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).