Story: Baxter, James Keir

Baxter reading poems

Hear James K. Baxter read nine of his poems, written between the 1940s and early 1970s. Click on the links below to read transcripts of each poem.

High country weather

Alone we are born
And die alone;

Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:

Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 24)

To my father

Today, looking at the flowering peach,
The island off the shore and waves that break
Quiet upon the rocks and level beach –
We must join forces, you and I, remake
The harbour silted and the city bombed
And all our hopes that lie now fire-entombed.

Your country childhood helped to make you strong,
Ploughing at twelve. I only know the man.
While I grew up more sheltered and too long
In love with my disease; though illness can
Impart by dint of pain a different kind
Of toughness to the predatory mind.

There is a feud between us. I have loved
You more than my own good, because you stand
For country pride and gentleness, engraved
In forehead lines, veins swollen on the hand;
Also, behind slow speech and quiet eye
The rock of passionate integrity.

You were a poet whom the time betrayed
To action. So, as Jewish Solomon
Prayed for wisdom, you had prayed
That you might have a poet for a son.
The prayer was answered; but an answer may
Confound by its exactness those who pray.

Finding no fault in you, I have been tempted
To stay your child. But that which broke
(Nature) the navel-cord, has not exempted
Even your light and sympathetic yoke.
It is in me your own true mettle shows;
Nor can we thus be friends till we are foes.

This you know well, but it will bear repeating –
Almost you are at times a second self;
Almost at times I feel your heart beating
In my own breast as if there were no gulf
To sever us. And you have seemed then rather
An out-of-time twin brother than a father.

So much is true; yet I have seen the time
When I would cut the past out, like a cancer,
Which now I must digest in awkward rhyme
Until I move ‘in measure like a dancer’.
To know an age where all our loves have scope:
It is too much for any man to hope.

You, tickling trout once in a water-race;
You, playing cards, not caring if you lost;
You, shooting hares high on the mountain face;
You, showing me the ferns that grow from frost;
You, quoting Burns and Byron while I listened;
You, breaking quartz until the mica glistened.

These I remember, with the wind that blows
Forever pure down from the tussock ranges;
And these remain, like the everlasting snows,
Changeless in me while my life changes;
These, and a thousand things that prove
You rooted like a tree in the land’s love.

I shall compare you to the bended bow,
Myself the arrow launched upon the hollow
Resounding air. And I must go
In time, my friend, to where you cannot follow.
It is not love would hope to keep me young,
The arrow rusted and the bow unstrung.

We have one aim: to set men free
From fear and custom and the incessant war
Of self with self and city against city –
So they may know the peace that they were born for
And find the earth sufficient, who instead
For fruit give scorpions and stones for bread.

And I sit now beside the wishing-well
And drop my silver down. I will have sons
And you grandchildren yet to tell
Old tales despite the anger of the guns:
Leisure to stroll and see Him unafraid
Who walked with Adam once in the green shade.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 65–66)

Rocket show

As warm north rain breaks over suburb houses,
Streaming on window glass, its drifting hazes
Covering harbour ranges with a dense hood:
I recall how eighteen months ago I stood
Ankle-deep in sand on an Otago beach
Watching the fireworks flare over strident surf and bach,
In brain grey ash, in heart the sea-change flowing
Of one love dying and another growing.

For love grows like the crocus bulb in winter
Hiding from snow and from itself the tender
Green frond in embryo; but dies as rockets die
(White sparks of pain against a steel-dark sky)
With firebird wings trailing an arc of grief
Across a night inhuman as the grave,
Falling at length a dull and smouldering shell
To frozen dunes and the wash of the quenching swell.

There was little room left where the crowd had trampled
Grass and lupin bare, under the pines that trembled
In gusts from the sea. On a sandhillock I chose
A place to watch from. Then the rockets rose,
O marvellous, like self-destroying flowers
On slender stems, with seed-pods full of flares,
Raining down amber, scarlet, pennies from heaven
On the skyward straining heads and still sea-haven.
Had they brought death, we would have stood the same,
I think, in ecstasy at the world-end flame.

