To really see the state of things is lethal

hold your ownHold Your Own
by Kate Tempest

I bought this poetry collection when I went to see Kate Tempest as part of the Bath Festival of Literature, and like her live performance, the book is inspiring.

Tempest’s words fizz with righteous anger and passion, but they are also highly intelligent, filled with classical references and political insight.

Just take this collection’s premise. It centres on the myth of Tiresias, who as a young man disturbs a pair of copulating snakes and is punished by the goddess Hera, who turns him into a woman. Years later, she is “allowed” to return to the form of man, but then another encounter with the gods leaves him a blind clairvoyant. Tempest takes this story apart into four chapters – childhood, manhood, womanhood and blind profit (see what she did there?!) – each of which is a sequence of poems about Tiresias and the myth’s parallels to modern society and her own life. This gives her a natural route to discussions of gender, sex and relationships, but also poverty, community, age, politics and the future.

“She felt

All the things that others didn’t feel,
Or if they did,
They did a lot to conceal what the feelings were.

She felt skies and bricks and rain.
She felt it all
It made her fall
And weep beneath a crawling dawn
When everything was ruined; torn.”

And it’s brilliant. I loved each and every poem, from the funny to the serious, from the social critique to the self-examination. There is so much energy in Tempest’s work. Time and again, I felt impassioned to get out and do something in response. It reminded me of being younger in that respect! In fact, in “These things I know” Tempest directly implores her audience to care: “It’s good to care about things so much you feel exhausted.”

Having seen Tempest live – and heard her perform on the radio many more times – I tended to read these poems as I imagined she would speak them. For me, this helped because Tempest somehow emphasises every single word, combining a natural rhythm with a very definite style. This book is also available as an audio download narrated by Tempest and I almost regret not buying it in that format. This is poetry to be heard. But, that said, it still works on the page.

“To really see the state of things is lethal.
It’s safer just to see what we can bear.
Exhausting being fear-struck; howling, weak-willed.

Our eyes are trained on pinpricks in the blackness.
The telly helps to end a dismal day.
The visions come when we are at our weakest.
But they don’t last that long, so it’s ok.”

Published 2014 by Picador.

Source: The book stall at a Bath Festival of Literature event. I’m guessing it was run by a specific bookshop but I don’t remember now which.