JAMES K. BAXTER was born
in Dunedin in 1926 and died in Auckland in 1972. Probably New Zealands
best-known poet, he was also one of its most prolific. Published in
1980, his Collected Poems is a hefty tome, but it represents
only about half of his output. New poems keep coming to
light. Baxter published his first collection, Beyond the Palisade,
when he was 18 and the torrent of verse was continual thereafter.
His talent was universally acknowledged from the start, but his fearless
social criticism rankled with many, especially in his last years when
he parted company with his wife and children to set up a commune at
Jerusalem on the Wanganui River. The standard biography is Frank McKays
Life of James K. Baxter (1990), but Paul Millars 2001
book Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K. Baxters Correspondence
with Noel Ginn 1942-1946 adds much fresh material.
Paul Millar writes: A
Pair of Sandals was one of two wallpaper poems written
by James K. Baxter in large, clear printing on a wall at the home
of the painter Michael Illingworth and his wife Dene. In 1973 the
Illingworths removed the sections of wallpaper containing the poems
and sent them to the Hocken Library to be lodged among Baxters
other papers. Its likely that A Pair of Sandals
was written no more than six days before Baxters death. Its
contents, and the context of its production, make a strong case for
it being perhaps the very last poem he ever wrote.
Baxter had arrived
at the Illingworths Puhoi home on Monday 16th October 1972,
remaining with them until Thursday 19th October. On the morning of
his departure he wrote his final published poem Ode to Auckland
at their dining table. Three days later, on Sunday 22nd, he lay dead
in the Auckland home of strangers, killed by a major coronary thrombosis
at the age of 46. Anecdotal evidence from those who met Baxter in
these final weeks makes it clear he knew he was dying. When he had
abandoned his Jerusalem commune two months earlier it was with no
clear destination in mind. Instead he moved erratically around the
upper North Island, apparently overwhelmed by self-doubt and a sense
of mortality, and desperate for love and companionship. In this respect
A Pair of Sandals captures the essence of that period.
It is a poem taking leave of dear friends in which the destination,
while unknowable, anticipates a meeting with the poets ghosts,
and with Te Atua his Christ.
Pair of Sandals is also much more than a simple leave taking.
Te Whiori O Te Kuri the final poem sequence in
Baxters last book, Autumn Testament concludes:
A mans body is a meeting house, / Ribs, arms, for the
tribe to gather under, / And the heart must be their spring of water.
The metaphor of his body as a meeting house for the tribe of Nga Mokai,
the fatherless ones, was one that Baxter used on a number of occasions.
But A Pair of Sandals represents the final stage in the
metaphors evolution, a stage that leads to a vital synthesis
with another of Baxters key symbolic concepts. Baxter, the empty
meeting house, has been gutted by his communes failure. Spiritually
and emotionally he has become a hollow man, an empty meeting house.
Yet what should
be a defeat becomes a triumph because in Baxters poetry the
hollow place stands at the symbolic center of a lifetime of writing.
Cave, tomb, gap, void, Wahi Ngaro the list is long, but the
symbolism is consistent in identifying such apparently empty, lifeless
spaces as paradoxically generative places where poems grow. So in
this poem Baxter the hollow man, the empty meeting house, has become
one with the source of his inspiration, the gap where poems grow.
To take this a step further, the life has become the source of poetic
inspiration, but not through good works or by committing words to
paper, but literally by becoming Hemi te Tutua Jim the Nobody.
And this is where
the poem becomes most significant, because the poetic victory brings
with it a spiritual triumph. Baxter arrives at that mysterious place
where poems come from, only to find Christ there waiting for him.
In much theology only the true penitent, the man who has admitted
failure and hollowed himself before God, is ready to receive Gods
grace, that free and unmerited favour. Thus the poem predicts that
Baxter, like the dying thief on the cross, stripped naked and vilified
before society, and with nothing to offer but belief, is ready to
join his Christ in paradise. This brief verse, perhaps the last thing
Baxter ever wrote, and left only on a friends wall, suggests
that in his final few days Baxter had achieved some type of artistic
and spiritual closure.