It is the rain streaming reminds me of
Those ardent showers, cathartic love and grief.
As I walked home through the cold streets by moonlight,
My steps ringing in the October night,
I thought of our strange lives, the grinding cycle
Of death and renewal come to full circle,
And of man’s heart, that blind Rosetta stone,
Mad as the polar moon, decipherable by none.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 81)

Poem in the Matukituki Valley

Some few yards from the hut the standing beeches
Let fall their dead limbs, overgrown
With feathered moss and filigree of bracken.
The rotted wood splits clean and hard
Close-grained to the driven axe, with sound of water
Sibilant falling and high nested birds.

In winter blind with snow; but in full summer
The forest blanket sheds its cloudy pollen
And cloaks a range in undevouring fire.
Remote the land’s heart. Though the wild scrub cattle
Acclimatized, may learn
Shreds of her purpose, or the taloned kea.

For those who come as I do, half-aware,
Wading the swollen
Matukituki waist-high in snow water,
And stumbling where the mountains throw their dice
Of boulders huge as houses, or the smoking
Cataract flings its arrows on our path –

For us the land is matrix and destroyer,
Resentful, darkly known
By sunset omens, low words heard in branches;
Or where the red deer lift their innocent heads
Snuffing the wind for danger,
And from our footfall’s menace bound in terror.

Three emblems of the heart I carry folded
As charms against flood water, sliding shale:
Pale gentian, lily, and bush orchid.
The peaks too have names to suit their whiteness,
Stargazer and Moonraker,
A sailor’s language and a mountaineer’s.

And those who sleep in close bags fitfully
Besieged by wind in a snowline bivouac –
The carrion parrot with red underwing
Clangs on the roof by night, and daybreak brings
Raincloud on purple ranges, light reflected
Stainless from crumbling glacier, dazzling snow,

Do they not, clay in that unearthly furnace,
Endure the hermit’s peace
And mindless ecstasy? Blue-lipped crevasse
And smooth rock chimney straddling – a communion
With what eludes our net – Leviathan
Stirring to ocean birth our inland waters?

Sky’s purity; the altar cloth of snow
On deathly summits laid; or avalanche
That shakes the rough moraine with giant laughter;
Snowplume and whirlwind – what are these
But His flawed mirror who gave the mountain strength
And dwells in holy calm, undying freshness?

Therefore we turn, hiding our souls’ dullness
From that too blinding glass: turn to the gentle
Dark of the human daydream, child and wife,
Patience of stone and soil, the lawful city
Where man may live, and no wild trespass
Of what’s eternal shake his grave of time.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 86–87)

Lament for Barney Flanagan
Licensee of the Hesperus Hotel

Flanagan got up on a Saturday morning,
Pulled on his pants while the coffee was warming;
He didn’t remember the doctor’ s warning,
‘Your heart’s too big, Mr Flanagan.’

Barney Flanagan, sprung like a frog
From a wet root in an Irish bog –
May his soul escape from the tooth of the dog!
God have mercy on Flanagan.

Barney Flanagan R.I.P.
Rode to his grave on Hennessy’s
Like a bottle-cork boat in the Irish Sea.
The bell-boy rings for Flanagan.

Barney Flanagan, ripe for a coffin,
Eighteen stone and brandy-rotten,
Patted the housemaid’s velvet bottom –
‘Oh, is it you, Mr Flanagan?’

The sky was bright as a new milk token.
Bill the Bookie and Shells hock Hogan
Waited outside for the pub to open -
'Good day, Mr Flanagan.'

At noon he was drinking in the lounge bar corner
With a sergeant of police and a racehorse owner
When the Angel of Death looked over his shoulder –
‘Could you spare a moment, Flanagan?’

Oh the deck was cut; the bets were laid;
But the very last card that Barney played
Was the Deadman’s Trump, the bullet of Spades –
‘Would you like more air, Mr Flanagan?’

The priest came running but the priest came late
For Barney was banging at the Pearly Gate.
St Peter said, ‘Quiet! You’ll have to wait
For a hundred masses, Flanagan.’

