ReadingRoom

Haere ra, Jean McCormack

Tributes to writer Jean McCormack, who died this month aged 95.

Janet Hunt, author of a biography of Hone Tuwhare: I’m thinking of a lovely 1964 photograph of Jean and Hone Tuwhare taken on the marae at Tūrangawaewae by Ans Westra. In keeping with kawa, their shoes have been left in the porch outside but they are otherwise in their best clobber. Jean perches on a soft chair, knees demurely together and to one side, her arms folded protectively over her handbag. She is wearing a pale summer dress and white cardigan. Hone is dapper in a dark suit and patterned shirt and is balanced on the arm of the chair, his hands clasped in his lap. Both are looking down, their faces slightly towards each other, smiling at something he has said, sharing a special, happy moment.

It wasn’t always so. As Hone later recalled, their relationship was often tempestuous, marked by differing expectations and by passions that ultimately ended the marriage.

Jean Agnes McCormack, the daughter of a trade unionist and communist, met Hone Tuwhare at Auckland’s Left Book Club in 1948 where she was then employed. Hone had not long returned from post-war duty in Japan and was hungry for a new life. They shared a passion for socialism and for books and in her company, with her guidance and encouragement, the largely self-schooled steel worker expanded his literary horizons.

They married the following year at the Auckland Registry Office and were together for approximately 20 years. In that time they lived in several locations: Wellington, Mangakino, Te Mahoe, and finally, Birkenhead. Hone plied his trade as boilermaker while Jean’s role, as was customary, was that of housewife and mother to their three sons.

Crucially, over this period, Hone slowly morphed from metalworker to wordsmith, celebrating the publication of his first hugely successful collection, No Ordinary Sun, in the same year that Ans snapped them sitting together at Tūrangawaewae.

Both remained active and committed socialists but they were on divergent paths. In Auckland, Jean trained as a primary teacher and gained her own income, vehicle and independence. Their children were entering their teens and she was settled in the home in which she remained for the rest of her life. Hone, on the other hand, was increasingly unsettled and in demand as a poet and performer, drawn away from the family into and intoxicated by the world of writers, artists, fellowships, conferences and the adulation — and arms — of fans.

The relationship was unsustainable. When he was offered work in Western Samoa in 1970, they parted. Hone went on to become one of New Zealand’s most charismatic, loved and successful poets while Jean — well, this is where I stop, but later photographs show her smiling and happy, secure in the love of her children, mokopuna, community and friends.

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From the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography (Hone and Jean belonged to the Auckland Unitarian Church): Hone Tuwhare found a friend in Phoebe Meikle who was an editor with the publishers Blackwood and Janet Paul from 1960 to 1965. She “very much wanted a Māori voice to be widely heard.”  Phoebe had taught English at Takapuna Grammar School for many years and Jean McCormack had been one of her students. Tuwhare told Phoebe: “You taught me my grammar because you taught it to Jean and she taught it to me.”

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Rob Tuwhare, Jean's son:  Mum worked at the Left Bookshop on Elliot St. Her first job after strawberry picking. I said to Mum, "I don't suppose Māori men who worked with their hands went into places like that."

Maybe bolts of electricity shot across the top of the Penguin section as their eyes met.

There is no doubt this world rubbed off on Hone in many different nuances and influences. From Mum's Dad, who was locked up with Archibald Baxter back during another ugly war. And Mum's Mum, she ruled the house in her gentle strong way. She woudn't marry a man whose shoes she had to clean.

And the shelves of that bookshop lovingly loaded by Mum's hands where Hone's eyes feasted and tasted. And Dad on Elliot St looking in the window, was it Mum he saw first I will never know. Let's say yessssss.

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Roger Steele, publisher at Steele Roberts: Jean's middle name was Agnes. Even though Penguin did a lovely job with his Mihi: Selected Works, Hone ditched them as a publisher because they got her name wrong in Hone's dedication, calling her “Jean Angus”. He never forgave them.

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Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, poet: It’s not often that my ventures into the badlands of Twitter deliver treasure or tears, but when I saw Bill Manhire’s tweet, telling the world that Jean McCormack had died, I got both. I struggled to recall exactly when and how I’d had contact with her in the year of her ex-husband Hone Tuwhare’s death in 2008, but it slowly came back.

On August 25 that year, she sent me some biographical details for two poems I was to send to Robert Sullivan for publication in a tribute to Hone that would appear in the online journal, Ka Mate Ka Ora.

These two powerful pieces of her heart remind me of the work done by another writer’s widow, who also had to step out from behind a huge male presence: Jacqui Sturm [the widow of James K Baxter]. Both of these great women were emblematic of how female poets of their generation were suffocated by the men in their lives - until they broke free.

Full-sized, uncropped photo by Ans Westra of Hone Tuwhare with Jean McCormack.

Here is how Jean described herself in the bio notes she provided:

Jean McCormack is a mother, grandmother, and a great-grandmother. She trained as a teacher at the age of thirty-nine, and retired in her mid-sixties. Her interests are family, friends, a book club, walking, summer swimming, crochet, and writing.

Many years were spent in researching and recording family history and her memoirs. Before her marriage, she worked in Progressive Books, a left-wing co-operative bookshop in Auckland, where she met Hone Tuwhare .They married 1949. They were divorced in the mid-seventies, but had occasional contact in later life. Her poem Sand appeared in the Listener in 2004, and she has had several short stories published.

E te rangatira, e Jean, e kui, haere, haere, haere atu rā!

... and here is Jean, coming into the light at last, with her poem “Sand”, published in Ka Mate Ka Ora in September 2008.

Sand

I walked on this beach
with the Māori father of my sons
fifty years ago and more…
He didn’t tell me the grains of sand
on the beach were his.
We crossed the creek
and wrote our names on a rock
encircled with a heart.

We danced at the Pirate Shippe
waltzes and foxtrots
and the Levita.

We move in different times and spaces now.
I walk the same beach in the winter.

And still no word from him about the sand.

 
 

Jean  Agnes McCormack, September 30, 1925-April 22, 2020

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