#YoungWriterAward: Surge by Jay Bernard

I was fortunate enough to hear Jay Bernard perform several of the poems in this collection and have never forgotten them. It was an excellent introduction, because many of them gain immeasurably from being heard, particularly Songbook, whose almost jaunty sing-song rhythm belies the underlying horror.

Make no mistake, this book is as much of a punch in the gut as one of the other books on the shortlist (Inferno by Catherine Cho). Except it isn’t a memoir. It’s a poet’s exploration of historical facts. In 2016 Jay Bernard was a writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research centre for radical black history in Britain. During the course of the residency, Bernard examined the documents pertaining to the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the indifference with which the deaths of thirteen young black people was treated in the media, by the authorities and the general public. A short while after engaging with these historical records, in 2017, the Grenfell Fire took place and the poet felt as if history was repeating itself.

Surge is not a political manifesto, but an emotional response to these disasters and their aftermaths. Of course it expresses sorrow and anger, it calls for justice, and therefore might be called political. There are also some harrowing scenes of retrieving the charred bodies, of parents having to identify the remains, of private and public grieving. But it feels like it’s teaching us a way to come to terms with almost unimaginable pain.

Going in when the firefighters left

was like standing on a black beach

with the sea suspended in the walls,

soot suds like a conglomerate of flies. […]

The black is coming in from the cold,

rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.

It is also the story of the Windrush generation and their descendants. It warns of the dangers of believing yourself at home in a community, and of feeling a homesickness for a place or for people who may no longer exist anywhere except in our memories.

don’t let me die in England I said to the pavement –

to the sea-black rain –

and never tell my grandmother why I never called –

never called to say that I thought of her daily –

that I suffered with the weight of what she had freely given

Author portrait copyright: Joshua Virasami

But it’s also an intimate, touching portrait of growing up black and queer in South London, of feeling part of and apart from several different cultures. Personal sorrows and fears blend with those of the larger community, small joys and triumphs are a source of almost guilty pleasure.

Some day when we can all go to in-person theatre again, I would like to see this book in an immersive experience format, with film projection, audio recordings, something to be felt with all the senses, painful thought it might be. As it was, I felt the words and images fairly jumped off the page, as the poet ably combines pictures, witness statements, newspaper articles and video archives. Jay Bernard shows a remarkable craft and tonal range, far beyond their years: from the auditive delights of spoken word poetry to lyrical minimalism. It was often the quieter, more elegiac moments where the emotion gripped me most:

Will anybody speak of this

the way the flowers do,

the way the common speaks

of the fearless dying leaves?

Will anybody speak of this

the coming of the cold,

the queit it will bring

the fire we beheld?

Will anybody speak of this

the fire we beheld

the garlands at the gate,

the way the flowers do?

Flee the Fire

So no, if you scratch me, I will not bleed. If you stab my heart, your knife will splinter on sheer flint. The calamine-soaked bandages sticking to the pus of my burn wounds neither hurt nor soothe me. I’ve been burning since the night I forgot to check on Freddie. Hell is the only place for me and I dare not leave it any time soon.

The forest fires in Canada may no longer be in the news, but they are still raging (although some rain is making the firefighters’ work slightly easier). That will be a post for another day, about the shortlasting visbility of news stories…

A Fire Is Like a Ship

Pin-straight it preens,

jutting its prow forward.

Its sails frolic on high,

light dancing up and up in the wind.

At first it seemed a comfort, but now I know

it’s a sick man

grunting and heaving

with the rattle of rusty anchors.

He flaps and heaves,

his mouth a spitting blackness of half-chewed tobacco.

Barefoot we scurry in panic downstairs,

slip on lime-scrubbed floorboards.

Narrow and long, it chases us, seeking

to seal us into its coffin shape.

Over at dVerse Poets Pub, the utterly charming and always inspiring Anna is encouraging us to use unusual metaphors and create a poetic conceit.