Friday, December 7, 2012

I Wish I'd Written This


The River
By James K. Baxter (1926-1972)

My brother started the boat engine
Tugging on a cord and I steered

Upriver with the tide behind us
Close to the outlet of the gorge:

No problem, except when somebody's
Plastic leggings, floating under water,

Twisted round the propellor. That same afternoon,
Lying down flat after lunch, I heard

The river water slapping, and thought about
Three buried selves: child, adolescent,

The young unhappy married man
Who would have hated this place—ah well,

Space is what I love! The three selves dance
In the great eddy below the Taieri bridge,

And I am glad to leave them, sprinkling water
Over the embers that heated the Thermette,

Having at last interpreted the speech
Of the river—'Does it matter? Does it matter?'—

And carrying like salt and fresh inside me
The opposing currents of my life and death.


Well, the gender's wrong for me to have written it, but that only matters in verse six. I grew up by a river, one with a gorge, and spent a fair bit of my youth messing about in boats. It wasn't a tidal river; I lived by one like that much more recently. In fact most of my life has been spent by one river or another. 

Widely regarded as New Zealand's greatest poet, Baxter is a legendary figure. He started writing in childhood and achieved recognition early. In the introduction to his New Selected Poems (2001) his editor, Paul Millar, says: 'His various manifestations — pacifist, poet, alcoholic, Catholic, commune leader, to name a few — elicited strong reactions, attracting devotees and provoking antagonists.' Millar also describes how Baxter, a pakeha (white) experienced 'a steadily intensifying identification, over a number of years, with Maori culture, tradition, and spirituality.' 

More details of his life and his poetics are here. I first fell in love with his work years ago, via a NZ friend's copy of his Collected Poems. You can buy a new edition of that here. Though he was a prolific poet, I can't find much online, but have a look here and here.



Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).

19 comments:

  1. Thanks, Rosemary. I LOVE the poem, the four closing lines are brilliant. And I love his story and that he grew in awareness to identification with the Maori. Sounds like my kind of poet! Thanks for bringing us these great poets week after week. You rock!

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  2. It gets better each time I read it. Thanks for selecting and sharing this.

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  3. Another fantastic share.
    Thank you Rosemary!

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  4. This is a great piece---and it feels timeless

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    1. Yes. Perhaps that is one of the marks of greatness.

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  5. This was a wonderful share, Rosemary. I love thinking about the three separate selves! Rings so true; plus it was interesting to learn about New Zealand's #1 poet.

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  6. thanks for sharing this writer and the accompanying links . fascinating stuff :-)

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  7. As I read that poem I had pictures of valleys in New Zealand and so it was wonderful to see that he was a new Zealander, I will certainly be looking for more of his work, thanks

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  8. That's interesting, Emma. (I haven't been there yet.)

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  9. As a New Zealander I did a double take when I saw this! Years ago I went on a pilgrimage in my blue van, up along the muddy banks of the Whanganui river to Jerusalem (yes a little settlement called Jerusalem, in the North Island) where Baxter is buried. I carried his collected works with me and visited his grave.

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  10. Thank you for sharing this poet. He is complex. I keep reading him over and over again. He is shocking. He is visual and auditory. I could see rivers and hear them. I have heard from a few global travelers that New Zealand is the most beautiful place in the world.

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    1. As someone that lives here I can say it is beautiful, there are many, many beautiful places in the world though. New Zealand is small and is reasonably unique in its diversity of scenery. I live at a beach, but within an hour and a quarter you can be in snow capped alps. There are hot pools and volcanoes , rainforests and islands all within small spaces. Baxter is our most famous poet, and our best (the two don't always coincide!)

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  11. Thank you for sharing this poet. He is complex. I keep reading him over and over again. He is shocking. He is visual and auditory. I could see rivers and hear them. I have heard from a few global travelers that New Zealand is the most beautiful place in the world.

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  12. An awesome piece! I love that ending, too!!

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