The Guyton St Group and Elise Goodge are not the first to look for recognition of poet James K Baxter in Whanganui, Hazel Menehira says.

The former Whanganui actor, teacher and writer is now in her 80s and living in Queensland but heard about Ms Goodge's mission to fund a statue of Mr Baxter to be placed on the corner of Guyton and Wicksteed Sts. There is already a bronze bust of Baxter, made by his friend, sculptor Joan Morrell.

Mrs Menehira was another friend of the poet. She met him as a reporter for a Whanganui daily paper, and remembers going to interview him at Jerusalem/Hiruharama. Baxter spent much of the last two years of his life living in a commune of young people there. He wrote many poems about that time.

He was a controversial figure who felt it his duty to be "visibly poor" and "certainly looked the full tramp". When Mrs Menehira was with him people would cross the street to avoid them.


She was undeterred, and said the poet "moved her inner spiritual depths".

He was often in Whanganui for court cases relating to the young people, and used to drop in to see her at work.

"Invariably, he called in at the newspaper office to share my desk, my copy paper, my pens and the staff coffee," she wrote in her book Nothing as Posh as a Memoir.

Baxter wrote a poem for her one summer day in 1970, after they had talked about life and literature in the sandhills by the river mouth. She still has it, framed.

Poem for Hazel

The brown river, the old water dragon Goes down between willows, over rapids

through gorges

To die in the sea - when I was a boy,

I lived here

On St John's Hill, walking under oak trees

Or where the boats loaded and unloaded At the black wharves - It is the same sun

Shining in mid-heaven. Te Ra himself,

The sign of the Lord St Francis called him, Who carried fire in his wings - but when I

leave my cottage

Potatoes, cabbages, beans, planted in rows

In the new earth and come to town

I find I am like the river dissipating Fresh water in salt, losing the taste of solitude To

flow on beaches where the driftwood piles and gathers.

After he died in 1972, Mrs Menehira and others wanted some tangible recognition of Baxter in Whanganui. She was one of the Landmark Players, who staged his plays to raise money for it. They wanted the bust displayed in either the library or art gallery. They took the plays to the Repertory and Four Seasons theatres in Whanganui, and to Taihape, Stratford and once to Wellington. There was even a performance of The Band Rotunda in the Whanganui War Memorial Centre Forecourt. The bust travelled with them in a van when they were on tour.

"I guess I would be the only person who has slept with their frozen cold feet blanket-wrapped inside James K Baxter's head," she said.

The council of the day gave the players a definite "no" to putting the bust in some honourable position. One councillor said the only place for it would be a lavatory. There were years of disparagement from succeeding councils as well.

"May they who turned their backs on Baxter in Whanganui streets and on council hang their heads in shame," Mrs Menehira said.