the burnt end towards my mouth. A great lethargy, like the first wave of a rising tide, rose over me. It would have been easy to stay all afternoon on the sagging stretcher under the grey blanket, and sleep and wake and sleep again till the wax-eyes flew in the window with seeds to drop on my breast. (No. 115)

He wrote about other episodes of his life in ‘Blue Peter’ (1949), ‘Venus in her Western Bed’ (1955), ‘The Town under the Sea’ (1956), ‘Walking up Castle Street’ (1956) and ‘Essay on the Higher Learning’ (1961).

He was never a conformist but five events seemed to help him to settle down: his relationship with Jacquie Sturm, his Baptism in the Anglican Church in 1948, his marriage that year, giving up alcohol in 1954 and his conversion to Catholicism in 1958. Observers may have thought that he had put his larrikin years behind him but his thought patterns and preferred, if sublimated, lifestyle was still bohemian. In 1958 he considered his life: ‘I doubt if any of the twenty-odd jobs I have held down in the past fourteen years were in any true sense vocations. But writing and married life are undoubtedly two vocations whose demands I am obliged to fulfil in order to become myself, the man God intends me to be.’ (No. 180, ‘A Writer’s Vocation’). He explained how he was always looking for his true self:

I remember how in my late teens my parents presented me with a tentative programme for the future – with their generous support I was to obtain a New Zealand degree in English, go to Oxford or Cambridge, obtain an English degree, and then become a scholar and lecturer in English literature. It was by no means an unworthy programme; in fact, on most counts it seemed at the time that I was an ungrateful fool to reject this programme and go to work in an iron rolling mill. My motives, as I recall them, were mixed and doubtful; but some obscure voice at the back of my mind said: ‘You are not meant to be a scholar and a lecturer, Jimmy. Youpage 127 would shrivel up like an old, cold potato. You are meant to be someone else, someone else whom you have not yet become, and one of the ways you will find your true self is by writing.’

How very egocentric! Yet a man must look for his own good where he finds it; and if a saint gives him advice that goes against his own sense of vocation, he must say: ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m travelling by a different road.’

In 1948 Baxter talked about Dylan Thomas to the Literary Club at Canterbury University College – as the years passed he would give many more talks to university, school and community groups. Before he became Burns Fellow he often spoke to such groups about poetry, although he usually included criticism of some aspect of society. As Burns Fellow in 1966-7 he gave formal lectures on literature which were subsequently published in The Man on the Horse (1967) or Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand (1967). But these were occasioned by his role and even then his heart was elsewhere. Consequently, from 1970 to 1972 he spoke most often on a wide range of social topics – racism, peace, poverty, homelessness, drugs, defects in Pākehā society, the values of Māori culture. The fact that he took care to preserve the texts of many of these talks has allowed them to be included in this book. In some cases when texts have not survived journalists reported what he said – and because he spoke memorably his comments were often reported verbatim.

The same is true of interviews. Michael King was a reporter for the Waikato Times when he interviewed Baxter in 1970. His resulting article was entitled ‘Poet Looks at Pakeha Phobias’. Later he sent a copy to Frank McKay, annotating it, ‘Interview I did with JKB in 1970 – just after he went to Jerusalem. It’s more a case of recording his monologue.’ Those ‘monologues’ were so provocative and well expressed that reporters recorded them and editors allowed them to be published. It may be unusual to include newspaper articles in a collection of prose but I have done so because it has allowed me to preserve Baxter’s words in a more accessible and permanent form.

In 1949 he published his first prose in the NZ Listener. Ten years earlier the National Broadcasting Service, under the direction of James Shelley, established the Listener as a weekly magazine. (Its first issue was dated 30 June 1939.) Its founding editor was Oliver Duff (1883-1967), editor and writer (see Short Biographies). When Duff retired in 1949 Monte Holcroft (see SB) became his successor. His appreciation of Baxter’s poetry explains why there are so many contributions from Baxter (especially book reviews) in the Listener’s pages. (Holcroft retired from the Listener in 1967 but was recalled as acting editor from 1972 to 1973.)

Baxter’s first prose contribution, a short story entitled ‘The Name and the Game’, was published on 1 April 1949. He wrote only a few short stories – mainly in the 1940s and 1950s. They were competent but not so good as to cause the reader to regret that he has not written more. Their subject-matter,page 128 incidental or direct, was usually marriage, especially marriage under strain. Perhaps the best example is ‘To Have and To Hold’, which was published in Numbers in 1956.

It may be that he stopped writing short stories for personal reasons. He was aware that his wife Jacquie considered that she could not write poetry while there was a much better poet in the house. (He knew that Fleur Adcock felt this when she was married to Alistair Campbell, and he suspected that Mary Stanley felt the same during her marriage to Kendrick Smithyman.) Jacquie gave up writing poetry and began writing short stories instead, so it may be that her husband decided not to trespass on her chosen ground. The nearest he came to writing short stories later was when he wrote parables. These include ‘Apple Mash’ (1954), ‘The Phoenix and the Crow’ (1954), and ‘Sisyphus and the Angel’ (1960). During his Burns Fellowship and Jerusalem years he wrote several parables.

His first Listener review (of books by Allen Curnow, Alistair Campbell, Hubert Witheford and Arnold Wall) was published on 8 September 1950. His reviews of books other than poetry were often desultory and unreinforced by scholarship. That did not concern him. He was happy to admit that he did not have all the answers. On one occasion in 1961 when a reader regretted that Baxter did not have specialist knowledge about a book he had reviewed (James Joyce, a critical introduction, by Harry Levin) he replied

. . . I think that a reviewer is bound to be accurate within the limits of his knowledge; but I do not think that a reviewer must necessarily have a full, scholarly, bibliographical knowledge of the background of the book he reviews. It depends, of course, on what periodical he is reviewing for. A review, let us say, of an anthropological work by Sir Peter Buck, for the Polynesian Journal, would have to be exhaustive and scholarly; a review of the same book for the Listener might be scholarly, but would not have to be. My own qualifications for reviewing Levin’s book were a full knowledge of Joyce’s writings, not scholarly but literary. I think that ‘Zosimos’ is expecting scholarly qualifications. (No. 241, ‘James Joyce [2]’)

In the following year he was much less defensive, saying ‘I have never been a critic’s arse, thank God, and become less of one as I get older; just an occasional reader who also thinks; and I’m too long in the writing job myself to think I know the answers.’ (No. 277, ‘A Bush Carpenter’s Outfit’).

Later he remarked that ‘As Paul Tillich has said, speaking in America, the job of a creative critic is to reveal the profound ambiguity of life, but “it is an almost irresistible temptation for contemporary creative minds to produce in order to sell.”’ (No. 302, ‘The Human Condition [1]’). Baxter was not so much a reviewer as what he here calls ‘a creative critic’.

Holcroft held the same opinion. In 1972 Baxter visited him at the Listener office and gave him a poem for publication. In return he was offered a book of Sargeson’s to review. Later, when Holcroft wrote about this visit, he remarked,page 129 ‘His book reviews, done promptly for cash, were invariably well written; but he was, I thought, too creative to be a critic: his own insights tended to break in upon judgments of other writers.’ (A Sea of Words, 169). In contrast, he knew where Baxter’s true gift lay:

His purest insights were in his poetry; he had, more than any other New Zealand poet, the daemonic temperament, writing and speaking as if possessed when the spirit moved him. In a few lines he could say, in metaphor and rhythmic speech, what he could not say in full and detailed exposition. I am ready to believe that people who heard one of his addresses could be persuaded by his grave and rounded speech that they were listening to a Delphic voice. (A Sea of Words, 171)

He expanded his remark about Baxter’s addresses when he remarked that ‘In his lectures and set pieces he spoke, not as a critic, but as a poet, and held his audience captive and outside time.’ One of the lectures which mesmerised his audience was delivered to the New Zealand Writers’ Conference in Christchurch in May 1951 and subsequently published as Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry (1951). (It is significant that Baxter usually called his lectures ‘talks’, as if to emphasise their discursive nature.)

