Friday, September 2, 2016

Spirituality and James K. Baxter: a poetry of kenosis

I am grateful to the community of St Luke, Christchurch, for the invitation to participate in their 'Voices of Aotearoa' and to reflect on the arts and spirituality.  I have simply (and maybe stubbornly) worked only from the poetry whereas others will know that most of Baxter's spirituality flowed through his prose and his social action.  With that thought I am keenly aware that this is an exciting time for Baxter scholarship with a much larger new collected poems in waiting; his letters also in the wings; similarly collected plays; and the superb four volume Complete Prose recently released.

The Spirituality of James K. Baxter: his Poetry of Kenosis


It is a privilege to be invited to talk about James K. Baxter in this series on Spirituality and the Arts.   Of the deep connection between the arts and spirituality I have no doubt; I think they have a common source in that deep wiring of the human that theologians may describe as the imago dei.  Yet artists often regard the religious with suspicion, as a potential source of oppression and censorship, while the religious have often treated the arts with equal suspicion, as harbouring anarchic and dark energies.   Both parties carry a history with examples to justify the tension that exists in the relationship – but it is of course that same tension that gives an edge and an interest to the entente cordiale we assume this evening.
Of course spirituality, while associated with religion, is not the same.   Spirituality is a more evasive and ambiguous concept and there are likely many people who consider themselves ‘spiritual’ but not at all ‘religious’.  For our purposes this evening I suggest that a characteristic of spirituality, in the Christian tradition certainly but I think also far beyond it, is the quest for meaning and connection.  In the simplest terms, we seek to make sense of why there is anything at all rather than nothing and reach into what may be thought of as the void for answers.  

Baxter certainly looks for meaning and for connection: however I contend that his poetry and his spirituality are one and the same thing.  There have been points in Baxter’s poetic development when he struggled to hold the poetry against the weight of Christian theology and its imagery (e.g. ‘To God the Son’ (1955) CP150).  Baxter himself makes the point in comments to John Weir in 1959.

“I am just beginning to realise – there is no such thing as a Catholic poetry – meaning our Catholicism does not free us from an ounce of the burden of darkness, blindness, weight, pain, of the world we live in.   The Faith gives us of course an entirely accurate aerial view of the countryside over which we have to travel; but in the poem, as in all relationships, we have to cover that ground yard by yard on foot.”[1]

My approach tonight is almost solely through a reading of Baxter’s poetry and to see what arises through that.  One could refer to Baxter’s prose, now available in a complete four volume boxed set – and that would be invaluable; as would an exploration of Baxter’s letters (still to be published); different aspects of Baxter would emerge.  The one man holds complex and diverse personas.  Even just in the poetry attention could be given to the drunk, the rebellious son, the lover, the social activist, the bawdy poet, the poet of community, the orthodox Catholic, but time is short.  As I say – I want to see if we can let the poems speak and see if we can catch a sense of the spirituality at work here.


Beyond survival itself, the most fundamental problems humans face are to make sense of our lives and to manage the deep sense of anxiety we experience when we reflect on the mystery of our being.  It is an ancient problem and accordingly we are story tellers and myth makers.  We find stories to live by. So too with Baxter: from the beginning it was the mythology of the classical world that provided an imaginative framework to hold his experiences and his unease.   The poem Wild Bees (1941-49, 1953 CP82-83)[2] remembers the burning of a hive and, by referencing this wonton destruction against the ancient sackings of Carthage and Troy, interprets much of human endeavour as being what he calls ‘a job well botched’.

Wild Bees

Often  in summer, on a tarred bridge plank standing,
Or downstream between willows, a safe Ophelia drifting
In a rented boat – I had seen them come and go,
Those wild bees swift as tigers, their gauze wings a-glitter
In passionless industry, clustering black at the crevice
Of a rotten cabbage tree, where their hive was hidden low.

But never strolled too near.  Till one half-cloudy evening
Of ripe January, my friends and I
Came, gloved and masked to the eyes like plundering desperadoes,
To smoke them out.   Quiet beside the stagnant river
We trod wet grasses down, hearing the crickets chitter
And waiting for light to drain from the wounded sky.

Before we reached the hive their sentries saw us
And sprang invisible through the darkening air,
Stabbed, and died in stinging.  The hive woke. Poisonous fuming
Of sulphur filled the hollow trunk, and crawling
blue flame sputtered – yet still their suicidal
live raiders dived and clung to our hands and hair.

O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
A job well botched. Half of the honey melted
And half the rest young grubs. Through earth-black
   smouldering ashes
and maimed bees groaning, we drew out our plunder.
Little enough their gold, and slight our joy.

Fallen then the city of instinctive wisdom.
Tragedy is written distinct and small.
A hive burned on a cool night in summer.
But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.

