James K. Baxter: The selected poems edited by John Weir (Te Herenga Waka University Press, Cold Hub Press, 2023), 332pp, $40; Travels in Eclectia by Andrew M. Bell (Bigger Than Ben Hur Productions, 2020), 332pp, $56; From the Fringe of Heaven: Titirangi Poets edited by Piers Davies, Ron Riddell, Amanda Eason and Gretchen Carroll (Printable Reality, 2022); Famdamily: Meow Gurrrls (The Meow Gurrrls Collective, 2023), 40pp, $15; My Thoughts Are All of Swimming by Rose Collins (Sudden Valley Press, 2022), 100pp, $25; te pāhikahikatanga / incommensurability by Vaughan Rapatahana (Flying Island Books, 2023), 134pp, $10; Marcellus Wallace’s Dirty Laundry by David Beach (David Beach, 2021), 64pp, $25
Poets, in making poems, long to use words so as to explain, to expatiate, to justify and absolve our human predicament. None more so than James K. Baxter, who, as this new Selected Poems attests, remains one of the most able practitioners of poetry that New Zealand has produced. He’s also one of its most articulate and prolific writers, as the ten volumes of his Collected Works: Poems, Prose, Letters, published over the past ten years by Te Herenga Waka University Press and also edited by John Weir, attest (there are other works, such as plays, remaining to be added to this assemblage). In his memoir, Out of the Jaws of Wesley, Peter Olds records Baxter telling him: ‘They’ll etch on my tomb—at last, his mouth is mute.’
What would go on his headstone seemed to preoccupy Baxter a good deal as he entered his forties, as if he anticipated an early death. Though of slight build, he drove himself hard, especially in his last years—‘I have walked barefoot from the tail of the fish to the nose’ (‘He Waiata mo Te Kare’)—going without sleep in order to write or put in another public appearance somewhere while all the time drinking and smoking heavily. He died of a sudden heart attack in Auckland in 1972 at the age of 46. In ‘Jerusalem Sonnets (Poems for Colin Durning)’, Baxter had written:
… Colin about my epitaph,
I suggest these words—‘He was too much troubled
By his own absurdity’—though I’d prefer—Hemi—
And nothing else …
Baxter, scrawny and physically unimpressive, who seems to have regarded his own potent ability to talk as an aphrodisiac, catnip for women, stands these days as a cultural titan condemned in the dock of public opinion by his own confessions: his inability to hold his tongue.
His reputation has been corroded mainly by revelations of his personal faults and failings as revealed in his own diaristic letters, and a negative personality cult has sprung up in the pushback against entitled male chauvinism and priapic masculinity. Baxter has gone from the status of a snow-covered holy mountain to a black sump in the ground, oozing a sulphurous toxic stench.
But even in his lifetime there were numerous Baxter sceptics giving him the side-eye, not just the conventional citizens he excoriated in poems such as ‘Ode to Auckland’, but also fellow scribes, such as Bill Manhire, Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond, who have all written about Baxter’s grandstanding ways and self-dramatising poses.
Baxter came from a family that prized ideas and intellectualism. Growing up in the 1930s, he was early schooled in Jung, Freud, Marx, assorted Christian martyrs and Catholic theologians, as well as the pacifist teachings of Buddha and Gandhi. He was also well-versed in the literary canon, especially the Scottish poets Burns and Byron. In his personal life, he was a scapegrace, battling various personal demons, including alcoholism. He was one part saint to nine parts sinner, and in his poetry deliberated often on whether the world was ‘run by God or the Devil.’ Consciously seeking purgation and martyrdom, he settled for lice and fleas and being the dubious spiritual leader of a troubled hippie commune up the Whanganui River at Hiruharama.
Beyond this, he was a relentless recorder of his life and times, perhaps the most thorough-going one we have of our community: he poked his nose in everywhere, attentive to every level of society.
In James K. Baxter: The selected poems, John Weir’s careful and wise choices, the product of his unparalleled knowledge, constitute a kind of autobiography, with poems that emphasise family connections: his two grandfathers, his great-aunts and great-uncles, his famous father, his intrepid mother, his long-suffering wife, his son, his daughter—and perhaps his muses, slightly mysterious figures whom he addresses in poems. And then there are the poems addressed to select friends, including the poets Peter Olds and Sam Hunt.
Many of Baxter’s attitudes were formed in the years between the First World War and the Second World War, a time of revolutionary movements and mass idealism. Certainly he would have agreed with a British writer of the time Rebecca West, who wrote: ‘Poetry should be burned to the bone by austere fires and washed white with the rains of affliction.’ It is what he himself sought to enact, with a messianic, Christ-like fixation.
