by Cait Brown
‘Surge’ by Jay Bernard is a beautifully tragic and thought-provoking collection of poetry, in which Bernard discusses both the ‘New Cross’ and ‘Grenfell’ fires.
On January 18 1981, 13 black teenagers were killed in a house fire in south-east London. After suffering with grief, a final suicide brought the death rate to 14. Bernard focuses on the issue of a possible cover up by the police. It is a real possibility that the cause of the fire was a hate crime, but this has never been determined after the government silence that followed. Bernard's work directly addresses a generation encountering a new wave of police discrimination as their writing of the past chillingly reflects the present, leaving us to ask the question: ‘how much has really changed?’ Bernard seamlessly weaves the fragility of crimes unfolding and the outrage at the lack of action from the government, and society, as a whole. This is a collection against forgetting, a disagreement with any sense that the past is in the past.
Bernard uses pronouns – ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘my’, ‘me’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ – yet there is no clear narrator of these stories, which gives a universal grief affecting the ‘we’ of a whole society, not just the individuals. Bernard writes in such a way as to incorporate a poly-vocal effect, millions of voices emerging from the vastness of ‘black Britain’. This also plants the wedge of 'us’ and ‘them', and reminds the reader that this gap has so often been widened by society’s silence and blame in tragic circumstances. In the poem '+', the speaker insists ‘my son isn't a culprit, and how dare he imply it’ after a police officer racially profiles his missing son, suggesting culpability for the fire when, in fact, we later find out the son died in the blaze. Bernard also gives a voice to those gone before their time, relaying the confusion, the desperation they might have felt looking back on the aftermath of their death: ‘No one will tell me what happened to my body’. The frustration at the lack of answers doesn’t just affect the living:
I see my picture on a sign
as though the march
were my mother's mantelpiece
Lewisham the frame
every face come in like a cousin
tall boys carry my empty
In doing this, Bernard forces the reader to not only consider the effects on those of us who are left behind, but the experience of the disembodiment the memory of the victims creates. The book ends on a powerful poem, ‘Flowers’, in which the line ‘Will anybody speak of this’ leaves the reader with a poignant reminder of the lack of response which these tragedies so desperately deserved. The statement ‘silence is violence’ has never been more pertinent.
This poetry collection, and other recent winners of the TS Eliot and Forward poetry prizes are available to borrow from the library in SP4.