The fact that he reviewed so many books of poetry for the Listener furnished him with the information he needed to create his overviews of writing in this country – Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry and Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand. These are clear expositions of the state of writing in New Zealand and the individual contributions of its poets. They also seek to redress the balance of the New Zealand poetic created by Curnow’s aesthetic of New Zealandism and his editorial practice as anthologist. Baxter was a generous and encouraging critic but he sometimes became ill-tempered when he debated Curnow’s critical theory and practice or the techniques of some local ‘academic’ reviewers. What he perceived as Brasch’s exclusivity regarding work submitted for publication to Landfall also annoyed him. (Brasch had famously said that ‘No quarter!’ would be given to aspiring contributors.)

Baxter’s regular book reviewing in journals or on radio and the frequent talks he gave made him vulnerable to comment and complaint in the correspondence columns of newspapers and journals. He often replied to these letters. He also initiated correspondence, although he explained on one occasion that he did this only when he felt driven to do so by his perception of injustice. His public correspondence also includes letters written in defence of writers whose books or poems were disregarded or unfavourably treated by Curnow, Brasch and a handful of academic critics.

Before 1967 he wrote only occasional articles, but in that year he was invited to contribute regularly to the New Zealand Tablet, a journal for Catholics published by the Diocese of Dunedin but distributed New Zealand-wide. Some of these articles were collected in The Flowering Cross (1969). After asking in an introductory note, ‘Why should a writer wish to reprint his page 130occasional articles?’ he replied,

. . . The answer lies perhaps most of all in my own sense that I was discovering the Faith as I wrote about it, and that I had managed from time to time to isolate, as it were, certain modules of experience where the unconscious influence of the possession of the Faith on my own life suddenly became more conscious and explicit. I have made some minor emendations to mark a possible transition from article to essay; but on the whole, where the original seemed to me spontaneous, I have left my writing much as it stood. I have never been able to write a poem or a play or a story or an article simply from cold; there has had to be some prior movement, however obscure, of insight or intuition. The fact that these essays are thus in some measure also works of literature has encouraged me to hope that they are worth preserving in the form of a book.

Holcroft did not think that Baxter’s articles on religion revealed a discerning mind: ‘I did not see Jim as a profound thinker. After his conversion to Catholicism he wrote long articles on theological questions, always with his usual fluency, but in these exercises he seemed mainly to be addressing the converted, and too many others had gone that way before him to leave room for new discoveries or a challenging treatment of what was old and tested.’ (A Sea of Words, 171). In the context in which he spoke he was correct. Baxter was writing plain articles for ordinary Catholics about standard doctrines of the Church. As a practising Catholic who accepted the Church’s teachings without demur he was not attempting to write ambitious or profound articles on speculative theology or ecclesiology. In any case, these would have been declined by the Tablet, which was a newspaper-like journal intended for ordinary church-going Catholics.

But Holcroft overlooked the fact that Jerusalem Daybook contained much interesting new writing on the theology of community as well as brief passages of ascetical and mystical theology which were remarkably different from anything Baxter contributed to the Tablet. One of these is the epigrammatic ‘To love people leads to a broken heart. To love God leads to a dark night. To love God and people together leads to the Crucifixion.’ It is a profound and compelling insight.

In 1971 and 1972 he wrote a number of prose reflections upon his relationship with God within himself, others, society and the universe which are remarkable for their insights, anguish and power. This form of writing, sometimes found in Christian mystics (but never with such a bohemian setting) is unique in New Zealand. Holcroft would not have known it existed because it emerged in talks to small groups of Catholics (and remained in manuscript thereafter) or was included in letters to me and other Catholic friends such as Roderick Finlayson, Colin Durning and Eugene O’Sullivan.

Baxter considered, like Holcroft, that his best writing was his poetry. But some of his best writing and profoundest thought is found in his letters. Inpage 131 the course of a review of Frederick Page’s 1954 edition of the Letters of John Keats he remarked that

In fact, a letter is a one-sided conversation; and to write great or even charming letters requires a gift as special and rare as that of a great conversationalist. Perhaps one aspect of the gift is humility – a warm intense interest in the lives of others, a quick response to each new situation – but another aspect is pride, aesthetic pride, the settled conviction that one’s vision of the world is the real world and one’s opinion worth the reader’s attention. (No. 106, ‘Thoughts Taking Shape’)

He said that Keats and Byron were great letter-writers because they were great conversationalists. Baxter was also a great letter-writer. Both his letters and his conversations were one-sided. They showed interest in his correspondents and responded to their changing circumstances but were especially noteworthy for what he describes in his review as ‘the settled conviction that one’s vision of the world is the real world’. The eventual appearance of his Collected Letters will be a red-letter day in the history of New Zealand publishing.

Baxter was not solely self-focused but often when he formed a penetrating insight into the writings of the authors he reviewed it was because he recognised a similar element in himself. So in 1958 he recognised that George Barker

. . . is a religious poet, recording an agonising private war with God; an erotic poet who records exactly the nightmares as well as the sensual paradise open to a lover. . . . his utterance is a record, inspired by pain, of actual spiritual conflict between a vision of love’s innocence and a knowledge of love’s depravity. We both love and destroy what we love. George Barker does not accept it peacefully. (No. 178, ‘Created from Pain’)

Nor did Baxter.

Wordsworth’s poetry had declined because ‘From intuitive pantheism he progresses, not to a Christian vision of God immanent in His creation, but to stoic moralism – “Every great Poet is a Teacher: I wish either to be considered a Teacher, or nothing”.’ (No. 99, ‘A Poet’s Letters’.) In this case Baxter recognised the tendency to become a moralist (as happened, to some extent in his Tablet articles) and tried to resist it.

Reading T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems caused him to remark that ‘The delusion that society can make its members happy never occurs to him; nor the more profound delusion that people can exist meaningfully outside society.’ (No. 105, ‘Master of Style’). Baxter made related points on various occasions including, memorably, in Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry.

Walter de la Mare was confronted by rapid changes in society. The way he reacted to them caused Baxter to remark that

The grief of knowledge and the knowledge of grief, expressed in the most sensuous and melodious language, has been his constant theme. His poetry is, under the draperies, a modern Book of Ecclesiastes. Those who lovepage 132 de la Mare’s poems, the school teachers and the pastoral sympathisers, will disagree with this judgment. The images of ice and fire, sunset rooms and haunted groves, appeal to them as the legitimate special province of poetry. Rather these images reflect de la Mare’s acutely honest charting of the unspoken fears of Everyman, fears of moral evil and spiritual isolation. (No. 111, ‘The Poet in Solitude’)

Increasingly, Baxter’s own poetry contained ‘fears of moral evil and spiritual isolation’.

His 1963 review of Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveller caused him to think back to his earlier book On the Road,

that masterpiece of the psychology of flight – flight from marriage, from settled occupation, and from what other people think of us. . . . Jack Kerouac’s effort to make sense of the gaps, to assert the value of meditation in a civilisation hysterically devoted to action and material function, seems to me both necessary and admirable; and he is at times a very good prose poet. (No. 290, ‘Smoke Signals’)

Six years later Baxter engaged in the same flight ‘from marriage, from settled occupation, and from what other people think of us’. Then, as previously, he tried to use the gaps in his life and in society.

