Mission Work


In this prize-winning collection, a debut poet evokes his childhood as the son of missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

Mission Work is an arresting collection of poems based on Aaron Baker’s experiences as a child of missionaries living among the Kuman people in the remote Chimbu Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Rich with Christian and Kuman myths and stories, the poems explore Western and tribal ways of looking at the world—an interface of vastly different cultures and notions of ...

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Mission Work: Poems

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In this prize-winning collection, a debut poet evokes his childhood as the son of missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

Mission Work is an arresting collection of poems based on Aaron Baker’s experiences as a child of missionaries living among the Kuman people in the remote Chimbu Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Rich with Christian and Kuman myths and stories, the poems explore Western and tribal ways of looking at the world—an interface of vastly different cultures and notions of spirituality, illuminated by the poet’s own struggles as he comes of age in this unique environment.

The images conjured in Mission Work are viscerally stirring: native people slaughter pigs for a Chimbu wedding ceremony; a papery flight of cicadas cuts through a cloud forest; hands sting as they beat a drum made of dried snakeskin. Quieter moments are shot through with the unfamiliar as well. In “Bird of Paradise,” a father angles his son’s head toward the canopy of the jungle so the boy can catch sight of an elusive bird.

Stanley Plumly, this year’s guest judge, writes, “How rare to find precision and immersion so alive in the same poetry. Aaron Baker's pressure on his language not only intensifies and elevates his memories of Papuan 'mission work,' it transforms it back into something very like his original childhood experience. Throughout this remarkably written and felt first book, the reader, like the author himself, ‘can’t tell if this is white or black magic,’ Christian, tribal, or both at once.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wildly beautiful . . . Aaron Baker has written his own creation myth and discovered an original voice."—Carol Muske-Dukes

"Richly textured and self-confident . . . MISSION WORK is a haunting and powerful debut."—David Wojahn

"Aaron Baker’s extraordinary journey in poems . . . has the power to awaken us all to the deep strangeness of being alive."—Gregory Orr

"It is the encounter between an adult imagination . . . finding the child again which makes this work both compelling and moving."—Eavan Boland

"How rare to find precision and immersion so alive in the same poetry . . . remarkably written and felt."—Stanley Plumly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618982677
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Pages: 63
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron Baker is the winner of the 2007 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for poetry, selected by Stanley Plumly and awarded by Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Baker received his MFA at the University of Virginia. His work has been previously published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, and Poetry, among other publications. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and teaches at Hollins University.
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Read an Excerpt


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. See the women hauling rocks to the fire-pits, the boys kneeling to collect blood in banana leaves, and think of St. Peter’s vision: cloven-hoofed creatures descending on a sheet, the sky saying “Take, eat.” Learn to sit in the smoke with hunger sated as children play with bladders they’ve inflated like balloons. Learn a new language for fellowship, and when you walk home through the fields see if you can translate the gloam-wrapped mountain’s whisper as Come. Then, if there is a place prepared for the saints, you will know which way to turn at the crossroads.
You will not trouble the angel at the garden gate for a way past her sword. You will not remember what blood washed you clean.


See how this works: I’m a dead boy come over the water.
Skin pale since it’s bloodless, hair bleached blond by the sun of an unforested country, I bring good blades and fine cloth. My voice is strange music and I want nothing of yours. There’s health in my touch. Eat the bread, drink the blood and the sea, which for so long delivered only upcoast coconuts, handfuls of shells for charms, and scraps of meat that lay in the froth to be picked at by gulls, will now cast up God.


Bees float in the frangipanis behind the chapel.
The day’s wash hangs limpon the line.
Meugle’s father has gone to battle, mine to set the Bible against the bow and spear.
We train a telescope on the hills.
Women move slowly through the fields.
I see, says Meugle, the Dagle Mitna sitting on their shields, my father and Apa drawing arrows in the brush.
I lean in for a look, see in the circle of light a woman bowed over her garden.
Yes, I say, your father has killed a man.
Meugle nods, his thoughts more distant from me than our fathers. I see beside the woman a naked child weaving garlands out of grass.

* * *

Will you find me where I’m hid?
Have angels finished wrestling in these fields?
Our battle is not against flesh and blood — I palm the black book. You notch your arrow.
Our fathers are at war with our brothers.
We’ll be a single son of this country when each has killed half of the other.

* * *

Flight through the rain-streaked half-light, thick splatter on fronds.
The pig crashes through the underbrush, frayed rope snaking after him.
I snort, slip in the mud, scramble head-first through brambles and vines, then rise in the clearing where Meugle lifts the pig, snout gripped shut by a fist.
Pulsing at my throat, my life.
Meugle kneels to use the knife.

* * *

In the game of war, our spears are stalks of fern.
I lie in the hillside grass and take my turn as a sleeping sentry. Even in play, I feel a sudden fear of his dark shape on the sky. When he strikes, I writhe and die around my wound.
He shouts, raises his spear. When I rise, he wipes grass seeds from my shoulders and hair.

* * *

Smells of woodsmoke and sweat fill the cool of the hut.
Meugle’s wet face glows over the fire.
He rolls a sweet potato from the embers with a stick, touches my shin with its still-warm tip — Ene Yegwa, yours.
I hold the potato in both hands, decide it’s my heart, that I will keep it hot as long as I can.
He frowns, touches me again with the stick.
I peel the black skin from the soft white meat.
When Meugle smiles, my throat gluts with thanks.

* * *

He kneels and fingers my welts, says that evil sorcery brought up the bees.
He covers me with deep handfuls of mud from the river.
Good sorcery, he says, and as the mud dries, it draws out the sting.
But he keeps adding more. His fingers move over me, fashion a helmet for my skull, broaden my chest and shoulders until I whirl away, flinging mud and splashing up water.
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.


What shape did you glimpse, traced by 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?
Did a spirit watch at the edge of its sight as you passed along one path of its world?
There are so many roads into this forest, butt you can leave by just one.
Already, you are disappearing amidst light motes, smells of pollen.
Already, you cannot remember what you sought here, so far from home.


What I want most — what I wish —

No. The facts — let’s begin there.


mother said “Sit. Read and say nothing.” Yes, that was it. “Sit. Read and say nothing” and went on kneading the wash until the men came into the yard. She smiled — she’s smiling, raising one sud-soaked hand from the basin and he — the captain nodded — I mean, now he is nodding — moving his hand from his holster and I’m reading —

What are you reading?

No. I am not reading.
The breeze lifts one edge of her skirt —

and the dozen or so policemen — I think there must be a dozen or more — are eyeing our pineapples and tomatoes.
I look at one word without reading and now they are stomping downriver in their black boots and she is plunging her hands in the water as if to wash clean her lie.
She is what?

I’m sorry. She is washing her hands.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Chimbu Wedding 3 Notebook 4 Commission 7 Cargo Cult 12 Bones 13 Blood Debt 15 Bird of Paradise 16 The Taban Tree 17 Second Genesis 18 Sing-sing Kiama 21 Spirits of the Low Ground 22 The Red Snake 23 Bride Price 26 The Weaver 27 The Zero in the Branches 28 How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy? 29

Departures 33 Taro 39 Read and Say Nothing 41 Albino 42 A Prayer 43 Above Kerowagi 44 War 46 Evil Spirit 47 In Guru Woods 48 Darkness Legend 49 Ditowagle 50 The Day and the Hour 51 The Last Way 52 Highlands Highway 54 Highlands Mission 55

Notes 59 Acknowledgments 61

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