Honouring the Prophets: James K Baxter (1926-1972)

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 25, Spring 2002
by Jack Doherty

Eh Hemi, eh Hemi. Why did you die? Who will lead the tribe now? How many people did you hurt? You old bastard, how many people came for bread and got stones? How many people did you let down?

But you were great, Hemi. You are among the great. You have been an elder to many and now you are our ancestor. In Wellington where you walked, you have left behind two houses and we know you are not dead but alive in the centrepost of each house.

You are prophet, Hemi, for a whole country. In a time of great loss you came to the source of life that you knew – the Church, and the path. And you listen and worked out the words that would carry the life for the new people.

You are alive Hemi…You have given us life. You have not given us the cloak of the chief. You have given us the words of a prophet. (Recorded at Baxter’s tangi, Jerusalem, 1972)[i]

As a young man, I met and lived with James K Baxter – Hemi. He introduced me and many others to concepts and values that challenged both the life I was living and the country and world I was living in. He was truly a prophet in my life.

In 1970 I was a young Pakeha New Zealander who had recently returned from a two year working holiday in Australia. It was my time in Australia, especially in the outback and seeing how Aborigine people were regarded by other Australians, that led me to question what I had experienced there.

My friend and I returned home and were interested in finding something different in New Zealand to what we already knew. The sixties had ended and the world was feeling different elsewhere so what was there in New Zealand?

My Catholic background meant I had heard of a poet called James K Baxter who had been writing feature articles in the Catholic weekly newspaper The Tablet. It had seemed an unusual place to meet the radical thoughts of a leading New Zealand poet. I had also heard of the ‘commune’ Hemi had started somewhere up the Whanganui River so a couple of us left Wellington late one Friday in our old Morris 8 to look for him, sleeping our first night in the car.

Dawn greeted us with a bearded, old looking, bare footed, raggedy man coming down a slippery Jerusalem track towards us. He opened his arms and hugged us one at a time with the words, ‘welcome brother’. Neither of us had any experience or comprehension of such a greeting but by the next morning had adapted quickly and were greeting others in the same way!

This initial meeting with Hemi was set in a challenging environment . There was a Maori rural community centred around the marae, the Catholic Church of Hiruharama centred around Father Wirimu Te Awhitu’s presbytery, the tall steepled church on the hill and the Home of Compassion nuns’ convent, and Hemi, a man striving to understand Catholicism in a New Zealand context while choosing to become poor, by ridding himself of possessions. All of this was nestled in a beautiful remote valley on the banks of a mythical, sacred river, the Whanganui.

When we moved to live in the old homestead which was the heart of the commune, the next challenge greeted me – a mixture of Maori, Pakeha and Pacific Island New Zealanders who, for various reasons, were living a communal life and wanting to share responsibility for each other. Some were homeless, recovering from alcohol or drugs, some from prisons or mental health institutions—Hemi’s ‘nga mokai’. Others like myself were questioning society and the values it stood for that clashed with my own and what I had been brought up with, working out how it could be changed. We were all searching and Hemi saw us all as ‘jewels coated in mud’, each with a gift to offer the community.

Two thousand perhaps in the tribe of nga mokai

Scattered like seeds now in the bins and the jails

Or occupied at their various occasions

Inside the spider-cage of a common dream.[ii]

Life in Hiruharama was an exceptional experience – we were the ‘hippies up the river’ who would have three Tuesdays in a row, followed by a Saturday and two Wednesdays. We were the hippies who hunted and ate wild goat, swam naked in the river, prayed and attended Mass, laughed and worked with the people from the pa, played music and sang, grew our hair long, unsettled some of the local farmers and lived for the days when visitors would arrive from Whanganui with chocolate or tailor-made cigarettes.

Although Hemi seemed so much older than his early forties, he had a boyish delight, a great sense of humour and an intense and genuine love for anyone experiencing a tough time. One sunny winter’s day I was walking with Hemi in the hills of Hiruharama that were covered in dense gorse bushes. An impish Hemi with a box of matches ran wildly from bush to bush igniting them with a struck match, alighting half the hillside.

