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What We’re Reading: Brand New Ancients

2015 April 16
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What We're Reading

brand new ancients coverBrand New Ancients by Kate Tempest (Bloomsbury, 2015)

My first encounter with Kate Tempest’s work came not long ago when her song “Lonely Daze” was featured on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton mentioned that Tempest is a poet in addition to being a talented emcee, so I looked up her biography. Tempest’s credits include a handful of albums, including 2014’s brilliant Everybody Down, two collections of shorter poems, and Brand New Ancients, a poem “written to be read out loud,” which won the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for Poetry. (The poem was originally performed in 2012, published in 2013, with the U.S. edition just published in 2015.)

The narrative of the poem focuses on two London families whose lives and fates intersect in the ways ancient stories of gods and humans often do: sex, lust, violence, intimacy, and redemption. Tempest’s project differs from most mythologies, though, in that the gods and humans are one and the same. “In the old days / the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves,” Tempest explains in the poem’s opening. “But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves?” She goes on:

We are perfect because of our imperfections.

We must stay hopeful;

We must stay patient—

because when they excavate the modern day

they’ll find us: the Brand New Ancients

In many ways, the closest touchstone to Tempest’s project is Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which is, of course, an odd thing to say of a British poet. Both have long lines and both include the gritty details of daily living:

The flat’s a state, but [Mary] can’t bear to mop

the floor or put the bins out, so she just stares at the TV,

she pours a vodka into a dirty tea cup,

she’s put on weight, she’s miserable,

she knows that she should have a bath and clean up,

but instead she’s getting pissed on her own watching the chat shows.

She puts a pizza in the microwave and eats it off her knees.

She chain-smokes, drinking till she starts to feel quease,

and then when Clive gets home from school,

that’s where he finds her, fast asleep.

The daily grind is not the only similarity to Whitman. Early in Tempest’s poem is a page long mantra that lists all of the gods:

The gods are in the betting shops

the gods are in the caff

the gods are smoking fags out the back

the gods are in the office blocks

the gods are at their desks

the gods are sick of always giving more and getting less

The list goes on and on, reminiscent of the 18th section “Leaves of Grass'” Book Two:

See, ploughmen ploughing farms—see, miners digging mines— see, the numberless factories,

See, mechanics busy at their benches with tools—see from among them superior judges,

philosophs, Presidents, emerge, drest in working dresses […]

Like Whitman, Tempest invokes a range of people and professions, setting them next to one another in a grand display of democracy.

Considering the grand ambition set out at the top of the poem, it does feel like a wasted opportunity to focus on such a small group of people. In all, there are nine main characters and about as many named who make brief appearances:

There was Sam with the squint

and the dog called Darrel,

four legs and a head

sticking out of a fluffy barrel.


There’s Geraldine, she used to be a nurse;

she hangs out with Davey getting drunk all day,

reading yesterday’s papers. These are good people by nature,

they just got worn out faces. Gloria serves them happily […]

The effect of focusing on these nine characters is that they become elevated over the others, contradicting the democratic impulse found earlier in the piece. At their best, the cameo appearances are reminiscent of Nazim Hikmet’s singular novel-in-verse Human Landscapes from My Country, which features, in the course of over 15,000 lines, dozens of varied-length portraits of all kinds of Turkish people during the first half of the 20th Century. Tempest’s poem, by contrast, focuses on working class, probably white people (though, race is never mentioned), who surely don’t represent the whole of England’s diversity.

Despite a missed opportunity or two, Brand New Ancients is an ambitious piece and worth reading more than once, out loud, preferably with friends. Reading, one falls into the rhythm of the text, tumbling from moment to moment watching the lives of these characters unravel, re-ravel, and wrap around one another. Considering Tempest’s output this early in her career, it’s safe to assume there’s more where this came from, hopefully as genre bending and empathetic as Brand New Ancients.

What other writers are pushing the boundaries of genre to create multifaceted, ambitious texts?