‘The Human Condition [2]’ (1966) provides a good example of the kind of review in which Baxter forsook the text in favour of an insight of his own. On this occasion he offered what few other reviewers of the book would have offered – a distillation of the personal philosophies by which we live and a clarification of the position which he once held and the position he held at the time he wrote:

Over the years (ignoring the philosophers) I have been able to isolate three distinct commonly held views of the human condition – the progressive view, held by most politically minded people, that the human condition is malleable and can be much improved by revolution, legislation, or sheer personal effort; the non-progressive view, held by criminals, artists and housewives who are no longer young, that the cosmos is a kind of large, white-tiled public urinal, ill-framed for the comfort of human beings, into which we have been thrust by some unknown Power, very likely as a bad celestial joke, with a probability that things will get worse, not better, at least for us personally; and the mystical view, that life is a kind of code language, by which monotony, anarchy, or atrocity, those all-too-familiar features of the human condition, are in truth the strange caresses of an all-knowing, all-loving Father.

I am aware that this last view makes most rational progressive people want to roll on the ground and scream with anger; yet it is the only one I know of that offers hope to people (like myself) who had long held the second view, and cannot believe that the availability of twenty thousand clinics, or the ownership of twenty thousand refrigerators, will actually change the human condition one iota.

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What has this to do with the writings of Samuel Beckett? Well, for me at least, a great deal; for I had supposed that Beckett was merely an exponent of the non-progressive view, with whom I could mournfully sympathise. But recently, as I came down by plane from Palmerston North to Dunedin, and happened to swing over Wellington harbour, I could not look for more than a moment at the houses and hills which I had learnt for nearly twenty years to love and hate – because I was wholly immersed in this study of Samuel Beckett, following Jacobsen and Mueller along the jungle tracks of his black-humour comedy and his profoundly religious uncertainties.

Sometimes a book about a writer can help one beyond all expectation. I have found this three times in my life – once, reading Chesterton on Browning: once reading Hugh B. Staples on the contemporary American poet Robert Lowell: and now again, reading Jacobsen and Mueller on Beckett. The commentators in each case were moved by intelligent, intuitive love. I hope some other readers will wish to share this experience with me. (No. 398).

In 1967 when Baxter read a collection of interviews with Robert Frost he realised that a great poet had become a rather moderate prophet:

Frost, though his creative powers did not fail, has certainly left us the bulk of his intuitive legacy in the great rural dialogues of his early middle period. Those bare narratives of discouragement and survival spring from the inner self, the solitary, regional, pessimistic source which Frost in later life uneasily harboured without actually disowning. But, like many another artist whose strength is in his middle years, he tended unconsciously to assume the mantle of public prophet, and to regard the later work as equivalent to the earlier, though in fact it was more abstract and less human. The philosopher seemed gradually to take over from the poet . . . (No. 451, ‘A Man with a Mask’)

Many such insights are scattered among Baxter’s Listener reviews, often beautifully composed and insightful, like his remarks about Louis MacNeice’s last book:

. . . Some biological element gave his poems their subtle verve and brightness, like a ball balanced on a fountain. The presence behind the verses, knowledgeable and humane, seemed that of the perfect lounge bar companion, the man who knows nearly all the answers, but has never wanted to construct a theory out of them. To read the early MacNeice was to receive instruction in the art of being human. . . .

MacNeice’s last book is in a sense a summing-up, a paying of bills left long unpaid, personal rather than political. There is deep melancholy at things out of joint, a sense of loss, but no abatement of courage. It is, from the most human of poets, an entirely human testament. (No. 311, ‘A Human Testament’)

Baxter seemed to be personally engaged when he wrote those words about MacNeice, and again when he wrote about his Collected Poems:

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On the whole MacNeice’s later poems do not break much new ground. They are always worth reading. But his essential contribution to the life and literature of our times is already embedded somewhere in the middle period – a steady humanist affirmation in the face of war, betrayals, self-betrayal, bureaucratic monotony, the assault of meaninglessness, the decay of romantic love – in a word, the ills of man. That gay, suave, sad voice has become for many of us a part of our lives. At the moments of deepest uncertainty, near the centre of the labyrinth, one has heard an essentially human voice at one’s elbow – ‘Don’t lose hope. I am here also, knowing whatever you know, and a bit more as well. The issues are confused; but in the confusion our hope of salvation may lie. . . .’ I use the word ‘salvation’ advisedly, for MacNeice, though not a formal Christian, proposed to himself and others the problems of the religious agnostic who desires that belief should be possible. It was, of course, his unusual intellectual courage and warmth and humanity which made his statement of these problems always seem so real to us. (No. 443, ‘A Human Voice’)

Baxter considered that we learn more from experience than from books, so scattered through his prose – articles, talks, reviews, stories – there are passages which evoke past events in his life, usually recorded with a stone cold sober narrative technique:

I remember an occasion, a little over twenty years ago, when I decided to blow my brains out. The brains were there all right, inside my head, and the gun was there as well, a sawn-off .22 I kept on a ledge above the door of the coal house. I think I got it from my cousin. I used it for shooting rabbits. Well, on this occasion I went into the coal house and took hold of the gun and loaded it and put it inside my mouth. I’d learnt from the story books that that was the best way to go about it. But the hard, cold metal resting on my tongue was a bit too real. And I thought it would upset my father and my mother a great deal if they found me with a hole in my head. And there was something even deeper – a feeling that I would be destroying something sacred, that my body and mind did not belong to me, but to another Power I did not then believe in. So I put the gun back on the ledge and went on living. (No. 291, ‘Clerks and Cops’)

This is a good piece of narrative-reflective writing but he was incapable of sustaining it beyond this glimpse into the life of a troubled boy. He explained that his ability to write autobiography was limited because of his memory failings incurred by his alcoholism: ‘I am one of those people who can’t give a clear account of what happened the day before yesterday – it might as well be the day before Noah’s Flood, as far as I’m concerned – and while this is usually a great blessing, it cramps my style in autobiography.’ (No. 352, ‘Beginnings’).

For his Jerusalem writings he adopted a journal style. That meant he did not have to rely upon memory; it also invested the writings with a sense of the immediate and the transient which was entirely suitable for his themes.

Insights into the development of his thought can be found throughout hispage 135 prose writing, including his book reviews. For example, the progress of his philosophical and religious ideas can be mapped by the comments he made in the books he reviewed in the Listener. In 1949 he had suggested in a talk ‘Why Writers Stop Writing’ (later published in Hilltop, a Victoria University magazine) that writers stopped writing because they lacked a philosophy. The solution he advocated was orthodox Christianity. Two years later he realised that this was hard to find. In 1951 when he reviewed a miscellany of religious views edited by Victor Gollancz he wanted certainty: ‘The mingling of many voices becomes at times a distressing hubbub, not a harmony. One is left mildly exalted but still uncertain whom to believe. Like Huxley’s more ambitious Perennial Philosophy, Mr Gollancz’s book attempts a synthesis of discordant religious opinion and achieves it only by blurring basic distinctions.’ (No. 44, ‘Religious Opinion’.) This was the first time that he published his opinion that neither liberal Anglican opinion nor conscience-following Protestantism was a substitute for a religious authority.

Two years later, while reviewing Louis Bouyer’s The Paschal Mystery, he again revealed that he wanted certainty:

Father Bouyer’s work has seemed to one reader neither an addition to pietistic and sentimental works of devotion, nor a formal analysis of liturgy. The restatement of Catholic truth in contemporary terms, without distortion, is part of a necessary exercise of Christian freedom. But some such statements seem likely to increase the real and lamentable fragmentation of Christendom; while others, however indirectly, may assist toward an inward unity of believers, in Christ.

