JANUARY 17, 2021
MY DARLING FROM THE LIONS, Rachel Long’s debut poetry collection that was recently shortlisted for the UK’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Costa Book Award for Poetry, is a gathering of reflections and distortions, deciphering the various ways the self is molded by internal and external forces. The poems delve into the juxtaposition between being open with oneself and open to others, even when that openness is the result of an act of force. Each of the collection’s three sections revolves around specific memories of childhood self-discovery, but to describe the collection as being simply about childhood would fail to recognize the ways in which adult experiences are often foisted upon children and adolescents by friends, family, strangers, and social institutions, often to lasting effect.
“Open,” the book’s first section, is titled after a sequence of five short, reiterative poems that are interspersed every few pages as an anchoring refrain, in which the speaker has her sleep behaviors described to her by one of a variety of intimate others — mother, friend, lover(?):
This morning she told me
I sleep with my mouth open
and my hands in my hair.
I say, What, mum, like screaming?
She says, No, baby, like abandon.
Individually, the impact of these poems is minor, but their accumulation leads to a weighty revelation, as the speaker’s assumptions consistently hint at underlying acts of violence — “like screaming?”; “like hiding?”; “like bracing for impact?” — that never feel fully bandaged over by the other’s consoling response. While these are small glimpses into the deeper fractures of self, they provide a psychoanalytical perspective on both this section’s longer poems and the collection as a whole, helping the reader trace the ways in which an apparently happy life — “We’re eating roses on a rooftop”; “I feel middle class when I’m in love” — is threaded with different forms and magnitudes of traumatic experience. Examples range from childhood sexual abuse (“Had she woken, I would have told her, Sleep, sleep! // so she’d never know Smiling Eyes / also meant teeth”) to racist manipulation (“You say, I don’t think I’ll identify with a brown son”) to acts of self-purging (“Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all / into one bowl”).
Long’s talent, however, lies not only in divulging sensitive or shocking details but also seamlessly weaving them into a collection that brims with wonder, both personal and communal. This effect is formally enhanced by a free-flowing and direct narrative tone that can ratchet up tension or break it with subtle comic relief. The poem “Sandwiches,” which arrives immediately after the recollection of sexual abuse in “Night Vigil,” poignantly displays the way in which a victim’s psyche fragments to protect the self, the speaker proudly revealing a school friend’s newest technique for stuffing her bra: “See, Tiff’s clocked / the boys have clocked the difference between / a tissue and a tit, a sock and a tit, but not quite yet / a tit and a slice of bread.” There is a cool nonchalance in the speaker’s discussion of sexual matters, yet the irony with which she delivers the poem’s final lines comes loaded with grievous realization: “O, girl, you have opened / my eyes, how they weep!” A similar surrealism is employed to inject routine events with a sense of heightened interest, albeit with varying results. “Apples,” for example, brilliantly investigates the self as other:
Last night, I missed my train by seconds.
So close that one part of me did catch it
and waved from the window to the other half
still panting on the platform, tits play-doughing
out of a shit bra.
In “Red Hoover,” by contrast, the technique feels more thrown in on a whim: “He began hoovering everywhere, / he even hoovered the ceiling. / He just walked up the wall / and as he did, looked over his shoulder.”
In the book’s second section, “A Lineage of Wigs,” the speaker’s reckoning with self shifts to a familial focus, with hair functioning as a mythological element that both cements and severs identity: “your sister’s hair is proper mixed but yours / is afff-row!” The poem “Mum’s Snake,” perhaps the collection’s most ambitious, is a narrative sequence that works to construct a cultural significance for hair by delving into the family acrimony that arose when the speaker’s mum was cursed by an American sister who “put a snake — a huge one” that “didn’t belong to this realm” on top of her head. As a result, the mother finds herself plagued with cosmic migraines, until “an old prophet from Nigeria” informs her that “the snake is using your hair like the grass, / cut the grass, he will be exposed.” Later, Long cannily capitalizes on this metaphorical use of hair as boundary and bridge, deploying it in poems about pre- and post-pubescence (“Yours’ll be a monster soon. / Won’t! Just you. / True. Between her legs is / so light and clean”), finding love (“Dad said that when mum first walked into class / she wore a question mark on her head”), and even matters of life and death, as when the speaker’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and the reader subconsciously associates the disease with hair loss.
The collection ends with a turn outward in its final and shortest section, “Dolls,” which directly addresses a systemically racist and sexist society through the use of tropes such as Barbie dolls, celebrities, and princesses. Perhaps the most resonant of these poems is “Black Princess! Black Princess!” which wades through an onslaught of the types of invasive questions Meghan Markle was forced to face in order to be allowed entry into the royal family: “Do you know your blood type? When was your last period? / Smear? Chemical peel? […] just a gentle checking all is in order, / that your womb is suitably ermine-lined” — an act of dehumanization rooted in patriarchal and colonialist control. At the heart of My Darling from the Lions is a continual impulse to seek out ways one might break free from the consequences of such personal and societal abuses — not in order to forget, but to show both reader and self that, while there may not be complete salvation, there is communion to be had.