I remember Hemi, the poet, sitting in the front room writing screeds of poetry on jotter pad paper. Occasionally some of these would finish up as toilet paper in the long drop to which his response would be a good natured and humorous ‘Good on you, brother, take my last possession from me – my mind’. We as hippies would often tease Hemi about stealing all his work from Wordsworth et al but would greatly anticipate his return from a speaking engagement as ‘the poet’ when he would come home with the two main luxuries we yearned for – chocolates and straights. (tailor made cigarettes)

Hemi was one of the influences impacting sharply on my life at Hiruharama but not the only one – living with nga mokai, spending time with Father Wirimu Te Awhiti, living with Hemi beside the marae and the contact with kuia and kaumatua, all made me pause and learn. However, I have always believed that he was the person who provided the opportunity for me to live for several months in a unique cultural, social and spiritual setting that shaped the rest of my life.

I and many other New Zealanders have been and still are influenced by the writings and the inspirational living of this great poet, but Hemi the man was himself searching for answers in his own life about cultural, social and spiritual values. I remember spending nights in the dark church at Hiruharama with him, praying the rosary together in the dark, like my father had done so for many years. Hemi would often remain long after I had gone, kept company by the wild bees and family of possums that lived in the roof of the church. Hemi taught me that prayer was not something of routine – for him it was integrated into all aspects of his humanity.

The small grey cloudy louse that nests in my beard

Is not, as some would call it, a pearl of God –

No, it’s a fiery tormentor

Waking me at 2 am

Or thereabouts, when the lights are still on

In the houses in the pa, to go across thick grass

Wet with rain, feet cold, to kneel

For an hour or two in front of the red flickering

Tabernacle light – what He sees inside

My meandering mind I can only guess –

A madman, a nobody, a raconteur

Whom he can joke with – ‘Lord’, I ask Him

‘Do you or don’t you expect me to put up with lice?’

His silent laugh still shakes the hills at dawn.[iii]

If to be a prophet is to point the way, Hemi’s influence on me provided a clear compass for my adult life. Interestingly this did not require perfection from either him or me but instead an openness and a decision to allow spirituality, and not necessarily dogma, to guide my direction.

In the 1970s there were critical issues being birthed in the consciousness of New Zealanders with the ground being prepared by events of the times. Some fresh and new thinking emerging from Vatican II promising new life and encouragement for young Catholics. The huge cost to humanity of the Vietnam war and in particular America’s role in it, and the sixties flower power movement had seen emerge a young, restless, non-materialistic, peace seeking generation prepared to question the norms of society and the Church, especially in Western first world countries. Thirty years on, I wonder what has really changed?

Some of the real issues that existed in 1970 included social and cultural iniquities at home and abroad. Hemi was able to highlight some directions for us to follow by his prophetic life in Hiruharama and in his writings.

The deathsheads of Biafra

Are haunting bellamy’s

Where scotch and soda trickle down

The necks of old MPs

And some men talk of justice

But most of the Credit Freeze

The Dead Child of Biafra

Will lie on Christmas Day

In the cribs of all the churches

Upon the rotting hay

For those who did not feed Him

But threw His Life away.[iv]

He not only asked the questions that highlighted the issues but his life and writings provided answers as well. Some that have particular meaning to me include:

the injustice of the Vietnam and Biafra wars

Maori experiences of the justice system, health services, especially mental health, education and housing

the importance of the treasures of the tangata whenua, especially te reo and on Treaty issues

the need for the Catholic Church to give birth to a Maori face and to begin to liberate and not suppress indigenous spirituality

the need for the Church to free Catholic spirituality, sexuality and justice

the challenge to capitalist society, to alleviate iniquities and protect workers

the human cost of armaments and war and the economy it generates

the need to embrace eastern spirituality and indigenous spirituality to be authentic in our search of God

In this context and about these issues, Hemi’s provocative mind, language, and lifestyle captured and challenged me as a young person of Aotearoa.

It is a new millennium now and I am thirty years older and about to welcome my first grandchild. The signs of this prophet, Hemi, are still being pointed very clearly as the direction for this country to continue towards. The challenge for us as New Zealanders is to heed the prophet’s signs, not to be looking out for the next prophet to appear. The message of Hemi has no real need to change and is perhaps even more relevant today. We just need the courage to respond.

Jack Doherty lived with James K Baxter at Hiruharama.. In 1976 Jack, Joanne and several others, founded the Te Wakaiti community based around the land in Featherston, Wairarapa. In searching for New Zealanders who had left them with vision and ideals to follow, instead of Italian or Irish saints, they named the trust that owns the property, The Aubert, Baxter, Merton, Kirk & Family Charitable Trust.

[i] James K Baxter, 1926-1972, Alister Taylor Publishing, Wellington, 1972.

[ii] Collected Poems, James K Baxter, Ed. JE Weir, Oxford University Press & Price Milburn, 1979.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

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