Originally written for Exeunt
“Talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” – Playing By Heart
It’s a little asinine, but it’ll do the trick for this context (I’m willing to bet you can dance quite beautifully about architecture). But talking about poetry always feels a little redundant. The words are already there. Precisely chosen and out in the world – nothing more need be added or taken away, though I’m sure poets would often disagree. It is, to me, one of the purest forms of art we have – the whole world is possible in a page, a line even. You can take it with you anywhere. Someone taught me, some years ago now, to learn every poem that I truly loved, so that I would always have them. If the world burned tomorrow, they would still be there in my head. Like we always used to tell stories. The old way; from memory.
We have a relationship with books, as physical objects, that differs from digital still. You may jolt awake to the slap of your iPhone on your face or find it under your pillow, curled clasped in your hand, but a book is a breathing document of everywhere it’s been and everything you’ve felt while reading it.
My copy of Hold Your Own has lived with me for 3 weeks. I read it piecemeal, savouring. It’s been in my bedroom hallway living room kitchen workplace multiple theatres a cinema the tube and all across Soho in the rain. The front cover is bent from when I shoved it back into my bag with Christmas shopping, the pages turned down where I found poems I wanted to remember, the cover shiny in places where it has rubbed up against my library book too much (The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light). There’s a graphite scratch on the bottom from the pencil that floats freely in my bag when I’m reading scripts and a flyer in the middle from a band that I saw, not marking any page in particular. These poems have interlaced with all of those lived moments.
Kate Tempest’s words are alive. I mean more than most, they’re alive. You have to speak them as you read them, even if it’s just in your head, and you can hear the cadence of her voice as you go – each line building its own rhythm and carrying you to the next and the next. No time to stop and savour; you’re pounding towards the end. Of course, poems are supposed to do this – but not this way. Not with a heartbeat. I smile, because it always reminds me of seeing her performing her album Everybody Down at Latitude this summer. I’ve never seen anyone make love to, nay, fuck words that way except perhaps Ani Difranco – with total joyous abandon. Being ejected out into the world afterwards, soaking from the 35 degree tent and shivering from the adrenaline rush felt like falling from the sky.
So it’s perhaps fair to say that I have a relationship with Tempest’s words before coming to Hold Your Own. But oh it’s beautiful. Shaped around the mythological Tyresias – a blind prophet who was transformed into a woman for 7 years – it’s about identity and gender and sex and sexuality and relationships. About staying old and growing young. Like the embraceably delicate body on the front, it explores the fragility of who we are and might be. Basically, it’s about being alive. Don’t try to establish themes in books of poetry.
It is visceral and liminal; “glass amongst sand.”
Sometimes it punches you full in the gut:
The boys have football and skate ramps.
They can ride BMX
and play basketball in the courts by the flats until midnight.
The girls have shame.
Others, it slips under the covers with you…
To be more alive
each day we wake.
And this is a must.
And knifes you in the stomach.
And the days are all dust
and the only thing worse
than losing the trust
of a lover is finding the rust
in their kiss.
The dethronement of all that was precious
In favour of all that is tepid.
Like all hard lessons learn it softly.
It only is until it’s not.
It’s the raw, sleepless, thrill and fear of falling in love, of surrendering yourself to all of it, to everything.