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Mal Picks with Rachel Long

For our third instalment of Mal Picks, poet Rachel Long shares the three artworks that have been pillars in her understanding of desire. Her ‘Four Poems were published in Mal's fourth issue Real Girls (2019). Rachel's debut poetry collection My Darling from the Lions is forthcoming from Picador Books in July, and was recently shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

‘The Kiss’, Gustave Klimt (1908-1909)

It is so obviously beautiful, isn’t it? An outrageous depiction of love in gold (and platinum) leaf laid on oils that seem to have been poured and stoppered in Ancient Egypt. The lovers are oblivious to it, the way rich people’s champagne flutes are refilled at a restaurant. But the most expensive thing here isn’t the gold, it’s the way they hold each other. Kneeling together on the verge of dissolution, they are so inside each other it makes me want to shout ‘get a room!’ But they have a room. I’m looking into it.

And so have others. Their display of desire has been reproduced on egg cups, umbrellas, keyrings; sold as giant posters at Fresher’s fairs; Blu tacked to dorm walls. I feel almost as sorry for the lovers as I do for Marilyn Monroe when I see her hanging, dress blowing up, in all-night kebab shops.

I Blu tacked ‘The Kiss’ to the door of my most formative bedroom. It represented the sort of love I wanted. A love in gold-leaf, with all my parts and all my lover’s parts in that kind of harmony. After nearly a decade of not having that poster tacked to my door, I realised that all but one of my examples of love and sex growing up were white (the one being my parents, but like most kids it grossed me out to think about them like that). I’m not saying that it is impossible to imagine ourselves in love or desire if our examples do not look like us, but I wonder what having ‘The Kiss’ and Barbies and EastEnders and Hollywood and 90s boybands and sitcoms and all blonde girl magazines does to a young wannabe lover, a budding romantic, what it eventually does to her heart.

Maybe what makes me love it and yet roll my eyes is not their insularity as a couple but how exclusionary ‘true love’ and timeless desire have always been for me (and so many others, in a myriad of ways). How only certain lovers ever get to be posters, and what damage was already being done in love’s name by the time we noticed.

‘To Be Explicit’, Caroline Bird (from In These Years of Prohibition, Carcanet, 2017)

‘I wana rip you open / like a sack of doves’

is how this tiny earth-moving poem opens. It is the smallest but perhaps the most pack-a-punch poem in Caroline Bird’s fifth collection, In These Days of Prohibition, shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize in 2018. I happened to be on a beach when I finished it, and lay there for hours afterwards unable to do anything but look up.

Caroline Bird explores love, sex and desire in ways that are by turn hilarious and thundercloud-like, honest but uncertain, and then absolutely sure. Stepping into her poems I think, oh, good, it’s a love poem, I know/have known love, but then she will teach me about a whole new ventricle of the heart. Things I have heard rumours about, sure, like most heart-folklore, but never felt, until reading her.

‘Signs’, Deana Lawson (2016)

‘Signs’ is the artwork I want to buy. Whenever I move to a new house, I imagine it over the mantel. I always want it in the first room of the house − the reception room or at the end of a long, white hallway. Sometimes I imagine the reactions of my visitors. The new neighbours who just ‘popped over’ to say hello and advise me on what days the bins go out. What would they make of the four big black men looking back at them? (And they are all accurately ‘big’, not just in the racist imagination − Lawson’s inkjet print is approximately 53 x 42 inches).

But I don't want them for the shock factor. I want ‘Signs’ because I want to boldly display their kinship and kingliness and strength and dignity. (Notes: interesting how these are all traditional themes and motifs in art – kings, strength etc. – so what should be so shocking about these men? I’m also aware that I have had to avoid writing: ‘hanging them over my mantel’, or ‘owning an artwork depicting four young black men’, even the language about art changes when thinking of this piece.) There are few artworks that make me feel this dual sense of admiration and protectiveness of the subjects. It’s complicated; I am in love with it.

Black Lives Matter: Funds, Petitions and Resources

In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, we wanted to share the work of a few exceptional black writers, poets and artists and express our gratitude for it.

As part of our commitment to challenge unconscious bias, including our own, and fight against systematic racism as we stand in solidarity with the Black community, we have collated a record of crucial resources and funds, now published on the Feeld website. We continue to share material on our social platforms, if there are any further resources you recommend and would like us to share, please get in touch.

BLM Resources and Funds →

Mal is supported by Feeld, the first dating platform for couples and singles, and operates with full editorial independence and without ads.

Image credits: Amaal Said; Signs, Deana Lawson (2016); Untitled, 1996–2012, Liz Johnson Artur

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