Prominent New Zealand women writers of very different hues have recently published memoir, including the luminary and much loved Patricia Grace. Wendyl Nissen’s clear-eyed, plainly written and supremely forgiving account of her troubled, unkind mother stands in stark contrast with Charlotte Grimshaw’s literary, dense and alarming account of growing up as C.K. Stead’s daughter. Now, as a kind of pastel middle ground, we have poet Jan Kemp’s Raiment. Kemp does not focus on any wrongs done by her parents — her childhood spent variously in Hamilton, Morrinsville and Howick seems in any case idyllic — or by various men with whom she came into contact during her teenage years and early adulthood.
Raiment begins, as do many conventional biographies and autobiographies, with the subject’s birth. Kemp made her appearance in 1949, second born of what would become a family of three children later, with the birth of her brother Ian. Older brother Peter and Jan dubbed Ian Iwi, because they could not pronounce Ian. Perhaps, at that time in a Pākehā family, it would have been more likely to have been spelt Ewee, or similar, but Kemp spells it the Māori way and reminds us that it means ‘bone, nation, strength.’
Her brothers were kindly and chivalrous, as was her much older father Morice. Her mother Joan was ‘…both my friend and my mother.’ When Kemp was only a few months old, she flew with Joan to Christchurch to have her harelip repaired, a challenge mentioned only once more in the text. Kemp is refreshingly resilient.
The early part of the book drags a little now and then, with too much detail about school subjects and teachers. The voice, which matures in the later parts, can sometimes sweeten too much, becoming cloying and cutesy-pie, however this is ameliorated by Kemp’s admirable memory. At nine years of age, she wins the Miss Morrinsville Junior Personality Competition, first prize of which is a bike. Her detailed accounts of the dress she wore, of her momentary fixation on the golden hairs on her arm and the white hanky folded into the poppit bead bracelet she’s borrowed from her mother, of the garb and mannerisms of the town dignitaries, of the company that donated the bike, of the smell and weight of her father’s jacket when he puts it round her after the procession, return the reader vividly to small-town mid-century New Zealand. This is the poet’s gift — the stringing together of images to create an imagined or recalled world.
The memoir’s title is explained while Kemp recalls her teenage years. She attended Pakuranga College, where she did well, winning prizes in speech competitions. But like many teenagers, she was harshly self-critical, believing herself to be fat and ugly. But then one morning, during an out-of-body dream, or what we used to call astral travelling, she remembers looking down at herself in the bed:
…I slip through the back of her neck, putting on her body as if it were a garment-in-one, putting myself into her arms and legs, with me ending up in her head. Gradually I remember her name, Janet Mary Kemp, and what she is like, her personality, what she thinks about the sound of her voice, who her brothers and parents are and what they are like. Then I wake up. I have put on my earthly raiment. I get up.
Among the sexual experimentation and the listening to her mother who tells her to save herself for marriage, there are also the stirrings of love for poetry. A beloved teacher instructs how you must ask yourself:
. . . three questions in this order: What is the poet doing? How does he or she do it? Is the poem successful? You are not supposed to say I like it or I don’t like it straight away for that means you haven’t even given the poet a chance to be heard. It’s a useless and meaningless response.
If only this was still taught, rather than the supremacy of easily affronted feelings.
Pace and interest pick up when young Jan moves from the outskirts of Auckland into Grafton, to attend university. This is also a vanished world — many of the rambling old houses inhabited by students and staff are long demolished for the motorway. It is also a rollcall of many of the most well-known poets, artists and scholars of that generation, featuring, among others, Reimke Ensing, Claudia Pond, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Robin White, Sam Pillsbury, Tim Shadbolt, Keith Sinclair, Murray Edmond, Mary Paul, Bob Orr, Arthur Baysting, Jean Clarkson, Michael Neill, Dennis McEldowney. Sebastian Black, Judith Binney and Kendrick Smithyman.
She recalls an exchange with Karl Stead:
Karl said to me, And when are we going to have an affair, Jan? I knew he was just being clever, so I managed to be just as clever and answered him, When you take the same emotional risk I would, I will Karl, which shut him up….I learned lots from Karl, though — once I told him I couldn’t possibly attain, sustain and retain the amount of knowledge I really should. Very wisely he said, The things you need to know will come to you and stay with you. The rest, you just let fall away. Those words have come back to me so often – just do your own thing. The rest will take care of itself.’
Here again is Kemp seeing the best in things, even Stead’s lechery. It is an appealing quality, as is her honesty. She doesn’t shy away from intimate details. Her first marriage, at the tender age of twenty, had the reception at Waipuna Lodge, which in 1969 was the height of sophistication. Her husband was an older man who was keen on self-pleasure. Kemp recalls that she asked him to ‘save some of it for me. He laughed and kept on, his face showing all the exhilaration he was feeling. I hated it, but what could I do?’
It was during the ill-fated marriage that Kemp trained as a primary school teacher, not that she practised the profession for long. In the early seventies she travelled to Wellington as one of a group of young New Zealand poets to perform in a late show at Downstage. Wellington poets Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire shared the stage, and Kemp’s devotion to writing and performing poetry was set forever.
The last part of the book is slightly rushed, particularly after the detail afforded the early chapters. It finishes in 1974 with Kemp setting sail from Vanuatu (then still called the New Hebrides) for Fiji. So abrupt is the end, furnished by a poem ‘Quiet in the eye’, which is about the eight-day voyage, that readers will be left wondering if there is another volume to come that covers her later years. I hope there is. I remember meeting Jan in 1979 in Christchurch, when she was touring with Hone Tuwhare, Alistair Campbell and Sam Hunt. I would certainly like to know the inside story there, as I would the story of her eventful life since, in Germany.