Father Boyer’s view of heresy must of necessity be offensive to many believing Protestants. But his meditation upon the mystery of the Redemption as shadowed forth in Roman Catholic liturgy can only command our respect and veneration. In particular, his consideration of death, of Divine love and judgment, and more generally, his treatment of Old Testament sources, have great depth and cogency. No reader with an awareness of religious problems can fail to be moved and enlightened. (No. 64, ‘A Meditation’)

In the same year, in the course of a review of The Journal of George Fox, he lamented the divisions in Christianity. While recognising particular values advocated by the founder of the Society of Friends he remarked that ‘It is unfortunate that Fox’s fervour and organising ability did not go to swell the main stream of Christian thought and action rather than add yet another denomination to Churches multiplying by fission. But his emphasis on good works and his placing the inward light of the Holy Spirit before Scriptural authority were greatly beneficial.’ (No 66, ‘Man in Leather Breeches’.) Because he had been educated at Friends’ schools it made sense to give him this book to review. But it was also obvious to Holcroft that religion was a particular interest of Baxter’s because from that time on he made sure that he was given increasing numbers of books about religion to review.

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In a series of poems and articles he showed his love for Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Consideration of the references to Mary in this book reveals that she represented the ideal mother for him, the kind of mother that he felt that he did not have when he was growing up.

. . . I am myself one of those people who came to the Church led by the Blessed Virgin; and I sincerely hope that when my mouth is finally shut by death, the last word my heart will utter will be the name of Mary, with a total trust in her maternal care, to which I have long since abandoned myself. It is necessary to remember that it was not our choice that the Blessed Virgin should be our Mother. God Himself gave her to us when He was dying on the cross. One can remember also the wise words of Thomas Merton that without Mary our knowledge of Christ remains essentially an abstraction.

I take as a sign that the Marian road is right for me the profound joy that rises in the centre of my heart whenever I think of Mary or pray to her. It is a road of simplicity, not of simplicism; of triumph over sin and death, not of triumphalism; of angelic light and freshness, not of angelism. It is above all the path of joy. I would recommend any person to whom belief is a paradox, and life itself a hard and heavy burden, to go to the feet of Mary and speak simply to her, not necessarily in words, since she who is the perfect Mother perfectly understands the hearts of all her children. (No. 428, ‘The Spirit of Mary’)

In his reflections on Mary he thought about the immaculate Virgin. But in a review of an edition of George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith he thought about the Temptress:

In Phantastes a bevy of archetypes of the Jungian variety help or hinder the cerebral hero: in Lilith we are given George MacDonald’s subconscious vision of Woman as Temptress, and very gruelling that nightmare becomes, sweetened by a series of necrophiliac rhapsodies. For the first time in years I was grateful to the schools of modern psychology which enable us to disbelieve a little the urgent message from the cellar – ‘Kill Mum before she kills you’. Dr Lewis in his wide and varied reading has apparently bypassed the works of Freud and Jung. (No. 312, ‘Messages from the Cellar’)

His poetry establishes the dichotomy of the Virgin and the Temptress. And any thought of Woman was likely to cause him to think about his mother. Extracts from his semi-autobiographical novel Horse (1958-62) depict the uncertain nature of his relationship with her. Millicent Baxter had lived in Germany and the fictional mother of Horse had lived there for two years when she was young:

Horse and his mother loved each other. The misunderstanding between them, more profound than any communication, stretched right back to the cotton wool and enemas and foreskin-clipping doctors of a Karitane nursing home. Bending over the pillow, he received the sacramental kiss, dry and cool and faintly sweet as apples kept in a loft. The danger of collapse page 137into a dutiful son was now at its greatest. He retreated to the end of the bed and gripped the U-shaped wooden barricade in both hands. ‘The Americans have bombed Ulm,’ she said. ‘They’ve damaged the cathedral.’ ‘That’s bad,’ said Horse. While his mother angrily re-edited the history of Eastern Europe, Horse shifted his mind into neutral. After five minutes she paused for breath. (No. 280, Horse; A Novel, 1958/59-1962)

The novel also portrayed the growth of the young Baxter from childhood to adolescence:

Horse had access to a sacred power. He was ignorant where it came from; and he attributed it by hypothesis to Lucifer the Earth-Spirit, since the God he had heard of was a God of ideas. This power adhered to particular places and particular people. In his childhood Horse had experienced its manifestation on certain cliff-faces and on the banks of creeks, especially where flax or toe-toe bushes grew freely. His father conveyed it strongly, by the capable strength of his hands, and by the smell of burnt gum-leaves he often carried on his person. As the primitive paradise of childhood fell apart, Horse had been led by meditation and example to look for the signs of this power in women.

Some passages in the novel were small episodes dredged from his experience: ‘Horse did not mind living off the land. A natural hobo, he had often scrounged the quarter-smoked lipstick-reddened cigarettes from the sand-trays in the foyer of the Regent picture theatre, when the need for tobacco was absolute, split them open, and rolled them again with the burnt end toward his mouth.’

The novel is not successful because Baxter could not write convincing fiction. He admitted this. In an undated radio interview, possibly recorded in 1963, he remarked that ‘I don’t think I have a talent for writing novels of the kind that would go over. I have tried but I don’t think I have.’ (No. 301, ‘James K. Baxter: In their Words’.) His own personality so absorbed him and was so powerful that he was unable to adopt another persona. The voice that speaks in the characters of his stories and his novel was always his voice. His prose fiction was also damaged by his failure to understand structure and his tendency to resort to burlesque. But it does give the reader glimpses into the mind and activities of the growing poet.

His most important pieces of autobiographical prose were preserved in The Man on the Horse (1966). They show that he understood himself:

I think that various factors combined early to give me a sense of difference, of a gap – not of superiority, nor of inferiority, though at times it must have felt like that, but simply of difference – between myself and other people. There was a great difference between the big house on the Cashmere Hills where my grandfather, Professor John Macmillanpage 138 Brown, lived, and the closely-knit Otago tribes of my father’s family – the difference sank into my bones early and became part of me – and there was the greater difference between my own socialist-pacifist family and the semi-militarist activities of the people round about as the country moved towards war. The Pacifist Church had its confessors and martyrs – my father had been one of the greatest, and suffered almost to the point of death as a conscientious objector in France in the First World War. It also had its Scriptures – Tolstoy and Gandhi and the New Testament suitably interpreted. And it had its persecutors – the police and one’s excessive patriotic neighbours. I remember how in my teens, we could not put on the light in the upper room at night, because such neighbours would imagine we were signalling to Japanese submarines. I remember the long discussions of moral theology – whether or not a conscientious objector should obey the military order to report for medical inspection – and I remember the time when a crowd of boys of my own age surrounded me in a shelter shed at school, shouting abuse and inflicting a certain amount of physical violence. These experiences were in the long run very valuable, for they taught me to distrust mass opinion and sort out my own ideas; but at the time they were distinctly painful. I could compare them perhaps with the experiences of a Jewish boy growing up in an anti-Semitic neighbourhood. They created a gap in which the poems were able to grow. (No. 352, ‘Beginnings’)

Because he analysed his life experience with care and astuteness he was able to form accurate generalisations about the lives of others. So he was able to say, ‘The torments of the adolescent furnace are threefold: unnatural solitude, ignorance of life, and sexuality without love.’ (No. 417, Draft of ‘The Unicorn: a consideration of adolescence’.) Some of the most interesting of Baxter’s prose writing is about the creative act, whether he was commenting on a particular poem or the act of literary creation in general. These passages are sometimes found in his talks-become articles:

Writing, good writing, is a function of a man’s existence, like eating or working or praying or making love. If writing becomes something else, a function of money or prestige or education or culture, I think it begins to fossilise or fall apart – because the man who writes is beginning to fossilise or fall apart. The best poems are like threads of light or dark cloth pulled from the frayed sleeve of the coat which is the existence of one particular man. (No. 295, ‘Writing and Existence’)

