Haunting History: Jay Bernard’s Surge

Some disclosures: It’s worth noting that I am a white middle class cis man and have not personally experienced the structural or interpersonal violence Bernard’s work often negotiates; broadly speaking, I benefit from much of it. I’ve met Bernard a couple of times in person, and they kindly shared an uncorrected proof of English Breakfast (2013), a book currently published only in the States. Many thanks are due to Muireann Crowley for her extensive editing, and to the National Library of Scotland for maintaining excellent archives. This essay is dedicated to the striking staff in the UCU: higher education should be freely available to all, its workers deserve fair pay for fair hours, livable pensions, and an immediate end to casualized labour.

 

“When you surge and you don’t deal with the question, barbarism expresses itself… When you surge, you have to have a definite political conclusion, otherwise you dip again.”

– Darcus Howe, “Resurgence or Barbarism”, panel discussion with CLR James, Sonia Sanchez and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2nd International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, London, 1983.

‘The perspective therefore of the young in Britain is to mash up Babylon, to create a new society, where the social relations are not as barbaric as they are, that is something which is not humane, and make it more human.’

– John La Rose, The New Cross Massacre Story (Black Rose Press, 1984)

 

On 17 January 1981, thirteen Black Londoners between the ages of 14-22 died in a fire at a house party in New Cross; a survivor died by suicide two years later. The subsequent investigation was grossly mishandled by police, who repeatedly attempted to blame the victims for their own deaths, including the intimidation and coercion of survivors into false testimony, even after eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence suggested the fire was started by a white man with an incendiary device. The police failed to find or prosecute those responsible, and in on 2 March 1981, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, led by Howe, La Rose and many other radical Black activists and artists, organised the Black People’s Day of Action, when an estimated 20,000 people marched in protest from Fordham Park to Hyde Park. The national media condemned the protest.

La Rose had been an active part of the left-wing political movement in London since his arrival from Trinidad in 1961. In 1966 he co-founded New Beacon Books, the country’s first radical Black bookshop and publisher. Today, New Beacon shares a building with the George Padmore Institute, an archive for Black British and European communities, which in 2016 appointed Jay Bernard as its first poet-in-residence. Bernard began work on a project under the title ‘Surge’, whose first poems appeared in Beacon of Hope, a book celebrating the organisation’s 50th anniversary, and in 2017 won the Ted Hughes Award as a live theatrical performance with film elements, as Surge: Side A. The title seems to hint towards the provisional, evolving nature of the project: little of the 2016 work appears in the full collection Surge (Chatto & Windus, 2019) unaltered, and reading Beacon of Hope in the National Library in Edinburgh felt like being given access to the poet’s notebooks, early records of Bernard’s emergent process in the archives.

In a review for The Poetry School, Victoria Adukwei Bulley analyses how Surge figures the boundaries between life and death, past and present, in poems spoken by ‘voices who transcend notions of presence as contingent upon the physical body’:

‘Central to the reading of the collection are two refusals […] If the first refusal is that of declining to perceive the past as behind us, the second is to see those whose lives were lost as gone and unworthy of our attention […] In Surge, the dead are here and now. They are hungry and eager to be heard.’

Bulley puts a finger on the powerful tensions in Surge between a will to comfort the bereaved and the imperative to remember that justice has not been served, that the dead should not become airy symbols of peace and forgiveness. Her identification of hunger and eagerness as defining attributes also encapsulates how unsettling are the poems’ ghosts, whose needs and desires, both for contact and community, persist after death. By obscuring any firm dividing lines between them, the tenderness and humanity with which Surge treats the dead only highlights the inhumanity visited upon the living.

Fluidity is fundamental to Bernard’s aesthetics, as a brief overview of their career demonstrates. In 2017, they made an audio-visual installation in the Tate Britain, incorporating recordings of speeches by La Rose and Howe. ‘The Sound and the State’ (2016) is a 25-minute presentation given at Glasgow’s CCA critiquing the aesthetics of state violence, which includes original short films, a scene from Robocop (1987) and part of a song by Silver Bullet, “20 Seconds to Comply”. Bernard’s piece focuses on state surveillance technology, the intensity of its deployment against Black people, and the act of listening as an aspect of belonging in (often hostile) urban environments.

