I first encountered London-based musician and writer Kate Tempest showcased on an episode of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” podcast. Her song “The Beigeness” became part of my regular rotation, especially when I needed some extra motivation. When I encountered her poetry book Hold Your Own at random in a bookstore, I was delightfully surprised. I knew that within its pages I would find Tempest’s completely original voice, filled with memorable phrases and a distinct sense of rhythm. I was right about this, but I hadn’t anticipated how deeply thoughtful this work would be. It’s an intelligent and sharp examination of some of the most pertinent political issues of our day.
In Hold Your Own, Tempest explores issues of gender, identity, and the strain that society’s expectations put on our humanity. She explores these issues through the framework of the literary figure of Tiresias, a prophet who lived as both a man and a woman. Tempest uses his legend to organize her poems into a narrative, from “Childhood” to “Womanhood” to “Manhood” to “Blind Profit” (an intentional play on words). Throughout, Tempest engages with the myth of Tiresias cleverly, blurring the distinctions between directly telling his story and bringing him into our own society. Tiresias’s performances of gender are at once personal and universal, and his story becomes a playground for Tempest to explore the way we understand gender.
Something I loved about this book is the way it focuses on a variety of gender presentations. Tempest explores the fragility and nuance of masculinity as well as femininity, showcasing how the characters in her poems don’t seem to fit neatly into any box. Both genders that Tiresias inhabits come with joys and inhibitions, and his fluid journey between them allows Tempest to highlight the discomfort of trying to fit gender expectations. Tempest also uses Tiresias’s role as a prophet to make larger commentary on political issues, including poverty, capitalism, war, and climate change. Her commentary is sharp, relevant, and important.
As someone who’s listened to Tempest perform her music and poetry, it was almost impossible for me not to hear these poems in her voice. Her poems perfectly bring her distinctive rhythmic style onto the page. In this way, I think these works would be extremely accessible to poetry novices. Her work has a directness and a musicality that lands so perfectly. If you’re already a fan of Tempest’s music, you will love this collection. If not, I highly recommend getting to know this artist.