By Dominique Vincent
This is a truly fantastic body of work that transcends what many people have come to know about poetry. My Darling from the Lions breathes and expresses itself like a close friend divulging all of their secrets to you. This poetry isn’t something distant and based on the experiences of people that lived hundreds of years ago, the sort that is commonly explored throughout school. Instead, it is far more accessible and is filled with hard hitting facts about what it means to be Black.
Rachel Long’s debut collection explores identity in great depth. It varies from experiences that are universal to all races and others that are more specific. It truly is a spectacle to read and it relates to me in a way that very few poetry anthologies have. In the time of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a desire for work like this: Increasingly more unapologetic in its Blackness. This does not fail to deliver that in any way.
The collection starts with the section ‘Open’ and, with the first corresponding poem of the same name, is a dynamic start that truly sets the tone of the anthology. Something that is blunt, unafraid of baring its soul to the audience. It introduces Long’s more personable and conversational tone that is prevalent throughout in her use of dialogue. With each repetition of three poems called ‘Open’, we see growth and progress: of the narrator’s mindset, her interactions, the change and development of innocence as she continues to encounter the world and what it has to offer. Almost parallel to this is the battle with sexuality. It recognises the taboo of certain topics, despite their regularity, as well as the perpetuation of a system that continuously places Black women in difficult positions and leaves them to struggle. In this, the versatility of Black intersectionality is explored. It is related to journeys with faith and spirituality; the undermining of destruction of Black femininity from a young age, and the minimisation of Black pain.
In the section ‘A Lineage of Wigs’, I encountered some discomfort and, similarly, did for some of the other poems also. This section begins to further explore the concepts of sexual politics, the way that she faces the idea of imposed sexuality, as well as thinking around abuse vs sexual liberation and exploration. Occasionally, topics like this need to be upfront and blunt and Long is exactly that kind of writer. These themes are often acknowledged but never truly discussed in the way that they need to be and that is what makes this section so important. Here, Long is helping children understand that, from a young age, boundaries cannot be crossed, and they possess bodily rights. Far too often, we see childhoods ripped away because of the situations described within this poetry. However, Long makes sure that the audience knows that this is a conversation that needs to be had – that’s what makes this my favourite section.
The discomfort I felt reminds me that I need to listen to similar stories that may happen around me, amplify those voices and educate myself about the nuances within the Black experience. The vulnerability that it takes to bare your soul is profound and it allows a reader who may have never had these experiences to feel every emotion: the pain, the confusion, the acceptance. Long does this eloquently with metaphors that create strong imagery that imprint themselves onto you.
Furthermore, this part of the collection is an open letter to the complex relationship we have with hair and it specifically explores it in the context of the interracial relationship between the protagonist, her sister, and her mother. This relationship echoes a sense of “competition” that was initially created by white people who imposed Eurocentric bias onto Black people in the hopes of dividing them, resulting in the colourism we often see within the Black community.
Moving onto the final section ‘Doll.’, the shortest out of the three, it presents itself as the culmination of all previous motifs in the pressure of having a standard to maintain. The constant scrutiny from the people around you and how you see other people, and the cycle that forms. Seeing how love can blossom or fail to blossom due to that cycle. It is almost intrusive in the way that Long looks at adulthood and relationships through the questions she raises constantly. Long draws attention to the societal desire to know every detail about a person so that they can find details to criticise. It also provides a great conclusion to the overarching motif of the various types of love that we naturally transition through in life. Ranging from an abuse of love to moments where it is more obsessive to familial love, it transforms and changes with each situation.
A bold and often melancholic body of work, Rachel Long has me completely enchanted me with My Darling from the Lions. It hides nothing and yet does it in a way which demonstrates growth and an owning of experiences. She is witty in her word play and the rhythm of her pieces are sometimes hypnotic. Not only this, but her use of form is often what elevates her words into a piece that truly captivates. There is not a single moment that is not addictive in the way that she constructs a narrative across the poems. Every time you read her work, there is something different to discover and interpret. Reading this anthology once is not enough. The more you read, the more you understand. It really excites me to know that there is work like this are out there reintroducing a new generation to accessible and relatable poems – ones that are as loud and bold as the lion mentioned in the title, and is a fantastic way to make audiences truly think about their respective lives and contemplate their experiences.
My Darling from the Lions (Picador) is now available for purchase. Many thanks to Picador for the review copy.