My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long: A Critical Summary

My Darling from the Lions is a remarkable debut collection with plenty to say and the ability to say it in a unique, witty, and fresh manner. Playful warmth is sharply contrasted with piercing tones, and the collection remains resonant across the breadth of theme it tackles from girlhood and sex to trauma and Black womanhood. The contemporaneity of the subject matter and levity of tone belies the serious nature of some of the stories being told here, and that duality is part of the collection’s brilliant charm.

My Darling from the Lions is Rachel Long’s debut. From girlhood, relationships and sex to family, trauma and Black womanhood, it is a beautiful collection that tackles many themes. Dark, sensual, and whimsical, the blurb describes Long as razor-sharp, and I would have to agree. The contemporaneity of the subject matter and levity of tone belies the serious nature of some of the stories being told here, and that duality is part of the collection’s brilliant charm. 

As is often the case with poetry, there are many vague moments that are open to multiple interpretations. Long employs a variety of styles including surrealism, using curious motifs like candles and blood to add to the multiple layers of meaning that clothe the collection. Though varying in subject matter, it is a cohesive one divided into three sections titled “Open”, “A Lineage of Wigs”, and “Dolls”. These lend it a coming-of-age feel as the reader travels through girlhood, youth, and maturity. From contemporary bursts to longer, prose-like pieces, the poems vary in length and all cannot be said to fit neatly into those section categories.

“Dark, sensual, and whimsical”

The first poem in the collection is “open”. The first taste we get of Long is one of sensuality and freedom, with danger lurking not far behind. The following five lines are repeated at various points throughout the poem, and at times with variations on the speaker and the spoken to who include her lover, mother, and friend:

This morning he told me
I sleep with my mouth open
And my hands in my hair
I say, What, like screaming?
He says, No, like abandon.

In the poem “Helena”, a dancer and possibly sex worker recounts an incident that includes the coercion and more of Tiff, Scarlett, and Rachel. It’s a poem that says a lot about young womanhood, power, and sexual politics, and yet it ends with the girls laughing and a nonchalant Helena heading off to the shower. One of the longer prose-styled poems, the dialogue is in colloquial speech which adds to the deceptive lightness, a method Long employs repeatedly throughout My Darling from the Lions.

Race is a prominent aspect of the collection, with our primary speaker being a mixed-race woman navigating all complexities that come with her identity. “Hotel, Art, Barcelona” begins with the idyllic “we are eating roses on a rooftop.” Our speaker is on a date with an older white man when all these complexities start to play out. “Every table is white except ours”, she says, to which her date responds, “I don’t think I’ll identify with a brown son.” In “And then there was the time I got into a fight”, you see the same young woman get into a scuffle at school trying to prove that the white man with light brown hair outside the window is her dad come to pick her up. The speaker demonstrates how close to whiteness she wants to be: “I wish you were still blonde dad, why?” 

Long explores the discomfort, and sometimes absurdity, that surrounds race. Complex nuance is a signifier of the modernist style Long employs, and most of the poems demonstrate the contradictory push and pull of life, emotions, and actions. In the poem “Black Princess, Black Princess”, which is clearly about Megan Markle, we see these complexities clearly. Interestingly, though this example plays out in a prominent institution, that is, the Royal Family and the British media, the awkwardness and ridicule of it all can be transposed onto other, ordinary situations.  For example, the poem refers to the princess’ family being vetted and an unknown asking for a urine sample. Then they make an awkward joke about combing through her hair before asking invasive questions about her sexual history. The entire poem is uncomfortable, invasive, and demonstrative of the typical experiences Black women face in the different areas of their lives from work to dating. 

The poems explore the power imbalances that come with youth. Not limited to her own, the speaker looks her mother’s life as a young girl. In “The Musical Box”, the mother is an adolescent who owns a music box and one day, a male cousin violently prises it open. This metaphor for abuse, the loss of innocence, and the trespassing of young children’s boundaries considers how parental hurt shapes generations to come. In “Hotel, Art, Barcelona”, we see the hurt our speaker nurses in the present. An internal war plays out as they challenge the man’s assumption that the brown child would be a boy and later vomits “rose foam” in their “borrowed bathroom.” And its final lines, after the man lifts her dress up and she spreads her thighs apart, are open to interpretation. To me, they speak of youth and power: “is love not this – gripping a fence in the sky.”  

