Fifty years ago, one of New Zealand’s most famous poets set up a community at the tiny Whanganui settlement of Jerusalem for young Māori and Pākehā who were living at the margins of society. Gripped by a vision of God’s grace made manifest in poverty and aroha, James K Baxter sought to create a haven where young lives could escape the death culture of the city. Kennedy Warne has been reading Baxter’s letters from the Jerusalem years — a testimony of hope and fear, physical challenge and spiritual reward.


I remember the day, almost 10 years ago, that I visited the grave of James K Baxter, one of this country’s best known, most admired and, in his day, most controversial poets.

I was driving the River Road north from Whanganui, the road that passes through Jerusalem, where Baxter lies. I counted off some of the other classical names along the way: Ātene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Rānana (London). Then, at a bend in the road, I glimpsed the distinctive blood-red-and-cream spire of the church at Hiruhārama — Jerusalem.

I found a letterbox engraved with the words “THE SISTERS” — Ngā Whaea Tapu Pūaroha, Sisters of Compassion, the convent established by Suzanne Aubert in 1892 — and entered the grounds, a tranquil space where native tree ferns stand side by side with vibrant red-flowering rhododendrons, camellias and waratahs. I stepped into the church, St Joseph’s, where dramatic Māori motifs and traditional Catholic icons mingle. The bicultural affirmation felt solid and strong.

I made my way up a dirt path to one of the old houses used by Baxter’s community. The door stood open, and a wooden pallet served for a step. A walking stick was propped against the door frame, as if a pilgrim had just stepped inside for a cup of tea. But there was no one there. The house seemed derelict.

I found the burial plot, marked with a plain white-painted river stone engraved with the word “Hemi” and, underneath, “James Keir Baxter, i whanau 1926, i mate 1972.” Wild onion was growing thickly over the grave. A spray of synthetic flowers stood in a jar, and around the gravestone were pebbles left by visitors, and an orange.

I said nothing — what can you say? Silent recognition was communication enough. I was there because, in my university years, Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook, a collection of poems, notes and an allegory about a man living in a water tank, had woken something, disrupted something, in my placid Pākehā existence. Like the water tank in Baxter’s story, bullet holes were appearing in the walls of assumption and belief. Someone was taking pot-shots. I wanted to acknowledge Baxter’s part in that.

Regret at being Pākehā

In 1963, six years before Baxter made the move to Jerusalem, the New Zealand Listener published a poem of his entitled “Regret at Being a Pakeha.” In it, Baxter suggests that reconciliation between the races won’t happen easily. Time doesn’t heal all wounds — especially if embedded structures of white superiority and power go unchallenged. Like coal miners who have unwittingly inhaled toxic air, Pākehā carry

Our hard identity, a crust of dust,
A tombstone always in the living lungs.

This, mind you, was 15 years before Bastion Point. Almost 20 before the Springbok tour protests. There can’t have been too many Listener readers in 1963 who shared Baxter’s “regret at being a Pakeha.”

Baxter saw through the façade of racial harmony, the narrative of New Zealand as the global exemplar for race relations. The treatment of marginalised Māori in a white-dominated society was searing his mind and his conscience. He knew he needed to move towards the Māori side of this country. The Whanganui River — a region staunch then as it is now in its wairua and tikanga — was an ideal place to come face to face with “the Māori Jesus.”

In a 1968 letter to his friend, the priest and poet John Weir (who assembled, edited and published Baxter’s collected letters earlier this year), Baxter said: “I must become a Maori in my heart.”

Later, to his wife Jacquie Sturm, a fellow poet and academic who was Māori, he explained that Ihu (Jesus) had “showed his face to me. He showed me that in this country he has both a Maori face and a pakeha face, and that the Maori face is torn and bloody while the pakeha face is smooth and all but blind.”

The Māori face was being “mangled and broken by our inhuman and money-centred culture,” he wrote.

Whanganui was a step of faith and trepidation for Baxter. He had no certainty of how things would turn out — whether he would be accepted by the whānau at Jerusalem, what the decision would mean for his work, or his life. All he had to guide him was an internal “radar” that told him to go there. “Whether the radar is God-given or self-given I guess I’ll never know. But it’s all I have to steer by.”

Repeatedly in his letters, Baxter wonders if he is responding to God or making a fool of himself — or both. Is the Jerusalem “revelation” a divine communication, or is his reason “temporally unhinged,” he writes to one friend, adding, “I do not claim to be in telephone communication with the Almighty … It may be the male menopause in a particularly virulent form.”

To Jacquie he wrote: “Your husband is either mad or he has been given a strange thing to do … I am in a dark night without windows.”

Yet at times the call seemed unequivocal. “The Lord has gripped my heart in His fist, and I am full of terror and joy,” he wrote to John Weir. “I give away all money, all possessions … I am to be the naked seed from which Our Lord, if He wishes, will bring a tree. The tree is aroha.”

He knew it would not be an easy move. Part of the sense of calling he felt involved simplifying his life and embracing poverty. “Kaore te moni. Kaore nga pukapuka.” No money. No books. No cigarettes, either — a daunting challenge for a nicotine addict. Baxter claimed he have been “smoking since 6 and addicted since 16.” A 27-year cigarette addiction, he wrote, is like heroin: “The drug has become part of the cells, and to do without it is like dying. But God’s mercy has opened a door for me where none would otherwise exist.”