The regular boys and the loud accountants
Left their nips and their seven-ounces
As chickens fly when the buzzard pounces –
‘Have you heard about old Flanagan?’

Cold in the parlour Flanagan lay
Like a bride at the end of her marriage day.
The Waterside Workers’ Band will play
A brass goodbye to Flanagan.

While publicans drink their profits still
While lawyers flock to be in at the kill,
While Aussie barmen milk the till
We will remember Flanagan.

For Barney had a send-off and no mistake.
He died like a man for his country’s sake;
And the Governor-General came to his wake.
Drink again to Flanagan!

Despise not, O Lord, the work of Thine own hands
And let light perpetual shine upon him.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 136–137)

The ballad of Grady’s dream

One clink black night in June
Concrete Grady sat
Between the knees of the pines
With Old Jack Flynn his mate,

And through the harbour fog
The guts of Wellington
Glowed like a great morgue
Where even the cops had gone.

‘I had a dream,’ said Grady –
Flynn said, ‘Stuff your dream!
I’d give my ballocks now
For a bucket of steam.’

‘I had a dream,’ said Grady,
When I slept in Mulligan’s woodyard
Under a wad of roofing iron;
I was a white bird,

‘And then a gale caught me
And threw me north;
There was nothing left standing
On the bare-arsed earth,

‘And I thought of the time in Crete
When we jammed the Bren gun
And the paratroops came over
Like washing on a line,

‘And you’ll remember, Jack,
Because you were there,
We shot twelve prisoners
In Imvros village square;

‘Because the wind blew me
To the door of a stone barn,
And the Nazi lads were sitting
At a table playing cards –

‘Sergeant, come in, they said,
We’ve kept you a place
And when they turned I saw
The red-hot bone in each one’s face,

‘So I let the wind carry
Me out past Kapiti
In the belly of the storm above
A thousand miles of sea,

‘Till I came to a blind cliff
That got no sun,
Deep as the cunning of Hell
And high as the trouble of man.

‘There was one gap in it
Where only a bird could fly;
I said the Hail Mary
And threaded the needle’s eye,

‘And there in a green garden
I saw the Tramways Band
And a crowd of people walking
With flagons in their hands,

‘And on a bullock wagon
The Host Itself with seven nuns,
And one of them had the face
Of Rose O’Rourke when she was young.

‘You’ve struck it there,’ said Flynn,
‘She’d be a bit of all right;
But I’d give old Rose the go-by
For a bottle of steam tonight.’

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 239–240)

To a print of Queen Victoria

I advise rest; the farmhouse
we dug you up in has been
modernized, and the people
who hung you as their ikon
against the long passage wall
are underground – Incubus

and excellent woman, we
inherit the bone acre
of your cages and laws. This
dull green land suckled at your
blood’s frigor Anglicanus,
crowning with a housewife’s tally

the void of Empire, does not
remember you – and certain
bloody bandaged ghosts rising
from holes of Armageddon
at Gallipoli or Sling
Camp, would like to fire a shot

through the gilt frame. I advise
rest, Madam; and yet the tomb
holds much that we must travel
barely without. Your print – ‘from
an original pencil
drawing by the Marchioness

‘of Granby, March, eighteen ninety
seven ...’ Little mouth, strong
nose and hooded eye – they speak
of half-truths my type have slung
out of the window, and lack
and feel the lack too late. Queen,

you stand most for the time of
early light, clay roads, great trees
unfelled, and the smoke from huts
where girls in sack dresses
stole butter ... The small rain spits
today. You smile in your grave.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 316–317)

[Oh early in the morning]

Oh early in the morning
I wake up in Firetrap Castle
Where the rats run free and the grots are smashed
And the leaves grow thick at the window,

And first I light myself a smoke
With a mouth like old leather,
Then I put on my strides and a belt and a coat
To hold myself together,

And I go down to the Courtroom
To watch old Gabguts there
Riding with an iron saddle
On the backs of the poor,

