Full Disclosure: Volunteered at her gig at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh, which was organised by Rally & Broad (Broad being my partner Rachel McCrum), and the Scottish Poetry Library (where I work Saturdays).
Review: It’s not vital for reading this review, but if you are going to read the collection, I highly recommend watching videos of Tempest’s performances (or going to see her live if at all possible); these poems sometimes deliver their meaning as much through intense or repeated sounds as the words that contain them (noticeably ‘aw’ – as in ‘core’ – which appears at several key moments). I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that Tempest demands a different kind of reading from the PBS poets, or that to ask one’s audience to retune their ears is apostasy.
Hold Your Own is Tempest’s first full poetry collection, if you discount her self-published Everything Speaks in its Own Way and take Brand New Ancients as a single performance piece. The categories are encouragingly blurry. In any case unprecedented quantities of bumf have been written in the past couple of years – just google ‘kate tempest interview guardian’ for more exercises in poet-as-brand-narrative. All of which is a distraction from some seriously accomplished work.
In a similar vein to Brand New Ancients, Hold Your Own takes structural cues from Greek myth. Here the story of Tiresias opens the book and provides its thematic template, following him from boyhood to womanhood to manhood to prophecy, a neat organising principle for a collection that at 107 pages at times feels unwieldy. ‘Tiresias’ brings myth into a modern setting, or rather blends the two so that snakes coupling in a forest can be found beside shopping trolleys and used prophylactics. But the setting is secondary to the substance, and Tempest’s version of the myth is certainly the first that I’ve read that fully explores the implications of suddenly and violently changing gender. Tiresias is forced to abandon their life twice and the poem quietly implies that these changes are by no means of equal difficulty. As a woman, Tiresias ‘learns to be small and discreet. / She learns to be thankful for all that she eats. / She learns how to smile / Without meaning an inch of it. / She learns how to swim in the stink / And not sink in it. / It’s as if this is all she has known.’ The reverse provides a quiet, comfortable life: ‘He’s found a lovely partner / And they’ve made a life together […] He’s started doing pottery. / He’s joined the local choir’. What’s striking in the poem is that Tiresias does not change much within their own person; the opening lines strongly suggest the boy Tiresias is already considered outwith accepted norms: ‘They’re always laughing, / The kids at the bus stop. / He tries to ignore them […] Hating himself’. Through the story’s phases, Tiresias’ basic character traits (openness, optimism, pragmatism) remain constant, what changes is how others interpret them. Becoming a man means middle class respectability; becoming a woman (or perhaps just losing male markers) means dropping out of society altogether. That one piece can carry such sharp analysis and the dramatic astuteness to have Lad Bants Zeus say ‘Mate … ah mate’ when Tiresias is divinely blinded is refreshing to no end.
One of Tempest’s great strengths is building this kind of nuanced (often far-reaching) idea by first grounding it in personal terms. The section ‘Childhood’ emphasises that the worst abuses of adulthood are learned early. The innocence of ‘I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now’: ‘Collected things that we found on the ground. / Always the goalie. I never complained. / I told the stories; they did the sounds. / We painted potatoes whenever it rained’ quickly turns to self-policing in ‘School’ and ‘Bully’, and the blunt statement of inequality in ‘Thirteen’: ‘The boys have football and skate ramps. / They can ride BMX / and play basketball in the courts by the flats until midnight. / The girls have shame.’ These poems map out, plainly and credibly, how very basic abuses of power run in no small part through the collusion of those it oppresses. The boys in this section are barely visible, only ‘daring each other to jump higher and higher’ or, in ‘Sixteen’, ‘follow us to ask her why she’s with me’ and ‘grips the back of both our heads / and sticks his tongue into our mouths’.
