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This poem is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

Some Uncollected Poems
Selected by Roger Hickin
James K. Baxter
James K. Baxter wrote in the introduction to his selected poems, The Rock Woman (1969), of ‘an obsessive industry that led [him] as often as not into the cactus’. The poems that follow are from A Branch Torn Down, a forthcoming selection – the fourth such – of work unpublished and uncollected in Baxter’s lifetime, work that doesn’t always avoid the cactus, but does attest to the deep involvement in the human condition of New Zealand’s most talented, prolific and controversial poet, ‘a passionate, complex and haunted man’ who was also, in John Weir’s view, ‘one of the great English-language poets of the twentieth century’.


A Portrait of a Fellow-Alcoholic

My cobber has the shakes. The whitish-red
Eyes glitter in the punchbag of his head –
‘That bugger Reilly never had the right
To bash me when I bent under the bed

To get my fiddle...’ The ice-black urinal
In which he lay till dawn, more dead than tight,
Has fouled his jersey. In the trim lounge bar
I shout him three good whiskies for the trip

To the casualty ward – ‘On Guy Fawkes night
I pulled the American Consul from his car
To get five shillings for another jar;
They’ve got no brains at all,

The bloody cops. I’ve given them the slip
Since Saturday...’ Mother, have mercy on
Two idiot burnt brothers walking by
That cindered Phlegethon

Whose waves of fire and blackness I
Know better than the Mass. At the hospital
We sit for two hours on the varnished bench
Waiting for the quack. The nurse draws back

With a screwed mouth from the white spirit stench.
The ants begin to bite; the steel whips crack.
Tonight in 1A, scrubbed and dried,
He’ll suck a sponge dipped in formaldehyde.
(1962)


Regret at Being a Pakeha

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

These things should be enough.

A man and his shovel digging a drain,
Talk of women in the sun,
The touch of bodies in consolation:

These things should be enough.

Old wounds forgiven, happiness remembered,
Song at the altar of reconciling
And silence when the branch is bare:

Were it not that we carry as miners do
Our hard identity, a crust of dust,
A tombstone always in the living lungs.
(1963)


Song of the Mercy of Saint Anne
(after Tristan Corbière)

Old woman with breasts of black rimu
Carved by the chisel, hear me!
Under the veined wood your heart is alive,
The heart of a pakeha Maori.

Mother, we have seen your face
When the creeks are in flood,
Among the green fern your tears of mercy,
And from the dry earth tears of blood!

If an altar stands close like a sore thumb
How shall your antique breast
Grow plump to feed the mouth of Mary
Whose virginity folded the son to rest

Like the deep sea? Grant then,
Saint Anne, cradle and ark
For the unborn light, and for the poor a blanket
To keep them alive in the dark –

God’s grandmother, you who knitted
A suit for the Boy at Bethlehem,
And sewed in trouble the heavy stitch
Of the shroud at Jerusalem!

You whose wrinkles are gouged crosses,
Whose hair is whiter than thread,
Bare rock of silence, nurse of the newly born
And layer-out of the dead!

Ark of Joachim! Shall we burn
Like rats in a farmer’s pit
Where dead sheep, maggots, kerosene,
Blaze, and the fire eats into the fat?

A cloud-burst, Lady, from your eyes,
When God is occupied, would put
Hell out of action – Only make for me
A bed in the shearers’ hut;

Nothing elaborate. Remember, though,
The drunk with a cramp in his legs
Under the black fires – lead him
Gently between the cops and the kegs

To a bright room. And the young wife like a heifer
Panicking as her pains begin,
Grip her hand, wise woman, and teach her
What it is to give birth to a man.

The old ones, Lady, with brittle bones,
Who think of what is gone, and get no ease,
Catch them up at midnight suddenly
To the green Sabbath of God’s peace.

For those who die in wards when the lights are grey
Sweating and fighting for breath,
Hold up the cross and shove Hell’s pack away,
Lady of holy death!

