Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Aaron Baker : Distinguished Entry, 2003

Chimbu Wedding

Highlands Mission


Chimbu Wedding

When the villagers stake out a hundred pigs
and two men wade in with clubs,
watch how they float, cold as light out of heaven,
above the scene. When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in,
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. Not one leaf. Not one
hair on a child's head. See the women
hauling rocks to the fire-pits,
the boys kneeling to collect blood
in banana leaves, and think of St. Peter's
vision: cloven-hoofed creatures descending
on a sheet, the sky saying "Take, eat."
Learn to sit in the smoke with hunger sated
as children play with bladders they've inflated
like balloons. Learn a new language
for fellowship, and when you walk home
through the fields see if you can translate
the gloam-wrapped mountain's whisper
as Come. Then, if there is a place
prepared for the saints, you will know
which way to turn at the crossroads.
You will not trouble the angel at the garden
gate for a way past her sword. You will
not remember what blood washed you clean.

Highlands Mission


Mists open like wings over childhood's island,
green folds riding over the Pacific,
valleys overbrimming with beech, pandanus, casuarina,
jungle specked red and orange with untasted fruit.

From air-fall to landfall, chapter and verse,
I think of the spirit moving over the deep,
the deep heaving to divide the waters.
Of elsewhere entirely, my hereditary faith
taking root in the difficult soil of Canaan.
And only here and there a cast-out prophet
in the sun-cracked wilderness dreaming of forests
where the snake made his kingdom,
mountains where no Adam walked
and which no Adam named.


Parrots and cockatoos, hawks, swiftlets,
birds of paradise, flutter in and out of shadows.

The first mammals, Melanesian swine, swam ashore
bringing unclean spirits from the country where they were driven,
by a word, from the mountains into the sea.

They waited along their paths for Nopu,
father of the tribes, to enter the Highlands with his bow,
bamboo knife and stone adze.

Nopu's dog was their enemy and they hated,
from hiding, the bright circle of men at their fires.


Who can say where such spirits will settle
in their long migrations through roots and raindrops,
whose tongues they will touch, whose hearts?

The land lies like the body of a sleeping lord,

giving and withholding its favors.
Tossing restlessly, burying whole villages in mud.

I sat with an old woman who gave me a roasted
sweet potato at the edge of her garden.
Having no common language, we chewed
with the abstracted thoughtfulness of those Corinthians
at communion whom Saint Paul addressed saying

For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily
eateth and drinketh damnation to himself,
not discerning the Lord's body.


News came from Mount Hagen of two missionaries
dragged from their jeep and hacked to death with machetes.

At night, the old sorcerer came down from the hill
and walked through the forest with a flaming stick.

"It is good magic," assured our house-girl Ditowagi.
"It silences spirits."
"Perhaps she's right," said my father.

He returned to his study, leaned over a lantern.


Creation, we tell ourselves, looking to the lip
of the mountains, the rain's slant across fields.

At what place should we enter it? The river's long
motion, the bats flying, accurate in their hunger,
through the deep forest whine of mosquitoes.

At what places have we entered already?

Shadows shift through the rows of coffee trees at the yard edge.
The sorcerer's brand burns beneath the cross on the hill.


Where memory divides like the first language

we kneel in the stained light of a chapel.
My father in a white shirt with rolled sleeves.
My mother's skirt gathered at her knees.

Anoint, Lord, their lips. The Holy Spirit speak
through each word and work of your servants--
this man--this woman-- these two small boys--
as they labor in your fields.

From the subaqueous green at our backs,
the congregation is a warm breath that would raise us
as the minister moves between us for the laying on of hands.

When his palm moves from my shoulder
to my brother's, I close my eyes,

flex my fingers. Only my strength is in them.

Behind my grandmother's house,
light flares and dies in pastures above the evergreens.

This is the Northern silence, the smell of sap,
cold verticals and empty interiors.

The place before tree was yaku bane and rain kamun,
the place where memory would say it was from
when it left the tangled Papuan forests and wandered overseas.