Bernard has also worked extensively as a visual artist. They created the delirious, dreamy imagery in their pamphlet, The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat & Tears, 2016), and were Artist-in-Residence at the StAnza Poetry Festival in 2010, my own first encounter with their work. In November of that year, they published a long-form comic in the quarterly magazine Wasafiri, “Land Narratives”, which contains a fleeting reference to the New Cross Massacre. The comic is a fascinating element in Bernard’s oeuvre, as it feels far more like an autobiographical journal than much of their work since. In the comic, personal anecdotes are related in vivid detail, of freewheeling romantic and artistic adventures in New York, Paris and Vienna, and of being stopped-and-searched by the Met Police on their return to London. Here, several years prior to their residency at the George Padmore Institute, the emboldened far-right activists, fervently racist press corps and unaccountable police of Britain in 1981 haunts the contemporary narrator; they tell their story to two silent ghosts.

Across Bernard’s work, the lines between one identity and another, or even one body and another, are (sometimes disturbingly) written into a state of flux; a central thesis of many poems is the tension between necessary, radical change and the very real pain and upheaval necessary to achieve it. As early as their debut pamphlet, your sign is cuckoo, girl (tall-lighthouse, 2008), they are already ruminating on the deep past, reaching for a space prior to European colonialism and its systematic denial of the basic humanity of its subjects. The poem ‘Cadence’, for example, is a sophisticated piece, not necessarily because of its historical analysis, which meditates on the human cost of the expansion and retraction of empire, but in its era-spanning imaginative empathy, ‘to a time / when there were no nations to think of’:

‘I should imagine someone on a yellow hill,
feeling the same discomfort as me
stumbling star-crossed along the planet like me –
but centuries like haunted masts curve between us.’

Systems which continue to enrich nation states like the United Kingdom may be centuries old, but they remain conditional: it was not always thus and need not be in the future. ‘Migration’ imagines another deep past, far beyond even the most rudimentary mechanisms of human society:

‘If darkness catches you and you turn back to see
the blank menace of so many windows,
imagine the fear of the first people huddled, haunted
one hundred, thousand years ago.’

There are several such sequences in Bernard’s work, in which the conditions of the present moment are traced back (often extremely far back) to a point at which a radically different future was still possible. In a 2017 anthology, Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War, their long poem, ‘Summer in England’, investigates artefacts of Black history in London, the war and the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, legislation which compelled migrants to carry official papers and forced British women who married non-British men to forfeit their citizenship. While maintaining focus on the suffering endured by the poem’s protagonists, ‘Summer in England’ is often a surprisingly joyful, ludic piece. As Bernard notes in their introduction:

‘Conversations I’d had in Jamaica and elsewhere confirmed that many previously colonised people believe in being British – they went to fight voluntarily even if Britain actively denigrated them. This was a hard idea for me to swallow and therefore exactly the one I needed to explore. So the poem became a hopeful, playful night, in a country that was on the brink of victory and would be changed forever. Gender and class relationships were shifting; Britain’s colonial power would begin to slip […] it just hadn’t quite happened yet.’

Bernard’s extraordinary pamphlet The Red and Yellow Nothing (2016) takes this line of thought into an explicitly literary domain. Framed as a prequel to the tale of Sir Morien, son of Sir Agloval of King Arthur’s Round Table, the pamphlet draws from the 1901 English translation from the Middle Dutch poem “Morien” from the Lancelotcompelatie (c.1320-30). The obscurity of the story’s origins seems instrumental in permitting space for Bernard’s playful, visionary quest.  In the introduction, Bernard argues that Morien’s appearance in the original poem (‘his head, body and hand / was all black, save his teeth’) does not make his being the son of an Arthurian knight a contradiction, it suggests a story in which one’s literary inheritances take primacy over one’s genealogy. In an essay written for Speaking Volumes, Bernard sets Morien, his reader, and his writer in a complex network of relationships:

‘Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years) … He is not raced, but he is dark skinned; he isn’t nowhere, but he’s nowhere in particular. […] the particular history that produced the author that reproduces [and in some ways contaminates] him is not inevitable.’

