Review | Mission Work, by Aaron Baker
| Mariner Books, 2008
Open certain issues of National Geographic and you’ll see indigenous communities of bare-breasted women stringing beads, lean, loin-clothed men and boys with spears, preparing for the hunt. This is as close as most of us get to tribal culture. Aaron Baker, the author of Mission Work, had the privilege of actually being there and uses firsthand experience to capture a culture from prehistory in the medium of poetry. The child of Christian missionary parents, from ages six to ten Baker lived in the Chimbu province of the highlands of Papua, New Guinea, among a branch of the Kuman tribe. Baker’s first collection of poetry, Mission Work, centers on this experience, recalling the impressions of boyhood: “Mists open like wings over childhood’s island.” Although he can glimpse the island, he does not claim to stand directly upon it. Baker must transcribe his memories through the filter of adulthood: “I am not a child as I lean into the memory / of a child’s window, the jungle beyond it.”
The book opens with a poem titled “Chimbu Wedding,” our first glimpse of the Kuman world. The violence of the pre-wedding ritual it describes highlights the Baker family’s difficult, and perhaps misguided, attempt to impose their Christian religion over the myths and archetypes of the tribe. Though the practice is commonplace throughout the Bible, modern Christians shrink from animal slaughter, and the symbolic wedding of the two cultures is off to a bad start. Though very young, the boy is privy to this scene of brutality:
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.
Generally, heaven is regarded as ultimate warmth, eternal salvation. The shift here to the “cold” light of heaven reflects the narrator’s perception of impermanence, into which he later places his boy-self, asserting that not even “one / hair on a child’s head” will survive the tragic cycle of life and death. The tribesmen who slaughter the hundred pigs appear unflinching—death fits readily into their monistic version of existence.
Selected single lines from Mission Work are striking in their simplicity and construction. For example, the first line of “Commission”: “Where memory divides like the first language.” With precision, with language, the line describes the time prior to written language, the primordial time both in human evolution and in the infancy of a child, the place where myth and intuition are not silent veils but the very conduits of human experience. The child of missionaries, the poet also alludes here to the myth of Babel and the resulting polyglot world. Later in the poem he writes, “a greater spirit waits in our blood and on our lips / to fuse our fouled scattered tongues.” This positivistic perspective anticipates the simplicity of heavenly salvation, suggesting a time when humankind will reunite on a global scale, overcoming the boundaries of language, culture, and religion.
One of the strengths of Mission Work is its dynamism. Baker is confident enough to change the mood, structure, or point of view from one poem to the next. In “Sing-Sing Kiama,” for instance, he translates a native cadence:
Flex fingers back
so only palms slap the drum.
Three shuffles in the dust,
four beats. Four beats and a turn.
The dark takes the forest,
dips into the valleys,
the dark takes the rivers. Woodsmoke.
Beads shake. Face-paint
in firelight. Four turns
and a leap. Palms sting on snake-
skin. The sky turning black.
The ground leaping up,
the dark drumming back.
Fast, rich with terse images, dancing with fire and rhythm, the poem’s pleasure lies in its music. The still darkness becomes enlivened with animistic power; it hears the gathering’s drums and responds by “drumming back.” “The dark takes the rivers,” filling them. Much imagery is presented in dualities—dark and (fire)light, black and white, river and dust, ground and sky.
The themes of Mission Work hinge on the episodic memories of a boyhood fused by the dualities of opposing cultures. The narrator’s experience ranges from fantasy and play to actual danger, as in the eerie recounting of a tribal war in “Blood Debt”: “Silence: the enemy, one mountain over, waits massed on a field.” Though we are led through the book by an impressionable child, Baker’s adult understanding refines and reveals the exotic and the fascinating. Memory is a translation of impression. Some impressions may mutate in memory over the years. Yet those of childhood are among the most resilient, even when the mind begins to slip. Baker refers to his memory as an entity with an independent voice in “Commission”:
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.
Baker understands that memory must be his guide. Sometimes elusive, sometimes unreliable, the force of memory shapes human identity. And though it may fade, its sensuality rushes back from a snapshot or a whiff of a forgotten odor. Baker undergoes a transformation in the second part of the book. His transplanted narrator, assimilated to new surroundings, expresses lament for the old. He asks: “Will we know . . . our own country well enough to ever return?”
