Skip to content

What We’re Reading: Brand New Ancients

2015 April 16
Comments Off on What We’re Reading: Brand New Ancients

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: Citizen: An American Lyric

2014 November 20
Comments Off on What We’re Reading: Citizen: An American Lyric

What We're Reading

citizen coverCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2014)

To this reviewer, it seems like we’re having a bit of a cultural moment, confronting issues of racism and sexism on a national level. In the publishing industry, organizations like VIDA and Cave Canem are making space for diverse voices and calling on more privileged individuals to sit down and listen. This is a good thing for readers whose options are growing as well made and challenging books are brought to the fore.

Back in August I reviewed Jamaal May’s Hum and wrote a little bit about how our reading is almost always affected by the world around us. I finished reading May’s book when protests in Ferguson began and, shortly after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric the #Pointergate scandal hit and I found myself rereading Rankine’s words in light of yet another story with systemic racism at its core. I’m reading within this cultural moment, which has altered my reading list in profound ways.

Citizen contains a series of vignettes describing, in second person, various microaggressions—subtle, perhaps unintended, displays of power by white people toward people of color.

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

So begins one such vignette. Another reads, in full:

The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.

Rankine pulls news stories into these vignettes as well, referencing Don Imus, who notoriously insulted the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and men (boys in the case of the last two) like James Craig Anderson, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis whose tragic deaths were racially motivated.

This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently. As a white man, the experiences of people of color are and always will be beyond my abilities to understand. Rankine, however, provides a window into a world I have the privilege of knowing nothing about. Rankine puts the reader in the spotlight, making us see these stories anew, as a way to cast these aggressions from her body. It’s a tactic that is potentially triggering to someone who has experienced aggressions like this, but is a way to discomfort the comfortable.

Beyond the content, Citizen is formally compelling as well, though very much in the tradition of American letters, as the subtitle alludes to. Split into seven parts, the book has no table of contents and only a single section features titled pieces. This gives the effect of an extended and single work. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with its long, democratic lines, is a clear precursor, but Rankine’s work exists in the more contemporary space of lyric essay as well. Rankine uses outside text and images to illuminate and complicate, such as the recurring quote from Zora Neale Hurtson, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This text stands out most as a two-page reproduction of Glen Ligon’s rendering of the quote in black on a white background. Indeed, Hurston’s quote can be considered a sort of theses statement for the whole book.

In what is perhaps the most focused and clear section, Rankine describes another series of microaggressions, these against tennis star Serena Williams. With the passion of a fan, Rankine examines some of the more egregious offences against Williams:

The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Marina Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her semifinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Comentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening.


Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.

Notice that Serena’s detractors take form as a particular person, a shape for these events to exist in. This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page. The “form” is a way of focusing the reader’s attention on an event and asking the reader, as Rankine writes later in the book, “What do you mean? // Exactly, what do you mean?”

After reading Hum I asked if Poetry Can Save The World or, at the very least, ease your pain when the news of the world becomes too much. I ask both questions again now in the context of Citizen. Reading is an act of empathy, especially if the text you’re reading is in second person, as Citizen is. Can poetry like this save the world?