The argument here is far from straightforward, and, like the pro-British colonial subjects of ‘English Summer’, might be difficult to swallow. Bernard implies that their own work, even as someone refuting the racist philosophies by which this country has self-mythologised since the first days of empire, is not free from ‘contamination’: re-writing Morien in a colonial society taints his fictional-historical one. In a powerful passage in The Red and Yellow Nothing, Morien awakes alone in a field after a festival:

‘He feels a weight. At first he thinks the term is thick,
then shame, but as the night becomes morning and
he turns over, drunk, in a cold, wet field, the dew that
cradles him finds the word: innocence.’

Had Morien existed – and, as Bernard notes, there is substantial evidence that Moorish knights were a feature of European life – he did so before white Europeans devised the systems of racial hierarchy that still prevail today. He is ‘innocent’ of them in a way that we cannot be. The ‘author that reproduces him’ seems to invest Morien’s historical moment with possibilities long since lost to our own.

There are few speaking characters in The Red and Yellow Nothing, and only Morien is named. The first section is sung by ‘A bard of indeterminate gender […] seated on a toadstool’, who begins:

‘A silver wind came passing in
the distant land where books begin
where maids are men and hermits siiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

Between the toadstool, the comically elongated ‘siiiiing’, and their playful subversiveness, the bard does not feel like a revered authority. But being ‘of indeterminate gender’, it feels as if the reader is being nudged to read them as a stand-in for the poet, especially when they conclude:

‘History is on the wing
the past and present form a ring
and time is but a fractal thiiiiiiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

This bending or blending of linear time is a distinctly Bernardian strategy. Which makes it all the stranger when the bard is unceremoniously murdered by Morien off-stage; section III begins by noting that Morien enters the poem ‘still dripping with the blood of the bard’. What feels significant here is that the loss of the poem’s first narrator does not silence the book’s narrative voice. The poems of The Red and Yellow Nothing are haunted by the disembodied bard’s refrain, ‘Blue grows the darkness-o / there beneath the daylight-o’, and each section’s title contains more personality than is conventional. Section VII, for instance, is named:

‘A Dark Interlude: in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah. The dark waxes wan, the dark waxes red. Light is emitted from things that are dead.’

The anachronistic speech patterns meld with the poetically structured; the titles serve as tonal guides as much as narrative ones, opening The Red and Yellow Nothing to a huge range of creative possibilities. The pamphlet is replete with literary and psychological detail, and yet the processes by which Morien, or Morien’s identity, or the story of Morien, are broken down and reconstructed are rendered in grossly bodily terms. The title of Section XI begins:

‘A pink interlude. Morien, whom we can no longer refer to as he, exactly, has undergone something we won’t call a transition, exactly, but a kind of metastasis, in which he has grown as something very different not far from the site of his original self.’

Metastasis describes a secondary pathogenic growth close to the original tumour, and it is difficult to fathom a positive connotation here. Morien is passed through a digestive system, sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and filtered through a series of images in pink; the strangeness of the scene is difficult to convey without quoting in full. The process even seems to have taken a toll on the narrator, who in the title of Section XII reports:

‘Ragged and tired, Morien continues his journey through the forest […] It is hard to keep walking. It is hard to keep writing. It is hard to keep the halves of the past and future apart.’

The strangeness of the narrator’s self-positioning is easy to miss among the more spectacular surrealism of the poems surrounding it. The writer’s progress is implicitly tied to Morien’s, who has fetched up at a hermitage, ‘appear[ing] skeletal and genderqueer’; it might also be hard to keep the halves of the writer and the protagonist apart. Morien appears in a child’s dream, singing ‘Promise that you will sing about me’ a refrain from Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ (2012). Bernard’s poem articulates the song’s formal doubling: ‘promise when you sing you’ll sing / a promise that you’ll sing of me’, while in Lamar’s song, his characters harshly reject his attempts to ‘help with [their] story’, demanding he do more than merely narrate. Both poem and song are haunted by the question of where a narrator stands in relation to their subject, what responsibilities they might owe to those whose stories they tell; in The Red and Yellow Nothing, it is difficult to say who is haunting whom.

 

*             *             *

 

Bernard’s residency at the George Padmore Institute coincided, in June 2017, with the fire at Grenfell Tower. As their introduction to Surge notes:

‘Institutional indifference to working class lives had left nearly eighty people dead. The Windrush scandal was reminiscent of right-wing calls for black repatriation. The archive became, for me, a mirror of the present, a much-needed instruction manual to navigate what felt like the repetition of history.’