You will have noticed that Baxter closes the poem strongly with the view that the experience of what he calls ‘loss’ is a reminder of who we are: “preaching the truth of winter/To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.” (CP 83).  That last line, with its reference to the idea of The Fall (a Christian concept that includes the idea of ‘loss’) links Christian thought with classical allusion.  Also buried here, and not too deeply, are the ideas of estrangement from nature and the loss of Eden.

One of Baxter’s most favoured mythologies centres about the figure of Odysseus [3]and with him the idea of the journey as an image for life. 

                                                    The Homecoming
Odysseus has come home, to the gully farm
Where the macrocarpa windbreak shields a house
Heavy with time’s reliques – the brown-filmed photographs
Of ghosts more real than he; the mankind-measuring arm
Of a pendulum clock; and true yet to her vows,
His mother, grief’s Penelope.  At the blind the sea wind laughs.

The siege more long and terrible than Troy’s
Begins again.  A love demanding all,
Hypochondriacal, sea-dark and contentless:
This was the sour ground that nurtured a boy’s
Dream of freedom; this in Circe’s hall
Drugged him; his homecoming finds this, more relentless.

She does not say, ‘You have changed’; nor could she imagine any
Otherwise to the quiet maelstrom spinning
In the circle of their days.  Still she would wish to carry
Him folded within her, shut from the wild and many
Voices of life’s combat, in the cage of beginning:
She counts it natural that he should never marry.

She will cook his meals; complain of the south weather
That wrings her joints.  And he – rebels; and yields
To the old covenant – calms the bleating
Ewe in birth travail.  The smell of saddle leather
His sacrament; or the sale day drink; yet hears beyond sparse fields
On reef and cave the sea’s hexameter beating.

The Homecoming (1952, CP 121) uses the myth to represent Baxter’s pessimistic assessment of the New Zealand male trapped by routine and domesticity while yet holding inwardly the deep memory of a greater purpose: “… yet hears beyond sparse fields / On reef and cave the sea’s hexameter beating.” (CP, 121)  There is a misogynistic aspect to Baxter and we catch a glimpse of it here in his unfavourable representation of the mother figure.  In Pig Island Letters (2) (1963, 1996 CP 277) the same setting and persona recur:

          That brisk gaunt woman in the kitchen
            Feeding the coal range, sullen
            To all strangers, lest one should be
            Her antique horn-red Satan.
The mythology creates, or at least underwrites, this misogyny –for instance through the figure of Circe whose potions and spells reduce men to fawning beasts.  Circe stands behind allusions to Penelope or that woman in the kitchen; there are a cluster of such types that resonate throughout his verse.  However this connection of mythology with misogyny is contested and countered by Baxter’s acknowledgement of Gaea and later, above all by devotion to the Virgin Mary.
What has this to do with spirituality?  Here is the deep imaginative framing for the human predicament, for sexuality and for gender relationships that runs through Baxter’s work. There is a recurring anguish in this that we see even in his later work – as in ‘Summer 1967’ (1967, 1973, CP 408-409).

Summer brings out the girls in their green dresses
Whom the foolish might compare to daffodils,
Not seeing how a dead grandmother in each one governs
   her limbs,
Darkening the bright corolla, using her lips to speak through,
                                    Where can we find the right
Herbs, drinks, bandages to cover
These lifelong intolerable wounds?
Herbs of oblivion, they lost their power to help us
The day that Aphrodite touched her mouth to ours.
There is of course another feminine aspect to spirituality that comes into focus here, that of the earth itself, Gaea, which readily evokes the idea of Eden, the Fall.   This image of the earth is strongly expressed in ‘The Hollow Place’ (1962, 1966, CP 252).  In the poem Baxter describes his entry into a cave or cleft and the effect this has upon him.

            …                     I did nothing there;
There was nothing to do but listen to some greater I
Whose language was silence. Again and again I came
And was healed of the daftness, the demon in the head
And the black knot in the thighs, by a silence that
Accepted all.   Not knowing I would come again,
My coat of words worn very thin,
Knocking, as if lame, with a dry stick on the dumb
Door of the ground, and crying out:
‘Open, mother.   Open. Let me in.’
This deep sense of primal estrangement from the earth, from the land, drawing almost certainly upon Baxter’s sense of dispossession and disconnection from his past and that deeper intuition of a greater loss we name as ‘the Fall’ finds its expression here.  In a poem written about the same time in Dunedin, ‘The Flood’(1962, 1976, CP 263), he observes “… All / Knowledge, my son, is knowledge of the Fall.”
When Baxter returns to Dunedin that sense of the fall is reinforced in the poetry: the familiar places evoke the lost world of childhood, the estrangement from the natural world, broken relationships and a lost communal identity. In ‘Ourselves’ (1957, 1976, CP 184) his childhood memories: “Remind us that we had / A key and lost it.” His Otago roots carried a tribal memory of the broken clans and their dispossession from their lands.  He found other and alternative tribes or communities – alcoholics, the marginalised, Maori, the vulnerable nga mokai (“the fatherless ones”) lost in the cities, and the prisons whom he called to Jerusalem.  An aspect of the fall for Baxter is then also the yearning for belonging; for the lost community; something that becomes most obvious in the Jerusalem poetry.
How does Baxter image this world and our human journey?  I am of course invoking a metaphor when I speak of ‘journey’.  What I think of as one of Baxter’s great poems, from his late poetry and published after his death, is ‘The Labyrinth’ (1970, 1974, CP 488-89) that draws upon the story of Theseus and the minotaur, fusing classical and Christian mythoi.