Because there were times when he was virtually destitute he learned to understand destitution in both its negative and positive dimensions:

Unconsciously, poets both here and overseas, try to enter and write from the situation of destitution, where one is not taken in by the slogans, the money, or the intellectual maps that leave out precisely this point at which creation becomes possible. This is not mere primitivism, a retreat from a world which does not understand the poet. It is an attempt to understand a world which does not understand itself. (No. 300, ‘Poetry and Education’)

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Of his poetry he said:

To be able to write at all, there must be some sort of tension. The tension that taps my unconscious is that produced between my point of view and the status quo. In my case at the moment, I have accommodated the status quo, but I have in return a feeling of independence. You have got to get wild about how much you give in to the status quo. You might think something looks all right, plunge into it and find you are in a dead patch. My poetry is unpredictable. I can’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Today I am going to write a poem’ – well I can, but it will be a bad one. Poems just happen as a result of tension or crises, and there are always crises when you have a family. (No. 373, ‘Poet Returns to Home Town’)

Part of Baxter’s critical aesthetic was based upon the Aristotelian antithetic of substance versus form:

A poem has substance and form. Poets are concerned with the substance most – you see, they hope to write again some time, they are looking forward, and they can borrow form or trim one up any day of the week, but substance is hard to come by. . . .

I see New Zealand verse afflicted with a disease of formalism. Waiting for the formalin bath of the academic anthologist. If you read Landfall, you will find that at least half the verse included there is anaemic in substance, intricate in form – wire and glass structures, light-weight, like the mobiles they hang up in a pub lounge. The substance depends on what the man knows, at the time of writing; the form depends on his skill in expressing it. Who wants to be told, in five well-wrought stanzas, that it’s a nice day, the poet had radishes for dinner, his wife has yellow hair, and he’s feeling a bit queasy? When you look at what’s behind it, you can find a gently sighing void. Yes, of course, Picasso can make a lively bit of sculpture by putting the handlebars of a bicycle on to a horse’s skull; but Picasso did that for fun; he also painted ‘Guernica’.

I find this lopsided emphasis on form throughout Curnow’s new Penguin anthology. (No. 286, ‘Notes Made in Winter’)

Baxter campaigned strenuously against what he regarded Curnow’s and Brasch’s prescriptive New Zealandism. He also considered that Curnow’s aesthetic affected the editorial approach he used in A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945) and the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960). Baxter’s complaints are expressed in No. 233, ‘The Kiwi and Mr Curnow’, his review of the second anthology.

He wrote plays under the guidance of Richard Campion in Wellington and Patric Carey in Dunedin. (They were edited by Howard McNaughton for Oxford University Press in 1982.) In a Listener review of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mourning Becomes Electra, and The Iceman Cometh, he mentioned a quality which he must have hoped would be found in his own plays: ‘A purely Romantic playwright would have failed to indicate actual tragedy; a realist playwright would have indicated a tragedy proceedingpage 140 from neurosis and arrested development – but it is the strength of O’Neill to be a Romantic realist and have power over both worlds.’ (No. 396, ‘O’Neill in Paperbacks’).

Baxter’s plays are not successful because they are too static, lack unity, and give the impression of being set-pieces. They also rely on archetypes instead of people and consequently lack character conviction and development. Their language is often rhetorical, preachy, and sometimes shrill or melodramatic. At times the play approaches burlesque. McKay (p. 184) mentioned that:

In a discussion following the first [New Zealand] performance, Baxter said he had rejected a neat plot in favour of a poetically satisfying scheme of ‘the eclipse of the forces of light by the forces of darkness’; and his approach was psychological rather than sociological. Like Jack Winter’s Dream, the play has a strong element of melodrama, something Baxter found attractive. He wrote to his mother on 7 November 1962: ‘I can’t really sift the lurid quality out of what I write. I would have been happy in the days of melodrama: SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER and so on . . .’ (Note 203)

In a talk about his plays which he delivered in 1967 Baxter identified these characteristics but he did not seem to recognise that they contributed to the weakness in his plays:

I find that writing a play is a very subconscious process. The self who makes my plays for me is very different from the one who makes the poems. The language tends to be violent and clotted. The action moves by a series of explosions like an old internal combustion engine. I have perhaps an ineradicable tendency towards vaudeville. . . . I feel that every good play embodies a myth, whether or not the myth is recognisable by the audience. (No. 439, ‘Some Notes on Drama’)

W.H. Oliver (p. 92) has identified the fact that Baxter was unable to portray different characters without locating himself at the heart of each of them:

The play projects a multiple self-portrait. Skully is the Baxter who had believed that he could save himself without church and priest; Hogan the self-destructive alcoholic. The climax – the devil-possessed Hogan killing Skully – is the fate Baxter had feared from the drink. Ted is the questing adolescent James, still in bohemia; Eila the kind of troubled young girl he went with; and Norah the rough loving mistress-mother he kept looking for. (Note 203)

Baxter’s social comment was much more penetrating than his plays or fiction. It was always well-considered, principled, and well-written. Sometimes, especially late in his life, it was impassioned and powerful. Because of his family’s heroic pacifism he had always written against war. In his personal life he had assisted other alcoholics, even visiting them when they were jailed. He opposed racism, and always supported the right to be different. He de-page 141nounced the burden of the dead hand of the State upon individuals and communities and adopted a left-wing, but not Communist, position in politics.

Some of his social concerns were with him all his life: the following sentence, written in 1953, could have been written in 1972: ‘In the last century the representatives of two very different cultures met, clashed, and achieved an uneasy equilibrium. Since that time the dominant culture has squeezed the other to death.’ (No. 70, ‘Is There a Colour Bar in New Zealand?’). And in the course of a 1953 review of Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics Baxter extracted a passage for quotation which sounds remarkably like his own voice during the Jerusalem years:

Perhaps the fatal course all civilisations have so far followed has been due, not to natural miscarriages, the disastrous effects of famines and floods and diseases, but to accumulated perversions of the symbolic functions. Obsession with money and neglect of productivity. Obsession with the symbols of centralised political power and sovereignty, and neglect of the processes of mutual aid in the small face-to-face community. Obsession with the symbols of religion to the neglect of the ideal ends or the daily practices of love and friendship through which these symbols would be given an effective life. (No. 76, ‘Machines and People’)

In 1955 Baxter wrote a letter to Landfall about adolescence (‘The “girl who goes wrong” is much more often a child who lacks love and security and status, looking for it in unlikely places, than a cheerful hedonist.’) In 1957 he co-signed a letter about disarmament to Here and Now. During the following years he sometimes criticised what he regarded as failings in Government or society, but it was in 1965 that he entered the public forum in an unforgettable manner when the Vietnam War stirred him to express his opinions with great energy and conviction. ‘Mr Shand and the Rain of Fire’ is a vitriolic attack upon a particular man and warmongers in general.

In 1962 Baxter mentioned some of factors in society which he considered harmed personal and community life:

There are drugs offering on every street-corner – alcohol, the Reader’s Digest, meaningless liaisons, refrigerators, films, Adult Education groups. In my own experience, before thirty, the drugs were effective enough; if one faded, there was normally a stronger one at hand. But after thirty, the drugs lose their power. I remember smoking hashish in Calcutta, and realising after one night of it, that it could do nothing except strum tunes on the nerves which I knew already. Drugs provoke fantasy. But one loses the taste for being a one-man menagerie.