Ghosts have been at the heart of Bernard’s aesthetics since their earliest work: the haunted, haunting people of ‘Migration’ in their first pamphlet, the ghosts who accompany the speaker in the comic ‘Land Narratives’, the voice of a damned soul in ‘Song of the Strike’ (2013), who watches their own execution and, as they are cut open, smells ‘my mother’s cooking’. The variety of approaches to the subject Bernard has made over the years seem to inform their work in Surge; no longer handling the fictional Morien or varying degrees of autobiography, the New Cross poems in Surge seem to demand a personal investment that surpasses anything they have attempted previously. The ethical considerations necessary to the book’s creation – to handle archive material, to ‘walk into the belly of the beast’, as per the book’s first epigraph – push Bernard to their finest work to date.

‘Kitchen’, for example, is written in the voice of one of the victims of the New Cross fire, who travels to their family home. The poem is grounded in domestic particulars:

‘I went back to my mother’s kitchen:

peas were soaking on the stove
and a lettuce was uncurling on
the counter […] the spice
rack with a hundred grubby bottles’

The scene unfolds like a Dutch still life (a later stanza mentions ‘the dutch pot’). The food and domestic utensils, glowing in their specificity, appear in sharp contrast to the implied darkness surrounding them: the reader is primed to read this poem as one ‘reads’ a painting. The poem’s speaker transforms the house itself, their movement through it feels loving, familiar, rendering it a warm, wet, breathing creature on a continuum with its human inhabitants. Some lines later:

‘The first ray unencumbered
by the clouds spreads
its rose palm against the window –

I will be that for my brother and mother:

the light touching their faces as she
guts the fish, drains the peas.

The poem bristles with life, as the slumbering home wakes to its grief: the lines ‘I have held this house / in my arms and let it sob’ imagine it as another active sentience, and even the light against the windowpane becomes a tactile force, a ‘rose palm’ ‘touching their faces’. These closing lines leave the speaker’s will to provide comfort as a hypothetical, still a world apart from fish and peas, the mundane physics of daylight; the final line’s verbs, cognate with ‘gutting’ and ‘draining’, leave a taste of the pain and labour yet to come. The poem makes space for a huge amount of emotional information, and refrains from offering true closure: as in The Red and Yellow Nothing, this is not the song, but the promise to sing.

Where the poet stands in relation to the poems’ subject matter is always complicated in Bernard’s work, and may be a key factor in reading it as a multifaceted, yet cohesive, whole. Their dramatic personae are often so deftly embodied that the poet is all but invisibilized; by contrast, poems which appear autobiographical are sometimes narrated so dispassionately that the action takes on an eerie calm, as if the lyric ‘I’ is being observed by a second, distant self. Surge features two poems which Bernard sings in performance, ‘Songbook’ and ‘Songbook II’, both of which narrate the events and fallout from New Cross. The singer in these poems feels like an evolution of the bard from The Red and Yellow Nothing in their oblique angle to the events of which they sing, both commentator and participant. The first ‘Songbook’ is inspired by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘New Crass Massahkah’ (1983), and shares with Johnson’s song the unsettling dissonance between its upbeat melody and its devastating substance. ‘Songbook II’ concerns a character called ‘Miss D’, who is presented as a semi-mythical figure:

‘How many times has Miss D died?
How many times has she given us life
How many children does Miss D have?
As many as the people hearing this song’

Miss D is simultaneously among the other speakers in Surge who defy the boundaries between life and death and among their grieving parents. That the first chorus states that Miss D’s children are ‘listening in from beyond’ seems a confirmation of the book’s cosmology, that the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical body are, as Bulley notes in her review, more complex than the mere binaries of life/death and here/there. That these poems are intended to be sung, and bear pronounced formal patterning unlike any other in the book, draws attention to their artificiality in a way the reported speech and archive materials seem to do the opposite. Perhaps Surge demands the archivist’s fidelity to a recorded, documentarian truth, and the bard’s fidelity to a felt, remembered, embodied one.