Dragon who guarded the Virgin, keep good watch
On the kids who swing on ropes by the river;
And when they are sick, give each one in a dream
A drink of soda water.

Don’t forget the girl with the wandering man
Sitting dolled-up in front of the TV set
Like a watch with a broken spring – turn, if you can,
The plastic heart back into a heart of flesh

And the man who has plodded so far on his own feet
That leather, cloth and flesh are gone,
Give him (I beg you) nothing else to eat
But the berries of the snow, a soldier’s ration.

The lass in a well-off family’s oubliette,
Where the shrunk heads glare to break her spirit,
Before they trim her guts with the curette
Give her the teeth and the claws of a ferret!

And the boy dressed like a girl who has dreamt he is Satan
Sleepwalking by the ships,
Tell him his nature is Joseph’s coat of blood
And say goodnight to him from the waves’ lips.

For such things, Mother, I will kneel to you
And burn a candle
For half a crown (the cost of a drink or two)
This Friday in your Daughter’s chapel.
(1964)


A Christmas Sadness

I think of an old man gutted by
The four devils of the West,
Warm heart, home trouble, dead work, abstract thought,
Climbing in the season’s heavy breast
A bush track to the sky,

To find, cold and late, at the scrub farm
From the door of a dark whare a light,
And a Maori girl with a child on her arm,
Black haired, in a blue dress, whose voice
Like water under fern flows out –

‘Come in, Jack, and rest.’

But he looks with pale, old eyes
At the sea that swallows down a meteorite,
At lawyer bushes, graveyard earth,
And the track that is itself the night.
(1964)
[whare: house]


The Cattle Shed
(for Janet Frame)

Do you remember that afternoon in winter
When we left the town of bones behind us, and walked on
Up the Leith Valley road? All of us
Were wet as shags! Your coat and hair were wet.
Branches unloaded rain on us. The creek
Was talking all along the gully
About whatever suits a water spirit,

And we climbed further up to a cattle shed,
Crossing the soaking clumps of cocksfoot grass
With wet shoes. We sat down
Among the rusted harnesses,
And ate our bread and sausage,

And you spoke of Andorra – how those churches
Are built like barns out of the valley rock –  
Being ourselves in such a place; as if, Janet,
To have been born were enough, as I incline
To think it is. You and Jacquie
Made water on the dung-black floor

Before we left. I remember it as a barn
Made out of rock; a womb; a stopping-place.
(1966)


Virtue and Death

I notice how my friend the drunken tobacconist
Who lies with the cramps and the shits on a bumpy mattress
At the back of his shop, talks of his dead mad wife
As ‘a real lady’ – virtue, death,

Are the same words to him – I also,
These cloud-dark afternoons with work to do,
Dawdle in the kitchen, read old letters,
And see for a minute in my mind’s eye

An invalid child in a bed like a snow-covered paddock
Doing nobody any harm –
Quiet as a doorknob, he waits
For his Mum to bring him a drink, for the sun to rise;

The bad ones are down at the river, smoking and fighting;
He hears them shout like rowdy daylight ghosts
From half way down the road – he waits, I wait,
To live, to die, for some great horn

To blow and split the sky – virtue, death,
Too much connected, somehow –
Gentlemen, ladies, I ask you to examine
My halo of bright maggots!
(1967)


Spring Sonnets 1968

1
The girl with the broad brass belt and the yellow matador
Pants that leave her waist naked is going

Down the stairs in front of me. This travelling body
Obstructs my view of nature. If the cold sharp

Spring wind blows down from the snow on Mount Cargill
It whets in me the edge of self; I’d like to

Undress the goddess with an old man’s frenzy
And die. Instead I natter about Shaw and Pinter

To Patric Carey. Drink one cup. Ignore her.
Aquinas, Aquinas, you can shove the Summa

Up your holy rectum! I want to be a singing
Jellyfish without a philosophy

Able to feed without remorse on those
Magnificent sullen lips and demon-yoking thighs.

