Mission Work, by Aaron Baker

Mission Work cover
The ancestors have returned in their white skins to the New Guinea highlands and strain the rivers for the golden grains of their bones. Or perhaps these are descendents of the white-skinned giant who slept with his daughter and fled the land out of shame. They carry lightning in a stick. Reading this, I am reminded that I once was yang guezi, foreign devil, in the frightened eyes of a boy from a civilization centuries more sophisticated than my own.

I make a list of the words that are not here: primitive Stone Age heathen superstition, and the words that are: knife sorcerer taro mountain spear spirits pig. Worldviews blend and merge in the imagination of the missionaries’ boy, this Aaron who identifies with the smooth-talking Aaron in the Bible, who merely threw gold in the fire, he said, and out came bull. Myths from the desert mingle with myths from the forest. His father goes between two sides in a local conflict and tries to make men love their brothers, while he and the other boys play war with fern stalks for spears. “We kill, are killed, so often in these games.” A rusting cockpit suspended in a treetop, the Rising Sun still visible on its side, bears witness to wider, more brutal wars.

I read: “when the blade slits/ its throat and the pig’s blood is poured// into yours, rise and fill its shuddering flesh/ with your life.” I put the book down to start making supper and promptly slice open my thumb while peeling a potato. It’s a shallow cut, and I don’t feel like pausing to put on a bandage. I let blood drip into the stew — who will notice? But the cut burns when I touch it to the slab of venison.

It’s hard to believe this is the author’s first book. He writes with great delicacy and precision, leaves the obvious lessons implicit, and avoids melodrama and gratuitous exoticism. This vision of a very different culture seems natural, for whose childhood memories don’t become impossibly distant with age? And as children almost all of us believed in magic to some extent, so when, for instance, Aaron’s friend tells him that “evil sorcery brought up the bees” that stung him, that doesn’t seem so unfamiliar, and even the cure — caking him in mud to draw out the sting — is something I can imagine doing myself as a kid, especially when his friend takes it to an extreme and coats Aaron’s entire body with mud.

Meugle crouches,
amazed at the work of his hands

as the mudman dances, impervious to pain—

and I can’t tell if this is white or black magic,
his gestures to summon or ward me away.

On the other hand, this is not an extensively end-noted book, so unless you happen to be well versed in the ethnographic literature on New Guinea highlanders, some of it is bound to go over your head as it did over mine. But for me, this is like taking an intensive language class taught total-immersion style: just a thin thread of comprehension is enough. I reach into my right ear and extract a small round black hard thing.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

2 Replies to “Mission Work, by Aaron Baker”

  1. Aaron was a scholar in the workshop that I attended Sewanee a couple of summers ago. (I think it was the year this book won the Bakeless prize). I wish I hadn’t been so blasted shy, because I didn’t tell him what an amazing book this is. Thanks for doing it for me!

    Breadloaf consistently picks elegant winners. Check out (if you haven’t) Leslie Harrison’s Displacement.

    1. Really? This is the first Bakeless winner I’ve bought, due I think to one of its poems being featured on Poetry Daily. I will keep an eye out for others, then — thanks. And glad you agree with my assessment of Mission Work.

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