With sixty native carriers, five gun-boys
watching the hillsides,
the expedition presses far into unmapped country.

Michael Leahy, camera and carbine slung on his shoulder,
considers the Wagai's terraced hillsides,
smoke curling above villages:

A valley of perhaps twenty thousand souls.

Gold-pans clatter as the column snakes through riverbeds
and along naked steeps. So far from their frontiers
there is no language here the interpreters will know.

It is not only necessary to establish communication
for trade and organizing labor, but to avoid hostilities.
Despite our guns, in this country it would be outright massacre.

Cries--like those of frightened birds--fly between hilltops.

Ni, father. Na, me.

Nina kata pagwa ene ditena ugwa:
              My father has come to tell you something.

Beyond the screened porch where I do math
our gardens spill down to the Ghanigai.

I draw straight lines along the ruler-edge
between points A and B

and pretend not to notice children watching
from bamboo groves beside the garden.

My father has gone to the men's house.
Two days ago I saw him, golden beard and dusty khaki,
crouched with two men in the shade of a banana tree.
His eyes rose to watch me as I passed.

When I helped to nail boards for the new house
I learned that edi was the word for both wood and truth

in the way kobuglo meant both money and stone
and kuri was both sister and star.

My mother and brother fingered in bulbs,

strung the lines now dangling with green tomatoes.
I runneled the ditches, a dull orange of hacked clay between plots.
Each evening I draw from a rainbarrel to water the roots.

Where the slope falls at the garden's edge,
high kunai grass, white stones in the river.
The water still and black.

When one large kina shell could buy a month's labor,
the Leahys hired a hundred natives to build
the first airstrip in Hagen. When the brush
had been burned, the ground raked, the workers locked
elbows and danced to flatten the earth.

We think that good things are coming out of the sky,
mothers told their children,
and the dance was to bring the good things down.

Massa Nick said that in three days a ballus--a big bird--
would come. And when it did come, dipping down it made a big noise.
Some ran and hid. Some lay covering their heads
and shit themselves in fear and confusion.

A boy of ten was chosen to fly to the coast so he could
return and tell what he saw. Do not eat their food
or you will go mad,
his mother told him.

He saw white buildings, the sea and boats at anchor.
He took food when it was given and ate thinking
Now I will go mad.

He asked for a bottle to carry some of the sea.
He saw a horse, thought it a massive pig,
and laughed to see a man carried on its back.
He asked for a cutting of its tail.

Returning home, he told what he'd seen.

The people didn't believe, so he gave them the bottle,
which they passed, gravely tasting the sea.
They touched the tuft of horse hair, and the boy's

uncle wound it around a stick for a totem of healing.

I lose sight of the gardens,
climb barefoot from the frustrated order of forest paths.

Cloud forest. Mosquito-buzz,
papery flight of cicadas,
pollen swimming through sunlight.

I do not know where my father is.

Tall stalks of wild ginger, mymecadia covered with ants.
There is nothing in the world to hold onto.

Rising into the clouds and returning
from where his father and mother will never go,
the boy's face must be touched by his mother
before she will believe he is alive.

Only after his father looks hard in his eyes, can he speak.

ade bemara
              place with the sun sets
ade umara
              place where the sun rises

I still want the words to say
I have come among you to be saved

to pass between you like food and drink,
to live inside you and be nourished,
to love as god is said to love from the other side of silence.

I have been told that what must
be redeemed has been redeemed,
that love is the unspoken as well as the spoken syllable,

that I need only take heaven into the eye,
love the scabbed knees of the elect,
the palsied spear-hand of the elder.

But for my tongue, tangled as if in gauze,

Aga gogl ki
              to be ashamed.

They say there are lost spirits that wander the forest
and may not re-enter the fold

though a greater spirit waits in our blood and on our lips
to fuse our fouled scattered tongues

into a tongue of fire that leaps over the land.

How would it be to wander the land and be lost?
What memory would I try to pass back to the living?

What love reach through me,
like a worm through speech, for the world?