The demon of lucre is a powerful enemy, chiefly because of his thorough respectability. I have seen good friends butchered by him, one by one. He works on the paternal and uxorious feelings. An artist who [dreams of] selling himself for money alone, who knows that money is poisonous dirt, will produce glib drugs for an advertising agency or castrated scripts for radio, because his wife needs a washing-machine or his children coats topage 142 wear. Perhaps only the destitute, the hobos who sleep in railway carriages have a chance of evading this demon; and they must lie to get there . . . (No. 276, ‘A Pig Island Journal’)

Early in the following year he wrote a letter to the editor of the Listener in which he spoke his mind about the plight of unmarried mothers. It highlights his dislike of a society which chooses to blame and reject rather than to love and assist. These mothers are alienated:

They choose abortion because of a prior state of mind that verges on desperation. I think this desperation is engendered partly by a set of values according to which health, social status and independence are the most important things in life, but much more by the cruel and Pharisaic attitudes which people have towards women who have conceived children illicitly. I would like to see kindness and more kindness preached from the pulpits; and I would like to see those women honoured who have the courage to bear illegitimate children. If this happened, I think there would be fewer abortions. (No. 287, ‘The Tragic Pregnancies’)

A few years later he would write on this and similar topics in a much more challenging and impassioned manner. But while he was a family man living in a Wellington suburb, employed as a Government bureaucrat and a practising member of his local parish he did not become outspoken on these issues. That changed from 1966 on. In that year he left Wellington for Dunedin to take up the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. While living in Wellington he had often visited his parents at Brighton and family members and friends in Dunedin but those brief visits did not impact upon him as much as did the 1966 return to the city of his youth:

. . . But Dunedin was a different place. It was the town I ventured into when I first came of age. It was the place where (as all people have to) I broke away from my first family and began the somewhat agonising search for a tribe of my own, that search which secretly obsesses and dominates the imagination of modern Western man in his state of spiritual dispossession and crystalline intellectual solitude.

Nowadays I see the same youths and girls at the street corners of Dunedin as were there when I came of age, dressed a little differently perhaps, using a slightly different jargon, but undoubtedly engaged in the same search. Conditions may have improved a little. They have flats and coffee bars and dance halls to meet in, where we had flats and dance halls and pubs. The great wall of mutual hostility and ignorance between the sexes which is perhaps the strongest single negative factor in our society has been broken down a little. At least a few bricks have been removed, leaving a gap through which the wisest can look and recognise each other as human beings. (No. 392, ‘On Returning to Dunedin’)

His renewed acquaintance with the university, including his exposure to students and his involvement in anti-Vietnam War activities, caused him topage 143 speak out strongly against injustice. He was weary of conformity in New Zealand:

. . . Frankly, I consider the modern world in general, and this country in particular, a genuine paradise for any person who has a paranoid temperament. There’s always a war on somewhere. He can join a commando force, and exercise his talent for cutting men’s throats from behind, and give free expression, let us say, to a homicidal hatred of Asian people. He can become a policeman and threaten Maori girls who go for a walk late at night, or beat up old schizoid drunks in the quiet atmosphere of the cells. He can enter politics and shout from the rooftop that there is a Communist conspiracy in the trade unions to take away our money and our food and our liberty to be paranoid. Nobody will think it strange. (No. 384, ‘Shots Around the Target’)

During 1966 he pleaded for medical relief for Vietnamese civilians. In the following year, his second year as Robert Burns Fellow, he expanded his public concerns to include censorship, racism in Rhodesia, homosexual law reform, unmarried parents and mixed flatting. This burst of energy suggests that he was so troubled by the condition of society that something was about to change within himself. What happened was his remarkable decision to withdraw from conventional society and establish a community at Jerusalem where society’s outcasts could find a home.

The prose and poetry he wrote from that time on documented his thoughts and activities while he lived in Jerusalem, Auckland and Wellington (for a time) with young people whose poverty and alienation he shared. In plain, powerful, rhythmical language he wrote the remarkable narratives of the Jerusalem years which are contained in this book. In some pieces of writing he created a manifesto for those who live in society’s shadow:

I say – ‘You must first hold the head up – whatever your circumstances – move against the fear, don’t give way to it when the fuzz (the police) crush your fingers in the door in interrogation – when they offer you money to give information about your friends – when the bosses have turned you down for a job for the eighteenth time – when a boss has asked you to sleep with him to hold a job (a girl of course) – when a parent has told you for an hour that you are dirty, lazy, immoral, insane, useless, spineless – hold the head up! Without courage, nothing works – courage is the flashpoint of every virtue – to be a friend, to console the Many, one must have courage, one must hold the head up.

‘Then you must love one another. Show it. Meet each other with an embrace. This love is physical, not genital. There is a distinction. The embrace cracks the paranoia. Avoid all bitching and forgive faults as soon as they are committed.

‘Share your food and your money. Not to have is not the crime – the crime is to have and not share. A cup of shitty water shared among friends becomes wine. But the reverse is true. The food they have, and don’t share, in the money dungeons, becomes like stale sawdust in their mouths.

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‘Light a cigarette and pass it to your friend. The saliva is part of the friend. Speak the truth to one another. Don’t conceal things. If words are true, they become the slashers to cut your way through the brambles with. If you’re at fault, admit it. Then the fault is robbed of its bad effect.

‘If you do these things – hold the head up, love, share, speak the truth – then the soul will rise to the surface of the friend’s face, as a fish rises to the surface of the water. Then you are in paradise – the paradise of the poor – then great beauty breaks like a sunrise.’

(I think the Trinity may be concealed somewhere in this primitive theology – the love of the Father, the truth of the Son, the beauty of the Holy Spirit – but the kids belong to the Church Invisible, and formal theology would mean nothing to them. I think the soul, when it rises in answer to the call of love, is actually Christ buried in the heart – otherwise, why is it always beautiful?) (No. 633, ‘[Between the Hammer and the Anvil]’)

He was drawn to help the poor, of whom he was one, having chosen to become one of them. In a powerful passage he described the way in which he embraced poverty in order to become available to help those who were even poorer:

I have gone without food for a month. I have walked barefoot forty miles over stones. I have slept wherever there was a place to sleep, in strangers’ houses, under flea-infested blankets, on the wet grass beside the road. I have often stayed awake while nga mokai got rid of their inevitable tensions by card-playing and shouting.

I have encountered many people who thought they hated me. I have accepted with patience their view of my character. It may indeed have been correct. I have lain in front of the altar in many churches, with my arms spread out, asking Te Atua to give me grief and give nga mokai joy. My feet often burn like fire with the cold. When I hit my back with the buckle of my belt, it makes me grit my teeth.

All this is pride and nonsense, unless I let Te Atua love them through me. And if the hair of the head of the soul of one of nga mokai is harmed by me, I desire to burn in Hell for ever.

I do not desire the last stage of my journey. When the old kumara is thrown over the fence, with a ruff of mildew round his neck, what will be there to keep him company? I think only his sins. So be it. (No. 645, ‘Extracts from “Jerusalem Journal”’)

In a talk to training college students he asked a question that must have been in the forefront of the minds of many of them. His answer may have surprised them:

You may think in your hearts – ‘Why does this man have long hair and bare feet? Why does he dress in old clothes?’ Other people ask the same question – sometimes not very politely. And I try to calm their feeling of being somehow offended, with a joking answer. I say – ‘The beard keeps me warm in winter.’ Or else I say – ‘In the Latin language, humus, the ground, and humilitas, humility, have the same root meaning. I do without shoespage 145 in order to acquire humility. I want to keep my feet firmly on the ground.’

But some friend may question me quite seriously. He may say – ‘Look, Jim, I sympathise with some of your attitudes. But why do you make yourself look like a hobo or a hippie? There’s no need for it. You are in danger of falling into the vices of singularity and ostentation.’

