August 01, 2009

Remembering James K. Baxter

I didn’t make it to Jerusalem
but I heard midsummer thunder shake the weatherboards
of a run-down villa in Grafton.
Once in Vulcan Lane he came toward me
a familiar stranger in the rain
a poet of Aotearoa
he fixed me with the obsidian eye of a leathery tuatara.
His beard was a worn-out broom that had cleared the road to Jerusalem.
The day I heard he died I flew my heart like a flag at half-mast
With no other way to grieve walked suddenly alone and desolate
beneath the Moreton Bay figs of Albert Park.

This is the start of Bob Orr’s poem “Jerusalem”, from his book Calypso. He's one of my favourite poets (I love the mix of somewhat stoned imagery and straight shots of emotion) and people (though I have only talked to him twice), and he came to read this poem at Poetry Central, our Montana Poetry Day event, where this year we were celebrating James K. Baxter with two brand-new books to hand.

John Newton was there with his book The double rainbow, the story of the Jerusalem commune, which he calls Baxter’s undiscovered masterpiece. “Jerusalem was never an alternative to the poetry; it was part of it, its logical destination, even its most vivid accomplishment.“

I find it a remarkable book, not just for how much I learned about people and times still largely unknown to me, but for how John’s driving desire to draw insight from “the vast reservoir of memory” out there is permeated by such absolutely genuine modesty. His one theoretical imperative, he says, is “that I should try to write a book that reads truly to the people represented in it.” And finally, “I hope it’s only a first telling of the story rather than a final one.”

The other book is an almost fit-in-your-pocket volume called James K. Baxter poems selected and introduced by Sam Hunt, another great poetry book from Auckland University Press after Fast talking PI and Mirabile Dictu.  AUP books are always well-designed, but when I found this book on my desk, I picked it up and just sat there with it in my hands, staring at it, running my hands over it, didn’t even get a chance to read it, ended up just stuffing it in my bag and taking it home.

When I did get to reading it the other night, the book kept me up until all hours, reading just one more and just one more, until there were no more to read. I turned off the light and had that same feeling that you get after a long journey with train rides, plane rides, all sorts of rides, vending machines, hard benches, watching someone who reminds you of someone, lots of coffees, magazines, finally you’re home, you take off your clothes with the stain from two cities ago, you climb into bed and close your eyes, but the thoughts keep whirling in your head. Who was that person? How did it go again what she said?

In his very, very good introduction, with its few, choice, simply told stories to laugh and cry about, Sam Hunt says that he picked only the poems which really work, the high-octane, read-aloud ones. The ones he can’t forget. Like this one:

Ferry from Lyttelton (1972)

These bare hills have their own non-human beauty,
A country made for angels, not for men.

And the slow bow wash of the ferry
Covers and uncovers the rocks

At the bottom of the cliffs. Always the feeling comes
That one might leap over the side

And sink in the cold water. Not, I think
A desire to kill oneself

But a longing to go back and rest
In the waters of the womb. So, brother,

Button up your coat against the night breeze
Or come and have some toast and coffee

At the curved bar in swivel chairs
Where the waiter is a friend of a friend of a friend.

James K. Baxter poems selected and introduced by Sam Hunt
The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem commune by John Newton

Calypso by Bob Orr

You can read the complete version of Bob Orr's “Jerusalem” on the AUP website

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


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