Verse Novel Review

Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest and The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter


Brand New Ancients (Picador Poetry 2013) is by Kate Tempest, a UK rapper, spoken-word poet, novelist and playwright. The Monkey’s Mask (Hyland House 1994) is by the late Australian poet, novelist, lyricist and librettist Dorothy Porter.

I saw Tempest at Avid Reader Bookstore in Brisbane for the launch of her first work of long fiction, The Bricks that Built the Houses (Bloomsbury 2016). She read for several minutes from the opening of her book at this event. She didn’t hold a copy of the book in her hand. She read from memory. She performed the novel. She brought shape, form and texture to her characters and the places they inhabited through her voice and actions. She was extraordinary.

Brand New Ancients was the winner of the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. It is only 46 pages long and within those pages there is a great deal of white space. But in this economy of words, Tempest crafts a strong intergenerational story inhabited by characters that grow and evolve across several years, a time progression that’s often achieved in a single stanza. The lives of two families are secretly intertwined. The truth of their connection is known by some but denied, as much from cowardice as shame. But there are consequences to these secrets (as there often are), which manifest most dramatically in the acts of violence in the next generation; in the children raised in these homes of misplaced or lost love. But there is bravery too, and sacrifice and contrition.

The new ancients Tempest speaks of in the title are us, born of and living on from the old ancients carrying the same faults and failings, still living the same heartaches and disappointments. Tempest tells it like this early on:

There’s always been heroes
and there’s always been villains
and the stakes may have changed
but really there’s no difference.
There’s always been greed and heartbreak and ambition
and bravery and love and trespass and contrition –
we’re the same being that began, still living
in all of our fury and foulness and friction,
everyday odysseys, dreams and decisions…
The stories are there if you listen.

There is a distinct rhythm to her work (it’s intended to be read out loud and to music) with a repetition of syllable and consonant sounds, which fortunately doesn’t reduce or constrain it to a poem that must rhyme above all else, which can often be at the expense of the poem’s language or intent – not so in this case. Instead, Tempest has produced a lyrical, dramatic and powerful work that tells a modern story grown from old origins.

I’m late coming to the work of Dorothy Porter – sometimes the rush to read the latest release pushes the classics even further down the pile, relegates them to a ‘must’ read (at some stage) and not a ‘want’ to read, and soon. But these award-winning canons are as important as the latest award-winners because they are the foundation stones of these later works, or to borrow from the title of Kate Tempest’s new novel, they are the bricks that built the houses.

The Monkey’s Mask won the 1994 Age Book of the Year for Poetry, the National Book Council Award for Poetry and the Braille Book of the Year. It has been adapted for stage, radio and in 2000 was made into a major motion picture.

The Monkey’s Mask is a verse novel that extends for almost 270 pages and has even more white space than Brand New Ancients. The language is pared to the bone. It is a crime thriller and to quote the inside jacket, “It’s where high art meets low life, passion meets betrayal, and poetry meets profanity on the streets of a harsh modern city.”

The novel’s narrator is Jill Fitzpatrick, a lesbian private investigator whose professional ethics are torn apart by love. She is portrayed as tough, courageous and street smart. But as Jill says of herself early on in the poem:

I’m not tough
droll or stoical.

I droop
after wine, sex
or intense conversation.

The streets coil around me
when they empty
I’m female
I get scared.

The parents of a missing 19-year-old girl engage Jill to find their daughter. Her investigations take her into the elitist and self-aggrandising world of male poets, as well as into passionate love, then bitter betrayal. There are twists and turns, murder and deception, and an unforgettable femme fatale. It is a gripping story told in spare, tight language.

Dorothy Porter died in 2008, aged 54. Her early death is a great loss to Australia’s literary culture. Hopefully new readers will continue to find her work as I have.

Verse novels like Brand New Ancients and The Monkey’s Mask provide useful lessons for prose writers. They remind us of the need for lucidity, to be economical with the words we choose so that we select the best (least) words to describe something or someone. They remind us of the value of white space – what’s not said – thereby leaving room for the reader to build the story’s world in their mind and not be led by the author through an open door so that they can have everything inside explained to them. Or as Canadian poet Anne Carson puts it, “the concept of leaving a space empty so that God [insert reader, imagination, lived experience] can rush in.”