Kemp's poems bear the evidence of her cosmopolitan career. They are prompted by diverse places, people, events, and objects, but the outer world around which she moves always shades into an inner world of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Kemp has an eye for the tiniest detail and an unusual capacity to enter into other lives, even past lives: the towns and cities she visits are peopled with the dead as well as the living, so poetry may be sparked by snippets of information about historical figures who inhabited them. Kemp is adept at reading signs and hearing sounds. She delights in the quirkiness of language, its rhythms and tones, as words echo and chime, forming patterns. Her poems are made to be heard. She herself is their ideal performer.
'Puriri' celebrates the miracle of love while acknowledging its fragility. 'Hong Kong sounds' playfully evokes the commercial bustle, noise, and glitz of the city. The whimsical 'Ballad of Donna Quixote', driven by its rollicking beat and unpredictable rhymes, gives a feminine slant on Cervantes' novel.
Kemp's latest collection, Dante's Heaven (2006), engages with familiar New Zealand themes of personal and national identity, here and there, then and now, in an imaginative new way. At the end of the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil journey upwards from the depths of Hell to emerge in the southern 'watery hemisphere' on the shores of the island-mountain Purgatory, the exact antipodes of the point of entry at Jerusalem. As they complete their climb there appear above them 'the fair things that Heaven bears' and they see again the stars. And among them, Dante tells us at the beginning of his Purgatorio, are 'four stars never seen except by the first people'. So Kemp imagines Dante as a kind of visionary Kupe, Tasman, or Cook (successive Maori, Dutch, and English discoverers of Aotearoa/New Zealand), viewing the Southern Cross over the South Seas. Dante's Heaven explores New Zealand experience, where 'We are all newcomers', with homage not only to Dante but also to the country's own spiritual cartographers - contemporary writers. There is an eloquent mix of local, historical, mythical, and literary reference.
'Swimming' relishes pure sensation, yet time and selfhood are touched on, and Dante would have recognized 'Madonna-blue'. 'Someone kissed me' alludes to Dante's first glimpse of Beatrice, but the image of the 'moth's wing' recalls the early love-lyric 'Puriri'. Beatrice speaks again in 'He reads his poem aloud', and 'Beatus' fuses Mount Purgatory with the tor at Torbay (which Kemp's former Auckland seaside home overlooks). There, according to local Maori legend, a girl waits for the return of her lover. Kemp's verse continues to broaden in range and develop new strengths.
(Mac Jackson, Emeritus Professor, University of Auckland)
Her recording was made on 9 and 10 July 2007 in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and was produced by Jeanette McKerchar.