Rachel Long – more than enchanting

Blurb-writers have much to answer for. On the back of Rachel Long’s collection My Darling from the Lions, there is first a mention that it has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, then a quote from Bernardine Evaristo (“An enchanting and heartwarming new voice in poetry”) and then the blurb begins: “Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems…announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.”

We don’t need the cover – a black girl seen from the back, with her arms folded behind her – to know that we are in BAME territory. The Evaristo quote seems patronising – one established and high-profile black writer welcomes another onto the stage, but “enchanting” strikes the note of the clever schoolgirl being praised for singing in tune. Then the dread cliché of “much-anticipated debut collection”.

So this reader started off with slight foreboding. Was this going to be another case of Picador trying to be woke? I emptied my mind and turned to the beginning.

*

After two readings of this collection, I came to the conclusion that Bernardine Evaristo has not done Rachel Long the service one might think. Although there is slight unevenness in quality, most of the poems have far more substance than is implied by the words “enchanting and heartwarming”. I’m not sure I find much that is heartwarming about:

"We discuss kids. Maybe it's the wine,
or because my belly is beginning to push
against the bones of my dress. You say,
I don't think I'll identify with a brown son."

or:

"Before we go any further, we'll need a urine sample.
Glass of water, Madam? You'll be pleased to know
your parents have been fully vetted..."

That said, the poems that resonate most for me are the vignettes of a mixed-race family in south London. A white father comes to collect his daughter from school (“See him, how trim, he runs every day,/even Christmas Day, yeah, come to pick me up,/his real, brown daughter”) and the other children don’t believe it’s her father; her friend Danielle’s dad produces gold coins from his pocket as if by magic, to treat the children, who don’t pause to wonder where the money comes from; at the local evangelical church there is a whiff of child abuse (“…he had blown candles for hands,/with which he led me down an incensed corridor,//and I followed”). The poet has a great gift for capturing idiomatic speech: in Helena a night-club hostess describes to her spellbound friends how the club’s bouncer lured her back to his apartment and tried to rape her, in a way that has the other girls hysterical with laughter:

                                                             "....Helena laughs herself down
and off the sofa, blonde hair dragging across the black pleather.
  She saunters to the bathroom. Before slamming the door, shouts
over her shoulder, I promise I won't stay in it forever."

Helena struck me as one of the poems that showed Rachel Long at her best and weakest – or perhaps I should say most perplexing. Best in the sense that the language is deceptive: at the risk of reading too much into a title, the central character, with echoes of the Trojan War, is a female archetype who causes chaos at the same time as she becomes a victim. The combination of violence and humour gives an edge. The language conveys the scene perfectly (“Ali, mate, I’m not being funny, I’m tired. I wanna go home./He’s like, babe, I know, I hear you…”). But the form is strange, with alternate lines indented by two spaces. Line-breaks seem entirely arbitrary, so we are in a strange half-prose flow without stanza breaks, just a bit of white space on either side. I’m not sure I get the point of this, to the point where I found the form distracting from, rather than reinforcing, the content. It’s at moments like this that I would like to have a chat with the poet and understand her intention better.

Some of the shorter poems didn’t work for me. In Car Sweetness the speaker’s parents are in the front of a car:

"...Mum would lay her hand
over Dad's on the gearstick,
their wedding-rings glinting
like mouths not used to smiling."

I get the drift – a gesture of attachment in a life where emotion is rarely shown. But I’m not persuaded that the glint of a ring can be like a mouth not used to smiling. Again, the image becomes a distraction rather than a building-block.

Such reservations as I had in the course of a first reading were considerably reduced when I went through it again more methodically.  The vividness of the portraits carries the reader on, and I very much like the wide range of this poet’s lens – from the portrayal of children in a playhouse exploring each other’s private parts, or a schoolgirl stuffing a sandwich down her bra as more convincing than a sock, to Victoria Beckham talking about her handbag or the poet’s mother successfully defeating the magic of an aunt trying to transfer her cancer. There is a wide-ranging humanity and sense of humour that achieves, with deceptive skill, the life-enhancing effect that poetry can bring at its best.

*

In one of his essays Glyn Maxwell writes: “I had absolutely nothing to say till I was about thirty-four. I’d have been a disappointing messiah. But what I did for about twenty years from my mid-teens was play with words, so that by the time I had some things to say I had a pretty good idea how to.” 

I was surprised that Maxwell had nothing to say until he was thirty-four. By this time, surely, he would have fallen in love at least once, finished his education, started a career and experienced the world of work? The implication is that the young poet needs to spend twenty years learning the craft before they can tackle real content.

That said, much of the poetry world is comprised of men and women at or past middle age, whose preoccupations will not be the same as those of a younger generation. There are understandable tendencies either to belittle younger poets – they’ll mature into something interesting – or, conversely, to welcome them with hype like “thrilling new presence”. Both do the debut poet a disservice.

Rachel Long was born in 1988, so is close to the Maxwell threshold. But she has an impeccable poetic pedigree, having been awarded an Arvon mentorship in 2015 and been tutoring on the Barbican Young Poets scheme since that year, together with Jacob Sam-La Rose. She is the founder of Octavia, a poetry collective for Womxn of Colour. She has an attractive, outgoing personality and reads beautifully – which is a surprisingly rare gift among poets. You can watch an excellent interview of her by Kim Moore for the Forward Arts Foundation here. She strikes me as having a lot to say. At the same time, it is going to be interesting to see how she moves on from the material of her childhood into the swirling currents of adult life: I have every confidence that it will be with the same mixture of energy and humour that characterises this first collection.

Rachel Long’s “My Darling from the Lions” is published by Picador. The quote from Glyn Maxwell is taken from his essay “Form” which appears in “On Poetry”, published by Oberon Masters.

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