Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Baxter Poem

A couple of times recently I have used this poem in a sermon, and some people have asked me for the text. So here it is:


Song: My Love Came Through The City

My love came through the city
And they did not know him
With his beard and his eyes and his gentle hands
For he was a working man 
My love stood on the lakeshore
And spoke to the people there
And the fish in the water forgot to swim
And the birds were quiet in the air.

‘Truth’ - he said, and - ‘Love’ - he said,
But his purest word was - ‘Mercy’ -
And the fishermen left their boats and came
To share his poverty.

My love was taken before the judge
And they nailed him on a tree
With his strong face and his long brown hair
And the whiteness of his body.

‘Truth’ - he said, and - ‘Love’ - he said,
But his purest word was - ‘Mercy’ -
And the blood ran down and the sun grew dark
For the lack of his company.

My love was only a working man
And now he is God on high;
I have left my books and my bed and my house,
To follow him till I die.

‘Truth’ - he said, and - ‘Love’ - he said,
But his purest word was - ‘Mercy’ -
Flowers and candles I bring to him
And no man is kinder than he.

- James K Baxter
From Collected Poems
Oxford University press, 1979
p. 477

10 comments:

Peter Carrell said...

Yeats, Herbert, and Hopkins rolled into one. I wonder if the wider English speaking world will ever recognise Baxter's genius?

Anonymous said...

"whiteness of his body"?

Nah, I don't think so. Not likely, and definitely not PC. :)

VenDr said...

Errr..... it's a poem. Its not and was never intended to be a history. In Karen Armstrong's language it's mythos not logos. So think about the iconic or metaphoric value of an exposed white body. Innocence. Vulnerability. Surrender. Something exposed that shouldn't be. Purity. It's an image that underscores the utter nakedness and carnality of the cross. It's an invitation to Baxters audience who will in all likelihood be white middle class educated New Zealanders ( and who all know as Baxter knew that Jesus was Jewish and brown) into identification. It's ....... oh never mind ........

VenDr said...

....and it's an image that has got you thinking so it's obviously working. ;-)

Merv said...

... nevertheless, no poet is above critique.
I wonder how many different words James K. tried before settling on "whiteness"

VenDr said...

Oh indeed. But it works. Baxter was a Catholic and there are pretty obvious Eucharistic reverberations and we won't even start on the lamb of God Lily Rose of Sharon Biblical ones. But he might, I suppose, have chosen something else.

Anonymous said...

Errr... I know, I was just being a teensy provocative and making the point that since Baxter died in 1972, semi-educated western people have got hypersensitive (and often hyper-ignorant) about language. (But African Pentecostalists understand the significance of white baptismal robes.) Who can now declaim Yeats's 'Lapis Lazuli'? The 'utter nakedness and carnality of the cross' is something I associate more with Spanish baroque painting and Catholic mysticism than the New Testament, which doesn't dwell on such images at all.
JKB was a very interesting man, and the story he tells somewhere of his battle with alcoholism (intently watching floating lollipop sticks along a gutter so that he would be distracted from entering a bottle store on his way home) is one I will always remember.

VenDr said...

Your comment was great. I spent most of a drive to Invercargill thinking about the poem and the line "the whiteness of his body." and I came up with all manner of stuff some of which is possibly valid. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You're a fine prose poet yourself, Kelvin! Those years of English study clearly left their mark. I didn't realise Baxter had written so much until your piece prompted me to google.
I don't know where the piece about the lollipops or ice lollies is, but many years ago someone (Rev Robert Yule?) read it out as an example of askesis: Baxter was on his way home, knowing that his route would take him past a bottle shop and a temptation too great for him. So he entered a dairy and bought three ice lollies, consumed them as he walked, then launched them in the rainy gutter and kept his eye utterly fixed on them until he had walked past the danger zone. I think Baxter called those lolly sticks a 'mercy fleet' or something. It was observations like that, along with his ear for spoken language, that made him such a shining star in the literary firmament. A great shame he died at only 46, but I've no doubt he put a lot of his pain into his poems.
Thinking of 'Lapis Lazuli' also reminded me of the need to focus on eternal things even if "the town lie beaten flat". Not a Christian vision - but it pointsd that way (like grace completing nature,as Aquinas would say).

Anonymous said...

... and (I forgot to add) 'whiteness of his body' is quite right too - I see it as an allusion to the shedding of his blood; or as the great Passion Hymn 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden' goes:

Die Farbe deiner Wangen,
Der roten Lippen Pracht
Ist hin und ganz vergangen;
Des bla├čen Todes Macht
Hat alles hingenommen,
Hat alles hingerafft,
Und daher bist du kommen
Von deines Leibes Kraft.

The colour of your cheeks,
the splendour of your red lips
has vanished completely;
the might of pale death
has taken all away,
has snatched up all,
and you have come to this
through your love's strength.