These poems are for the in-betweeners. The Tiresias’. The sometimes, but. The now, and the then, but not until right now.
Somehow, and in the most beautiful verse, Kate Tempest in Hold Your Own weaves the story of all her separate lives into the myth of Tiresias, the blind prophet that lived both as a man and a woman after seeing mating snakes. She goes through the stages of her life thus far (she’s only thirty) through three sections; childhood, womanhood, manhood, and blind profit (which for me is the peanut butter, paying bills, adulthood section of the book). It very much reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death (479)” with the lines:
We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun –
Not only does Tempest recognize the stages of life, but it’s very clear that she has felt, at times, out of her own body, and unrecognizable to her self based on the gender divides of our society. This book incredibly explores the way our society (first world, democratic societies) categorize things as opposites and then “an other.” I imagine Kate Tempest rolling her eyes at what I’m about to say, but I found this book oddly well-timed for me because of the Caitlyn Jenner transformation. In their life, Bruce and Caitlyn Jenner will have lived two separate lives, a modern day Tiresias for the masses. And through this, Jenner will more than likely get insight into the way both genders are viewed in society giving him superior sight, much like the blind prophet who knew Odysseus before even drinking the sacrificial blood, his second sight was so strong even in death.
In my eyes sexuality and gender are separate entities. I also believe in the idea that both salve their own spectrum where the extremes are on both ends and everyone else falls somewhere in the middle. I believe that society has “ideals” for both men and women that usually become stereotypes at some point in any cultural history … but, I believe truly people are a mix of many gender ideas and a mix of many sexuality ideas and in a perfect world, there would be no categories and people would be free to test these different sides of themselves and find their true “belonging” of their soul and body.
(Soap box over).
With only knowing her verse, I can’t say what Tempest believes, but I can say that she explores this gender identity in the most beautiful and human way. With lines like the following:
“The best boys would feel like a lady in your arms.
The best girls would fuck like a man, given half the chance.
The good ones are good ones because they are whole ones.
We’re at our best when we mean it.
We all start part of a much bigger notion.
And lock ourselves down like we don’t have a say. [Man Down, 81-82]
Another poem in the collection “The woman the boy became” explores the discovery of gender and how it teaches us, whether wrong or right, our role. In the following lines, I thought about a student who came to my room and paced for twenty minutes saying, “I don’t know how I’m going to tell you this. I don’t think I can tell you this. I don’t know how you’re going to react.” It was one of those moments that I imagine all mother’s fear, a daughter, stomach not yet bulging from the light bulb lit within from some boy who ‘didn’t mean anything, Mom, I swear.’ But it wasn’t that at all. She said, “I like a girl. I like a girl, Ms. M. I like boys too, though. But I’m going to hell aren’t I? I can’t tell my Dad. But she’s so cute. I like a girl.”
And I was immediately sad and jovial. As her teacher, all the things I wasn’t allowed to say, but as her mentor, all the ways I just wanted to hug her and tell her that we only get one of these little life things, and she has to make herself proud, she has to manage her own worth.
I wish yesterday, at that moment, I had these lines:
“Growing is what anyone would do.
Given the particulars
She knew what she knew
She was ridiculous.
Born too smart and too dumb.
Born to hold the world under her tongue.
Don’t swallow yet.
All the things that others didn’t feel,
Of if they did,
They did a lot to conceal what the feelings were. [The woman the boy became, 45-49]
There were poems in the collection that I knew I could read with my students and lines that I had to read to my boyfriend, and small points that made me discover my own truth, like:
“Give her a face that is kind, that belongs
To a woman you know
Who is strong
And believes in the rightness of doing things wrong.
Give her a body that breathes deep at night
That is warm and unending; as total as light.
Let her live.”
And later in that same poem:
She grew expert in the field
She learned to see and feel
The deepest secrets lurking in
The hearts of those who came to swim
In her dark waters.
She knew things.
She knew Kings.
And she bore daughters.
She knew love, she made her fortune.
Till she met her match.
Those lines are from the opening poem which can reach any single person at any single time, it’s called Tiresias. This poem also shows Tempest’s way with language. She finagles the sounds through enjambment and unexpected rhyme. I was particularly excited to see a working sestina in the collection because I thought that was a dead trade, left at sea. (Bringing it back!). I’m sure this comes from her beginnings as a rapper in Britain.
My boyfriend went on a Facebook rant yesterday about word play in rap lyrics and how repeating “Shower Me With Money” in a song called “Money Shower” wasn’t hip hop. (I just had to ask him from the other room if I could interchange the words rap and hip hop, he’s much more knowledgable about music than I am). And his friend replied with “incredible lyrics and word play are not easily digested by the masses.” While I know this is true, but I hope that it’s not, I believe Kate Tempest’s rhythm and blues should be experienced by the masses.
Here’s a stanza that I penciled for rhythm:
“She turns and retreats.
Finds herself deep
In the smog and the heat,
The fog and the meat
Of the bodies that beat out their lives
In the throb of the street.
She learns to be small and discreet.
She learns to be thankful for all that she eats.
She learns how to smile
without meaning an inch of it.
She learns how to swim in the stink
And not sink in it.
It’s as if this is all she has known” [opening poem, 5]
In the poem “For my niece” she says:
“No flower bends its head to offer
teaching to a seed.
The seed will grow and blossom
once the flower’s ground to dust.
But even so, if nothing else,
one thing I’ll entrust:
Doing what you please
is not the same
as doing what you must.”
I realize that I haven’t really posted any lines from the manhood section, but it’s just as good, and moving, and reaching, and traces the human history, as the womanhood section. I read this entire collection in one sitting because it was speaking on every page. Ideas in the middle of pulse and throb. Constant. And it was exciting. There wasn’t a train moment, a dull chug, it was more a poke and prod. Take it on, Hold Your Own.
If nothing else, her poem Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry in 2013 which makes her the closest 21st century poet to Sylvia Plath. Since their both directly connected to the asshole that is, Ted Hughes.
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.