James K Baxter, left, and John Weir. Photo was taken in 1967 at St Bede's College in Christchurch. Photo: John Hogan S.M via RNZ

Newsroom contributor Emma Espiner appeared at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend. She was asked to choose and read out a letter by James K Baxter, from a new volume of his correspondence, and to draft a reply to the poet.

James K Baxter’s letter to Phyl Ferrabee of Hamilton, send October 14, 1959

Dear Phyl,

Portrait of Jacquie [Sturm, Baxter’s wife]. Middle height. 33 years old. Half-Mori, Melanesian not Polynesian, boyish figure still (I like it), thick dark half-fuzzy hair which is a despair to her & will not lie at on her forehead. Dominant virtue: straightness, Dominant vice: anger. 

Adopted at 2 by European parents. Mother had died when she was 10 days old. Looks on foster-parents as actual parents (in feeling); but the ‘Maori stratum’ is a second self underneath her almost Girl Guide daylight self. On 2 memorable occasions in the past 12 years it emerged in the bedroom & delighted me. Generally it shows itself by a ruthless, implacable anger towards anyone or anything that disturbs or injures her. And in an inconsolable grief, a sense that she is alone in the dark and no one cares. 

Not beautiful at all; but a soft lovely voice when she is not angry. Has regular spells of acute anxiety, showing itself in exhaustion & physical rigidity & impaired circulation. Extremely, even obsessively hard- working: will be completely preoccupied for a month with some project of homebuilding & talk of nothing else. 

Intensely jealous of my male or female friends, A.A. members, R.C.s, anyone. Her well-developed radar would tell her in 10 seconds subconsciously, if she met you, Phyl, that we are something more than good friends. She would hate your guts for ever – and show it by an almost solicitous politeness. She never forgives even the smallest injury. 

Always has disliked being touched – by me or anyone – kissing or arm-round-the-waist irritate & embarrass her. Her reaction to any sign of sexual aggression on my part is – ‘You want to hurt me, don’t you?’ 

I think she would have liked a brave, active, courteous, warrior husband: a good business man, a keen digger of the garden, cheerful, with senses controlled to the point of atrophy, never cracking a coarse joke, whose shoulder she could cry on now & then without any fear that he would want to steer her into the bedroom. A modern St Joseph. I took him as my patron when I became a Catholic; and have a fair hope of fulfilling her expectations before I am 80. 

I love Jacquie; not always like, but love. Once I could not bear her coldness, or the virulence of her angers. But these natural qualities in her were increased a hundredfold by my drinking and infidelities – they have decreased somewhat already in calmer weather. I don’t blame myself half as much as I used to. Each of us has suffered acutely from the other’s temperament. e position of distance may well have a healing effect. She has X-ray eyes; knows my faults to the bone, and never hesitates to tell me them – if one can take it, that situation can be a good one. 

So I maunder on – always about J.K.B. Some day I hope I get tired of the subject.

Emma Espiner’s reply

Dear Jim,

I love the word indigenous so much it makes my eyes water. 

I whisper it to myself with a capital I, even though the part of me that was born of colonisers is a grammar pedant who insists that the inappropriate use of capital letters is a sin. 

Your wife was an indigenous woman who wanted to become a doctor. A bold plan, for a Māori woman, in 1946. Despite earning good grades, she was denied entry to the only medical school in the country. 

I think about Jacquie a lot. 

I fell in love with my husband, and with poetry, because of you and Jacquie. 

He waiata mō Te Kare, taken out of context, is a beautiful, haunting declaration of love and fidelity. 

‘Up here at the wharepuni, the star at the kitchen window mentions your name to me …Taku ngakau ki a koe’.

Ten years ago, in 2009, I walked the streets of Wellington for weeks in a daze, hearing his voice and your words. 

I even named the fucking cat after you.

In 2019, context is where it’s at Jim and I’m thinking about narcissists. My friend tells me the severity of this affliction can be signalled by the use of lowercase or capital N. I suspect your N would stand, erect on a McCahon landscape. I AM. 

I looked up the signs and symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder – like Jacquie, I plan to become a doctor.

I read that narcissists have an unwillingness to recognise the needs and feelings of others. That, despite harbouring secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, they lash out with rage and contempt and try to belittle and manipulate others. 

There’s no advice about seeking treatment because a hallmark of this disorder is refusing to believe that anything is wrong with you. 

Then I found a letter from a friend of yours about a medical student who had ‘gone off the rails on booze and pills and went absolutely nuts’ and tried to stab you, Jim. Funny old world isn’t it. 

Your mum was at fault, too. Of course. You said you did not feel loved by your mother as a child. So it’s her fault, your relentless pursuit of sex at any cost. 

You felt entitled to a body that was not yours. 

You felt entitled to a whakapapa that was not yours.

You took and took and it wasn’t even that you were amazing with it.

You were boring. You were a sex addict before it was cool and a tedious conversationalist, an asshole to your friends. Nobody even tried to hide the fact that you talked for the sole purpose of hearing your voice ricochet off someone else’s presence. 

You said she was ugly and you said it to other women so that they would sleep with you.

And [feminist writer] bell hooks said: ‘Think of all the women you know who will not allow themselves to be seen without makeup. I often wonder how they feel about themselves at night when they are climbing into bed with intimate partners. Are they overwhelmed with secret shame that someone sees them as they really are? Or do they sleep with rage that who they really are can be celebrated or cared for only in secret?’

This is for Jacquie. I believe she slept with rage. 

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