Aaron Baker. Mission Work.
Aaron Baker's debut collection, Mission Work, begins with the image of pigs screaming as their skulls are bashed in as part of a wedding ceremony, and we are immediately introduced to the poet as observer, as an outsider in the Chimbu province of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. Some readers might be wary at first of this perspective, fearing cultural appropriation or voyeurism, but by the second poem the poet reveals himself as a child in this world, and this grants license for the wide-eyed notes of the narrator of the first few poems in the collection, an onlooker who sees an unfathomable cultural gap widen before him. Baker invites us in to this perspective at the close of the second poem, "Notebook":
This is how, though I needed for nothing on the mountainside terrace and in the creek-bottomed canyon, I came to a place where they killed a pig in my honor and called me by something much like my name.
From here the poet changes perspective throughout the collection's other poems, sometimes bearing the role of outsider, sometimes speaking from within the world he renders. He does not endorse or condemn either the purpose and place of the missionaries, his parents, or the culture he is placed in. Instead, he embraces his liminal role, demonstrating and making use of his place as an American child who is both outside of and part of the physical and social worlds he inhabits. One of the more ambitious longer poems, "Commission," works to hold up both viewpoints. At moments this poem becomes bogged down by memory and history as Baker tries to squeeze in the characters of his parents and the people that surround them, build the physical setting, relay events, and express the cultural and spiritual dichotomies, all alongside litanies of language and image. This is a poem of lush imagery and feeling, but which at times speaks more for the content, as if trying to quickly fill us in on the world he knows so well through his memories. But the more compressed lyrics sing like prayers throughout the book as Baker draws on the rhythms of devotion and invocation and zooms the lens close to images of his childhood world. These are pitch-perfect poems in which Baker's cadences and control carry us directly into the moment of each one. Wrapped in tight images, these poems radiate with a deeper resonance than the mergence of cultures through a young boy's eyes, as they offer up the birth of a speaker with a unique and deep-feeling nature, a speaker who experiences the spiritual world through the physical world, a speaker who is well aware of his place as outsider. "See how this works: I'm a dead boy come over the water," begins the poem "Cargo Cult." "Skin pale since it's bloodless, hair bleached blond / by the sun of an unforested country."
The command and the invocation return throughout the book, embracing a spiritual fervor that wraps us not only in the musicality of Baker's rhythms but in the surprise of the object of that passionate speech: the physical world itself, a world full of symbols of two cultures entangled, such as the literal wrapping of an old plane in the trees in "The Zero in the Branches":
Vines spill like a Gorgon's hair from the cockpit, birds nest in the guns, and from the wings, tree spiders spin sunlight out of hatred from heaven. May it never reach earth. May it hang there forever so we can come, as often as needed, to let its strange peace come over us ...
The repeated "May it hang there" calls out for the suspension of the mergence of dualities: human made and nature (or God?) made; Western and "tribal"; or the familiar and the unknown. In the next poem, "How Do You Like Your Blue-eyed Boy," Baker returns to invocation: "Let heaven / happen without me," the speaker chants, and later, "No one's left to sound the alarm. But let them / come, let them happen without me."
In "Spirits of the Low Ground," the rhythm of repetition moves to image: "The knives are calling / out for their fathers, // the skinning knife / and the warrior's, the knife / of the mother in the kau-kau field, //the knife the murderer hid under a stone." By the end of the poem the knife remains, giving voice even when the speaker has destroyed the physical markers of his life:
Tonight I will burn my hut, scatter my name in its ashes-- I have heard the knife I lost as a boy in the forest start to sing in its sleep.
Yet as vibrant and convincing as Baker's images are, his ability to capture what lies between worlds, what is untouchable, unprovable, is perhaps what carries this book far beyond poetic memoir. Many of the poems begin quietly, with narrated images that we cannot question, and build insistently to disquieting and convincing endings that pry at the unknown. Perhaps we see this most clearly in "Above Kerowagi," which begins with "Black and yellow lichen-spotted limestone, / mosquito-loud shadows full of cold-kept secrets," and carries us into underground caves with clear imagery, only to land us in these closing lines, where the speaker "know[s] with first urgency // that God will come into this world from the bit / of blue that remains. He will come // and I will leave with my skin. Faces nod / in my light, keep their distance and grin."
The willingness to embrace the ambiguity of the physical and spiritual world is revealed more blatantly in "In Guru Woods," which brings us these questions:
What shape did you glimpse, traced by the light-laced branches in the thicket's heart? A man's? Was it just a trick of the eye? Something conjured of the hidden marsupial's fear, the noise of water over the sand-bottomed creek?
While the use of questions in the collection is sparse, the sentiment behind it leaves other places in the poems in omission and ambiguity. Toward the end of the collection, in "The Day and the Hour," the physicality of fear and the power of memory haunt this scene of a family:
If we saw him a long way off, a knife's swath through the kunai, my father would kneel to wait, my mother not leave his side but call for us to hide. Under the bed, my brother's breath hot at my neck, we would stifle our cries even when we heard the floorboards creak, the rustle the blaze when he drew back the sheet. When one of us gasped, we wouldn't know which, and the rest white light, the faraway noise of voices half-remembered, the rest being carried to sleep as a child.
What had this boy, the speaker of these two poems, seen? What has been seen, and what has, perhaps, been recreated through the act of memory, or even reading, or storytelling? How have the influence of Christianity and the customs of a new culture merged in memory? Baker's skill and confidence wedded with his ability to embrace the unknown, the unanswerable, the unremembered, leave us satisfied with not always knowing the answers to these questions. In the last lines of the book we are left with this image: "Shadows shift through the rows of coffee trees at the yard edge. / The sorcerer's brand burns beneath the cross on the hill." Baker has revealed himself as the bearer of the cross and as the sorcerer, as the observer and the believer, as the child, and as the adult. Ultimately, it is this multiplicity that he embraces that allows him to bring us the complex world of the missionary's child, bringing us a different sort of an ambassador, and introducing us to a new and convincing voice.