Book Review: Surge by Jay Bernard

July 21, 2020


Surge, Jay Bernard
Chatto & Windus (Vintage imprint), 2019

LGBTQ+ | Race | Poetry

Read this collection; it’s amazing.

Surge is poetry in service of community. It’s powerful, relevant, urgent and affecting. Writing in response to archival materials from the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the consequent activism as the state failed the Black community, Bernard not only bears witness to the victims of the fire but gives voice to them. The ghosts and bodies of the victims get a chance to speak: “No-one will tell me    what happened to my body” (Duppy). The collection also represents the families, marchers and activists seeking justice.

Whilst the collection has a focus on the New Cross Fire and its connections with the Grenfell Tower fire, the content never feels repetitive as myriad themes are explored. Remember in school when you had to take a pencil to your print-out and annotate a poem? There would barely be any blank space on the page after annotating Bernard’s poems: they are so packed with meaning. Yet the poems are concise, with a level of clarity that allow ample meaning to be taken from your first reading. Some of the poems are more complex and opaquer towards the end of the collection, but this opacity just invites additional readings (as good poetry should!) in which you’ll uncover more meaning. Some of the themes evoked are heritage, systemic injustice (racism, poverty), home, community, and Black/queer bodies.

The variety in theme and in form, throughout the collection, keeps it fresh and engaging. The collection also includes some photos and posters from the archive which are illuminating and fit well with the poetry. Bernard’s opening author’s note - which concisely but powerfully introduces the New Cross Fire and their inspiration and process for the collection - and endnotes aid understanding and respectfully credit the materials, events, voices and stories that made Bernard’s collection possible.

The poems convey the ideas and images that the archival materials brought to mind for Bernard, but the writing also includes the materiality of archives. Bernard includes moments of their physical experience of archival material which is really interesting and a reminder that, although Bernard makes personal connections with their own experience as a Black British person, the collection is ultimately an act of witnessing, through artefacts and imagination.

For me, the most impactful poems were the opening poem Arrival, and the later poem Songbook. Arrival speaks of Windrush immigrants who were invited to Britain and the injustices that have since been inflicted on them.

               remember we were brought here from the clear waters of our dreams 
               that we might be named, numbered, and forgotten 
               that we were made visible that we might be looked on with contempt

Songbook, rhythmic and dialectal, lured me into a false sense of security and then pounded me with visceral profundity. Reading this poem, I knew that I was in the presence of immense talent; Bernard knows how to use form, language and images to (socio-political) effect.

It’s worth noting that I read this collection in one sitting, and plan to return to it for a second sitting, rather than dipping in and out. I think the collection is more affective this way; give these poems and their messages space to breathe and sink in. Also worth noting: I am reading this collection as a White, cisgender, British woman and encourage you to read own voices reviews too.

Please do share links to own voice reviews in the comments below.


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