Poem of the Week: Man Down // Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest has a thing for the senses. Her pleasant delivery of spoken poetry are like small pieces of informational strums tugging at our hearts. She draws experience from touches, of tangible things to see, melted words and realisations readers are not often confronted with. Such is the magic of Tempest’s poetry; when I first read ‘Man Down’, I felt it a little more than I understood it.

Tempest often plays with gender roles and the binary concept of sex. Sometimes she enforces them in a clever but self-confused manner, sometimes she overturns them with self-indulgence and nuanced perspectives. ‘Man Down’ from her Hold Your Own collection perpetuates the existence of a gender binary. It then undermines it with arguments that showcase gender fluidity. Tempest uses sensual imagery to elucidate parts of her argument and immerse the reader deeper into the crevice of each line. And with each word spoken or read, the listener and reader find themselves questioning their own identity and that so-called gender binary.

‘Man Down’ priorities accidental enlightenment using the sensualities of the words rather than direct confrontation. Which is why, despite at first not having any concrete understanding of who Tempest was prior to reading the poem, I still felt and agreed with the truths and explorations her poetry provided me. For example, the early lines “No man is a man all through. // I’ve seen you. Shivering. Fleeting weakness. // Cold rain scuffing its feet on the beaches”.

These lines use the internal rhyme of “through” and “you” and the sibilance of the “s” to slowly draw the reader into the early warnings of the poem. We can tell just by those three lines that this poem addresses a man; it lets him know that it is okay to feel. The cold rain, feet on the beach, the fact that he’s shivering trying to brave through his weaknesses—all of these things are indicative of the front and facade of the concept of “man”.

Source: The New York Times

Repetition is evident in most of Tempest’s poetry, especially within Hold Your Own. In this poem, there is an affinity for the use of anaphora. One particular use for it, that I personally gravitate towards, are the lines “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”.

These lines combine the anaphora of “best ones” with the parallelism of “ones”. This creates multiplicity in the notion of “one”; by constantly repeating it, she alludes to the many layers beneath the “one”. When she exchanges “one” for “whole”, she attaches a sense of completion into the thought. This crescendo comes at the peak of blurring the gender lines; the similes that connect “boys” and “girls” are supported by the following lines, “We come from man and woman combined // And we’ll carry these parts till we see our last day”.

Finally, one of the best aspects of ‘Man Down’ is how well Tempest makes use of its structure. Whether it’s on paper or phonetically, she manages to catch interest with how the poem flows. She mixes short and snappy one-word sentences with long over-descriptive sentences to keep the poem fresh. This also creates rhythm whenever she speaks it, and makes it easier to follow. It also provides enough information for readers and listeners alike. The combination of a rhetorical hypophora structure with apophasis in the lines “I’ve got to stop telling you things. // You’ll give when you’re ready. // I’ve got to stop wanting. // Your mind’s made up. // I’ve got to stop pushing. // You’re trying to keep steady” really elucidates this conflict between the speaker and the one spoken to.

This conflict is a reflection of the man’s inner war with himself, and the speaker’s desperate effort to help him come to a realisation. Yet, they remain at the epochs of both their genders, trapped in the crumbling facade of their assigned roles within a structured society. The line “And what do I know? You’re the man here” supports this notion.

‘Man Down’ is a poem that speaks multiplicity, which layers and pries open the divide between men and women. It is not as explicit as her other poems; explicit in terms of sex, explicit in terms of exploration. But it does provide enough of an understanding into the inner workings of Tempest and her poetry. You can watch Tempest perform ‘Man Down’ and the rest of the poems from Hold Your Own down below.

Words by Mae Trumata

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