★★★★✩ | 4/5
Shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, T.S. Eliot Prize, and Forward Prize, as well as winning the Ted Hughes Award, Jay Bernard’s debut collection has blazed a white hot trail to acclaim. With reference to the New Cross Fire of 1981, also known as the New Cross Massacre, and the more recent Grenfell Tower Fire of 2017, Surge is the furious swipe of a clenched fist against the walls of systematic racism behind which our own government shamefully hides.
The voices presented in Surge are that of a community suffering tremendous loss, with no help in sight from the establishments which are supposed to alleviate their pain. Each stanza undulates with indignation, with a tightly wrapped rage apt to burst free from the interlaced fingers of its socially demanded confines. Together, they make a chorus of ignored souls, the chant of a protest march. Verses on a mother’s cooking, on infamous neighbours whose loss is keenly felt, on beloved photographs, the subjects of which will never age more, are interspersed between verses on questions of national identifiers, on press haranguing of mourning protesters, on the ashes of the nameless being sprinkled over the roofs of West London. Bernard adapts their poetic voice to suit each text, being sometimes lyrical as in the Songbook poems, sometimes conversational and prosaic, as in ‘Washing’ and ‘Ja-my-ca’. Each poem seems to have been spoken from a different individual, all with distinct stylistic traits and colloquialisms, causing this collection to feel more like a communal collage than the endeavour of a single author. Bernard’s ability to mould their voice and tonal characteristics in order to personify an array of different subjects, while maintaining a consistent relevance to their overriding theme, is an impressive technical feat.
Some of the texts compiled in Surge were first presented as part of a multimedia piece titled Surge: Side A, which won the Ted Hughes Award for new poetry in 2018. The transition from performance art to written and read verse is, in places, difficult, with some of the more irritating aspects of slam and performance poetry seeping through onto the page. Formatting decisions seem thematically pointless, done for aesthetic reasons rather than to illustrate a narrative point, a major bugbear for the minimalist in me. Some extracts were also too conversational, too jagged and abrupt, to really tickle the fancy for lyricism which my individual taste nurtures. Please, however, understand that these are simply personal nitpicks on my part. I have tried many times to get to a point of saturation where I can tolerate performance poetry, and have failed miserably with each endeavour. In general terms, on the other hand, performance and slam poetry enjoy a dominant presence in the poetic sphere which tells me that I must be missing a key component required to develop a liking for the form. That’s not on Jay Bernard – that’s on me. Bernard’s collection stands above other works of its kind insofar as I liked it, and liked it quite a bit.
Surge is a gently simmering hotpot of justified anger, cultural pride, and communal love. Jay Bernard’s skill at creating a plethora of new voices who sing and chant and whisper and wail as one is this work’s greatest triumph.
Featured image is The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner.