The last thing I want to do is jinx things. But as lockdown restrictions have gradually lifted, there’s a sense of possibility in the air, an uncertain wind yet to settle in one place.
I’m not one for throwing caution to that wind, but I’m trying to ease myself out of the anxiety that’s been so prevalent in every social interaction, every shopping trip, every attempt to make or break plans as numbers swell, and travel rules change, and I have to figure out where my boundaries are.
It’s this that’s got me reading Kae Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos once again – a lyrical free verse epic (and musical/spoken word performance) about seven Londoners that was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize’s Album of the Year in 2017. It’s odd to read an album, but the soft flow of thoughts running through the book (“ringing in chorus”) still feels wonderfully refreshing, especially in how it moves out of closeted grief, the breaking of clouds into rain.
I don’t have space to drop the whole poem in full, but wanted to share my favorite moment, when Tempest’s seven characters emerge out of their homes – after pages and pages of listing their doubts, insecurities, and loneliness – out into the storm descending on the city. A literal tempest, in the sense of a season beginning, a time of change.
Let Them Eat Chaos
by Kae Tempest
My god and they are cold and listless
not quite sure that they exist
here in this moment
slow as glass
lips haunted by the ghosts of kisses.
There is the endless saturation of the days
and here they are
There is nothing moving
but their breath
But watch now
as the breaking storm outside
animates the frozen moment.
The sky cracks into a wild-mouthed grin
and unleashes all the water that it carries
Vapour grown heavy
from every distant puddle
every lapping wave-tip,
every churning river
contributing to this
Pete on his doorstep looks up, mouth agape.
Drops his key in shock and laughs a howling ancient laugh.
The lightning charges through them
rips the sky and startles every roof into stark relief
and they see their city
Esther hears herself shout a strange bark into the silence of her kitchen.
Jemma sits bolt upright in bed wide-eyed and she stares at the rain
as it smashes itself against her window
Zoe puts her boxes down
Bradley reaches for his dressing-gown
See it from above.
Seven doors to seven flats open at the same time
and light the raining pavement.
Seven broken hearts.
Seven empty faces
heading out of doors
Tempest published these words in 2017, and it’s safe to say they didn’t see our pandemic predicament coming, but this passage still seems to speak to the current moment, “the endless saturation of the days” ending by these neighbors finally “heading out of doors”.
I love how Tempest weaves in a sense of apocalypse, the “howling ancient laugh” and “lightning [that] rips the sky” – but the only thing broken is our routine, our habitual resignation, now turned into action, and motion, and hope, and interest in the world outside. The storm “animates the frozen moment [...] startles every roof into stark relief and they see their city / new” – reminding us of the wonder of our surroundings and the enormity of the world, as our lives resume, and we animate what was frozen.
Kae Tempest (they/them) is a poet, playwright, rapper, and spoken word artist born in London. Their stage adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Paradise, is currently showing at the National Theatre.
What we’re reading…
Notes on the Sonnets, by Luke Kennard (link here)
A series of prose poems all set at the same house party, each inspired by one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s funny, experimental, and heartfelt, like all of Kennard’s work.
Out of Time: Poetry from the Climate Emergency (link here)
An anthology of ecopoetry that tackles, considers, or takes inspiration from the developing climate crisis. Featuring work by Caroline Bird, Inua Ellams, Fiona Benson, and Mary Jean Chan, it’s both a salve for climate anxiety and a firm call to action.