In 2002 Dave Mitchell was in the final throes of completing a degree at Victoria University, a Bachelor of Arts begun & put aside many times & years before. In the course of his study at Vic he presented a paper called ‘Popular Responses to Baxter’ to his tutorial group and lecturer Paul Millar.
The paper traces his relationship with Baxter from first hearing him read to university and training college students in the late fifties, to identifying Baxter by his black and bare feet in a hospital morgue in 1972.
I hope I shall be excused, his paper begins, if this presentation is largely anecdotal. I have from an early age been concerned with performance poetry, and my memories of Baxter are by and large of him onstage reading his original poems aloud.
Mitchell’s paper then sketches his leaving New Zealand in January 1962, his readings in London, his marriage & return in late 1964 to his hometown Wellington and thence later to live and teach in Auckland where, he states, the star qualities of Baxter, Barry Crump, Hilaire Kirkland, Hone Tuwhare and Mark Young popularised and promoted the success of readings. Not mentioning himself, he finds these stars ably supported by various itinerants including Peter Bland, CK Stead, Riemke Ensing and younger poets at Barry Lett’s eponymous gallery.
Has anyone done a history of the Barry Lett Gallery? Someone should. An oral history at least, for in the late sixties and early seventies the Barry Lett Gallery was the forum and shopfront of New Zealand modernism; the drop-in and hangout place, the mail address, the performance and exhibition space of emerging writers and artists. The venue helped, said Mitchell, It was here that Baxter was able to relax and perform with the audience sitting or sprawled on cushions on the carpeted floor, with the current exhibition of paintings forming a mute counterpoint to the proceedings.
Baxter’s preambles to various poems, he records, caused an immediate silence and a concentration of attention which revealed to me the interest, the wonder (should I add; the astonishment !) of those audiences, in relation to this figure of the poet standing there before them looking so tattered; but in contrast when he spoke, sounding so accomplished and urbane.
I quite clearly recall, writes Mitchell, the sustained tone and pitch of the applause . . . being reminiscent of that at chamber concert recital.
With his own preamble in place, Mitchell launches into his prime anecdote.
One afternoon I called into the Lett Gallery & there was Baxter – alive and well, though carrying a stout walking stick / staff and dressed in an old coat, shabby trousers – and barefoot. He produced a poem, handwritten, in ball-point pen and dated and signed, and gave this to me at a table in the Babel café restaurant which then adjoined the Gallery.
The poem, Baxter’s last, was a twenty stanza ode that is yet to be taken up by Tourism Auckland. It begins:
Auckland, you great arsehole
It was Baxter’s hope that Dave would take and sell ‘Ode to Auckland’ to raise funds for the commune at Jerusalem. Dave did this soon afterwards and Baxter’s last poem was published by Trevor Reeves of Caveman Press.
As well as this, Mitchell goes on to say, Baxter seemed particularly filled with advice which he figured that I as a poet younger than he (I was thirty two) would obviously
He produced a University (catholic) envelope and wrote at the top of it
which I personally found a little intrusive & irritating; but decided to let him rave on and see what the result would be.
He listed seven or eight points:
etc. etc, and wrote these down on the envelope, reading them aloud to me as he did so. When he reached Nine he paused in his labour and looked around him for inspiration, whereupon his eye fell on the coffee percolating in the glass pot on the restaurant counter. It was but the work of a moment to complete his list which he then handed to me, & I read
A grand finale as it were, which kept us chuckling as we left and walked off down Victoria Street West; he tap tapping like Blind Pew, and I tossing a new cricket ball I had just bought from hand to hand.
At the corner of Queen Street he informed me that he was going up to the university, to Newman Hall, and I noticed that he was puffing a bit and seemed a little shaky. Waving my polite enquiries aside he made a beeline for the steepest part of the hill and soon disappeared from sight.
The next time I saw him was on a slab in the morgue, where I had been conducted, after enquiries, to pay my last respects.
I will in a minute or so read you a poem of mine that documents (for that was my concern) a 1978 account as told to me by Dave of Baxter’s list – in its entirety I must add, and with the envelope there at hand.
