Surge by Jay Bernard
Published by Chatto & Windus, 2019
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In this collection of poems, Bernard explores two tragedies that took place within the UK’s recent history, both of which had a disproportionately devastating impact on the Black community. These are the New Cross Massacre, a fire that killed 13 young people in 1981 and which many believed to be a racist attack, and the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017, when a block of flats was engulfed in flames, killing 72 people, many of whom were migrants and asylum seekers.
When researching both incidents, Bernard was struck by the similarities in the poor handling of the aftermath, exposing the persistence of systemic racism, economic inequality, and bias within the police and media. Written against the backdrop of the further Windrush scandal, this collection is undoubtedly at its strongest when it pulls back to comment on such issues more broadly. Some poems attempt to give a more intimate first-person voice to victims, and I appreciate the intent here. A couple of pieces towards the end are more personal, exploring the poet’s experiences regarding the intersection between Blackness and queerness. Though these are equally valid and important topics, the rest of the collection has such a tight thematic focus that they felt a little out of place.
Bernard has a beautiful turn of phrase, but the poems that hit me hardest were arguably the most simplistic, the vivid imagery and tangible pain of Arrival and Stone being real highlights.
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
that they gave us their first and last names that we might be called wogs
and to their minds made flesh that it might be stripped from our backs
– From Arrival
in all its orange dresses sipping rain in Fordham Park
a tyre swing eclipses the world within its hoop
I have found the stone with the names of all the dead
and meet the stone’s cold pink mirror
I hear summer ask how autumn
– From Stone
On the whole, this is a powerful, well informed collection that bares many of the uncomfortable yet necessary truths kept silent for far too long.