Review: “Running Upon the Wires” by Kate Tempest

The London-born poet Kate Tempest has received critical acclaim for her powerful, often political, commentary on contemporary society. Her fifth book of poetry, “Running Upon the Wires,” takes a more intimate, personal direction. 

Kate Tempest is one of the rare contemporary figures to have garnered widespread success as a musical artist, as well as the stamp of approval from the literary establishment. In 2013, she was the youngest ever recipient of the Ted Hughes Award for her poetry collection “Brand New Ancients.” Her 2016 debut novel “The Bricks That Build the Houses”was a bestseller in Britain, her gigs sell out across Europe and the United States, and last year she was nominated as Best Female Solo Performer at the prestigious Brit music awards in London.

“Running Upon the Wires,” published last fall, recounts a journey from, as Tempest puts it, “the messiness and self-destruction” of a break-up, through to “the redemptive nature of new love.” In it, she guides the reader through painfully familiar stages: “three months no contact”; “getting out more”; “moving on, crawling back”; to, finally, “a new woman.” Set against the backdrop of contemporary London, “Running Upon the Wires” revives an age-old tradition of lyric poetry about love lost and rediscovered, and, through a personal narrative of heartbreak, explores universal themes of loneliness, longing, desire, and love.

In the saturated genre of love poetry, Tempest’s inimitable voice easily holds its own. Her poetry has an oral, musical quality, transitioning fluidly between passages of free verse and tight rhyme, making her prosody look effortless. The book’s three-part structure, moving from “End” and “Middle” to “Beginning,” marks a departure from the well-trodden path of the broken-hearts poets club. Rather than centering around the lifespan of a single relationship, Tempest describes the painful conclusion of one affair before moving on to the tentative beginnings of a new one, with its own array of unbridled passion, arguments and domesticity. 

As a result, the collection depicts an intensity of feeling directed at two consecutive partners; supplanting the Romantic ideals of a “one and only” and “’til death do us part” with the messiness of real life. The book addresses some uncomfortable truths: namely the repeatable dimensions of love which are not anchored to one particular relationship, but carried from one to the next, attaching to new circumstances and people. By tracking the passage from passion to familiarity and domesticity, Tempest accentuates the recurring patterns of love, and the sense of déjà-vu that can underpin it.

Tempest uses the book’s structure to emphasize this circularity. Rather than carving her life into neat chapters, compartmentalized by relationships or lovers, the only constant here is the poet herself, her experience and her voice. But “Running Upon the Wires”is not a jaded commentary on love’s iterability, nor on the individualist nature of contemporary existence, with its self-help books and yoga-retreat journeys of discovery. In the closing lines, Tempest insists on each relationship’s absolute singularity: 

“Yes, we do repeat, motifs 

Occur again, again

This does not mean 

we are not new 

You are not her. 

This is not then.” 

The poems capture the world of a young poet thrown into global stardom: the bars, airports and hotel rooms. But the natural world is more present here than in previous collections: the rain, the trees, the sun, “the mud flat by the Thames, beneath the pier.” Tempest gestures toward the Romantic tradition, where the exterior world mirrors the ebb and flow of the poet’s inner life. In a brilliant passage that announces the arrival of a new partner, Tempest draws on elemental forces to describe how, despite damage from past relationships, love can take hold: “like a fire […] in a wet woodland.”

Tempest’s faculty for finding significance in the trivial details of everyday life kicks into overdrive in “Running Upon the Wires.” Her post-break-up cynicism finds a reflection in the hollow language of marketing campaigns: she observes a couple at a fast-food restaurant sitting under a sign for “tender, loving chicken.” What place is there for love in our consumerist society, she asks, with its “shop-floor monotony,” “quickfix lobotomy,” and “sell-a-dream economy?” 

Amid the wider social commentary, Tempest describes her own search for identity and the anxiety of learning how to live with what you find. The collection depicts the way we construct ourselves and our environment through our relationships. A new lover’s body becomes the world that houses her: “Her curves are my entire horizon,” “and her smile was the sky, but more mine.” The refuge of another person’s love becomes the fragile palace we inhabit, a prism through which the exterior world is brought closer and made comprehensible. If, as Tempest suggests, loneliness can lead to a state of hyper-introspection — and an incomprehension of other people and the outside world — then love snaps us out of it. She describes how, in the calm that follows a lovers’ dispute:

“everyday objects lose their menacing aspect 

and go back to being curtains or light-

bulbs or Tupperware again, 

And we can see each other’s faces, 

our relapse into tenderness 

is furious”

This is perhaps the “redemptive nature of new love” that Tempest describes. Tenderness abates the existential anguish of loneliness, and things, previously heavy with our projected symbolism, become, once again, just things.    

“Running Upon the Wires” by Kate Tempest is published by Bloomsbury in the US (RRP $16) and Pan Macmillan in the UK (RRP £9.99).

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.