For the fate of a boobhead is
That men do him bind
And plant him in the digger
Till he goes out of his mind,

And if you want to know more about it
Go and ask my friends
At the Duke or the George or the Bistro,
For the story never ends,

And the rich men pay the fuzz
And the fuzz arrest the poor,
And it’s nothing new I’m saying to you,
It’s all been said before,

And if you come by Firetrap Castle
Pay us a visit there,
But mind your head on the golden chandeliers
And watch out for the loose boards on the stairs.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 526)

The Problem of Keeping Dogs

1
Cold feet, sore teeth , a stupid mind,
The misery gets inside us

Like the grubs that tunnel in wood – easy enough to say
Down at the church with five others,

‘Clouds and showers, bless the Lord’ –
But even the dogs hunch their backs and grumble,

Waiting for the hydatids inspector
To come and say, ‘Dog, for being a dog

‘I’m going to shoot you!’ That feels better;
I needed to laugh a bit –

Laughter is therapy
Against God’s enmity,

The One we imagine, the homicidal Father
Who wants to see us tidy, tucked up and lobotomized!

2

It’s no good my raving on about it;
The dogs amble into the wharepuni,

Rastus, Trash, Rooter, and the ones who have no names,
Lollop on the beds, drop shit on the veranda,

Shove their noses into the flourbag – well, I don’t like fleas,
And I shout at them, boot their arses,

And meet the astonished eyes of twenty-five dog-lovers
Saying, ‘What’s wrong with you, Hemi?’

I’m not St Francis; I don’t want. to run a dog farm;
I plot against the lives of our animal companions –

Last night I heaved a rock at a cat
That climbed through the broken boards in the cottage,

And shame sits on my back – even to raise my head
To the winter stars, is to hear them saying, ‘What’s wrong with you, Hemi?’

3

Brother Wolf, you will have to accept my apology;
Manwolf I am, as Hopkins put it –

My hair bristles, I have forgotten how to speak,
I wanted to shoot the cop who planted Hoani in clink

On a dud charge – and when my fellow Catholics complain
About the lack of an electric fence

Down the middle of the commune, separating
He-bodies from she-bodies, and me patrolling it

With a loaded shotgun – yes, I do my bun
Inwardly, inwardly! The ugliest sheep-worrier

Is kind compared to me – Pray for me, Brother Wolf,
In your excellent soutane that the Maker gave you,

And if you howl at the stars, man, so do I –
You are warmblooded – Come to my mattress – I accept your fleas!

4

Lorraine has cooked a full pot of porridge
And the sleepers begin to wake in their blanketed bunks

Like air raid shelters – so many faces,
And the soul alive in each, that unknown quantity

I stake my life on – after the bombed-out night
Te Ra is hoisting up grey tons of river fog –

Birds and cats tread the mud, the bell in the steeple
Is clanging me to Mass – Do you think I should pray

For life or death, brother? Neither. One can only offer
Shit, fleas, wet, cold, birds, dogs, pain, love,

Along with the white disc Father Te Awhitu raises,
And share a cigarette on the steps outside,

Warming one’s legs in the sun – When the old kumara
Stops fighting the frozen soil, he does get a blessing.

(Baxter. Collected poems of James K. Baxter. Ed. J. Weir: 502–504)

Using this item

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
Reference: 25117: High country weather. 23661: To my father, Rocket show, Ballad of Grady’s dream. 22986: Poem in the Matukituki Valley. 1009: Lament for Barney Flanagan. 253761: To a print of Queen Victoria. 46936: [Oh early in the morning]. 204968: The problem of keeping dogs.

This item has been provided for private study purposes (such as school projects, family and local history research) and any published reproduction (print or electronic) may infringe copyright law. It is the responsibility of the user of any material to obtain clearance from the copyright holder.

Text: Reproduced courtesy of the estate of James K. Baxter
Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-0024, photographer Clifton Firth

How to cite this page:

Paul Millar. 'Baxter, James Keir', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated February, 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5b14/baxter-james-keir (accessed 20 May 2024)