The second half of Surge leans toward the documentarian’s side of this equation. The turning point seems to come in the poem, ‘Apple’, which begins with an utterly beautiful line: ‘And so, the revolutionary had a birthday party’. Shortly afterwards:

‘Don’t you love how they decided mid-meal
to lean into each other, peer into the photo
don’t you love that there is chicken grease
from the early part of this century’

The narrative layers of the poem fit snugly on top of one another: amid the ongoing crises post-1981, the activists saw fit to hold a birthday party for John La Rose, and a friend saw fit to preserve the moment in photography; later, a curator of the George Padmore Institute archive saw fit to preserve the photograph as a historical artefact, on equal footing with the more obviously relevant documentation of protest marches and radical literature. Later still, the poet-in-residence sees fit to celebrate the whole process, the careful pairs of hands through which this moment has passed. The unifying image is gorgeous:

‘the particular apple
they ate in slices […]
and cut the pieces into pages,
left it ageing on the plate […]

don’t you love those pieces of apple,
the brown photograph they have become’

The poem seems to push gently back against the impulse, even in moments as significant to British history as New Cross and the Black People’s Day of Action, to convert the human into the superhuman, as if they were not subject to age, decay and fatigue in much the same way as the apple, and the photo of the apple. In a fascinating note in Beacon of Hope, Bernard describes the experience of reading La Rose’s annotations to police interviews in the wake of the New Cross Massacre: Bernard finds their own reactions so closely echo La Rose’s that, ‘seeing his many exclamation marks and heavy underlining at the same points I detected as spurious, felt as though he was re-reading it through my eyes’ [my emphasis]. The process of keeping the past alive in the present is a deeply felt, deeply physical process, capable of inspiring the almost incredulous joy the speaker of ‘Apple’ struggles to articulate beyond its refrain, ‘don’t you love?’

The quotations at the top of this essay from Howe and La Rose broadly frame their political actions as a struggle between imperial barbarism and the humanity of those oppressed by it. Howe’s panel discussion took place at the 2nd International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, organised in part by La Rose and New Beacon; during the discussion, CLR James voiced his fears about the 1980s’ parallels to the 1930s, of the ‘new barbarism’ he saw rising in Europe, in its fascist ideologues and atomized, disempowered workers’ movements. Perhaps the most powerful thing Surge demands of its reader is an expansion of empathy, a recognition of humanity beyond the binaries of, ‘alive or deadmale or female, and here or there’. If we can hear the voices of the dead, how can we refuse to listen to the living?

In Beacon of Hope, Bernard notes how the original sequence of ‘Surge’ poems were inspired in part by the American documentarian Marlon Riggs, whose work in the late 80s and early 90s recorded the experiences and testimonies of gay Black men during the AIDS crisis; Bernard’s lecture ‘The Sound and the State’ was delivered at the Document Human Rights film festival as part of a series focusing on Riggs’ work. An interview with the arts magazine Jump Cut, Riggs explains his approach to filmmaking as being a blend of documentary and personal expression, about the struggle to find coherence within a multiplicity of voices. One passage seemed especially apt:

‘In this experimental form, I wanted an anchor. Not a dominant one-and-only point of view. There’re a multiplicity of voices in the video, not just my voice. […] But because I have such a dominant place at a pivotal point in the video, my viewpoint becomes, in a way, a thread throughout.’

Perhaps asking where the poet (or the b(ern)ard) stands in relation to the poems’ action may be missing a key point. As Bernard asserts in the introduction:

‘I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.’

Unlike Morien, who ‘isn’t nowhere, but [is] nowhere in particular’, Bernard cannot remove themself from the realities their poems invoke, the scenes they animate. They are, in the words of The Red and Yellow Nothing, ‘the dark light travels by’, the barely perceptible presence just out of shot, holding the whole production together. Their organising presence creates, in fleeting shots and cut-aways, a new society, not as barbaric as it is, but as human as it might be.

 

Further reading:

your sign is cuckoo, girl (tall-lighthouse, 2008)

English Breakfast (Math Paper Press, 2013)

Beacon of Hope: New Beacon in Poetry and Prose (New Beacon Books, 2016)

Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After the First World War, ed. Karen McCarthy Woolf (Nine Arches, 2017)

Surge (Chatto & Windus, 2019)

 

The New Cross Massacre Story (Black Rose Press, 1984)

Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, Interview with Marlon Riggs, Jump Cut, 1991

Review of Surge, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, The Poetry School

Review of Surge, Marek Sullivan, Frieze

Review of Surge, Jack Belloli, Review 31

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