Jack Peat reviews Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest
Poetry is a multi-faceted literary tool that releases the human in us. It pulls at our heart strings, exposes our insecurities and showcases our inner self in the rawest way possible. I’ve watched some remarkable biographical films, read some wonderful autobiographies, memoirs and obituaries, but the transformations portrayed by Kate Tempest through the poetic eyes of a mythical character is the first account of a life I actually felt.
Hold Your Own is an autobiography of Tempest and Tiresias, the boy, the woman, the man, the prophet. Since enjoying a steady accession to fame from rapping on the streets of London to performing at Glastonbury Tempest has won widespread acclaim in the literary world, winning the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry and supporting punk poet John Cooper Clarke and Billy Bragg on his Leftfield Motion UK tour with her bad Sound of Rum.
Her first full-length collection for Picador is a moving account of her life to date using the mythical figure of Tiresias, who has appeared in the works of French composer Francis Poulenc, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land in a song from Genesis’ 1973 album Selling England By The Pound. The book sees Tempest wrestle with a societal blueprint that is an ever present drain on her life, which is where Tiresias plays the function of ridding society’s influences for what is real, “teaching us what it means to hold your own”.
There’s the somewhat torturous childhood – “The bully would point at my crotch and ask what I had and I wouldn’t understand but I would blush and blush” – mixed with reflections of what she would tell her young self if she could talk to it now, although “no flower bends its head to offer teaching to a seed”. Then there is the explicit tussle with sexuality experienced in adolescence. Tempest paints love, or perhaps infactuation, as the perfect crime, “taking its toll on souls who are not used to feeling whole” and “promising each other not to take the vital parts, while even as they mutter it, they’re giving up their hearts”.
Throughout there is the constant reminder of change as one of life’s main constants and the challenges that it brings. “How many yous have you been?” and “born first learn last” are particularly poignant lines. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition between writing when happy and writing when sad – the welcomed release of poetry in the Old Dogs Who Fought so Well and the inconvenience of escapism in Fuck the Poem. As she becomes more true to herself there is the realisation that she must accept things the way they are, because “no matter how far you have come, you can never be further than right where you are.”
These Things I Know is a wonderful poem and one of the highlights of the book. The collection of wise quips could easily be re-worked into a pop classic by Baz Luhrmann in a similar fashion to Mary Schmich’s Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). Lines like “the clever folk talk in endless circles and congratulate themselves on being so untouched by passion. But since when did the clever folk ever know anything?” and “do not love the idea of life more than you love life itself” stood out, but I could easily have referenced the entire poem. “Sensitive people are frequently beaten up by things insensitive people can’t see” is another corker.
The poem led nicely into the Prophet of Tiresias and subsequent poems highlighting notes on pacifism and feminism. It’s clear from the outset that this may not be a book for everyone, but for those of whom it resonates with, it will have a long-lasting effect.