Towards the end of last year I went hunting for some replacement Allen Curnow in the NZ poetry shelves of Arty Bees. An acquaintance who’d borrowed the beautiful, second-hand Curnow I’d found there had cheerfully denied any knowledge of it when we met on the corner of Wakefield and Tory, so I hoped to chance on more of his poetry. Curnow was absent that day, but this turned up instead.
It seems likely, given the ‘NZ Room’ sticker on the spine, and the barcode inside the cover, that this copy of Jerusalem Sonnets by James K. Baxter was purchased by Arty Bees from one of Wellington City Libraries’ regular book sales. Probably no-one had taken it out in a while: ‘STACK’ is written in red biro on the library’s shelving sticker.
Maybe it was a City librarian who affixed the sticky plastic to the brown and straw-gold loose cover, catching a few air bubbles. (The cover is a brighter, less muddy gold than in the photo.)
Before the City library owned it, it belonged to the Lower Hutt Library of Sacred Heart College. The collection seems so little handled – the pages barely marked, foxed or dog-eared – that I wonder if it was hidden permanently under the librarian’s desk, Baxter’s references to sex and pot and crabs deemed too explicit for impressionable minds. I should probably store it somewhere darker than in the leaning row under the windowsill on my desk, but I like to have it close at hand.
I imagine a conscientious and literature-loving Sacred Heart librarian who, having heard that Baxter wrote the sonnets while living at Hiruharama / Jerusalem, the settlement on the Whanganui River where Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion, decided that this Catholic son’s work must be included in the school’s collection. She must have been onto it, to get one of the first 500 copies. But after all, one of Sacred Heart’s six houses is named for Aubert. On receiving the collection, our librarian reads it (with some pleasure, we hope), and then slips it straight into a drawer, so as not to raise controversy amongst parents and disquieting giggles between the girls. I hope she pulls it out from time to time to revisit the poems.
I’ve never had the inclination to be a first-edition fiend. I just don’t see the point of collecting them for their own sake. (This past weekend at a neighbour’s garage sale, I recognised the local man who, two years ago, responded to my Freecycle ad and picked up my mother’s brittle and browned Coronation newspapers. Having failed to provoke interest either on Trade Me or at Arty Bees, the papers were headed for the recycling bin. I was glad they still had a life in someone’s mind.)
Nonetheless, the fact that this is the first edition of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets is part of why I love it. I love its air of contingency: here is an object produced with care and attention, but likely to perish within a few years unless protected in library stacks or a bibliophile’s careful shelves. It’s made of A4 paper and light card, fastened with staples. It’s a zine-like production. It feels both personal, and professional.
By contrast, my great-aunt’s self-published volume of ‘verse’, in which swaying multitudes of flowers sigh, wander, cluster, gaze and glimmer, sports a durable blue cloth-and-board cover with a textured, watery effect. I never met her. She was told she had a nervous disposition, and died before I was born.
The Jerusalem Sonnets paper is of a sufficient, serious weight. (Colin Durning, to whom the poems are addressed, paid for their first imprint at the University of Otago Bibliography Room.) The poems are typo-free, impeccably type-set, and well-placed on the page. The sinuous line drawing on the cover, reminiscent of a topographical map’s channel or ridge, is by Ralph Hotere. Since 2001 the drawing has found a preserved, if miniaturised, life on the cover of the annual online collection Best New Zealand Poems. (You can also see the drawing here, but as in my photo above, the whole image seems horizontally squashed. What is it with photos on the web?)
I also love the evidence of past ownership, particularly the school’s marks: the embossed stamp in the top right-hand corner inside the cover, in which the words ‘Congregation of Our Lady of the Missions’ surround a robed, haloed figure. Some librarian’s old-fashioned handwriting, looking like a great-aunt’s: ‘820 Bax’. The whited out top line of the address: ‘Convent of Our Lady of the Mission’, and the school’s badge-stamp. And I love reading the poems. I like their colloquial, personal and narrative qualities, their energy and movement and specificity, and the questions they ask.
Many months ago I wrote a guest post on poet Helen Heath’s blog about how much I enjoy my Kindle. There wasn’t room in that post to discuss a Kindle’s drawbacks. One of the most obvious is that on a Kindle, you can’t flick through the pages. It’s laborious to find the passage that you’re thinking of. As others have observed, when you read a paper book, often you haven’t marked that passage: you simply know that it’s somewhere towards the bottom of a left-hand page, and, oh, it comes after this bit, but before that bit (and meanwhile you’re finding other sections you liked, and which are relevant to your line of thinking).
On a Kindle, the equivalent of ‘flicking’ is unrewarding and dull, involving much back-and-forth on screens which lack any of the interest of the text’s actual pages. When reading a non-chronological, unconventional novel like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, the difficulty with flicking became a downright problem, preventing me (not the most retentive of readers) from figuring out who was who. If I had been more committed to the book, I would have made notes: on paper, of course.
But conversely, I think that if I’d read Visitation in a more easily manipulated three-dimensional form, my commitment to it would have been greater. I imagine that reading Egan’s wonderful Visit from the Goon Squad on a Kindle might have been similarly frustrating, but thankfully I bought a proper copy of that. And while I need to keep every book I read, I do want paper copies of the books I adore. (On my list for regular searches at Arty Bees is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.)
It wasn’t long after my post on Helen’s blog that I found this Baxter. Contemplating my love for it, I began to imagine a future in which paper books are the exception. I do believe that small runs like this 1970 edition of the Jerusalem Sonnets (500 copies) will survive, for the same reasons that the zine scene is flourishing. However, in a world in which a poet can tweet and Facebook her way to thousands of readers, maybe it’ll be a brave writer who publishes only on paper. I find it moving to look at these pages knowing that this edition marks the first time that a mass of New Zealand readers encountered these sonnets.
I also imagined a future in which hard-copy books might only be produced as souvenir editions, or because they will ‘find a market’ among nostalgic fetishists who resist the onward march of technology. The prospect saddened me. One reason this book means something is that you know, looking at the typeset poems on the pages, that the circle of passionate response to Baxter’s poems had yet to spread far. (Not that it took long: as the site The Black Art – very much worth a visit – tells us, 2000 more copies were published within 18 months of this edition.) People cared about this publication and made it happen not because of market forces, but for reasons to do with life force, and love, and art, and concentrated effort.
The title of this post is taken from Poem for Colin (6) from the Jerusalem Sonnets:
The moon is a glittering disc above the poplars
And one cloud travelling low down
Moves above the house – but the empty house beyond,
Above me, over the hill’s edge,
Knotted in bramble is what I fear,
Te whare kehua – love drives, yet I draw back
From going step by step in solitude
To the middle of the Maori night
Where dreams gather – those hard steps taken one by one
Lead out of all protection, and even a crucifix
Held in the palm of the hand will not fend off
Precisely that hour when the moon is a spirit
And the wounds of the soul open – to be is to die
The death of others, having loosened the safe coat of becoming.
James K. Baxter