In the shadow of James K Baxter in Hiruhārama

Chris Gallavin followed in the footsteps of James K Baxter when he staged a spectacular poetry event at Hiruhārama on the Whanganui River.

She exudes an intensity. It crawls out from within her, up and over her banks, permeates the bush, farmland and townships that dot the land that falls within her reach. Her presence is less a taunt, more a knowing, ever-present force, even if she rests largely unseen on your journey along the path. Over the Parakino Bridge, through Atene (Athens), I crawl, slow, through Operiki, as I mull the Pa that was never taken. Matahiwi and on past Ranana (London) where I note the tarseal no longer ends and observe a flock of pea – cock and hen – as they canter perpendicular to my car.

I know from my knowledge of James K Baxter’s poems that, at this point, I am only four miles or so from my destination. I also know from his writing that the energy I feel from her, the Whanganui river, will be present for the entirety of my time here. I'm on my way to Patiarero, or Hiruhārama or Jerusalem, the latter name given by the Englishman, Rev Richard Taylor, in the 1850s. Once home to near 1000 Ngati Hau, the settlement now cradles no more than 20 or so. My destination, and the Whanganui River I drive along to get there, mean a tremendous amount to me, a fact that belies the truth of this being my first visit. My name is Chris Gallavin, I am 45, and I am a poet on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

James K Baxter's cottage. Photo: Chris Gallavin.

My journey began many years ago when I fell in love with the work of Baxter. Like him, I am from the South Island and oft describe myself as a child of Te Wai Pounamu. I am not tangata whenua, but I live in great respect of Māori and know that I have more to learn from them than they from me. As I pull up at the Convent of Hato Hohepa in Hiruharama, Baxter’s five principles of an effective society clamber over one another inside me like butterflies in my stomach: to share one’s goods, to speak the truth, to love one another, to take no job where one has to lick the boss’ arse, and to learn from the Māori side of the fence.

My own journey as a poet, a journey that led me to Jerusalem, has been steeped in the narrative of New Zealand. Early on I found I had a knack for remembering poems, for feeling their blood flow through me, each helping me to sculpt my place in the world and my identity as a New Zealander. Before long I could recite from memory three dozen or so Baxter’s, a couple of dozen Hunt’s, and a gabble of Glover, Fairburn, Bethell, Tuwhare, McCormick and Shadbolt among many others. I started to perform poetry, in pubs, wine bars, private parties and the odd music gig. My shows developed as one-third lighthearted comedy, one-third narrative of Kiwis and our community, and one-third poetry. Amongst it all I nurtured the skill of writing my own pieces; contributing, in my humble way, to the stories I felt so compelled to tell of who we are, what we've experienced, and how our communities might deal with the new challenges of our time.

Poetry is not a dying and staid literary art. It's a key to the very survival of our communities. It's through the telling of stories that our trust, our unity and our commonality, or at times our differences, are illustrated. For me, poetry is vital in the telling of our stories of the human condition. Poetry is relevant to us all and can be delivered in a dynamic and engaging way that I defy even the most stubborn of us not to enjoy and relate.  

The Convent of Hato Hohepa at Hiruhārama. Photo: Chris Gallavin.

And so, armed with the blessing of Ngati Hau, the Sisters of Compassion, and a letter from the Baxter Trust granting permission for my recital of Jim’s work, I set up a one-man show in the convent at Hiruhārama, Pilgrimage: The Poetry of 20th Century New Zealand, to raise money for charity. But then came the shocking revelations that Baxter had raped his wife. Although I've never lived in ignorance of the realities of New Zealand in the 50s and 60s, the seemingly laissez faire attitude of Baxter to serious sexual assault was brutal. His articulation of it, a near literary exercise to him, is so far from what we now accept as ‘just the way it is’.

What was I to do – not merely for the gig, but for me as a person? I couldn't separate Baxter from his work; for me, he was his work. But I could not dismiss his writings that for so long had guided me in my development. I needed also to acknowledge and support his victims and not diminish or side-line. Perhaps I should cancel? 

I went ahead. The show was a great success. Friends, family, acquaintances and strangers packed the convent for a truly special evening and weekend. I culled much of Baxter’s work I had initially intended to recite. I kept those which related to Hiruhārama.

I acknowledged his totally unacceptable behaviour. I did it as truthfully and as strongly as I could. And I was honest about my journey with the writing of a man who died before I was born. I ensured that the show was not about a man who spent precious little time there but was about Hiruhārama itself, its people and its bond with Māoridom.

What I discovered about Hiruhārama is a lively community of amazing history. I also discovered the work of Mother Suzanne Aubert in establishing the Sisters of Compassion. I was surprised at how moved I was by her enduring principles and her legacy. I know I will always have a relationship with Hiruhārama and with the river.

As I drove back home, past the landmarks I knew so well in the writing of those who I had once naively idealised, I knew that I’d had a coming of age myself; late, many might say, but deeply profound all the same.

Coming back, from the source, I felt I had brought some of it home with me and that I might live more comfortably with the words but not the deeds of a man who I once worshiped and now recognise as his own truly fallen man. For me Baxter now stands as a human embodiment of our collective history which is littered with as many atrocious acts as those morally virtuous.

Hiruhārama. Photo: Chris Gallavin.

Chris Gallivan will performing another spectacular poetry evening from 3pm-5:30pm this Saturday August 24, at Our Lady's Home of Compassion, 2 Rhine St, Island Bay, Wellington.

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