Suhrkamp has now published the bilingual, German-English, volume Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest. Kate Tempest lives up to her stage name, it is indeed a tempestuous lyric poem she has composed. Actually, it is not just a poem, but rather an epic poem or, to do her justice, a dramatic epic poem, that the poet has produced. Kate Tempest was born as Kate Esther Calvert in 1985 in South London and has been making a name for herself for years as a lyricist and rapper as well as a playwright and novelist. Her debut as a poet, the Brand New Ancients, caused such a sensation that she was awarded the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.
This decision is more than understandable. The reading of the volume is of such immense poetic and linguistic power that I couldn’t help but read through in one go. Not only the language captivated me immediately, but also the content. Like in an ancient tragedy, the introductory sentences were hammering in the ear:
In the old days
The myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves.
But how can we explain the way we hate ourselves,
The things we’ve made ourselves into,
The way we break ourselves in two
The way we overcomplicate ourselves?
But we are still mythical.
We are still permanently trapped somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful.
We are still godly;
That’s what makes us so monstrous.
But it feels like we’ve forgotten we’re much more than the sum of all
The things that belong to us…
Even these few, sketchily dropped sentences immediately capture you, and with the next sentences you find yourself in the middle of the dramatic action and are all ears:
The empty skies rise
over the benches where the old men sit –
they are desolate
and the young men spit;
inside they’re delicate, but outside they’re reckless and I reckon
that these are our heroes,
these are our legends.
Now, our attention is fully aroused and we want to know whether these are really our heroes, whom we are talking about, and what they are going to do. And we read on and get right to the heart of the story.
Well, it’s not a simple story, it’s a veritable drama that we get into when we read on. A drama that touches us as much as a drama by, let’s say Sophocles or Shakespeare, because it conveys deep human truths. A drama that is authentically and sincerely written, whose characters are not templates, but real people like you and me, and the quandaries they face are self-inflicted. However, as with Aeschylus’s and Sophocles’s heroes, not actually fully determined by the heroes themselves, nor by the gods, who, in our times, have lost their power anyway. No, Mrs. Tempest convincingly shows to us that it is life itself that brings about all happiness and unhappiness, through its peculiar blend of social circumstances and genetic predispositions, driving us humans and forcing us sometimes to end up guilty. Especially when there is no love involved:
These days Tommy’s old man don’t seem to like him very much.
Tommy’s parents never seem to touch.
Tommy can’t bear the silence at home,
He kisses his mother on the cheek and says it’s time to be grown
Through sentences such as these, which help to illustrate the social ambiance through the use of sociolect, Kate Tempest succeeds in taking us into the reality of the lives of her everyday heroes. We also encounter the omnipresent violence of the street, as the author may have witnessed herself vividly in London:
Then he stood up and he’s went to the door,
Pulled the bolt across and he’s giggled some more.
Now Gloria’s scared but she knows not to show it,
She knows bullies like these two feed off your fright.
Clive’s staring at her in the murky light,
they all stand there, silent
listening to the sound of night.
A moment passes, she can taste its passage
on her palate…
She felt the atmosphere turning …
She’s known trouble all her life,
she can spot it from a mile off
in the way a smile drops from off a face.
Clive’s breath is so bad she can taste it,
he stares at her, she stares back;
the stares were weighted, as they waited
for a sign that the time had come, and then it came,
Clive pushed himself upon her,
eyes full of agony and shame:
she felt his hatred, she felt his hand around her throat,
and it was ancient …
Needless to say, the story of Tempest’s Brand New Ancients does not lead to a pure happy end. Otherwise, the whole plot would run the risk of being just another piece of Hollywood-like kitsch. No; the play ends the way it has to end and remains authentically true by living up to its inherent logic and the reality of life to which it is committed until the very end. More of this great piece of poetry shall not be revealed.
But a few more remarks on style and language may be in order. In fact, the impact of Kate Tempest’s play, and its power of persuasion, has a great deal to do with the aesthetics of her language. She uses bound language, i.e. the sentences‘ ends rhyme, though not strictly continuously, but repeatedly interrupted trough non-rhyming orphans, by which attention is drawn to specific moments and monotony avoided. Yet, monotony caused tedium does not arise anyway, because Kate Tempest knows how to vary the length of the end rhymed sentences so flexibly, not least thanks to her rapper experience, that sometimes a faster, sometimes a slower tempo results to depict the varying intensities according to the dramatics of a given situation. Rhythmically, too, the sentences are cleverly structured and adapted to the dramatic needs, with a basic iambic meter predominating. However, because, in contrast to classical models, Kate Tempest, controls the meter through the length of the sentences, whereby extremely short lines alternate with very long ones, she does at no time run the risk that a shallow parlando might ripple away.
The great art in translating this dramatic-epic poem into German was to reproduce Tempest’s rhythmic-metric refinement. It could have succeeded excellently if the end rhyme had not run through the original and given the opus its real spice. So it was no easy task for the translator, Johanna Wange, to adequately translate the work into German. She did not even attempt to solve the non-trivial task of the rhyme. Instead, she has limited herself to the production of a poetically somewhat pepped-up interlinear translation. There is actually nothing wrong with this if, as in this case, the work is simultaneously printed in the mother tongue, so that the impulse of the original text can be grasped by the bilingual reader. If, however, as a reader one is exclusively dependent on the translation, the current translation conveys only a fraction of the actual aesthetic pleasure. Nevertheless, the translator has succeeded in making the dramatic rhythm of Kate Tempest’s magnificent piece audible to German ears, for which she deserves great respect. Nevertheless, I would have translated the title of the dramatic poem differently, namely as „Nagelneue Alte„, which would have not only created a pleasant alliteration, but would have sticked to the respective German idiom.