To Father Pat Cleary, the Catholic priest at Jerusalem, Baxter confessed: “Father, I am no minor prophet who imagines the Garden of Eden is to be found among the Maoris. I dread the hardship, difficulty, change, into which I might go. Yet for years I have felt that the way of life I have led — and that many around me lead — is hollow, burdensome in the wrong way, too analytical, too dominated by money and words. I have stayed with the boat as long as it could humanly be kept afloat; but now wish to make a radical change … this thought of Jerusalem is like water in the mouth of a man who has been without it a long time.”

The discarded kumara

There is a lot of death in Baxter’s letters at this time — though arguably no more than in Jesus’ own statement that “except a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”

Baxter often used the image not of a seed but of an old kumara which, having given life to other kumara offspring, is then useless and tossed over the fence.

Kumara tuber, wheat seed — whatever the metaphor, he faced this thought with fear, but also with a fierce zeal. “The man ‘James K Baxter’ must die entirely,” he wrote. “I will be Hemi te Tutua, Hemi the dead man, Hemi the Seed … If the seed dies, if this man’s soul dies in the dark, Blessed be Ihu. If a tree grows from the seed, Blessed be Ihu … This fool is in the hands of God. Pray for him. If the tree grows, come to it.”

If the emphasis on death seems morbid, it wasn’t entirely so. In following that path, Baxter was accepting the principle that death leads to life. As he wrote in one letter:

Ka whakaiti taku mana
Ka whakanui te aroha
As I shrink down to death
The love will grow greater.

Baxter saw another liberating benefit in embracing death-to-self. As he explained in a letter to the Catholic Bishops of NZ: “A dead man is neither Maori nor pakeha. So the race division is healed, at the Source which is God.”

Out of death, love did grow. Slowly, over the course of 1969, the little community of misfits and exiles from the city expanded. “Ex-bin-inmates and crimmos, the blessed ones,” Baxter called them. “Nga mokai,” the orphaned ones, was the name he liked to use.

Motorcycle gang members from Whanganui city began to turn up, which pleased him. “These are the street boys I have waited for,” he wrote.

By 1971, he was reporting that: “In a year perhaps 500 people call here, and stay for a day or two. Perhaps 50 stay longer, perhaps 5 or 10 feel moved to adopt voluntary poverty and remain on a semi-permanent basis.”

Aroha rippled out beyond the community, too, to the Hiruhārama whānau, to the Sisters of Compassion (though both relationships were tested at times), and to the distant readers of Baxter’s poems and stories.

I still have my beaten-up copy of Jerusalem Daybook, with its spine cracked and pages loose, but the two-tone green cover still as luridly bright, and the words still as penetrating and prophetic. Community, simplicity, the spirit of poverty, compassion for the other.

His was a radical Christianity not often heard in church. “Christ is my peace, my terror, my joy, my sorrow, my life, my death,” he wrote. The God of churches was a “God of sugar,” not the One who comes like a sandstorm or an avalanche. The true God is the “winter sea whitened by whirlwinds. He is also the albatross floating at the centre of endless calm.”

For Baxter, calm was in short supply. As community leader, he had to manage practical things such as seeing that there was kai on the table, and more complex issues such as resolving disputes and keeping the community drug-free.

Physically, the life was hard. He felt the cold, especially in his unshod feet. “But I must stay outside till the last of nga mokai straggle in — time then to soak myself in the hot springs of Heaven.”

‘Doorstep of the people’

Behind and within the Jerusalem experiment lay a shadow: the rift that had arisen between Baxter and his wife, whom he often addressed by her birth name, Te Kare. Repeatedly in his letters to her and others is the thought that his change of life and location might restore their relationship.

In one letter to Te Kare he speaks of his “great pain and horror that we might die apart from one another.” But reconciliation proved to be a vain hope. She never came to Jerusalem, and they were never reunited.

In a piece of prose in early 1972, Baxter wrote that he hoped the prophets Te Kooti, Te Whiti, Rua, and Ratana would “take me in, men with many sins who loved their people — the people I also love. They said: ‘The man on whom the maramatanga shines has to be the doorstep of the people …’ This old pakeha doorstep is nearly worn through.”

So it was. Baxter was burned out, physically, emotionally, perhaps spiritually. He left Jerusalem, handing over the running of the community to one of its core members, and returned to Auckland to live in a community in Mt Eden. The life had gone out of him, writes Baxter’s biographer, Frank McKay, and there was a look of panic in his eyes.

“He was full of self-doubt, questioning everything he had ever done. He felt defeated and wanted to start a completely new life, to settle down and receive the love and care he needed. He even wondered if he should remarry. He could not shed his ‘lonely wish to be loved.’”

He visited a retired psychiatrist, describing the visits as “going to the cleaners.” He took a job assembling electrical components, of all things, but was soon fired. He had been away from conventional work too long.

He wrote a long, angry poem called Ode to Auckland. The bitterness of social and racial prejudice remains acidic in his words. In one part of the poem, he asks six Catholic acquaintances to give a Māori friend a place to sleep for the night. If they don’t, he says, the police will pick him up for the “four crimes they dislike most in Auckland: Not having a job, wearing old clothes, having long hair, above all, for being Maori.”

None of the six accept Baxter’s request to be the Samaritan — adding a fifth crime of indifference to the previous four.

The poem is more a lament than an ode. Towards the end, Baxter asks:

How can I live in a country where the towns are made like coffins
And the rich are eating the flesh of the poor
Without even knowing it.

In a sense, his death four days later answered his question. He died of heart failure in a stranger’s house, aged 46. In Jerusalem Daybook, he had written with uncanny foresight: “I think I may die without company.”

He died without company, but he rests in the company of the people he most sought to know and embrace — people who would know him not by the fame of his words but by the intent of his heart. Hemi of Hiruhārama.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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