The Ballad of Calvary Street


We have looked at ‘High Country Weather’, ‘Rocket Show’ and ‘The Ballad of Barney Flanagan’ in class this year. Last week I mentioned ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street’ which was written in 1960 and have posted the poem below.

Ballad of Calvary Street

On Calvary Street are trellises
Where bright as blood the rose bloom,
And gnomes like pagan fetishes
Hang their hats on an empty tomb
Where two old souls go slowly mad,
National Mum and Labour Dad.

Each Saturday when full of smiles
The children come to pay their due,
Mum takes down the family files
And cover to cover she thumbs them through,
Poor Len before he went away
And Mabel on her wedding day.

The meal-brown scones display her knack,
Her polished oven spits with rage,
While in Grunt Grotto at the back
Dad sits and reads the Sporting Page,
Then ambles out in boots of lead
To weed around the parsnip bed.

A giant parsnip sparks his eye,
Majestic as the Tree of Life;
He washes it and rubs it dry
And takes it in to his old wife –
‘Look, Laura, would that be a fit?
The bastard has a flange on it!’

When both were young, she would have laughed
A goddess in her tartan skirt,
But wisdom, age and mothercraft
Have rubbed it home that men like dirt:
Five children and a fallen womb,
A golden crown beyond the tomb.

Nearer the bone, sin is sin,
And women bear the cross of woe,
And that affair with Mrs Flynn
(It happened thirty years ago)
Though never mentioned, mean that he
Will get no sugar in his tea.

The afternoon goes by, goes by,
The angels harp above a cloud;
A son-in-law with spotted tie
And daughter Alice fat and loud
Discuss the virtues of insurance
And stuff their tripes with trained endurance.

Flood-waters hurl upoin the dyke
And Dad himself can go to town,
For little Charlie on his trike
Has ploughed another iris down.
His parents rise to chain the beast,
Brush off the last crumbs of their lovefeast.

And so these two old fools are left,
A rosy pair in the evening light,
To question Heaven’s dubious gift,
To hag and grumble, growl and fight:
The love they kill won’t let them rest,
Two birds that peck in one fouled nest.

Why hammer nails? Why give no change?
Habit, habit clogs them dumb.
The Sacred Heart above the range
Will bleed and burn till Kingdom Come,
But Yin and Yang won’t ever meet
In Calvary Street, in Calvary Street.

– James K. Baxter.

This poem also looks at the theme of the ugliness and sterility that Baxter saw behind the respectable front of New Zealand middle-class society in the 1950s. Note the use of religious references throughout the poem. What do they make clear about the life of the couple? Baxter had converted to Catholicism shortly before he wrote this poem so think about why he chose to use Calvary in the title.

3 thoughts on “The Ballad of Calvary Street

  1. very effective way of creating images within my feeble mind. i enjoyed this poem as if it were a pie and i were a fat child. thank you for opening my mind to this great work.

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