Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tuesday Poem: "Poem in the Matukituki Valley" by James K. Baxter

Image courtesy of Auckland University Tramping Club. Copyright  2011 Aidan T.

Some few yards from the hut the standing beeches
Let fall their dead limbs, overgrown
With feathered moss and filigree of bracken.
The rotted wood splits clean and hard
Close-grained to the driven axe, with sound of water
Sibilant falling and high nested birds.

In winter blind with snow; but in full summer
The forest blanket sheds its cloudy pollen
And cloaks a range in undevouring fire.
Remote the land's heart. Though the wild scrub cattle
Acclimatized, may learn
Shreds of her purpose, or the taloned kea.

For those who come as I do, half-aware,
Wading the swollen
Matukituki waist-high in snow water,
And stumbling where the mountains throw their dice
Of boulders huge as houses, or the smoking
Cataract flings its arrows on our path -

For us the land is matrix and destroyer,
Resentful, darkly known
By sunset omens, low words heard in branches;
Or where the red deer lift their innocent heads
Snuffing the wind for danger,
And from our footfall's menace bound in terror.

Three emblems of the heart I carry folded
As charms against flood water, sliding shale:
Pale gentian, lily, and bush orchid.
The peaks too have names to suit their whiteness,
Stargazer and Moonraker,
A sailor's language and a mountaineer's.

And those who sleep in close bags fitfully
Besieged by wind in a snowline bivouac -
The carrion parrot with red underwing
Clangs on the roof by night, and daybreak brings
Raincloud on purple ranges, light reflected
Stainless from crumbling glacier, dazzling snow,

Do they not, clay in that unearthly furnace,
Endure the hermit's peace
And mindless ecstasy? Blue-lipped crevasse
And smooth rock chimney straddling - a communion
With what eludes our net - Leviathan
Stirring to ocean birth our inland waters?

Sky's purity; the altar cloth of snow
On deathly summits laid; or avalanche
That shakes the rough moraine with giant laughter;
Snowplume and whirlwind - what are these
But His flawed mirror who gave the mountain strength
And dwells in holy calm, undying freshness?

Therefore we turn, hiding our souls' dullness
From that too blinding glass: turn to the gentle
Dark of the human daydream, child and wife,
Patience of stone and soil, the lawful city
Where man may live, and no wild trespass
Of what's eternal shake his grave of time.
                                                                         1949 1953

Poem in the Matukituki Valley is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Estate of James K. Baxter. The poem is set out according to the published version in Collected Poems - James K. Baxter edited by John Weir, first published in 1980, reissued in Hardback 1995 by the Oxford University Press.

I was first introduced to the work of James K. Baxter at the tender age of fourteen when the Marist Brother who taught us English set the poem, High Country Weather, for us to study. I was instantly smitten by Baxter's imagery and his lyricism. This was 1971 and New Zealand literature wasn't anywhere near as prominent in the school curriculum as it is now. It probably would have made James K. Baxter smile to know his work was being taught by Marist Brothers since he had embraced Catholicism at one stage in his life.

This poem, High Country Weather, with its two succinct, powerful stanzas spoke to this Kiwi kid much more intensely and directly than the work of the English poets we mainly studied, great as they were. Baxter wrote of a landscape and a society that I could see all around me. For me, High Country Weather ignited a life-long love of Baxter's work which endures to this day.

For a comprehensive account of James K. Baxter and his place in New Zealand literature, please go to:



  1. who was the Marist Brother who taught you English? Mine was a Marist Priest Des Darby, later John Weir.