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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Number 116: James K. Baxter "Wild Bees"

Wild Bees

Often in summer, on a tarred bridge plank standing,
Or downstream between willows, a safe Ophelia drifting
In a rented boat - I had seen them comes and go,
Those wild bees, swift as tigers, their gauze wings a-glitter
In passionless industry, clustering black at the crevice
Of a rotten cabbage tree, where their hive was hidden low

But never strolled too near. Till one half-cloudy evening
Of ripe January, my friends and I
Came, gloved and masked to the eyes like plundering desperadoes,
To smoke them out. Quiet beside the stagnant river
We trod wet grasses down, hearing the crickets chitter
And waiting for light to drain from the wounded sky.

Before we reached the hive their sentries saw us
And sprang invisible through the darkening air.
Stabbed, and died in stinging. The hive woke. Poisonous fuming
Of sulphur filled the hollow trunk, and crawling
Blue flames sputtered - yet still their suicidal
Live raiders dived and clung to our hands and hair.

O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
A job well botched. Half of the honey melted
And half the rest young grubs. Through earth-black smouldering ashes
And maimed bee groaning, we drew our plunder.
Little enough their gold, and slight our joy.

Fallen then the city of instinctive wisdom.
Tragedy is written distinct and small:
A hive burned on a cool night in summer.
But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.

- James K. Baxter

Hap Notes: I cannot claim to be an authority on the poetry of New Zealand but I did think this poem by Baxter fits in nicely with yesterday's poem by fellow New Zealander Katherine Mansfield. James K. Baxter (1926-1972) is one of New Zealand's most colorful, interesting and (in his time) controversial poets.

Baxter was a brilliant and somewhat eccentric person who held a variety of odd jobs as he wrote and read profusely. Educated at several colleges, first at Otago University and later at Victoria University and Wellington Teacher's College, Baxter's restless spirit made him move from place to place, learning, living and, for a quite a while, drinking.

He was an ardent protester of the Viet Nam War. You probably know that Viet Nam was not a U.S. unilateral "intervention" but was done by members of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, U.S.) Treaty and these allies all fought in the "police action." Baxter was also passionately dedicated to bridging the gap between the native Maori tribes of New Zealand and the Pakeha (white non-Maori bloodline residents of New Zealand.) He established a commune in Jerusalem (NZ) which met with varying degrees of success. He was interested in Jung and his writing often reflects Jungian sensibilities. He had a colorful and fascinating life that I will leave you to explore online at your leisure. (As you can see from his pics, he changed a bit from life-to-life work.)

How in the world do I know anything about New Zealand poetry? Well, I don't really but I read a verse by Baxter and it stuck in my head until I found out more about him. Here's the verse, which I still think is one of the great short poems I have read:

High Country Weather

Alone we are born,
And die alone.
Yet see the red-gold cirrus,
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland,
Ride easy stranger.
Surrender to the sky,
Your heart of anger.

- James K. Baxter.

In our poem today, Baxter tells of a group of pals determined to get some honey from a hive in the low crevice of a tree. They try to smoke them out with a "bee smoker"; a firepot with bellows and a nozzle to direct the smoke, sometimes with lighted sulphur. Smoke confuses and alarms the bees (sort of like yelling Fire! in a theater) and the sulphur will kill them. Baxter equates the destruction to the battle of Carthage (in which the Romans completely destroyed the African city in the Punic War.)

The poem certainly has it's underlying symbols of what "white" societies can do to natives but it's also straight up just observing the senseless violent behavior of people not respecting the value of the natural world. The scant honey they got was either melted by the heat or contained larvae- it was a lot of destruction for little gain. As is so often the case, eh?

If this poem has piqued your interest in New Zealand's poetry or bees, here's a couple of book recommendations: The Insect Societies by Edward O. Wilson and 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry by Paula Green and Harry Rickets (find this at your library- it's huge.)

Here's a good Baxter quote: "When some cheese-headed ladder-climber reads a poem of mine from the rostrum/ Don't listen." (he's referring to clergy)

Baxter's poetry is not easy to find online but worth the search. You can find two here:

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