Morning Story: Akitio casts poetic, deadly spell

By MARK STORY - MORNING STORY


Arguably is a wuss' word.

It's why, when I'm occasionally asked who this country's greatest poet is, I don't say: "Arguably, it's James K Baxter."

I say: "It's James K Baxter."

Neither am I equivocal about his finest collection, the 1969 Jerusalem Sonnets, or his best individual poem, which starts:

Consider this barbarian coast,

Traveller, you who have lost

Lover or friend...

So begins 53 lines of beauty and loss; a two-paged punch from the literary icon's top drawer.

I am, of course, talking Baxter's poem - and gift to the Tararua district - At Akitio.

If you haven't been there (and you must) Akitio's a savage stretch of coast an hour's drive southeast of Dannevirke.

If you haven't read it (and you must) At Akitio is a savage seven stanzas that still leaves me tangled in melancholy and kelp.

Once, late at night, so fascinated with it, I grabbed a two-inch brush and splashed it in paint across my living room wall.

The next morning, admittedly no longer under the influence, I had no qualms with the change of decor.

My wife wasn't quite so taken with the new art; not because she dislikes poetry, but because she's ambivalent about that piece of coast.

When she was aged just 7, her uncle drowned at Akitio. His, I'm told, was a hero's death.

The 33-year-old Woodville fencer, who was athletic enough to occasionally play rugby for Manawatu, drew his last breath in February 1980 somewhere in the surf after swimming out to rescue a young child.

The youngster lived but, exhausted, his rescuer was swept back out and his body found days later.

Since stumbling across the poem in my late teens I'd been itching to see this beach.

Of all places both here and abroad that took Baxter's fascination, a small salty settlement in Tararua inexplicably sparked his best work.

So, in the midst of last winter, tired of imagining what this spark was, and now with a tragic connection of my own through marriage, I borrowed my folks' campervan and headed to the coast with my two sons.

A storm warning on the radio sounded perfect. We arrived during a freezing salvo of sleet with sideways rain. An angry mud-brown briny was hammering the thin sandy strip that lay between it and the road.

The female campground owner looked baffled at someone turning up with young kids in such inclement conditions.

"You realise this weather's only predicted to get worse tonight?" she cautioned.

"It's exactly what we're here for."

She shrugged, took my cash and handed us shower tokens.

We never used them. It was too icy to venture outside the campervan door.

Instead we watched the high tide crush outside our window, hovered over a warm gas primus and fried bacon for tea. The kids were excited at the counter-intuitive notion of leaving a warm house in Hawke's Bay to camp in the middle of winter during a Tararua storm.

That night it seemed only right to read them the poem before flicking the torches off and crawling into sleeping bags.

The darkness amplified the storm. Our four-wheeled lodgings rocked violently in a Shakespearean tempest.

Somehow, despite the storm's protestations, they fell fast asleep. I hoped they were dreaming of a selfless great-uncle, Baxter, and the barbarian coast.

One day, as I once warned my wife, At Akitio's final quatrain will appear somewhere on my person in permanent ink:

Pluck then from ledges of the sea

Crayfish for the sack. Not now but later

Think what you were born for. Drink,

Child, at the springs of sleep.

Just two days ago police called off the search for another rugby player claimed in his prime by this beach. Fijian 22-year-old Eroni Ravaga Gaunavou failed to surface when swimming with friends a week ago today.

My wife first told the story of her uncle after I happened to mention the poem years after we'd met.

It seems both the coast and its namesake poem have strong undercurrents of death.

It's where art and life sometimes collide.

Like Akitio's cruel drownings, I find At Akitio impossible to resolve.

That's how great art works. It's why this poem's sublime.

Literature's biggest gift to us is the occasional uncanny ability to make sense of life.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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