On fellow poet Kendrick Smithyman's copy of Jerusalem Sonnets (1970), James K. Baxter drew the outline of a hand on the fingers of which he inscribed the five essential principles of his newly refined social philosophy: "To share one's goods"; "to speak the truth, not hiding one's heart from others"; "to love one another and show it by the embrace"; "to take no job where one has to lick the boss' arse"; and (on the thumb), "to learn from the Maori side of the fence".

On the palm of the hand he wrote: "... when Maori and Pakeha do these things together, the double rainbow begins to shine". This drawing is reproduced as the frontispiece to John Newton's absorbing book and also provides its title, as an image of potential bicultural partnership. It was 40 years ago that Baxter abandoned the trappings of middle class life - family, home, job, possessions - and removed himself to the tiny village of Jerusalem (also known as Hiruharama), on a remote stretch of the Whanganui River, where he lived first alone and later as the leader of a ramshackle community which he called Nga Mokai, the homeless, and which Newton describes as a unique and almost unprecedented experiment in Maori/Pakeha communalism.

The choice of Jerusalem was far from random - the settlement was both Catholic and Maori, and Baxter's dream was to merge the values of these two groups. At the time of the Jerusalem experiment, which occupied much of the last three years of his short life - he died at the age of 46 in 1972 - Baxter was New Zealand's best-known poet, a position he had sustained almost since his first book, published when he was 18, in 1944.

Baxter's divergence into bicultural communalism was regarded dubiously by most of the literary fraternity, whose attitude is summed up by C.K. Stead's phrase, "the farce of the Catholic hippy" (though Stead greatly admired the poetry of the Jerusalem years). Most of the few fellow writers who attended Baxter's tangi at Jerusalem felt sceptical and sidelined by the events.

Newton, however, though a poet, academic and literary scholar himself, breaks with this tradition and treats Baxter's social experiment with wholly uncynical but clear-eyed seriousness. The book explores in detail Baxter's relationships with the Catholic Church at Jerusalem and the Ngati Hau people who welcomed him into their community. He analyses with subtlety and sensitivity the transactions between the locals and the hordes of disaffected youth who found their way up the river to Baxter's well-publicised retreat. Among the many telling points he makes is that the young hippies filled a demographic gap in a rural Maori community left by the departure of a younger generation to jobs in the city.

A refreshing feature of the book is that it is less Baxter-centred than most previous accounts, either in the media or by Baxter's literary biographers. For example, Newton pursues the history of the Jerusalem community into the period that followed Baxter's death and into other communal experiments around the country set up by people who had been at Jerusalem or were influenced by Baxter's anti-materialist, bicultural and spiritual philosophy. Newton has talked to scores of people who participated in these events and organised several hui at Jerusalem itself to ensure he overcomes as far as possible the limitations of academic "objectivity" or an outsider perspective.

It is evident that the author shares Baxter's belief in "learning from the Maori side of the fence" and offers convincing evidence that far from being a bizarre aberration, Baxter's experiment in bicultural communalism has continuing lessons for us all. It is an important book.

The Double Rainbow:James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune
By John Newton (Victoria University Press $40)

* Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer and director of Holloway Press.