But he has many friendships with the village children, especially a boy named Meugle, through whom he acquires the new culture. Juxtaposing Christian mythology with Kuman animism, Baker’s boy-self in the poem “Second Genesis” sees or experiences death in different scenes. In the last vignette, Meugle takes mud, which he considers “good sorcery,” and slathers the narrator’s entire body, transforming him into a new being called a “mudman.” This is the boy’s “Second Genesis,” his self-embrace and rebirth into a different mystery from that of his father’s culture and religion. Going one step further than the “mudman,” Baker occasionally alters the point of view, and slips into the skin of a tribesman in order to offer lore, reaffirming the oral tradition of storytelling, as in “Departures”:
Brothers, make peace with him.
This is the white-skinned giant Souw,
. . .
He knows which trees hold up the sky
and will cut them down for his tent-poles.
Historically, missionaries considered such paganism anathema, rigorously replacing it with Christian mythology, burying it beneath their own lexicon and dogma for ordering the world. Baker realizes his parents are, in their way, as exploitative as the gold prospectors he follows or the companies bent on “hydroelectric power schemes.” Beginning to liberate himself, he writes, “Let heaven / happen without me.” And later, in “Darkness Legend”:
But why not take the ax to the sacred trees? Why not
put on white shirts and sing with white men? Truly, says the preacher,
it’s best to forget this world and ask the next one into your heart.
Baker’s own “mission work” refutes this idea of forgetting the world. By his compelling pictures of both human and natural landscapes, he is able to reaffirm the world that Christian missionaries wish to dismiss for the sake of their own moral code. Yet he avoids undue cynicism and instead relives in full color the time he spent among the Kuman tribe, hoping for a reconciliation of differences. He meditates, “How would it be to wander the land and be lost? / What memory would I try to pass back to the living?”
Inevitably, the father becomes a pivotal figure in the collection. At the outset, Baker intimates he is rather rustic and informal. Blessed in a chapel prior to their departure, Baker sees his “father in a white shirt with rolled sleeves.” In "Highlands Mission," towards the end of the book, Baker’s father begins to accept the possibility of spiritual realities outside the Judeo-Christian paradigm.
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 Ditowagle.
“It silences spirits.”
“Perhaps she’s right,” said my father.
Throughout the book the father undergoes a tangible inner change. His role, in relation to his son, changes from parent to distant, seldom-seen stranger. One day, earlier on in “Commission,” Baker sees his father in public:
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.
The father’s failure to greet his son reveals an estrangement between them and, possibly, for the father, an estrangement from reality. In the space of four lines, Baker paints a patriarchal, tropical, and familial tableau. The father’s “golden beard,” in addition to mirroring the standard representation of Jesus, may be intended to reveal, symbolically, that he is in the process of spiritual change; a beard is a literal hiding of the face. Figuratively, it can signify spiritual or psychological hibernation from the world. In another encounter, the father, wanting to show his son a bird of paradise without startling it, takes the boy’s head in his hands and twists it, “like picking a delicate fruit.” There is a feeling in the text that the father wishes to open his inner world to the boy, but he also senses there might be harmful consequences. The father’s strange progress comes to a halt, however, in “A Prayer”:
My father, deep in malarial fever, keeps floating away
on his bed.
Damp rag in my fist. Knot in my neck.
Night beyond the curtains is gathering silence.
The poem’s last line, “His life rises again and again in my hands,” provokes a meditation on the silence beyond the curtains of night/death and the frailty of being alive. “A Prayer,” incidentally, is one of the few poems in which Baker uses solely Christian imagery.
From a weaker poet, Baker’s experiences could have produced a jumble of fragmentary images or, perhaps more likely, a sentimental sermon. Instead he offers us a precocious vision of the interconnectedness of human life. Should Baker’s overseas experience be exhausted with Mission Work, he has ample talent to compose dynamic poetry from the marrow of any moment past or present for books to come.
Aaron Baker received his MFA from the University of Virginia and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.