Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

Disclosure: Have not met the poet, did the door at one of her gigs in Edinburgh though. Review copy provided by Picador. Reviewed her first collection, Hold Your Own, positively. Thanks to Harry Giles and Sophie Collins for advice and permission to quote from their work.

Discussions of Tempest’s poetry are almost always obscured by discussions about Tempest the icon, most commonly – and deeply unfairly, I think – projected as a golden goose of arts orgs or as a preacher of the kind of morals we (if by we we mean the white middle class liberals who consider the British poetry scene our birthright) used to assume everyone holds. This impulse deserves unpacking, so if you’re just here to read what I think of Let Them Eat Chaos, please skip to the section marked ‘Review’. Until then I’m going to argue that the fact a metaconversation exists at all is largely down to a deeply rooted conservatism about the kind of artist we’re comfortable hearing.

Tempest is wildly successful. Those who’ve been paying attention to Tempest’s career from the outset (my source is Harry Giles, I’m sure you can find others) attest to years of extremely hard work combined with an arts industry eager for her particular brand of hiphop-inflected literature / literature-inflected hiphop, combined with the fact that she’s a damn good writer. In an enlightening facebook thread, Giles argued that Tempest ‘fulfils very well a specific niche which bourgeois art ideologically requires,’ and that her palatability to white audiences, ‘hiphop enough to give theatre audiences a thrill, poetic enough to make her unthreatening to a white gig audience unsure about hiphop,’ has also played an important role. It is utterly vital to note that a) these are notes about the culture in which Tempest’s work is located, not the work, and b) this isn’t what her detractors detract her for, given that arguing for a greater integration of spoken word, hip-hop or any other kind of predominantly BAME poetry tradition into traditionally white poetry communities, platforms, publishers or funding pots is not in the white liberal poet’s best interest.

Even the journalism that affects to give Tempest a fair hearing is unwilling to take her at face value. There are constant references to her age (young!), her appearance (even younger! leonine! cherubic!), and it’s hard not to read the evergreen reporting of her father’s night school law degree as some kind of capitalist-friendly lore imposed over a deeply anti-capitalist oeuvre. Reading these features en masse since 2009, it’s possible to track Tempest’s growing distaste for an arts culture that appears to have neither the will nor inclination to engage with someone who seems genuinely more interested in making art than selling it. I suspect that a small part of the anger in Let Them Eat Chaos is the absurdity that even with access to the nation’s arts media, there is no guarantee of her message being faithfully communicated. Simply put, Tempest is a poet, not a celebrity, and the perpetual coverage is a (perhaps purposeful) distraction from the work; only by aggressively co-opting her art into the culture industry mainstream can it be successfully untoothed.

These might seem first world problems in an environment in which few poets are written about at all, but it’s worth questioning why Tempest is so endlessly interviewed or featured (narratives constructed around/over her) and so rarely commissioned to write features herself (constructing her own narrative). It’s worth questioning why the year after prizewinning poets Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and Sarah Howe had their ability to self-present quashed by a malignant arts press that Jacob Polley was immediately commissioned by the Guardian to compose his own ars poetica, on his own terms. This is not a criticism of Polley either (though his piece was unsatisfying, perhaps due to the rapid editorial turnaround), but of a culture that refuses to give space or agency to marginalised people, but will trip over itself to present white male excellence completely unfiltered.

Sophie Collins recently performed a piece titled ‘Who is Mary Sue?’ at a reading in Edinburgh, exploring the gender politics surrounding fanfic. The fact Mary Sue exists as a trope at all, Collins suggests, is tied to assumptions about the seriousness and legitimacy of women’s writing, even the capacity of women to write ‘real’ fiction. Collins quotes Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing: ‘she wrote it, but look what she wrote about […] she wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art’. Again, Jackself is a pertinent case study. The book’s protagonist is almost explicitly the fictionalised poet (a Mary Sue? His first name is a variation on the poet’s first name suffixed with ‘self’), but the reviewsinterviews and celebration of the book has focused on formal expertise, conceptual innovation, the artist’s work. No one has asked him to reveal the identity of Jeremy Wren, or even talk about how the experiences the book describes have affected him; the private world that occasioned the public work has remained private, in a way Tempest is often aggressively disallowed.