My unwitting prescience in reporting and re-telling Dave’s account in a poem called ‘The List / for / David Mitchell,’ of publishing it in 1985 and again in the Big Smoke anthology of 2000, foreshadows the down-beat remark with which Dave concluded his 2002 tutorial paper:
Somehow or other the sheets of handwritten poetry and the embossed envelope have disappeared from my papers.
I can hear a very Homer Simpson-like Doh! emanating from that tutorial group, Whaddya mean, disappeared from your papers Dave? Nothing? not even a photocopy?
Now before someone else does, I will tell you that I am the Russell Crowe of New Zealand poetry. I was born in New Zealand but I live and write in Australia and have done so since 1965. Such is my lot, which I ascribe to formative years spent in Wellington nursing a Friday nite 10 oz beer on the periphery of the Louis Johnson, Alistair Campbell and Peter Bland circle at The George. Thrilled by these luminaries but not capable of echoing them, I took what I thought was an easier route to poetry through William Carlos Williams and the Beats, while those with whom I would share several flats (Dave, Paul Gray, Ian Rockel & co) began their trek with Eliot and Auden.
Thus in the following years I was the when-in-Sydney name in Dave’s address book, and every other year or so in his respites from teaching, he would visit en route to or from his daughter Sara who lived in Nimbin.
So it was that morning in 1978, when Dave showed me Baxter’s List, and I was moved to dumb awe as in front of some Rosetta Stone, some holy script wrested from a tomb. That I was at one remove a witness to the writing and some last words of Baxter’s genius.
As Dave owned the events I contented myself with transcribing the List for future personal reference. It did not seem proper to trespass on his account; but within a week or two of Dave moving on I had of course curated, archived and conserved Baxter’s list in the format of a poem.
As a poet, I endeavour to report, to say or show what is, to provide a verbal construct of that which I have seen, said, read or heard. Recording another’s droll riposte to some fatuous remark of my own is my stock in trade and dare I say it, provides much work.
Today however, I will not read you ‘The List / for / David Mitchell’ as published in Big Smoke. Instead I will finish by reading a version now informed by greater understanding of the list itself and by what I found in Dave’s papers when Martin & I undertook the editing of Steal Away Boy.
The List / for / David Mitchell
There is rain, so
an 8 point list
not on how to write
that a younger poet
I found its opening
& not explaining why
let such feeling states
Then - said Dave
& in some
that she pour
Pour don’t Perk
a newly bought
That’s my poem. Listen, observe, appropriate and record, and some poems will write themselves. I provided a beginning & found an end and between those two retold Dave’s telling in my voice.
My concern was to embed the list, to present it in such a manner that it did not disturb the continuity, the energy and narrative flow of the poem. In using a good supply of &s and some run-ons to keep up the pace I managed to use the one to eight count and make Baxter’s List part of the poem.
Who invented & / or forgot the waitress Jim instructs in my poem but not in Dave’s paper? Perhaps we can leave her be; for I recall laughing that morning at Dave’s notation of Baxter’s Pour don’t Perk to her & relished Jim’s appreciation of it. Dave’s telling that day underlined the import of the fortuitous and accidental in art.
A concluding remark or two. I am not aware that Dave has ever read or even knows of my poem. [but it’s in BS, and he has at least one copy of the book as we know from the Wgtn reading Dec. 2000]
Mine written in 1978, and rewritten some weeks ago, provides a deus ex machina of sorts in the guise of a waitress. It records all eight points and claims that these were dictated by Jim to Dave. Am I splitting hairs? No! Am I here to promote the veracity of my poem over that of Dave’s paper? No again.
I am here to let go. I am here to retire a poem, my poem ‘The List / for / David Mitchell’ because it has done its work, and I take some pride in that.
I am here in lieu of Dave to bring you Baxter’s list, in Baxter’s hand, with some pencilled emendations in someone else’s hand. Whether these pencillings are Dave’s or the waitress’s I do not know. However the list, the embossed envelope once thought lost, has been found & here it is.