“Sandwiches”, however, is a short yet captivating display of two young girls on the cusp of their burgeoning sexualities. “Tiff’s got me against the railings, doing my eyeliner”, and it is almost as though the two girls are the object of each other’s desire.

…Break time
her body on mine, stoosh then soft; sugar
on the tongue of all she hasn’t done yet,
all she’s heard she could do. Already, Tiff’s a reckoning;.

“Night Vigil” is arresting in its revelation of childhood sexual abuse at a church. The young speaker is described as a “choir girl – a Real angel”, and the poem combines the sweetness and innocence of youth with a sense of foreboding and danger. You’ll find lines like “how I sang, Or how I fell silent” as the preacher ushers her into “incensed corridors” with “blown candles for hands” where “Smiling Eyes also meant teeth.” “Night Vigil”, then, serves as a crux explaining some of the disordered behaviour that the speaker exhibits with her body and her conflicting relationship with faith. 

“These poems explore the power imbalances that come with youth.”

In “Clean”, we see her purge herself, saying:

Girl, you can be new
Surrender it all
Into one bowl. This,
your hollow

Similarly, in “Bike”, there’s a quote from the psalms: “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Long then goes on to intersperse the phrase “wash me” with a childhood game of hopscotch, referring to being pressed up against a wall “that Sunday, that school”, with “the bible just lying there.” How many things in My Darling from the Lions boil down to this one moment!

The second and third sections, “A Lineage of Wigs” and “Dolls”, chiefly deal with class, relationships, and motherhood. The speaker describes their house as a street overcrowded with ten children, and these sections are filled with such poignant, tender memoires that showcase the naivete of adolescence and the level of detail that can be gleaned from observing the people around us. I loved how the ode to the speaker’s Nigerian mother is also an ode to African women’s hair and wigs. “A Lineage of Wigs” begins with “Orb”, a three-line verse glorifying her mother’s afro hair.

Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high.
So high it’s an orb.
Everyone wants to—but cannot—touch it
.

“Communion…Deana Lawson”, is a beautiful poem that celebrates Black womanhood. While celebratory, it’s also biting with lines that speak to Black history, diaspora, older women, and our bodies. 

Scalp sliced so many times you can’t recall if you are girl or railroad … you’re kidding if you think that a box of wings and chips won’t be eaten over your fresh weave … Girl, you’re the Blackest you might ever be in here, stop pulling away from the crepe roll of her belly.

The final section makes references to celebrities to home in points about racism, class, the media, consumption, objectification, and commodification. It is, however, probably the weaker one, especially considering poems like “Sharks and Victoria Beckham” and the closing “The Sunflower”. Both riff on feminism as they name drop Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana. Though they critique intrusive media habits and trends which are now part and parcel with contemporary consumer culture, the meaning of these poems is more obscure, and the reader is quickly lost.

My Darling from the Lions is a remarkable collection with plenty to say and the ability to say it in a unique, witty, and fresh manner. Playful warmth is sharply contrasted with piercing tones, and the collection remains resonant across the breadth of theme it tackles. Often ambiguous, the lack of clarity is part of its charm and Long does us a charity in obfuscating some of the heavier subjects. But My Darling from the Lions shines brightest when she brings us intimately close, gratifying us with perspectives we would not ordinarily be privy to. 

By Aisha Oni

AISHA ONI is a British-Nigerian writer, book blogger, and avid reader.  You can find her at @aishathebibliophile on Instagram, and @aishandembooks on Twitter. 

RACHEL LONG is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour, based at the Southbank Centre. She began writing poetry after attending a workshop with Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, a transformative experience she describes as “radically intimate, and yet simultaneously expansive. I’ve been writing poems since I left that room.” My Darling from the Lions is her debut collection and has been shorlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best Collection.

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long: A Critical SummaryMy Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long
Published by Tin House on 21 September 2021
Genres: Black British, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Debut, Womanism, Poetry
Pages: 88
Format: Paperback
Afrori
Goodreads
four-stars

Each poem in Rachel Long’s award-winning My Darling from the Lions has a vivid story to tell—of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion, or sexual awakening—stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny, and outrageous. Told in three sections, it’s a book about growing up, falling in love with not-great men, girlhood, and Barbie doll men in fast cars; a book about femininity, divinity, familial shame, Black identity, and modern culture. Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill. A much-anticipated debut collection that announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.