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Rocket Show -- James K Baxter

Guest poem submitted by Cat Pegg:
(Poem #1506) Rocket Show
 As warm north rain breaks over suburb houses,
 Streaming on window glass, its drifting hazes
 Covering harbour ranges with a dense hood:
 I recall how eighteen months ago I stood
 Ankle-deep in sand on an Otago beach
 Watching the fireworks flare over strident surf and bach,
 In brain grey ash, in heart the sea-change flowing
 Of one love dying and another growing.

 For love grows like the crocus bulb in winter
 Hiding from snow and from itself the tender
 Green frond in embryo; but dies as rockets die
 (White sparks of pain against a steel-dark sky)
 With firebird wings trailing an arc of grief
 Across a night inhuman as the grave,
 Falling at length a dull and smouldering shell
 To frozen dunes and the wash of the quenching swell.

 There was little room left where the crowd had trampled
 Grass and lupin bare, under the pines that trembled
 In gusts from the sea.  On a sandhillock I chose
 A place to watch from.  Then the rockets rose,
 O marvellous, like self-destroying flowers
 On slender stems, with seed-pods full of flares,
 Raining down amber, scarlet, pennies from heaven
 On the skyward straining heads and still sea-haven.
 Had they brought death, we would have stood the same,
 I think, in ecstasy at the world-end flame.

 It is the rain streaming reminds me of
 Those ardent showers, cathartic love and grief.
 As I walked home through the cold street by moon-light,
 My steps ringing in the October night,
 I thought of our strange lives, the grinding cycle
 Of death and renewal come to full circle,
 And of man's heart, that blind Rosetta stone,
 Mad as the polar moon, decipherable by none.
-- James K Baxter
[Commentary]

I encountered this poem in high school and it haunted me for a decade until
I found it again last year.  I'd have to say it's the bit about the crocus
and the rocket that rang in my mind.  And 'mad as the polar moon'.

James K. Baxter is, in my opinion, the finest of the New Zealand poets
(since we have a population of only 4 million, he may need a bit of a
description).  Son of a self-educated farmer and a Cambridge scholar, he
cultivated (lived?) an image of a hairy, yet cultured poet wedded to
poverty.

Much of his work has a deceptively rough-as-guts feel (note the many
half-rhymes here), and he was fond of crude-sounding ballads.  He also wrote
some rather exquisite sestinas, so I feel the roughness was a stylistic
choice.

This poem doesn't show it, but he had a lot of Maori influences (Maori being
the non-English-speaking culture of New Zealand) when this was somewhat
unpopular with the Powers-That-Be.  (He said in one of his poems 'His only
crime was being Maori' or something similar.)  Race relations are rather
less strained than they used to be and I suspect Baxter had something to do
with it.  I'm writing this to give some context to how New Zealanders think
of him - sorry it's so wordy.  You can find a biography of him at:
 [broken link] http://www.nzbooks.com/nzbooks/author.asp?author_id=JamesKBaxter

[Notes]

1. The poem would probably have been written in Auckland, a large city in
the north of New Zealand, where it is quite warm.  Otago is down south and
rather chilly.

2. A bach is a small beach house, often quite shabby and used for holidays.

[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]

46 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Andrew Fish said...

Something about this makes me think of Lowell's "Skunk
Hour" - not for the externals, but for the effect of
the language, the theme (and tone), and the ocean
setting.

I usually prefer slant rhymes over straight rhymes;
with the latter, the effect can make the poem sound
forced, even in some instances when it's not.

Stan Jelley said...

I agree that the poem was probably written in Auckland, but the powerful
images linking fireworks to human love are undoubtedly set at Jimmy's
home township Brighton, a sandy, rock-circled little holiday bay just
19k south of Dunedin. I am surprised that JK describes the holiday
houses as baches, for they are indeed cribs at Brighton. In the
poem, of course, they are North Island baches, so I guess Hemi Baxter
got it right again! He was one of the few pakeha (non-Maori white)
to be honoured by Maori at his burial. The dispossessed whom he lived
with in the Whanganui River commune, and whom he honoured and loved with
true compassion were predominantly Maori also.

Stan Jelley said...

Yes, written in Auckland probably, but the telling fireworks images at
the beach are undoubtedly set further south, near Dunedin, at JKB's
childhood home township Brighton, a rock-girt little sandy beach often
the scene of Jimmy's earlier poetic imagery, e.g. The Giant's Grave.
It's interesting to hear JK talk of baches up north, as they are always
called cribs at Brighton, and other parts of Otago. The sadness
inherent in the fading fire-rocket image is such a fitting analogy to
love events and affairs. Hemi, as he was called by Maori, was so
intuitively right about these matters.

The Higgies said...

What are you on about with 'this was probably written in Auckland...'. Look at when it was written and where he was at the time. He didn't come to Auckland until much later. Many followers of Baxter identify this peom with an anniversary of Dunedin's where he was known to be in town at the time.

Higgles

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