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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?


What We’re Reading: Hum

2014 August 21
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What We're Reading

HUM coverHum by Jamaal May (Alice James Books, 2013)

For the last three years I’ve written a What We’re Reading post once a month for Hazel & Wren. I’ve become a better critic in that time, but I’ve always tried to treat each book fairly and objectively, to the best of my abilities. However, reading is a hugely subjective activity and in my reviews I hope to communicate why I, personally, like or dislike a book. I attempt to take each book on its own terms and explore how the author succeeds or doesn’t.

All of that being said, I don’t read in a vacuum, and I know that my opinions of a work can be and have been colored by the opinions and actions of those around me, and the world at large; I can’t change that fact. This month, I finished reading Jamaal May’s excellent Hum (Alice James Books, 2013) on Saturday, August 9th, and then checked Twitter, where I saw news of the shooting of Michael Brown. Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer, and that evening protests roiled the suburb of St. Louis. I began to reread May’s poems, but now with a steady stream of disturbing news from Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere changing the way I experienced these poems.

May’s work touches on issues of race, class, and injustice, specifically in Detroit, but paralleling similar issues in other parts of the country, including Ferguson. “If I say riot helmets outnumbered the protesters” begins “The Sky, Now Black with Birds” and images of a militarized police force materialized in my mind and on my phone’s screen. In another poem, May describes a time he matched the description of a crime suspect, as Michael Brown allegedly did:

Because the silk scarf could have cradled

a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet

but was instead used in last night’s strangling,

it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs[…]

The poem ends, hauntingly,

Because the baton is long against my window,

the gun somehow longer against my cheek,

the vehicle cold against my abdomen

as my shirt rises twisted in fingers

and my name is asked again—I want to

screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.

May’s skill is in directing the reader’s attention, often just away from the main action. He doesn’t ask us to look at the force used to pin him to a vehicle, he asks us to “marvel” at juxtaposed materials: the soft silk, skin, and feathers against the metal of handcuffs, gun, baton, vehicle.

By directing the reader’s attention to details or just to the side, a poem’s main subject is thrown into sharp relief. May’s images and metaphors stay fresh long after the poem has ended, often becoming more complex upon subsequent readings. In this way, May is able to make his lived experience political. The poem “Pomegranate Means Grenade” is addressed to 11-year-old Jontae, who is quoted as an epigram to the poem.

There will always be at least one like you:

a child who gets the picked-over box

with mostly black crayons. One who wonders

what beautiful has to do with beauty as he darkens

a sun in the corner of every page,

constructs a house from ashen lines,

sketches stick figures lying face down—

May implies that Jontae’s whole life has been picked over like the box of crayons, before the drawing has even begun, but ends with a glimmer of rage-filled hope:

You stand nameless in front of a tank against

those who would rather see you pull a pin

from a grenade than pull a pen

from your backpack. Jontae,

they are afraid.

Typically, I shy away from calling a poem autobiographical. We are taught, in writing workshops and literature classes, to separate the persona in the poem from the poet who wrote it. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry as therapy has muddied the waters when it comes to what is true and what is fabricated in art. May, however, is explicit in his poems. People thanked in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book are mentioned by name in the poems. One of the more beautiful moments of this tactic comes at the end of “On Gentleness” which reads:

Tell me about the night I hurled a phone receiver

at your head and the orb of blood on your lip

seemed like it’d never fall, how you


bound me by a wrist, bruised my ribs against the floor,

and never threw a single punch. Wasn’t that

a kind of gentleness, Jabari?

Until Jabari’s name is invoked as the last word in this thirty-line piece, the reader never quite certain the I in the poem is the poet. “Didn’t a poet say cracks are how light gets in everything? / I’m probably mixing that up” May writes in “Thinking Like a Split Melon” and seems to be talking about cracking poetry to let in reality, or vise versa.

But this is how I think. Give me a box,

and I’ll fill it with dirt

or fill it with water

or fill it with both


and trouble that mire

with whatever stick I happen to find.

It’s comforting to me, as a critic, that May is willing to blur the line between his poet self and his persona, especially as the reality of the continuing events in Ferguson bled into my reading of his poems. Cracks let the light in, and May’s poems are filled with plenty of light. It’s bright, and it can be blinding, but his gentle hands help us look just away from the light, at the orb of blood, ripe, but not yet fallen. In this way, the reader is able to see more clearly the violence of living.

I hesitate to make an argument that poetry can save or even change the world. In many ways poetry saved my own (very) small world, but poems are fragile things and few of them stand up to the test of time or the burdens of politics. Nazim Hikmet was jailed and exiled simply because soldiers were reading his poems; Seamus Heaney was a steady voice of reason during the Troubles in Ireland. But many political poems are shrill, flat, or dated. The trick—and May knows this as well as Hikmet and Heaney did—is to focus on humanity, not politics. I hesitate to say that Poetry can Save The World—but it can help ease the pain of living.

So I want to know what poets ease your pain. What poets do you turn to when the news of the world is too much? What poets offer comfort when it’s needed? What poems do you keep in your wallet or on your desk or your bedside table?

Or, if you prefer to take it on: can Poetry Save The World?