Sometime about 1957, James K Baxter gathered up a group of poems written after the break-up of a brief relationship more than a decade earlier. Titling the group simply “Some Poems: 1944-1945”, he sent them to an unknown recipient with a note explaining he had written them aged “17 to 18, at Varsity” and describing them as “uneven” and yet as capturing the “self-consciousness, the touch of hysteria, yet the very real desolation of adolescent love”. Perhaps, in the end, this is all that needs or should be said about the sequence.
Although some 15 of the 21 poems have been published before, Victoria University Press has collected and published the whole sequence to mark the 40th anniversary of Baxter’s death. What would, by themselves, have been an almost vanishingly slight collection has been augmented with a very thorough biographical essay by John Weir, editor of Baxter’s Collected Poems. Weir does sterling scholarly work in unearthing the few facts we know about this brief adolescent fixation and shows Baxter returned to it repeatedly in later life, and later writings, as a devastating epoch in his life.
It is not hard, though, to read between the lines of Baxter’s own accounts of the affair to see the actual relationship was by no means a sufficient “objective correlative” for the self-mythologising its ending engendered. What teenager doesn’t half enjoy thinking of their break-up as the last act of a great tragedy? And God knows the adult Baxter had sufficient reason to find solace in blaming some of the unhappy turns his life had taken on something other than his own failings.
Weir quotes at length from the fictionalised account of the affair in Horse, Baxter’s quasi-autobiographical novel. As he conjures up “her firm bum, her breasts, the yellow-brown hair that hung down to her waist when she unplaited it, and those other hidden parts he valued more than the rest put together” – while adding that he struggles to visualise her face – and relates his fevered, single-minded attempts to persuade her to let him “bang” her, it’s not hard to see why she quickly tired of the relationship. Nor are we surprised the only non-physical qualities imputed to her in the poems themselves are cruel “indifference”, “pride” and a “cultured ignorance of my mountains of madness”. These are precocious productions, to be sure, but they are decidedly juvenilia.
POEMS TO A GLASS WOMAN, by James K Baxter, edited, with an essay, by John Weir (VUP, $28).