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Poetry and Medicine III: James K. Baxter

High Country Weather

Alone we are born

And die alone;

Yet see the red-gold cirrus

Over snow mountain shine.

Upon the upland road

Ride easy, stranger:

Surrender to the sky

Your heart of anger.

This is one of my favourite poems by New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter. It is short and compact, selecting a few powerful images for the reader to reflect on, and in doing so it conveys both beauty and truth about the human condition.

At one level, we may want to challenge the statement that alone we are born, and die alone, citing our own examples of these pivotal moments in life being wrapped in a loving family. Yet as a poet, Baxter is stripping away some of the trappings surrounding birth and death in order to highlight in a few words that there is an essential alone-ness in the arrival and departure which book-ends our lives.

Suddenly, the poem switches from this introspective mood to draw us out into a mindful awareness of the beauty in the world around. Instead of talking in prosaic generalisations about mindfulness being an awareness of the present moment as we experience it through our senses in an attitude of non-judgemental acceptance, Baxter presents us with one breath-taking example. We leap from morbid thoughts to a magnificent reminder of how wonderful the natural world can be if we open our eyes to it.

In the second stanza, the poet or the narrator of this poem addresses the reader as a stranger riding an upland road. Describing the road as upland, with mention of a mountain in the previous line, suggests effort is required, yet this stranger is encouraged to ride easy. With another dramatic leap, Baxter urges the reader/rider to surrender to the sky their heart of anger.

Reading this as doctors, we may want a more detailed history, more explanation of the background and context. But ambiguity in poetry creates space for the reader to respond to the written lines in whatever way they resonate. We may acknowledge that anger is a burden we carry that makes the journey harder, or we may identify more closely with other related concepts such as resentment or frustration or finding it difficult to reach forgiveness. Similarly, within the consultation, allowing space for the patient to respond to what has been said creates the opportunity for the patient to relate the generality of the conversation to their particular need and circumstances.

Letting go, no longer fighting, is portrayed in the poem as surrender to the sky, but here the sky may be a metaphor for the natural world, or for a God or other symbol of the faith and values held dear to the reader. Once again, metaphor permits a range of responses in the reader, which encourages a personalised interpretation.

This essay was originally published in NZ Doctor, 2022.

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