Content Note: This article contains mentions of racism and suicide
As someone who isn’t the biggest fan of poetry (bearing a particular hatred for TS Eliot) Jay Bernard’s collection Surge inspired new hope. Often uncomfortable to read, Bernard’s book is more relevant than ever following the events of the Black Lives Matter movement, as it inspires a deep reflection on racism too often ignored in Great Britain.
Surge focuses on two major events in recent black British history: the New Cross massacre (1981) and the Grenfell fire (2017). Bernard highlights the lack of social progress and lack of accountability of authorities through their comparison, as well as exploring the terrible impact these events have had on families and communities. The New Cross massacre was a house fire that killed 13 young black people on the morning of January 18, 1981, and another committed suicide. The fire occurred following fascist attacks at Forest Hill and the Albany Empire Theater – with the National Front claiming responsibility for the latter. Indeed, many New Cross residents suspected the fire was racially motivated, and the police belief that no arson was involved created serious tension, culminating in the Brixton Riots later that year- the.
Jay Bernard’s collection is impactful. It’s definitely not bedtime reading. But it’s worth it…
Bernard takes us through the journey of this fire from the point of view of the victims and the families who suffered from it. “Arrival” acts as a poignant opening on Surge. “Remember we were brought here from the clear water of our dreams,” Bernard writes, referring to the promises made to those who came during the Windrush generation and the racism they suffered afterwards. Without a period or a comma, the fear of the victims of the New Cross fire is heard in heartbreaking detail. Appropriately, Surge originally debuted as a performance piece, with the subtitle “Side A”, and the collection lives up to that title. This is really the story of the victims. The first side of the strip is often ignored for the other side, which is easier to bare. It’s hard to read without choking.
I think it’s fair to say that it’s unusual for the first poem in a collection to get stuck in the back of your throat. It’s also fair to say that this collection continues to deliver. Through 31 poems, Bernard leaps between New Cross and Grenfell with a deft hand, weaving a story that encompasses both the raw grief of the victims’ families and the legacy that marks Bernard’s life today. Sprinkled with quotes, text messages and photographs, Surge is also a visual commemoration of New Cross and Grenfell. This modern presentation helps Bernard convey systemic racism.
As with the Black Day of Action in 1981, which took place in the wake of the New Cross fire, Jay Bernard also exhibits a sense of anger. They use narrative voice changes to highlight the parallels between New Cross and Grenfell. Deliberately, it is difficult to immediately discern which poems refer to which tragedy. ‘Songbook’ is an example. While not the most provocative of Bernard’s work (arguably ‘+’ and ‘-‘ are the hardest to read), ‘Songbook’ presents the struggle for change most clearly. Appropriately, the poem takes the form of verse and refrain. But, the reggae-like rhythm used by Bernard creates an unsettling contrast to the message. They write, “Me seh ah tree step fahwahd an ah six step back,” poignantly summarizing the frustration that weaves through the collection.
Bernard’s frustration isn’t just about a lack of progress.
However, Bernard’s frustration isn’t just about a lack of progress. Bernard writes in the author’s note that they had “grown up as a black British Londoner with a fragmentary understanding” of the New Cross massacre. Surge acts as the poet’s cathartic outlet as Bernard learns the truth about their heritage – it’s a cry for education. It is therefore no coincidence that Bernard ends with a bitter “Flowers”, asking if someone will talk about the struggle he endured “in the manner of flowers”.
Jay Bernard’s collection is impactful. It’s definitely not bedtime reading. But it’s worth it, even if it can be uncomfortable. Bernard’s words precipitate a deep sense of compassion and empathy, as well as an education for those (like me) who have never suffered from racism. This collection is more than just desperation. As Bernard says in their author’s note, “I am haunted by this story but I also haunt it in return”. There is a weariness with past injustices, but also a resilient promise: never to forget, never to let it be repeated. Two terrible fires with too few accounts to render: Bernard shows that it must not happen again. So we can finally answer the question they ask themselves in ‘Flowers’. Thanks to Bernard, there may be the chance to speak as flowers do. If only GCSE poetry anthologies were as good as this.
Surge won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award (2020) and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize (2019), Costa Poetry Prize (2019), Dylan Thomas Prize (2020) and RSL Prize Ondaatje (2020).
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