Surge by Jay Bernard is a poetry book composed of many different voices. At times confidential, at others longing, prophetic or lyrical, it weaves together the voices of the past, allowing the dead and forgotten to speak to the present. Through it all we hear the clear voice of Bernard, fearless, tender and unflinching.
As they explain in the author’s note, much of the work is informed by archive material from the George Padmore Institute ‘a centre dedicated to radical Black history in Britain’, where the poet was writer-in-residence.
As well as poems informed by archive interviews, there are photographs and scans of flyers, text messages and extracts from newspaper reports throughout the book. History and memory are recorded in objects and items. “Kitchen” presents a mundane cooking scene from the perspective of a dead son. The normality of it is overlaid with horror and loss. The small things are all that the speaker longs for and cannot have:
‘the wallpaper, the carpet, the kettle,
the dutch pot, the kippers sparking in oil –‘
Untold history is revealed in the small details: the memory of drinking Stella sat on a church wall ‘ankles locked/with my lover’ (“Tympanum”); the experience of a first Pride ‘gold clap of hot body/and hot body’ (“Pride”); the characters written on an underpass wall ‘ ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥/ STRENGTH’ (“Ark II”)
Places are important, as are the memories, both collective and individual evoked by the place names that appear throughout the book: Fordham Park, Ladbroke Grove, Coldharbour Lane, Shakespeare Road. A tapestry is being created, folding time into the physical space occupied by loss and violence, desire and love. We are to understand that little has changed for Black, Asian and ethnic minorities in Britain over the decades. The poem “Blank” at first seems to be about the Grenfell fire, but then lines start to echo back to previous pages, merging Grenfell with Windrush deportations, New Cross Fire and the Brixton protests:
‘No one recognised the body, no-one had anything to say to –
He, who has lived in the UK for 16 years,
is facing deportation and fears for his safety.’
The questions that it raises are not answered, but it takes us on a journey through the history that leads to the present moment and an essential understanding about being and belonging; as they write in the conclusion to the author’s note:
‘I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.’
Surge by Jay Bernard is published by Chatto & Windus, 80 pages.