                                 The Labyrinth

So many corridors, - so many lurches
On the uneven filthy floor
Daedalus made and then forgot, - ‘What right
Have you to be here?’ the demons thick as roaches
Whispering …
                                 Mind fixed on the Minotaur
I plugged onward like a camel that first night,
Thinking – ‘Not long, brother, not long now!’-
But now so many nights have passed
The problem is to think of him at all
And not of, say, the fact that I am lost,
Or the spark of light that fell upon my brow
From some high fault, - I sit down like a little girl
To play with my dolls, - sword, wallet and the god’s great amulet
My father gave me.
                           In the bullfights it was easy
(Though heroic no doubt) because their eyes, their eyes held me
To the agile task. Now I am a child
Frightened by falling water, by each nerve-pricking memory
Of things ill done, - but I do not forget
One thing, the thread, the invisible silk I hold
And shall hold till I die.
                                   I tell you, brother,
When I throw my arms around the Minotaur
Our silence will be pure as gold.
There are earlier allusions to the myth.  For instance, in ‘Letter to the World’ (1955, 1958, CP 149-50) Baxter declares “At the heart of your maze, man’s heart is Minotaur.” That said, no other of his poems works so carefully with the image of the labyrinth and demands the reader to make connections between the architecture or furniture of the myth and the details of our diverse but common experience.  So, for instance, the allusion to the “uneven filthy floor / Daedalus made and then forgot” can be associated with aspects of the world as we experience it and notions about the nature of God.
The hazards of the spiritual journey as we know it are held within the myth.  Baxter  acknowledges the deep sense of vulnerability and mortality that we carry.   There is something very personal and poignant in the admission that breaks through in these lines, carrying, it may be, an intimation of his own death.

                             … Now I am a child
Frightened by falling water, by each nerve-pricking memory
Of things ill done, - but I do not forget
One thing, the thread, the invisible silk I hold
And shall hold till I die.[4]
I think I am right to sense a resonance from Philippians in this passage ( the phrase from St Paul, ‘this one thing’), but I would not wish to labour it – Baxter certainly does not.  The end of the journey, at the centre of labyrinth, unnamed, is Christ, the Minotaur. The myth is reconfigured and transformed.
As I say, The Labyrinth is a late poem: published posthumously but written in the dark and confusing period of the Jerusalem years.  In a period when Baxter had tried to embrace a deep poverty, even stepping back from writing poetry, he produced this exceptional reworking of the Theseus myth as a model for the Christian vocation, the journey of faith.  More accurately, he uses the myth to try to hold, comprehend and explain what he is experiencing: darkness, doubts, fears – and hope.
Baxter’s attempted abandonment of poetry sounds strange but in Baxter it is comprehensible when understood as an aspect of poverty and is consistent with a spirituality that sought to strip away illusion and artifice.   It is a spirituality also found in Philippians (2:7) where Paul talks about how Jesus “emptied himself”; this is a theology of kenosis[5]; we also use it to describe a spirituality of self-emptying.  So, for instance, in ‘Poem Against Comfort’ (1968, 1972, CP 422) we see this when Baxter observes:

   … We have to strip
To the bone and beyond before the gate can open
And our silence be united both to what we leave
And to the dark centre of the sun.
Consistent wIth this are elements in earlier poems – for instance ‘Easter Testament’ (1965, 1966, CP 319-20):

… This Easter
another skin has peeled off
The onion – heart, head, either
useless  -  leaving me just one
ploy, to let the hair shirt chafe
till the earth speaks through the man.

That line “till the earth speaks through the man”, for me at least, points toward the kenotic journey of Jerusalem.   It foreshadows a connection, or reconnection, where the artifice of myth can be set aside by the poet because he has now entered into the myth as living participant.  One of the poems in the Jerusalem Sonnets that directly expresses the change in his art, the poetry of kenosis in his embrace of poverty, is Sonnet 37 (CP 473).