2
At the top of the steps that lead to Haddon Place
Somebody has lit a fire of grass and branches

Whose smoke pleases me; and just above it
A fat Samoan child in a tartan shirt is playing

On the veranda slats. If the fire should grow
Suddenly larger, consuming first the house

With its five rooms, its TV set,
And the print of the Queen above the mantelpiece,

A royal pudding on horseback; then (I’ll not disguise it)
Backyard by backyard the whole bog-built town –

The child might laugh, clapping his hands and shouting
At the fiery convolvulus. But this won’t happen.

We die where we are born. The flames are all
Purely internal, eating the vein, the brain, the groin.

3
It is time to repent, time to kneel and say
A mouthful of Hail Marys in front of

The little Virgin the Bishop brought back from Spain
Paying no duty. She does not have to pour

A bucket on my head. This old incendiarist
Has lost his matches. Let us begin – ‘Mother,

‘It was a black birth when I came
Howling into the world. The green sprig

‘Your Son planted has grown crookeder
With each blind season. I don’t expect

‘Miracles or another mountain to hide in
From the man-killing Dove. I bow the head.

‘Grant what is. Give me rocks to eat.
I prefer always to be treated as a man.’
(1968)


Junkie House

The cold is freezing my toe joints
At 2 a.m. in this small room

In Grafton – my bed is low down on the floor
And the fleas boil out of the thin mattress

As soon as I lie down – in this old junkie house
Many things are at sixes and sevens

But the long yellow candle in front of the statue
Of Our Lady Help of Junkies will go on burning

For another four hours – its light on the bare walls
Shows that to believe is to have nothing

And to walk in the dark – to walk on the dark waves
Of each hour, sister, knowing that to be is the miracle,

And the great sun who is the brother of Christ
Will rise again and cradle us in his hands.
(1969)


Holy Sonnets

1
At noonday I sit on the communal dyke
And hear the bell ring for the Angelus –

‘The Word was made Flesh’ – the wasps come here in droves,
Partly because it is the season of fruit

When apples and wild blackberry
Are ready for eating, and partly

Because they can catch blowflies
Round this cavern where we drop our shit

Fifteen feet. Lord, you made the green pungas
That roar in the wind on the hill ridges

Between us and the sky, and for us the pain
Of incompleteness, like the bruised aching gut

Of an old woman who has to watch
Her children’s children play their rowdy games and die.

2
They have cleared the ground very nicely round the house;
What we walk on is thistles and the hacked off vines

Of blackberry. This hot day I go browsing
Like a goat on the ripening berries

Till my stomach is full of the watery pulp,
But at the broken house among the brambles

I go in the door, take off my shirt and jersey,
Hang them on two rusty nails on the wall,

And begin the old game of flogging my back
With the buckle of my belt – not too hard, not too lightly –

Thirty-nine strokes, the measure of Saint Paul, –
The cicadas chirrup on the grey-brown heads of cocksfoot,

The world won’t change. Why do I keep on asking
Our Christ for the impossible? We were meant to blaze like the sun.

3
Lord, the food bill is one-sixty dollars;
I have ninety in the bank, –

If you want us to live on air and water cress
That’s your business. Father, I can’t find you;

I think the great bogs are bringing me down,
My throat is filling with mud. Yesterday

On the track between the church and the wharepuni
I looked for you and couldn’t find you.

What is the point of quarrelling? Why should I want more
Than a hole in the ground to hide in

And boards to keep my body from the wet?
I am sin. There’s nothing new in that.

Father, all I want is for you to turn me
Inside out like a stranded octopus.
(1972)


[Now in the darkness of the moon]

Now in the darkness of the moon
The wind blows this way from the graveyard,

And my heart is failing – so long a journey
I have to undertake, setting aside

The lips and the hands of women
That guarded and imprisoned me

Since the day that I was born. It may be, my friend,
After the ninth or the twenty-seventh day

The wind that carries dust will bring the smell
Of flowers growing. To be no longer man

Is what I fear, bending my head
In the darkness of this cave. The face I see

Is not the face of love but the face of night.
I am drinking the waters of the underworld.
(1972)

This poem is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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