A great way to guarantee the dominance of conservative art, artists and artistic forms is to make the centre so narrow that an essay’s worth of criticism is necessary just to reach a starting point for anything else.

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Review: Let Them Eat Chaos is a long poem (perhaps a poetic sequence) touching on the lives of seven people in one street in London who find themselves awake at 4.18am. An audience-addressing narrator guides the reader though each character’s psychological and/or socio-economic situation, from a careworker coming home after a double shift to an insomniac advertising officer. In the live performance recorded by the BBC each monologue is a separate track, and the characters’ personalities are as much brought to life by the music as by Tempest’s skill with exploring complex inner realities, often at breakneck speed. The following is from Jemma, the book’s first speaker:

‘It might be fun
just for a while,
to go back where
my hurt is from

And rinse myself
to emptiness
and push
my body close

To any body
that can recognise
the presence
of my ghosts’

The rhythm is part of the meaning. It’s a series of harsh, mechanical pulses (it might be fun just for a while), running headlong towards the climactic ‘ghosts’. If the speaker believes there is joy to be had in her old life, these lines formally suggest otherwise. Jemma’s section might come first because it grounds the book in recognisable emotional reality after an introduction that begins with the dance of the celestial spheres and ends in London in 2016. The book’s stakes might be our society’s soul, but they begin at ground level, a moment of self-reflection in the middle of the night.

Tempest’s critics will almost certainly pick out the second monologue – released as a single, ‘Europe is Lost’ – as evidence supporting the prevailing narratives about her work. If, like many critics I’ve seen, one objects to ‘didactic’ or ‘hectoring’ art there’s plenty of ammunition here. The poem is direct to a fault, a sweeping look at the state of the nation, like MacNeice’s Autumn Journal squeezed into a three-minute track. What deflates such a reading, however, is the local context in which the poem occurs. It is, like every other piece in the book, a dramatic monologue, in persona; the fact it fits snugly over commonly held prejudices about Tempest’s political ‘moralism’ makes it no less a work of fiction. As in Collins’ essay on fanfic, such a literalist reading wilfully bypasses the poet’s very explicit signals that Let Them Eat Chaos is art and not autobiography. She is no more Pete the stoned sound tech than she is Esther the careworker, the speaker in ‘Europe is Lost’. In her brief, Canterbury Tales-esque intro, Esther is described as exhausted, sleep deprived, ‘worried all the time’, in a flat with ‘a black and white picture / of swallows in flight’. All of these details inform the reader about the kind of mind at work in ‘Europe is Lost’, the context in which the poem wants to be read, and any reading that ignores this is incomplete at best.

‘Europe is Lost’ is the second monologue, having this panoramic critique so early on in the book functions as emotional set dressing for the other more intimate stories. One might argue that this doesn’t excuse the broad-brush analysis of selfies (‘here’s me outside the palace of ME’), and facebook activism (‘some of them noticed / you can tell by the emoji they posted’), and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. As I argued in my review of Hold Your Own, Tempest is at her devastating best when bringing to life a single character or inner situation. My last thought on ‘Europe is Lost’, however, is that it is fucking incredible to see an artist flip a table and say this is fucked up, this violates even basic conceptions of the inherent value of human life. As political analysis, it’s not a nuanced document, but that’s not what the poem is for. In a time when ‘political’ is a dirty word in artistic discussion, it’s kind of thrilling to see the gauntlet thrown down with such righteous fury.

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The other monologues in Let Them Eat Chaos retain a tight, precise focus; Zoe’s rent has been tripled and she thinks of the history held in her boxed-up possessions and the gentrification of the place she’s lived her whole life; Bradley has a dream job but feels purposeless. The book threads the experiences of its characters together in subtle and not-so subtle ways, the most obvious being the several times various characters ask ‘what am I gonna do to wake up?’, indicating both literal and political awakenings, which could be a subtitle to the whole book. But on deeper thematic levels the book ties these seven people together. Alicia, Pete and Bradley make art that no-one sees: Alicia ‘spits bars to the grass’, Pete writes poems he can’t get his friends to read, Bradley ‘shoot[s] films on [his] phone’. They’re unobtrusive and natural details, but they seem purposeful, moments of talking back to a world that won’t listen. Jemma, Pete and Pious keep returning to self-destructive habits, in full awareness of their emotional wheel-spinning; part of the tension in their monologues is between their capacity for personal change and the systemic oppression that makes such change unattainable, ‘even if he never splashed out / he still couldn’t make the rent on his own place’. Let Them Eat Chaos is up front about its political stances, and the message that loving our neighbours (read also: organising with them politically) is the best means of effecting substantial change underpins it all. What’s left a little below the surface are the potential points of commonality that pre-exist the book’s climactic storm that draws them physically into the street. The book’s dramatic arc is hard-fought and well earned, and I kinda wish it spent a bit more time with all these characters finally interacting (however logistically confusing that might be).