To that friend I make a different reply. I say – ‘Yes, I will cut my hair. I’ll cut it when the Government gives two per cent of the national income to help people who are dying of starvation overseas.

‘Yes, I will shave my beard off. I’ll shave it when people are no longer put in jail for having no money and refusing to work at bad, stinking, servile jobs.

‘Yes, I will put shoes on my feet. I’ll put them on when the Maori leaders in our varsities and training-colleges have established a two-way dialogue with the Maori leaders who are rotting in our borstals and our jails.

‘Yes, I will put on a collar and a tie. I’ll do it when the Government departments put people before regulations – when the mental hospitals treat sick persons as persons, and not as disposable garbage – when the churches, including my own, cease to be an enclave and sanctuary of the middle class, and open their doors with full friendship to the methos and the hippies and the ones who might meditate sitting cross-legged on the floor.

‘When these things happen I can put off this uniform, and go towards the graveyard with a quiet mind. But until then, although I hate war, I am like a soldier. I wear my uniform – the uniform of poverty, recognisable to those who are also poor. I did not come exactly as a volunteer. God conscripted me, by planting in my heart a certain kind of anger (not anger-against, anger-on-behalf-of ) when I could no longer endure the sight of the unhealed, unregarded wounds of the people, and in particular the wounds of the young.’

I cannot define myself, or my role in life, except as a hole in the Maoripakeha fence that the wind blows through. Recently I came into a small town called Seddon, south of Blenheim, after a walk of fifteen miles in the dark. I slept for a few minutes on a ledge of grass near the War Memorial. The stars were very low like a roof. The wind had rain in it. The town was lighted but empty. It had a certain terrible aspect, like a house men had once lived in. On that occasion I saw myself, probably correctly, as an old bum, slightly psychopathic, walking round the lip of the grave. Identity is a difficult thing to find.

For me perhaps death is the door to life. I mean death during this life. When a woman I loved, youthfully and ineptly, with my head and heart and prick, went away with somebody else, the poems, the real poems, grew like a bunch of grapes inside the hole where my guts had been removed. When my memory banks were blown for good with alcohol God came, like water in a creek, to fill the gap. I suppose you could say a religious man was born.

When the poet forgot to be a poet, and the religious man could no longer distinguish good from evil – only love from non-love – I found the whole country came into my heart to occupy the larger gap where anpage 146 ethical code and (I suppose) the desire for personal salvation had been torn out by the roots.

Poverty. Poverty. Poverty is the door broken in the wall between man and man and man and God. To be virtuous is to fall short of poverty. Our offence is to fail to be poor – that is, to be what we are.

I am only an old man – slowly dying, like all men – who happens to love you. You know as well as I do the hellhole of materialism in which your souls are being put to sleep like pet dogs or cats. Why do I go barefoot and go without sleep and hurt this old body? Because love has to share, directly or indirectly, the pain of the beloved. (No. 682, ‘Talk to Training-College Students’)

Among his last compositions were some short challenging pieces in prose and verse which honoured the poor and dishonoured those who disregarded them or made their situation worse. In his Preface to ‘Parables for the Poor’ (No. 703) he wrote:

These poems and stories are written down mainly for the poor who are the dirt swept into the crevices of our social home. It may not be wise for the rich or the just to read them. They may find them too hard to understand. . . .

The poor are never justified, except in the eyes of God, who is prepared to tilt the whole cosmos in their favour. Why he does this only he knows. But I think perhaps he loves the poor with a burning, undiscriminating and volcanic love.

And the poor were (and are) especially found among Māori.

I think many Maori people will not be content until there are massive reparations both in land and in money for the wholesale seizures of the Land Wars. That wound has never healed in the Maori mind. Head and heart have already met in Nga Tama Toa. Perhaps the stomach of the group will come most of all from the young Maoris who are being hammered flat in the streets of our towns like iron on the anvil. I think that what one sees now of Nga Tama Toa is the back of a fish rising in the water. It is not the back of a terakihi or barracouta. It is the back of a whale. Maori militancy is here to stay. (No. 641, ‘The Young Warriors’)

Baxter has been criticised for shoving his nose into the flourbag of Māori matters and not showing sufficient deference to Māori language and culture. In particular W.H. Oliver seemed to have swallowed an especially bitter pill when he was writing his biography of Baxter, for he described his use of Māori words and expressions as ‘cosmetic’ or ‘an earnest affectation’. They do not read that way to me. I regard them as a genuine attempt at using a bicultural language in this country when no other Pākehā was doing so. In any case Baxter was committed to te reo Māori. Oliver also criticised him for using ‘what he believed to be Māori ideas’ (cited by John Newton in The Double Rainbow, p. 14). In any case Newton has made the point in his book (p. 14) that some Māori whom he named welcomed Baxter’s engagementpage 147 with their language and culture. And it should not be forgotten that his body was permitted burial in the tribal land of Ngāti Hau.

After he went to Jerusalem he tried to give up writing poetry and prose. But he was unable to do so because he was conditioned to analyse his own nature and behaviour as well as his relationships with other people, society and God. He recorded his findings in words which narrated his story, challenged and confessed, praised and blamed. His writings in poetry and prose are the footprints he left behind in the course of his remarkable journey.


When an editor’s subject is a writer as prolific as Baxter was it may seem foolish to entitle a book the Complete Prose. Nonetheless the title has been chosen because exhaustive efforts have been made to make the collection complete. It contains Baxter’s only novel, a small group of prose poems, his short stories, some Introductions, as well as many essays, articles, talks, book reviews, letters to editors and a few miscellaneous items. Because small collections of Baxter’s papers are widely scattered throughout New Zealand it is likely that some unpublished prose items have been overlooked. However the possibility of their existence should not be a reason to refrain from publishing the Complete Prose.

It does not contain plays, even when these do not appear in James K. Baxter: Collected Plays, edited by Howard McNaughton, Auckland (Oxford University Press, 1982). But it does contain some comment by Baxter about his plays. (Comments by others are sometimes contained in the notes.)

Baxter’s poems are not included except when the poem is a rhyming letter to an editor of a journal; or when poems or extracts from poems are embedded within a prose text (for example, in the course of lectures or talks) or in the case of Jerusalem Daybook , where the poems are included, but not in the case of Autumn Testament, which is more of a case of a collection of poems with accompanying prose notes. The final exception to the prevailing principle applies to a group of prose poems (either unpublished or published in 1948 or 1952). These are included because they are good pieces of writing which illustrate Baxter’s current view of the link between prose and poetry.

Private letters are not included in the body of the text, although letters or extracts from letters are sometimes used in the Notes or Introduction.

With one type of exception the book contains all of the published prose items listed in A Preliminary Bibliography of Works By and Works About James K. Baxter, compiled by J.E. Weir and Barbara A. Lyon, Christchurch (University of Canterbury, 1979). A few other published items are included which were not found at the time the bibliography was compiled.

The exception relates to three separately-published items which he wrote when he was employed by the Department of Education: Oil (Wellington;page 148 School Publications Branch, Department of Education, 1957); The Coaster (Illustrated by William Jones; Wellington, School Publications Branch, Department of Education, 1959); and The Trawler (Illustrated by William Jones. Wellington; Govt. Print, 1961). These booklets for young children do not fit comfortably alongside the other writings in this book.

