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This article is taken from PN Review 175, Volume 33 Number 5, May - June 2007.

From Hiruharama: the Jerusalem Sonnets Rebecca Porte

Approximately one part hippie revolutionary, one part alcoholic visionary and one part religious martyr (though some would argue the proportions), James K. Baxter haunts the New Zealand canon as a poet and an icon. It would be difficult to think about his poetry, especially an epistolary sequence such as Jerusalem Sonnets (Poems for Colin Durning) (1970), without acknowledging his identities as a Catholic and a New Zealander. Jerusalem Sonnets combines a sonnet form altered for a new landscape with a content centred on Baxter's spiritual crises as he tries - and fails - to found a commune at Jerusalem, or as the Maori name it, Hiruharama. Maori words surface alongside Biblical narratives in nearly every poem, constantly reminding readers of the writer's identity as a pakeha, a New Zealander of European descent. The idioms that creep into Baxter's vocabulary from Catholic and New Zealand contexts exist in tension, the inner world of Christian thought informing and resisting Baxter's readings of Maori and pakeha culture in an unstable correspondence form. Though Charles Doyle, Baxter's friend and biographer, claims for the Jerusalem Sonnets a 'line itself at core a pentameter shaken loose of formal restriction' (p. 155), he doesn't account for the epistolary features of the poem, layered over an inflexible system of Old and New Testament allusions. What he misses is the substitution of one kind of structure for another. It's not that Baxter's poetry ...

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