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Let Them Eat Chaos feels like a live show that’s been converted to book format after the fact. A full performance with backing band and stagecraft was recorded by the BBC (see the video at the top), and is very much required viewing for a full experience of the book; I watched it with the text in front of me, and it seems clear in which medium the piece is most effective. The book clearly wants to capture the intricacy and agility of the work, but too often the page is formatted apparently at random, landing heavily on phrases or ideas that in performance are given no special emphasis, to the point where more traditional left-aligned blocks of text might have been a more faithful and legible rendering. In performance there is a far more explicit tonal difference between the narrative sections and the parts spoken by the seven protagonists, while in the book there is often little more than an extra line of white space or a shift to the left margin.

I don’t pretend to have any good solution. Simplified musical notation (something like Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’) might be a more articulate way to render Tempest’s speech rhythms, but almost certainly at the cost of being more visually busy or distracting. Where this impacts the reading experience is in how the book fails to capture Tempest’s willingness to prioritise sound over sense; a long run of deft, meaningful, exhilarating speech in performance may read as clunky or clichéd on the page, given that poetry readers will naturally read much slower than the poet recites, placing a heavier burden on individual words or phrases than they are designed for. Part of the pleasure of her work is in the skill and charisma with which it’s performed, the alchemy of turning stock phrases or images into a bigger soundscape that’s as much part of the poem’s fundamental meaning as its component parts. Tempest builds some of her most important arguments by creating repeated tiny moments of tension, building and rejecting the listener’s expectations, and these are desperately difficult to represent visually. Maybe until there’s some standardised notation for spoken word, the conversion to print will lose something (perhaps that’s inevitable, but I’m an optimist).

Let Them Eat Chaos is an atypical poetry book, as much a playscript as a lyric sheet as a collection, and not an easy one to talk about. It has its flaws, but in a poetry culture in which ‘apolitical’ lyric niceties tend to reap the greatest rewards I’m content to substitute mannerly, break-the-rules-but-not-like-that books for work that forcefully states a philosophical case for love and solidarity, even if nuance is sacrificed in the process. My hope for the book is that it opens up some new space to bring activism into art (if not into our daily experience), for poetry – which remains stubbornly white, male and conservative – to be as apt a space for political advocacy as any other genre of the arts. It’s easy to get frustrated with ideas like ‘the personal is political’ and that ‘writing a poem at all is a political gesture’ when the unarticulated subtext is ‘it’s fine to be me, and so anyone who raises their voice in dissent is tedious, deluded or attention-seeking’. Perhaps I’m being naïve, and I’m aware that there are significant gaps in my reading of Let Them Eat Chaos, particularly regards the hiphop tradition, that might undercut some of what I argue here. I hope the conversation continues. But I genuinely think this is a great piece of art delivered by a talented and powerful performer, one of the finest in these islands, and I sorely wish there was more like it, maybe by BAME artists or artists on other intersections of oppression. As the book argues, we’re currently facing the greatest existential threats to our democracy in our lifetime. If silence or compliance will not save us, it certainly will not save those more vulnerable than ourselves, and those people are our responsibility. I guess it’s weirdly heartening to read a book that not only recognises that fact, but takes it to the heart of its artistic enterprise.

Further Reading: Let Them Eat Chaos Live Performance on BBC

Harry Giles suggests Kate Tempest is a modern-day Chaucer, with hilarious consequences

Alex Clark – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Observer

Alexis Petridis – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Guardian

Feature on Tempest in the Financial Times

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

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Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Kate Tempest – Hold Your Own

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.