Is there a park left in South-East London, I wondered, where women have not stood talking about ‘Thanksgiving’? I was walking back from Peckham Rye, rain beading hair and wool scarf, glasses fogging up. Natasha, her baby and I got locked into Ladywell cemetery. We climbed out through a hole in a fence that a man pointed out with the bottle in his hand, and we jumped down a wall. Lucky we didn’t have a buggy. In Peckham Rye, still giggling, it was time to say goodbye. And Natasha, smiling baby strapped to her chest said: that poem you sent me, I’ve been thinking about it.
I’ve been thinking, she says, of that space in the poem:
That space of absence, of disappearing – is there something appealing about it? An absence from which something just might emerge, the pleasure of vanishing or — she bounces the baby — does it just feel dreadful, awful?
And then we say — ask — together: or both?
We can’t embrace so we stamp our feet on the ground in some sort of dance. And then as I’m walking home I think, already in Hilly Fields Marcella and I were talking of the poem. And Clare has spoken of it to Hetta and they live in south London too. And Carmen! Her hair so abundant and gold as we sat conversing on Telegraph Hill.
All the women I love, one, two metres apart, as we pass Rachel’s words between us.
This whole time, I’ve been holding,
squeezing, wringing, folding,
bending, nodding, thank you, God,
for giving me someone who makes me hold
my breath. I will be so light
upon his life he won’t realise
he’s kept me.
The first section of My Darling from the Lions is called ‘Open’ through which five poems with the same title are spaced at almost even intervals. Each draws the attention of the reader to the layering of meaning and interpretation, even in the briefest of instances. Something can be more than one thing. Both, and. Like all of Rachel Long’s poems, they make a claim to the pleasure of ambiguity.
It is lonely, I think, to be just one thing. This is the loneliness of forms, checkboxes, where are you really from. Rachel’s book is an antidote. What it might be to be open.
At my first academic post-seminar dinner in London, I sat listening in to a conversation between the famous academic who had just spoken to us, and the convenor of the seminar. It was a Thai restaurant with a set menu. The convenor asked her where she lived and she said, oh Holloway Road. And someone else said: oh that’s a really nice part of London, isn’t it.
And she said: it’s not that nice, there is a Poundland just down the street.
I didn’t know Holloway Road, but one of the bits of advice I was given when I moved to England was to find, and remember, the location of the Poundland.
I wasn’t embarrassed, I just thought — what is your world?
Hey! I know that place, I thought. I walked past it. I’ve let someone, distracted, burn me with wax because of the crepe roll of her belly and way she lets it press against me. Sometimes I wonder if London is some sort of city of mirages, the men in suits, the women at the seminars just can’t see the jackfruit, can’t see the fresh coconut, can’t see the okra by the bowl. Sometimes I want to grab people by the shoulders, they’ve been here years longer than me, and say: where, where have you been living?
Sometimes I imagine I will have a daughter in this city, and I will tell her: never trust a neighbourhood without yams.
When Rachel writes about hair, an entire city comes into view.
Her writing is open to ambiguity, and it is open to dreams.
In the early twentieth century psychoanalysts, anthropologists, men with offices spent years wondering if people — people outside Europe (and America) — had dreams. They asked, found out. Yes, they dream too. But were these dreams just their myths? Easy to read against a code, ready-made for deciphering?
Sometimes when I read a book review, watch a writer being interviewed I wonder—these journalists, writers, people with words—are they still asking this same question? What is your book about? How is your book shaped by your experience of…?
In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes that every dream has a navel, or umbilicus, linking it to the unknown. A dream squats on the unacknowledged, and it rises like a mushroom from its mycelium.
Sometimes I imagine I will have a daughter and I will tell her: never trust a book without a mycelium.
Rachel Long (@rachelnalong) is a poet and leader of Octavia Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour. Her book My Darling From the Lions was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Akshi Singh is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ‘Pathologies of Solitude’ project at Queen Mary University of London.