In Travels in Eclectia, Ōtautahi Christchurch writer Andrew M. Bell gathers up an eclectic assortment of his short stories, micro-fictions, sketches, vignettes, tall tales and prose-poem exercises produced over several decades, which, taken together, demonstrate a droll, story-telling virtuosity in their twists and turns of perspective. He’s essentially interested in the human comedy as it plays out in New Zealand and Australia. His characters are puppets manifesting various degrees of realism who dance to their master’s tune in a down-under contemporary version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, albeit one broken down into fragments, crumbs and scrappy bits and pieces.
Invariably his figures are caught up in situations of their own making that they cannot control. His people are usually suburban, nursing neuroses: fractious couples disputing extra-marital affairs, or while seeming to conform are secretly scheming—though they will get their comeuppance, their just desserts.
Male issues are at the centre, whether mateship and loyalty, or betrayal, treachery and possessiveness—but all delivered lightly and with a comic tone:
He made espressos and while he searched his pantry for a suitably impressive accompaniment, she slipped a Rohypnol in his espresso … (‘Happy Valentine’)
Middle-class aspirations are teased and status-symbol seeking is sardonically portrayed, while plain-speaking and honest self-awareness are prized. What holds it all together is a kind of cartoonish speed of delivery, so that no story outstays its welcome or, indeed, settles into tedious mansplaining. As Song of Shakespeare’s Sister, a sketch about creative writing puts it: ‘We’re the Narrative Police … I’m Sergeant Subjectivity and this my right-hand person Polly Semic … It starts off innocently enough … Next thing it’s passive consumption, homogeneity … and before you know it the whole thing’s leading up to a particularly nasty bit of phallocentric closure!’
From the Fringe of Heaven: Titirangi Poets presents a selection of poems from twelve e-zines published during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020 and 2021, when writers were unable to meet in person at the regular meetings held in the Titirangi Library and when Aotearoa New Zealand itself became one big Quarantine Island. There are poems here by around 60 poets, most of whom have some strong connection with West Auckland. Inevitably, during Lockdown, the ordinary was amplified, made more intense, during the quiet waiting. From such a diverse set of responses to the conditions, it’s difficult to single out particular poems, but I found Michael Morrissey’s ‘Making Breakfast—a love poem’, written during Level Three in April 2020, held a particular electric charge:
Through the thin wall I hear my wife chopping fruit
as rhythmically as the piston on the steam ferry
each sound has its own precision,
delicate but unwavering
surgical as a lobotomist’s knife
her kitchen blade slices apple
cuts through pineapple
deals painless death to passionfruit
a banana stands no chance
it may sound like fruit is being cut
but really it’s the sound of love.
Likewise good at suggesting isolation, anxiety and nervous expectancy is Richard von Sturmer’s poem about gazing up at the moon, ‘One Bright Pearl’, written in June 2020:
We who are also chipped and scratched, worn and grooved. We swim in the moonlight. We close our eyes and float on the surface of the one bright pearl.
Famdamily: Meow Gurrrls is the second zine anthology produced by this Wellington and Kapiti Coast Collective, who take their name from Meow Cafe in downtown Wellington, where they regularly meet. These are, as the zine’s title suggests, domestic and confessional poems about family ties. One looks to these poems for bounce, snap and exuberance and sometimes finds it, as when Janis Freegard writes:
there is no finer tail
than a palm frond
there is no better beak
than a carved beak
there is no stronger tree
than a pūriri tree
there is no stranger place
than a family
(‘Family Life, Pūriri Drive’)
More often, there is ruefulness, an acknowledgement of time passing—and as John Burnside has written poetry is the music of time. In ‘Bikinis plural’, Mary Jane Duffy notes:
The bikinis get small every year and now
I sound like my mother when it’s not that long
ago when I loved a bikini, with its feeling
of never-ending youth …
Other poems celebrate the succour support and solidarity of family, even as one member slips away, as in Abra Sandi King’s ‘Goodbye Nana’:
I was hoping for Nana.
It’s obvious she’s gone but
here is her long hair,
the brown eyes like mine, her face
weary with the work of leaving.