Colin, you can tell my words are crippled now;
The bright coat of art He has taken away from me

And like the snail I crushed at the church door
My song is my stupidity;

The words of a homely man I cannot speak,
Home and bed he has taken away from me;

Like an old horse turned to grass I lift my head
Biting at the blossoms of the thorn tree;

Prayer of priest or nun I cannot use’
The songs of His house He has taken away from me;

As blind men meet and touch each other‘s faces
So He is kind to my infirmity;

As the cross is lifted and the day goes dark
Rule over myself he has taken away from me.
As Baxter follows Christ to Jerusalem – we understand that this is a journey that ends on a cross - the ploy of myth to provide an intellectual frame for the imagination is no longer needed.   So, for instance in the Jerusalem Sonnets (1969, CP 455) the poetry is structured in seven two lines stanzas where Baxter describes his life, the ordinary, the mundane, the trivial: now the things of the earth speak and become luminous with a sense of otherness, as in Jerusalem Sonnet 14 (CP 461).  The sense of estrangement from the natural world and from God seems eased as these axes converge in him in Jerusalem.

I had laid down for sleep, man, when He called me
To go across the wet paddock

And burgle the dark church – you see, Colin, the nuns
Bolt the side door and I unbolt it

Like a timid thief – red light, moonlight
Mix together; steps from nowhere

Thud in the porch; a bee wakes up and buzzes;
The whole empty pa and the Maori dead

Are present – there I lie down cruciform
On the cold linoleum, a violator

Of God’s decorum – and what has He to tell me?
‘More stupid than a stone, what do you know

‘Of love? Can you carry the weight of my Passion,
You old crab farmer?’ I go back home in peace.
A few years later, in Autumn Testament (1972, CP 541ff.), Baxter seems to have mastered this spare, conversational and meditative style to produce some extraordinarily luminous instances of ‘the earth speaking through the man. ’Autumn Testament 5’ (CP 543) very simply notes the kenotic process, the closeness with the natural order, while closing with an echo of the fall and the sense of grace in the ordinary: a very grounded and connected spirituality.
Wahi Ngaro, now the ego like a sentry
At the gate of the soul closes its eyelids

For a moment, as today when
A crowd of ducks rose flapping at the place

Above the rapids where I go to bathe
Naked, splashing the water on my thighs,

And later I walked barefoot over the smooth boulders,
Thinking, ‘There need be no other Heaven

‘Than this world’ – but rain spat soon
Out of a purple cloud, and I hid under

The willow leaves and bramble, as Adam did
Once from the Father.   I brought back for Francie

A sprig of wet wild mint
That should go well tomorrow with the potatoes.
A closing poem that in its first two lines would go well alongside The Labyrinth, is Te Whiori o te Kuri 7 (1972, CP568). It captures Baxter’s sense of calling, his spiritual journey and the deep sense of being emptied for others.  

To go forward like a man in the dark
Is the meaning of this dark vocation;

So simple, tree, star, the bare cup of the hills,
The lifelong grave of waiting

As indeed it has to be.   To ask for Jacob’s ladder
Would be to mistake oneself and the dark Master,

Yet at times the road comes down to a place
Where water runs and horses gallop

Behind a hedge.  There it is possible to sit,
Light a cigarette, and rub

Your bruised heels on the cold grass. Always because
A man’s body is a meeting house,

Ribs, arms, for the tribe to gather under,
And the heart must be their spring of water.
Though I have tried to restrict myself to the poetry, an epigraph in the final volume of Weir’s Collected Prose, quoting Baxter’s ‘Confession to the Lord Christ’ is especially evocative and helpful here.

“All I have learnt would amount to this – A man’s body and soul are meant to shelter, to protect, to contain others. It is a curious destiny.  What it leads to, I cannot tell.   Except that since we die anyway, it is best to die used up by living and an effort to love well.”

[1] Complete Prose, vol.4, p.55.
[2] CP refers to The Collected Poems of James K. Baxter, ed. John Weir (Oxford University Press, 1979) followed by the page numbers for that reference.  The dates (not italicised) refer to the period of composition; the italicised date refers to the date of publication.
[3] It should be noted that Odysseus and many others - especially Herakles, Theseus, Sisyphus (and their associated stories) - are constantly used by Baxter in this way.
[4] See Philippians 3: 13 “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
[5] “We are, the great spiritual writers insist, most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away, and it is egotism that holds us back from that transcendent experience that has been called God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Tao.
What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy. Indeed, it is in itself ekstasis. Theologians in all the great faiths have devised all kinds of myths to show that this type of kenosis, or self-emptying, is found in the life of God itself. They do not do this because it sounds edifying, but because this is the way that human nature seems to work. We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.”
Karen Armstrong, in The Spiral Staircase : My Climb Out of Darkness (2004)

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