The collection offers no easy answers. In ‘The cypher’ Tempest’s skill with lyrics gains her social acceptance: ‘I move like the boys, / I talk like the boys, / but my words are my own’, ‘my soft arms are clasped, I’m embraced like a man’. The very next poem, ‘Age is a pervert. Youth is a fascist’, however, states in no uncertain terms the poet’s understanding of what masculinity means, and perhaps why the welcome in the previous poem can only be given to a ‘cypher’, a male-friendly stand-in. The latter piece identifies the male other-hatred that demands female self-hatred: ‘Youth […] stares at the sagging mouths of his elders / and feels utter disgust and it makes him annoyed. / Why aren’t they ashamed of themselves?’ Compare also the line ‘When he steps out onto the street, / everyone is speaking his language’ to almost any other poem in the book. For Tempest’s characters, acceptance is something hard-won and deeply compromised, an all-encompassing, generations-old negotiation; note the line at the end of ‘Bully’, regarding the title character’s relationship to her emotionally abused sidekick: ‘Their mothers had been friends since they were at school’. These problems are not peculiar to the present and they will not disappear without a fight.
Hold Your Own‘s moments of (mostly) uncomplicated optimism come in its love poems. Taken out of context in the collection, ‘On Clapton Pond at dawn’ is heavy on the schmaltz:
‘You told me I reminded you
of Venus when I smiled at you,
or angels that go flying through
the paintings in the quietest rooms
of galleries. Renaissance girls,
all soft curves and floating curls.
We sat there and the light shone through
the leaves and we admired the view.’
But Christ, you’d need a heart of stone. After the rest of the book, such a quiet, gentle moment feels completely earned and real above anything else, and given the complex emotional understanding of a great many other pieces this captured moment of simplicity is powerful in its purposeful omission of wider concerns. Elsewhere, ‘You eat me up and I like it’ is a love poem of sufficient intensity I didn’t notice it was a sestina til the third time I read it. This section has half a dozen poems to match Cavafy at his best, full of skin and blood and unfettered desire, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read poems that had the technical ability to match the urgency of its emotional expression; Tempest gets away with so much by the quality of her ear alone. When she writes in ‘The old dogs who fought so well’, ‘these yearsdead writers wrote whatever it was that made the blood run in your veins again, just for you’, it feels very much like reading her own ambitions. It’s an audacity so impressive you could almost forgive a poem that humours Bukowski.
This patience, however, frays slightly in the final section, ‘Blind Profit’. Where previously Tempest builds her arguments through credible psychological profiles and recognisable social settings, poems like ‘Ballad of a Hero’, ‘Progress’ and ‘Cruise Control’ sell their worthwhile subjects short with over-generalisation and heavy-handedness, the few instances where the universal ‘we’ feels loosely defined or unearned. It’s noticeable that even in this section the most powerful moments come when close-up trumps panorama; ‘The downside’ explores the daily implications of Tiresias’ power, ‘They asked me for the football scores / They asked me for the winning horse […] All I could see / in flickering, ultraviolet pixels // Were their great-grandchildren / ripped to pieces by the missiles’. The collection is hugely ambitious and has complete confidence in its own voice; I guess what’s really impressive is that so few poems come off second best. I’d be shocked (and disappointed) if this was Tempest’s last word on matters of government, however.
There’s still a hell of a lot to talk about in this book. Why the decision in ‘Tiresias’ to capitalise the first word in each line? Might the authority Tempest arrogates itself be problematic in a non-aesthetic sense? Why Greek myth? I’ve barely even touched on the poems’ rhythmic complexity, their ability to wrong-foot the reader and still come out dancing. Or their sense of humour, particularly in the distinctly Patersonian aphorisms in ‘These things I know’. Or how refreshing it is (in an interview with Charlie Rose) to hear a poet using the word ‘responsibility’ with regard to their work. In any case I hope Hold Your Own gets the attention it deserves, less personality-fixation in the national press (which more than a few times smacks of deep-set condescension) and more taking Tempest seriously as a writer.
Relatedly, I hope many more ‘performance’ poets (the distinction is, I think, ultimately academic) get national publication, though of course from a practical point of view, not everyone gets nominated for the Mercury. On the other other hand, Penned in the Margins is already doing great work on this front, and they have printed some of the most unusual and exciting work in recent years. Imagine Holly McNish going up for the Eliot, eh?
Tl;dr: It’s not perfect, but the quality of Hold Your Own far outweighs its few missteps, partly through the sheer pleasure of the noises it makes. Wholeheartedly recommended.