Thursday, July 8, 2010

A couple of my favourites

The Bay James K. Baxter

On the road to the bay was a lake of rushes
Where we bathed at times and changed in the bamboos.
Now it is rather to stand and say:
How many roads we take that lead to Nowhere,
The alley overgrown, no meaning now but loss:
Not that veritable garden where everything comes easy.

And by the bay itself were cliffs with carved names
And a hut on the shore beside the maori ovens.
We raced boats from the banks of the pumice creek
Or swam in those autumnal shallows
Growing cold in amber water, riding the logs
Upstream, and waiting for the taniwha.

So now I remember the bay, and the little spiders
On driftwood, so poisonous and quick.
The carved cliffs and the great out-crying surf
With currents round the rocks and the birds rising.

A thousand times an hour is torn across
And burned for the sake of going on living.
But I remember the bay that never was
And stand like stone, and cannot turn away.

. . .

Elegy for an Unknown Soldier
James K. Baxter

There was a time when I would magnify
His ending; scatter words as if I wept
Tears not my own but man's; there was a time.
But not now so. He died of a common sickness.

Nor did any new star shine
Upon the day when he came crying out
Of fleshy darkness to a world of pain,
And waxen eyelids let the daylight enter.

So felt and tasted, found earth good enough.
Later he played with stones and wondered
If there was land beyond the dark sea rim
And where the road led out of the farthest paddock.

Awkward at school, he could not master sums.
Could you expect him then to understand
The miracle and menace of his body
That grew as mushrooms grow from dusk to dawn?

He had the weight, though, for a football scrum,
And thought it fine to listen to the cheering
And drink beer with the boys, telling them tall
Stories of girls that he had never known.

So when the War came he was glad and sorry,
But soon enlisted. Then his mother cried
A little, and his father boasted how
He'd let him go, though needed for the farm.

Likely in Egypt he would find out something
About himself, if flies and drunkenness
And deadly heat could tell him much - until
In his first battle a shell splinter caught him.

So crown him with memorial bronze among
The older dead, child of a mountainous island.
Wings of a tarnished victory shadow him
Who born of silence has burned back to silence.

. . .

Otepoti here. These are both fairly early poems. His later work is much sparer. Unfortunately my copy of Baxter has disappeared, dammit - that's the trouble with favourite books - they're too good not to be shared, but you always risk losing them - same as children, really.

A taniwha is a river guardian, living in the water. Not quite a god; they were never prayed to or propitiated, but every stream has one. They're depicted sometimes as lizard-like creatures.

Poisonous spiders, by the way, are not a big problem in New Zealand. There's only one, the katipo, and as far as I know, no-one dies of their bites.

Maori ovens are groups of rocks gathered for hangi cooking - a pit is dug, a fire is built in it, the rocks (of a type that won't explode) are gathered and piled on top, they are well-heated, the fire-pit is cleaned out, the rocks are put back in, the food in baskets of flax or modern materials, goes in, there are soaked sacks laid on top, then the earth is shovelled back over, and the whole thing is left to steam - three hours or so.

The food is unforgettably delicious, if it's done right, and it's a good way of cooking for a big, big group in the outdoors. The Wikipedia entry, however, says, quite rightly, if you rake off the earth and no steam comes up, then shovel the earth back on and buy fish and chips.

Calling Enbrethiliel - did you ever have hangi food while you were here? Was it good, or the "should have bought fish and chips" sort?

The second poem: NZers rushed off to both World Wars in huge numbers. For WW1, the NZ soldier deaths were the highest per capita of anyone. There are memorials all over the show - every small town has a stone soldier leaning on a rifle, or some such, and a sad list of names underneath, often several members of a family. It's a melancholy sight.

James K Baxter came from a famous conscientious objector family, so I think this poem is remarkable in its restraint towards the enterprise of war, considering. It haunts me somewhat, now that I have two sons in the armed forces.


Otepoti said...

I should add - a major highway rebuild had to be re-routed here not so long ago, because people complained that it would disturb the taniwha...

Otepoti said...

I'll post a favourite* James K poem or a favourite* M.K. Joseph poem as many times as I can this month, I think that's the best way to do it.

*illogical English-style spelling habits die hard.

Enbrethiliel said...


Unfortunately my copy of Baxter has disappeared, dammit - that's the trouble with favourite books - they're too good not to be shared, but you always risk losing them - same as children, really.

You will never believe this, but my copies of Baxter and my Baxter lecture notes have vanished, too!!! I still have everything else, but all the Baxter stuff is gone. (You know, if I were into aliens and conspiracies and stuff . . .)

But I can at least remember what my professor told us about Baxter's pacifist background. His father was a conscientious objector during World War I, at a time when such views were considered the height of cowardice. Objectors were hauled off to battle, anyway, and subjected to a form of punishment called "crucifixion." If I recall correctly, this meant being tied to posts above the trenches, where the enemy could not get direct shots at them but where they had no proper protection, and having to stay there while the shells and the bullets flew, until they agreed to do their part in the fighting.

In that light, Baxter's second poem is, as you've pointed out, surprisingly restrained. I don't even want to call it angry, because it is so quiet in its anger.

PS--I'm afraid I never had any hangi food, though I did go crazy over fish and chips! =P Sometimes I still feel a little sad to remember that I have no fish and chips shop within walking distance. =(

Enbrethiliel said...


Okay, I found some Baxter . . . but hardly half of it.

BettyDuffy said...

That first stanza in "The Bay" has brought to mind a totally unconnected thing that's been eating at me lately, which is the rediculous names for new roads these days. I live very near a "Progress Parkway" which as you might expect is the address for our local Walmart.

The other day, I was driving through a town with my cousin and passed the intersection of "Opportunity Parkway."

"Look at all of the opportunities that await you down that street," I said to my cousin because there was absolutely nothing on the road except forsale signs connoting commercial zoning designations.

How many roads we take that lead to nowhere.