Brand New Ancients – Review by John Field
Since receiving the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for Brand New Ancients, Kate Tempest’s been busy, securing a Mercury Music Award nomination for the energetic, socially engaged hip-hop album, Everybody Down and publishing Hold Your Own, a reworking of the Tiresias myth. With its cross-over appeal, her performance poetry has found new audiences and has been selling out music venues.
Brand New Ancients celebrates the everyday, seeing aspects of the divine in us all as, in Classical myth, the gods ‘Fought with each other to save us, ‘cos they loved us, / or, sometimes, they turned themselves into animals, / came down upon us and raped us. / They had a badness in them; they had conflicted natures.’ Tempest presents an unfaithful, lonely wife, Jane, as ‘Brand New Pandora, legs crossed on the floor, / with the lid off the box’ and the arsonist, the bringer of fire, Clive, as both Prometheus and Zeus – he’s filled with an insatiable hatred that renews itself each day and his sex is a violent, bestial form of control: Gloria’s ‘heart beat like wings in her chest’ as he tries to make her Leda to his swan.
Tempest presents all of these behaviours as tragic, saving the force of her spleen for celebrity culture, where ordinary people chase ‘airbrushed bodies’ – impossible dreams confected by the media. At our worst, we wallow in the superficial – the chemical spray of a TV presenter’s ‘perfect bronze’ skin just doesn’t match up to the celebration of the physical found in Classical sculpture. Gloria notices that Tommy’s new mates in advertising ‘seemed unreal somehow, fake ease, she noticed that not one of them / said please when ordering drinks, they were full of themselves.’
In Brand New Ancients, Kate Tempest’s blend of the mythic and the prosaic invites us to take a good hard look at ourselves. However, the woman holding the mirror is affectionate and the poem is a tender-hearted celebration of life in south-east London – of everyday life, everywhere.
John Field regularly reviews poetry collections on his website, Poor Rude Lines, and has been described as “a top literary blogger” by poet and editor, Tom Chivers. Read more of his work at johnfield.org