Isaac Nowell’s debut collection of poems, The Fountain, is prefaced with a Bob Dylan lyric — “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in your dream” — a pertinent choice as this book-length sequence of untitled, 12-line poems not only inhabits a dreamy, purgatorial between-scape but also tends, like most Dylan songs, to straddle the boundary where sound meets sense. And for those willing to dig, there is perhaps an even deeper influence waiting to be unearthed; compare, for instance, lines from Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” —
Hey Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me
my senses have been stripped
my hands can’t feel to grip
my toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’
to the opening lines of this poem by Nowell:
Yes, obstreperous cantatrice, will you
replace my worsted hands and eyes? I know
how you have gone with them away from me.
At the very least, there is a “Dylan or Nowell?” pub-quiz to be had when the literary social scene returns: “I see you are the cat that got the cream, you are a hundred thousand singularities” — venture a guess? There is good reason, however, for the different types of ventriloquizing found in The Fountain, which shifts constantly through a range of registers that are part folksy, part archaic, part colloquial, at times clarifying, at others baffling, and almost always surprising. This is because the sequence, which runs 54 pages, eschews narrative development, preferring instead to constellate diffused moments around a tonal or spiritual epicenter both metaphorically and literally represented by the eponymous fountain, which functions as the speaker’s personal Hippocrene — a source to which he can return in an attempt to make sense of life, death, love, time, and a host of other poetic figurations.
In this way, the book is somewhat reminiscent of what Arthur Rimbaud (a major influence on Dylan, not coincidentally) had in mind for his proposed but unwritten project, Études néantes, which was to feature philosophically spacious and musical poems that would open the mind to abstract or alternative readings of the world. It makes sense, then, that Nowell draws on a wide range of source material that extends from Classical mythology (“The headless giant / Orion expostulated wildly”) through Renaissance art (“Birds scattered like the wasting of a dream / to where El Greco’s Christ’s eyes pointed”) to modern children’s literature (“Winnie the Pooh loomed large in my conscience”).
On occasion, this approach can leave the reader feeling at sea amid the referents, as when an otherwise moving monologue in which Dido attempts to reckon with Aeneas’s sudden appearance in the underworld is jarringly interrupted with a line quoting Orestes from the final scene of Jean Racine’s play Andromaque: “Venez- / vous m’enlever dans l’éternelle nuit?” A connection can no doubt be made, but it nevertheless feels like an odd interjection when compared with the gravitas of the questions that follow:
And who’s this walking my way now
across the wild fields like a dead one?
And how shall I ever forgive him this:
his coming to destroy my beauty?
A sense of authority can be leveraged from such weighty references as Racine, but in instances like this, one can’t help but feel that Nowell can carry the burden on his own.
For this reason, it is often the more contained and personal poems that provide The Fountain with its most outstanding moments, best showcasing Nowell’s dexterity with scenic description (“She said, this is the edge of the darkness, / describing with a soft pale arc the place / a fox shot from the hedgerow”), his ability to turn a line (“So far it is clear I have failed to tell you / what I have failed to understand”), and even some serious comedic chops (“Poetry first, sausage / later”). This isn’t to say that Nowell should risk less, merely that his greatest leaps of poetic faith are more often those that risk sincerity, rather than those that dazzle with a canonical knowledge of art and literature or drift into an obfuscating ellipticism. One can spend hours slowly unveiling layers of meaning or unraveling knotted syntax, but there are no hidden symbols or ornate forms of wordplay that will compare to lines like this: “How can I say that when you came to me / I did not think, but understood how love / in detail could contour the earth, own certain / seconds?”
What is undeniable is that Nowell’s voice, with all its idiosyncrasies, strange inversions, and magpie collection of cultural references, is capable of creating moments of true brilliance. Even in rereading The Fountain one cannot help being struck by the originality with which he conflates the grandeur of fine art with the everyday, instances that often arrive as hypothetical questions addressed to the reader, the self, the world, or even God: “O delicate attenuator, when / will all of it be over?” or “O if, obsolescent / summoner, ever you come to me, will / you bring me Diet Coke and dirty chips / aplenty to consume?” Leave it to Nowell to show that poetic inspiration flows as fruitfully from the spout of a soda fountain as it does from the peak of Mt. Helicon.
Tarn MacArthur is a George Buchanan PhD scholar at the University of St Andrews. He is the recipient of a grant from the Québec Council of Arts and Letters, and the Walter and Nancy Kidd Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon. His poetry has most recently appeared in print and online in the New Statesman, Oxford Poetry, Poetry London, and the Times Literary Supplement.