My Thoughts Are All of Swimming by Rose Collins won the John O’Connor Award for Poetry in 2022. It was the debut collection of this poet who died in May 2023, after a long illness. A mother as well as a writer, and a sometime human rights lawyer and beekeeper, Rose Collins lived in Te Wakaraupō Lyttelton, having travelled widely. All these elements contribute to a rich collection, to crafted poems able to convey the touch, feel and sensuousness of things, as well as their provisionality. The poem sequence ‘Te Wakaraupō’ hymns the caldera of Banks Peninsula, its geology:
I am a basin sewn with iron thread
a dish of rusted metamorphic rock
the thumb press of ancient eruptions
like you, I bide my time
Discovery, exploration of tracings and trails of a terrain’s idiosyncrasies: Collins is able to personify a landscape and also move about it like a surveyor offering metaphorical interpretations of natural forces.
In poem after poem, the language, though gentle, is energised to the fullest extent, bringing to mind Emily Dickinson’s statement: When I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
In ‘Telling the Bees’ the slowness of the poetry, the way it gradually makes its meaning plain by soaking into the mind is exemplary in its reigned-in control, its finality:
as I must do
sitting on the grass by the grapevine
close enough to shake off powder in the darkness
or shed layers in the brood box
before banging past the guard bees and
into the light
There’s something I need to say to you.
Decolonising the rhetoric industries of Aotearoa has become a life-long task for poetry activist Vaughan Rapatahana. The title of his small book collection te pāhikahikatanga / incommensurability refers to the gaps in meaning between languages and questions the bridges of understanding we might build over these gaps, the translations between one language and another, one set of cultural expectations and another. The poems in the book are presented in te reo Māori with English translations on the facing page. Rapatahana envisages each poem in the original Māori, his first language, as an artefact, perhaps a kind of carving. How then might we match one artefact with the other, which brings the reader around to the notion that poetry is that which is lost in translation, or at least that which struggles to be found.
His poems are the testament of a post-colonial wanderer and they move between the bicultural and bilingual context of globalisation. His poems are freighted with combustible emotions, mingling angst and comedy and scepticism in at times fiery and haunting combinations.
Rapatahana argues in his Introduction that: ‘the English language is crammed full of the subject matter and cultural customs of the land of Britain. The words of that language are inappropriate.’ These poems are confessional: they mention the ‘schisms’ of his ‘broken family, who are now te ngare o te korua—the kith and kin of an old man.
And in ‘e hapawauki!’, or ‘hey jabberwocky!’, bemused, he positions the English language as gobbledygook, a form of nonsense, as established by the arch-Victorian Lewis Carroll:
what are you?
there’s no words in my language
to describe you …
Here, the English language is seen as a process of shackling, of imprisoning first language imagery: for every indigenous language has its own weird creatures, its own taniwha or manaia, described in the original tongue. Rapatahana’s spare, even stark, poems twist and turn with agility in search of solutions to the conundrums and legacies of colonialism.
David Beach is the poet as conceptualist and formalist, writing what he calls ‘an impersonal poetry’: that is, poems that question, address, or challenge what a poem is supposed to be. Can it be made out of found materials? In his seventh book of sonnets, he presents an interconnected poem-essay sequence of 60 ‘sonnets’, titled Marcellus Wallace’s Dirty Laundry. The whole sequence riffs off the 1994 crime movie Pulp Fiction, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, and set in Los Angeles, California.
A Wellington poet who won the 2008 Prize in Modern Letters for an Emerging Writer for his first book of sonnets, Abandoned Novel, Beach writes poems that are nuanced and cogent within their own terms but also deliberately puzzling unless you know the references. This set of ‘sonnets’ is about a briefcase, possibly containing just dirty laundry, stolen from mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), which Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) have set out to retrieve.
Beach has been a film reviewer, and has also said writing capsule movie reviews has influenced his approach to the writing of poems: not for him the writing of confessional verse, though his poem commentaries may contain oblique personal references. Meanwhile he has fun with the McGuffin.
Poems whose shapes reflect their subject are known as shape poems, or calligrams, or concrete poems. The blocky form of the sonnet, its regular lines, allows Beach to drag in references to screens, with the briefcase as a screen-shaped object, along with other ‘sly jests’ about time travel, based on Tarantino’s celebrated if eccentric editing techniques.
Ultimately all these references feel a bit overdone or dated, possibly only of interest to fellow cineastes. The main difficulty is the sequence is locked in to Tarantino’s rather macho and shallow screenplay whose virtues are almost all visual. The result is a confection that seems as dusty as a dry box of popcorn. The postmodernist always rings twice, they say, but film noir in-jokes are an acquired taste. Here, the spiky humour is underlined by the cover with its blood splatter, bullet holes and futuristic clock. Sonnet 53 states: ‘The film’s two gangster protagonists are very much / part of a flattened cartoon world …’ Indeed. The final impression is of a poet peddling furiously but going nowhere.
DAVID EGGLETON is a poet and writer based in Ōtepoti Dunedin.