Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Te Whiore o te Kuri by James K. Baxter


Two trucks pass me in a cloud of dust
As I come up the road from the river,

So I put the bathing towel over my mouth
And breathe damp cloth. Taraiwa on the bridge

Is cutting the iron struts with a blow torch,
But he tells me - 'Kua mutu' - 'the oxygen is finished.'

I climb the long track to the wharepuni,
Meditating on the words of Thomas Merton -

'At the end of life God presses down a seal
On the wax of the soul. If the wax is warm

'It receives the mark; if not, it is crushed to powder' -
So be it. My own heart may yet be my coffin.

Up here they give me a cup of crushed apple pulp
To drink. In autumn the kai falls from the trees.


The dark light shines from the graves of the saints,
By which I mean the humble ones

Buried beside our house and under the bramble
That hides the fallen pas where sheep are grazing

And leave their clots of wool. The dark light shines
At the heart of the tangi where a tent has been put up

To hold the coffin, and a widow with a
Three-day-sleepless face is waiting for the

Resurrection. I remember
When the church was shut at Ngaruawahia,

Kneeling instead in front of the stone statue
Of Te Whaea, darkened by rain, eroded by moss,

Under an apple tree. The dark light shines
Wherever the humble have opened a door for it.


A giant weta climbs the curling ladder
Of the scrim beside my bed. I don't want

The scratching of this amateur bush demon
Interfering with my dreams,

Or love-bites on my neck. First Steve comes through
With a saw - 'To cut him in half,' he says -

Then Zema - 'You're piss-poor, Hemi,
At killing' (she giggles) - but I get a shoe

From the other room, stand on the strongest chair,
Wield it by the toe and belt him - crack!

The weta, trailing white guts, drops to the floor,
A three-inch dragon in his broken armour,

Poor creature! I finish him off with another blow
And lie back to read while the mosquitoes play their flutes.


The rain falls all day. Now the tanks will be full.
The road down river will turn to wet porridge

And the slips begin. Herewini told me
How Te Atua warned him that the bank would fall,

So he left the grader and came to shift his mates, -
They ran to safety and the bank did fall

Silently, eighty tons of earth and boulders,
Burying him to the armpits. His leg is still blue

Where the great stone cracked it and the bolts were put through the bone,
But he can walk on it. The drips from the holes in the roof

Spatter in the kitchen, on the boards behind the stove,
At the foot of Francie's bed. Beyond the lid of cloud

I hear the droning of the birds of Armageddon
That one day will end the world we understand.


The tribe in their own time are making a fowl run
Below the big chestnut. Therefore I wake

To hear the screech of nails being dragged with hammers
At the front of the house - Steve and Gregg

Doing what once would hardly happen
In two years. One by one the girls

Come in to visit their old hairy koro
On the broad of his back in a sleeping bag

Resting his rheumatism - Te Huinga,
Zema, Francie, Cam, they bring in coffee,

But stay to sit and open out their thoughts
And put their heads on my pillow. Some people think

I keep a harem. No, my back's not strong enough.
I keep a chook pen for birds of paradise.


'Te whiore o te kuri' - this is the tail of the dog
That wags at the end of my book;

After a dispute with one dear Maori friend
I walk all night on the road to Raetihi,

Thinking, 'Twenty-four miles will pulp the pads of my feet
Till the soles of them swell up like balloons;

'Pain in my feet; pain of my hara.' This morning
I saw the sun rise molten and red

Over the hill at Herewini's house
At Raetihi. But staggering on the stones

Last night, I had to stop, and looked up at the stars
And saw those ribs of white fire

Hung there like the underside of punga leaves
Planted for our human shelter.


To go forward like a man in the dark
Is the meaning of this dark vocation;

So simple, tree, star, the bare cup of the hills,
The life-long grave of waiting

As indeed it has to be. To ask for Jacob's ladder
Would be to mistake oneself and the dark Master,

Yet at times the road comes down to a place
Where water runs and horses gallop

Behind a hedge. There it is possible to sit,
Light a cigarette, and rub

Your bruised heels on the cold grass. Always because
A man's body is a meeting house,

Ribs, arms, for the tribe to gather under,
And the heart must be their spring of water.


. . .

"koro" - old man. But Baxter was only 46 when he wrote this. Perhaps it's partly that he felt his body breaking down, perhaps it testifies to the demographic skewing of the Maori population, which has a huge preponderance of young people. Actually, I am unhesitatingly addressed as "E kui" - old woman, and I am just about fifty.

Te Whaea - the Mother

hara - sin.

This is the final poem in Baxter's last collection. Baxter wrote many other poems in this loose sonnet form. I'd like to type out "Autumn Testament" for you, but it is 48 stanzas long!



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