I gave a good deal of thought to the many articles by Baxter which began to appear in the NZ Tablet in 1967. Eighteen months later he was so disillusioned with them that he told Sam Hunt:

Dear Sam. I thank you for your letter
And for the poem too, much better
To look at than the dreary words
I day by day excrete like turds
To help the Catholic bourgeoisie
To bear their own insanity . . . (‘Letter to Sam Hunt’, CP 429)

Referring to the Tablet articles collected in The Flowering Cross (1969) Baxter remarked in a letter to me (18 June 1872) that the articles ‘disgust me, except the one on Heaven.’ He also mentioned them when he replied to a correspondent who criticised one of his plays

I make a distinction between the TABLET articles and the plays. In the articles I am writing for a public of perhaps 20,000 people about matters of doctrine and moral practice; and though I do try to lighten them with a few mild jokes – perhaps unwisely, as you suggest – they are quite different from plays written for audiences of never more than 75 people a night who have especially chosen to come there. My aim [in plays] is not sensationalism; it is an attempt at absolute honesty. Those plays make me uncomfortable too, when I watch them – I have to put up with that. There is a saying – ‘Two men looked out through prison bars, / One saw mud and the other saw stars . . .’. Now you – and many other honest critics – might say that I only see mud. That is not actually the case. There is both mud and stars in the plays; there is mainly stars in the articles – because they are quite different kinds of writing – in the articles I write about the Faith and life, as far as my limited understanding will allow me – in the plays I try to present a pattern of life at depth – to hold up a mirror to Fallen Man – and John Henry Newman did say (arguing against those who wanted to purify Catholic literature) that the only true subject of literature is not ideal truth but Fallen Man with all his vices. But it would not be fair to say there are no stars in my plays – did you not feel some spiritual quality, some search for God, some human tenderness . . . (See Note 475)

Baxter reminded his correspondent that he wrote his Tablet articles for a readership of the already converted, but, as he admitted, this prevented him from writing ‘the truth’ as he perceived it in the life of ‘Fallen Man’. At the time he wrote the articles he emphasised the first position; but not longpage 149 afterwards he emphasised the second. His subsequent rejection of the articles (presumably because of their tone, their in-house nature, and their failure to address topics which concerned him during his Jerusalem period) caused me to consider omitting a number of them. But, on reflection, I decided that they should be included in a volume of complete prose. However, I acknowledge that the inclusion of so many articles of this kind affects the tone of this book.

Unpublished prose items are almost entirely located in the three main collections of Baxter’s papers described in the bibliography. In summary, these are:

The Hocken Library collection: Baxter, James Keir: Literary Papers c. 1937-1975. The major collection was established in 1968 when Baxter made the first of several deposits of papers. From time to time he added to it. After his death further deposits were made by Jacquie Baxter, Millicent Baxter, and others.

The McKay Papers at Victoria University of Wellington Library. These papers were gathered by Frank McKay while preparing to write his biography of Baxter. The material was catalogued by Paul Millar in 1994. It was embargoed until 2011.

The Weir Papers at the Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury. I collected these in preparation for my MA thesis, doctoral thesis, and subsequent articles and books.

With five exceptions all of the unpublished prose manuscripts in these collections have been included. Four of the excluded items are held in the Hocken Library Collection: (ARC-0027) MS-0975/097 ‘To be Maori’ (illegible); Misc-MS-0541/001 ‘notes for religious education teachers, Forms II and IV, written for the Catholic Education Office [Dunedin]’; Misc-MS0541/002 ‘notes for religious education teachers, Forms V and VI, written for the Catholic Education Office [Dunedin]’. (These two items were not considered appropriate for inclusion in this book.) Another excluded item is MS-0739/022 Manuscript of review of Otago Dramatic Society’s production of David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs (illegible). I have also excluded the manuscript versions of the sermons JKB delivered at Jerusalem. On occasions when Baxter attended Mass there he delivered the homily at the request of Father Te Awhitu. These were simple compositions which were particularly suited to Māori children in the little congregation. Because of the special nature of his audience and of these texts I have included only two of them, as examples. As a consequence I have excluded Hocken MS-975/155 as well as the group of sermons contained in the Weir Papers.

Items are included in full unless parts of them duplicate the text of anotherpage 150 item, or (in the case of journalist’s articles) when the article shifts focus from Baxter or does not quote him.

The source of the text of each item is identified in the accompanying note. If an item is available in both a published and a manuscript form the published form is preferred unless a later manuscript exists. Where the item exists only in manuscript but more than one manuscript copy exists the later version is preferred if it can be identified.

In the Collected Poems the items were placed in order of composition (actual or estimated). This was possible because until 1967 Baxter’s poems were entered in order of composition into his manuscript books. It was a very successful device for establishing Baxter’s poetic development.

Similarly, in this book I have done my best to arrange the manuscript prose items in order of composition. This has proved difficult because Baxter left no indication of the order in which he wrote them. Where there is no internal or external evidence of the date it is estimated from its content, the handwriting, or my general sense, after years of reading, of where it fits into the sequence of Baxter’s prose and the events of his life.

The published prose is mainly arranged in order of publication; which is assumed to be similar to the order of composition because newspapers and journals usually publish items soon after they are received. Of course this does not apply to annuals (like New Zealand Poetry Yearbook), or quarterlies, or even monthlies. In the case of annuals it has been assumed that they were published in December of the year in which they appeared (in time for the Christmas market). In the cause of quarterlies it is assumed that they were published on the first day of the month, following a gap of three months. In the case of monthlies it is assumed that they were published on the first day of their month of publication. The placement of Jerusalem Daybook is the only significant exception to the principle of arranging published prose in order of composition. If it had been placed in that manner it would have appeared after some drafts of Autumn Testament and other manuscript items which also obviously occurred after it. So, to make sense of this sequence of events, it is placed near the point of its final composition.

Each item in the body of the text ends with a date (the year of composition or estimated composition) and the number of the item in question. This number refers to the item in the table of contents and to the relevant note.

My familiarity with Baxter’s handwriting makes me reasonably confident that I have interpreted his words correctly. The exceptions occur late in his life when his miniscule scribble is occasionally indecipherable. Where there is doubt I have included the word or passage in square brackets with a question mark. In some cases the word or words in square brackets are not followed by a question mark: this means that I have supplied a word or words which convey the sense of the passage. I have done this to enable a passage to have continuity. I have discussed difficulties occasionally in the notes.

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A note has been provided for each item. In every case the source has been mentioned. Sometimes additional bibliographical, biographical or critical information is included which may be about Baxter’s life, his writings, events involving him, references in the text or biographical information about people to whom his text refers.

Extended notes about New Zealand writers are contained in ‘Short Biographies of Some New Zealand Writers’ which is included after the bibliography.

Existing sentence structures, usages, punctuation and capitalisation are almost always retained. Errors in spelling are silently corrected but his use of secondary alternatives is respected. However three forms of spelling have been standardised: ‘judgment’ and the’ ize / ise’ and ‘or’ / ‘our’ alternatives (for example, ‘realize’ / ‘realise’ and ‘honor’ / ‘honour’) where ‘ise’ and ‘our’ are preferred. Baxter’s preference for ‘ikon’, ‘Hekate’ and ‘charitas’ are retained.

Foreign language words are italicised but Māori, which Baxter used as part of his own language, remains in roman. I have retained his Māori spellings even when they are now different, as in the case of ‘Wanganui’ (now ‘Whanganui’). I have also retained his practice of using an initial capital for ‘Māori’ but an initial lower-case letter for ‘pākehā’. I would prefer to use a capital letter for both but I can see that he wanted to indicate visually his preference for a rise of the status of ‘Māori’ and the lowering of the status of the dominant ‘pākehā’.

The current convention for indicating long vowels in written Māori by the use of macrons did not exist at the time he wrote. In the body of the text I have maintained his style, but elsewhere in the book Māori words are macronised. Similarly, I have retained his pluralised usage ‘Maoris’ (and ‘pakehas’) as well as his use of the term ‘the Maori’, both of which were in common use at the time he wrote.

John Weir

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