Love and liquor shape the young Baxter's work

James K. Baxter: Poems to a Glass Woman<br><b>Ed. John Weir</b><br><i>Victoria University Press
James K. Baxter: Poems to a Glass Woman<br><b>Ed. John Weir</b><br><i>Victoria University Press
James K. Baxter captures the imagination of New Zealanders in a way that few other historical figures succeed in doing. Howard McNaughton once said, "Everyone seems to think that his bit of Baxter was the genuine stuff and that anything else is a cheap fraud".

He touched so many New Zealanders before he died at 46.

Poems to a Glass Woman features poems written in 1944-1945 by Baxter.

They were gathered into a sequence in 1957, but never published. These poems mark the 40th anniversary of his death.

1944 marked a year of academic failure and bouts of drunkenness. The knowledge Baxter gained from this year and the next was not the type his parents had intended.

"Aphrodite, Bacchus and the Holy Spirit were my tutors, but the goddess of good manners and examination passes withheld her smile from me."

He entered the University of Otago at this time.

Glass Woman records the immediate impact of Baxter's first serious love affair. It was a relationship that affected him profoundly, and to which he returned time and time again in his later work.

Baxter called sexual love "such a blinding, crippling desire, when it fills one's whole horizon". The loved one is distant or absent in these 21 short poems. The love relationship is characterised painfully. A reluctant dependence emphasises his own solitude and inadequacy. Here is "13":

I have cut from my heart
Her green sickness.
It is better to be a tall and lonely man
Than stand and cry for the moon.
The moon is older than the sun.
Why should a man set his soul
In the house of a girl?
To be alive is to be alone.
It is better to look and turn away.
She is beautiful where she walks.
She is beautiful where she stands.
As any flowering tree.

Adolescence is a period that provides, both critically and biographically, the key to a full understanding and appreciation of Baxter's life and poetry. Baxter commented once, "The emblems of adolescence are the private demon, the spider on the wall, and rat-eaten books in old cupboards. The torments of the adolescent furnace are threefold: unnatural solitude, ignorance of life and sexuality without love."

Baxter's fusion of technique, imagery and language show many influences in these poems.

Established forms and styles became frameworks for his verse which was so often personal.

Poems to a Glass Woman is a breathtaking book. Baxter's bliss of simplicity is the key to this remarkable book's beauty. While Baxter considered the alienating experiences of adolescence "very valuable, for they taught me to distrust mass opinion and sort out my own ideas", he also found them "distinctly painful. I could compare them perhaps with the experiences of a Jewish boy growing up in an anti-Semitic neighbourhood."

A substantial essay by John Weir, the editor of Baxter's Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1979), rounds off this little book. This is a wonderful entree for Baxter's Complete Prose to be published in four volumes next year.

• Hamesh Wyatt lives in Bluff. He reads and writes poetry.


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