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Sport 11: Spring 1993

End of the River

page 155

End of the River

His hair is illuminated as though the sun has just hit it. Standing at the riverbend, he adjusts a small, complex machine on a tripod. It could be a camera, except there seem to be too many cables, too many tubes through which substances flow on their way, perhaps, to becoming other substances. No one in the settlement above the river notices the figure adjusting the mechanism. Nobody cares to investigate. They are all inside their houses, at home with the multiple images that line their rooms, and the strange, other-worldly receptions on their television screens—a quirk of transmission in this isolated river valley. The television is just one ornament among many in their houses, the colour turned up, just like the colours all around. The riverside mechanism records influences; it records sounds and images, the surfaces of life, where one form of life reaches out to touch another. There is the rolling sound of the river rocking the valley. And a lawnmower left running on a level Weld. The substances inside the mechanism move slowly, thoughtfully, through their avenues and arteries, slipping from region to region of this machine which is, in fact, the genius of New Zealand poetry itself.


There have been more profound thinkers, social critics, theologians—but when the dust has settled, Baxter’s poems will stand the test of time, uncommonly certain of themselves, yet still swaggering with the weight of the Great Man upon them.

If there is one quality the poems embody more than anything else it is what the Chinese refer to as genius —‘the rhythmical vitality of life’. That’s exactly what can be found throughout Baxter’s work, his collected poems reading like an enormously alive and alert autobiography.

Thinking of Baxter, the view from 1993, I’m left with two impressions. The first is of Baxter as the central motif in Elizabeth Nannestad’s poem:

stone figure

Some medieval
simple soul in stone
holds the church roof . . .
page 156 the blackbirds of panic seize upon you
year after year
and build their rickety
shit-streaked nests in your hair.
You’re gripped by their scrag.
You stay there.

When embarking on this journal, I decided not to refer to—or reread—any of Baxter’s writings (with the exception of two books I happened upon in second hand bookshops while engaged on the project—the tiny tract A walking stick for the blind man and the picture book New Zealand in Colour). I wanted to excavate the residue of ‘Baxter’ inside myself, to find out exactly what was still there and how persuasive it was. Of course I did a fair amount of digging around elsewhere in the New Zealand poetry shelves, concentrating on the most recent ‘generation’, the poets who emerged in the 1980s.

Without defining Baxter or his influence, these notes might at least have registered some traces, certain avenues down which more systematic and rigorous investigations could proceed.

Again I recall the bus approaching Wellsford and my wondering at the time—nearly a decade after the poet’s death—how anyone in New Zealand could write poetry without first dislodging the great weight of Baxter’s achievement from them—what then seemed to me an impossible task. My memory continues back another decade to an encounter which is the second, and final, impression I am left with: that Baxter hangs around New Zealand poetry today much the same way he used to hang around Auckland’s Vulcan Lane—cross-legged on the footpath, a girl not far off. Which was how I first saw him, c.1971, as a young boy heading for Whitcombe and Tombs to buy a magazine called something like The World At War.

January�August 1993