The Communist Speaks
Do not imagine I could not have lived
For wine, love or poetry,
Like the rich in their high houses
Walking on terraces above the sea.
But my heart was caught in a net
Woven out of strands of iron
By the bleak one, the thin one, the basket-ribbed
Coolie and rickshaw boy
Who has not learnt the songs that ladies like,
Whose drink is rusty water,
Whose cheek must rest on a dirty stone,
In whose hands lie the cities of the future.
©James K Baxter Runes Oxford University Press, 1973.
(Poem copyright the estate of James K. Baxter, used with permission.)
When Paula invited me to contribute my thoughts for her Summer Season: Poets on Poems, I knew pretty quickly it would be something from James K. Baxter. He was a huge influence on me in the early 70s and I leaned on what I learned from him for years. A year after he died, in 1973, Oxford University Press published his last collection Runes and I got to know my copy pretty well. Of course, I also had Jerusalem Sonnets, Autumn Testament, Jerusalem Daybook and Ode to Auckland, all read and re-read intensively – but somehow, the poems in Runes got under my skin.
Baxter could make personal vatic utterances in the middle of a poem that stuck with you, his philosophical bent dropping them into a flowing sequence about his father, or his daughter, or a night in some bush hut up the tops. These late poems were all pre-Jerusalem, before abandoning his family and suburbia, heading to Jerusalem; they were all South Island poems, too.
The one I thought I wanted to write about was the book’s last, ‘Letter From The Mountain’, closed off by the unforgettable line, “My door has forgotten how to shut”. It seems now a precursor poem to the Franciscan poverty verse of his Wanganui River sojourn amongst Ngā Mokai, The Fatherless. It still carried echoes; now curious, I went back and read the whole book. It was like visiting an old town where I’d grown up, or time travelling into a world that has disappeared, and my self, being long since changed, unable to quite belong.
Then I came to ‘The Communist Speaks’, a poem that also had haunted me, harking back to the time he spent in India with his family on a UNESCO Grant in 1959. Jacqui Sturm has since spoken on record about how this experience upended a man already on the margins; how the extreme poverty of those he saw unhinged his sense of who he was, and led ultimately to his rejection of the middle-class Kiwi lifestyle he’d always been wary of and critical towards.
It’s a simple, declarative poem of three short stanzas, more of a song, an incantation than any of the others in the collection, standing in bleak relief to the libidinous salvos that open the book: the love, lust and losing poems of Words To Lay A Strong Ghost. Who could forget the image of Egnatius (a nom de plume), “…the ugliest South Island con man…who cleans his teeth with AJAX” (The Party).
In ‘The Communist Speaks’, however, Baxter was laying out a road map for his own future, whether or not he quite knew it at the time – as well a laying down a wero, a challenge to us, his inheritors. This is a poem about inequality, about desperate poverty, of “the basket-ribbed/Coolie and the rickshaw boy/…/In whose hands lie the cities of the future”.
It is a poem that speaks to me afresh in a country where families sleep in cars and investors buy the houses beyond the reach of the poor who cannot afford them, then make a living off these less fortunate backs through charging high rents, taking money for food and other necessities off the table of the tenants – and their children. This is South Auckland today: Baxter may be dead but in a poem like this, he lives on.
Jeffery Paparoa Holman
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman has worked as a sheep shearer, psychiatric social worker, postman and bookseller. He is now a senior adjunct fellow in the University of Canterbury. He has published memoir, non-fiction and several collections of poetry. In 2014-15, he studied in Berlin on a Goethe-Institut scholarship, researching a family history project. His next collection, Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963-2016 (Canterbury University Press) is due in February. Dylan Junkie, fanboy poems for His Bobness (Mākaro Press, Hoopla series) will appear in April.