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James K. Baxter Complete Prose Volume 4


page 155


James K. Baxter died on the evening of Sunday 22 October 1972. When I heard the news I was struck by a profound sorrow. I had lost a great friend who was a great writer and a great talker. But words had finally failed him. If I could not talk with him any longer at least I could address a poem to him. It had been some time since I had written anything but this poem came quicker than most.

Elegy to James K. Baxter 1926-72
The river runs again.
I’d thought it blocked forever
but that great flood
shifted a heap of rubbish
from a far corner of the mind
and the current is free.

Reading another man’s words:
‘a violence from within
protects us from a violence
without.’ It’s just not true.
Imagination can’t rainproof anyone
against the waters of the grave.

Your words ferry me still
down a river underground
lit with a dark fire
they carry me to secret places
where world and word conspire
to trouble me with gentleness.

I pulled the curtains back
of the room you stayed in
page 156 smoking your camel-dung cigars
and thought of taking
a drink for you – fourteen
years dry – but went instead

to kneel before
a crucifix on a white wall,
mimosa flowers, a plain altar:
you went there sometimes
to listen to the silence
that takes our breath away.

You are that silence now.
Outside my window a Maori boy
flies a kite against the wind:
he doesn’t know that you can’t speak
for him any more. His kite plunges
and soars through the grey day.

Across the evening paper
that always brings the news
too soon: Poet, philosopher,
patriarch. Titles freeze us.
Who can separate now
the legend from the man?

We’d do well to remember
the little dance you used
to shrug off tiredness,
eyes hooded, arms flapping,
like a slow, demented eagle:
it might avail you still.

Master of the unexpected,
quick-change artist,
who’d have thought your heart
would fail us? It was,
perhaps, too freely given
to Lazarus who was poor.

page 157

The town you fought too long
has had its way at last,
the dirty city that seized
you in an asphalt fist
while we all shook you down:
it stole your breath away.

The history-books will say
it was an uneventful day:
filled with ordinary clouds,
sky continued to be sky;
and there’s been no report
of rivers stopping anywhere.

That’s all. I turn
To your words now:

‘The creek
runs to sea,
finding its way
without us.’

Jerusalem, O Jerusalem...