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

Advertisement

The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.

*

Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.

 

*

 

A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.

 

*

 

A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.

 

*

 

I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.

 

Works Cited:

Poetry

Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

 

Games

Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Disclosure: Saw the poet read many years ago, don’t know Bernard personally. The book deals with social aggressions over race and gender, and a character in constant negotiation with their identity, or the identity imposed on their body. These are things I’ve tried to educate myself about, but have very much not experienced. It’s also a riff on a medieval text, which is not my specialism. Huge thanks due to Muireann Crowley for editorial advice.

The Red and Yellow Nothing was published over a year ago, and usually I’d take the loss and pay closer attention to pamphlet releases in future, but in part because of its Ted Hughes Prize shortlisting, and in part because I’ve never read anything like it, I want to spend a short time discussing it now.

Review: The Red and Yellow Nothing is a prequel to Moraien, a Middle Dutch poem about a Moorish knight who comes to Camelot to find his white father, Aglovale, who had abandoned him and his mother to continue his quest for the Grail. Bernard provides a brief but invaluable introduction and commentary on the original text:

‘The question of how a Moor, described as being black from head to toe, came to be the child of a knight of the round table is more about textual history than genealogy […] Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years)’

I’ve talked on here about how truly radical texts need an uncommon amount of critical scaffolding to transport the (culturally centred) reader from canon-friendly reading practices to a place where those practices may be effectively criticised. Alongside this introduction Bernard has written two blog posts, at Speaking Volumes and The Poetry School, and they both helped me triangulate things in a book that does very little hand-holding. As Bernard argues, this quest is as much a textual as a physical one, and that requires a lot of lateral thinking, creative reading.

The first lines are not words but punctuation:

‘.
:
;
,
,
.’

Morien ‘enters page left on his horse, Young’Un’, and ‘a bard of indeterminate gender’ sings:

‘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’

The poem’s action literally happens in a book, or a dramatized literary space, where postmodern ideas of text, contemporary slang and understanding of gender fluidity meet folk song and knightly romance. Wherever or whatever this ‘land’ is, it is a contested and uncertain place, and primes the reader to start making themselves uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s useful to visualise the story playing out onstage: The Red and Yellow Nothing regularly calls attention to its own artificiality and breaks the fourth wall, highlighting its episodic structure and the self-conscious humour of its narrative/stage directions. There’s that elongated ‘siiiiing’ that nudges the reader to imagine its vocalisation, the physical body behind the words. Maybe, again, this is a primer to think of Morien (and his dramatic monologue) as embodied also, both textual artefact and physical form; certainly the text and its players alike read his body like an open book. The narrator argues that ‘maybe we can empathise with the frustration one feels when the local people take one look at you, then hurry away from you before you’ve finished your sentence’. The ‘maybe’ seems pointed: as a middle class white reader I certainly cannot – the only thing that ‘maybe’ hinges on is who’s reading it. Morien, in turn, instrumentalises this fear:

‘Tell me where my dad is, or I’ll kill you. Wanna fight?
I’ll fight you. I’ll take this sword and run you through,
I’ll have a disco inside you.’

Before either poem or reader meet Morien, or see anything of his inner life, we meet his violent response to the world. Whether this is due to a preternaturally hot temper, a perfectly understandable response to prejudice, or a mix of both is finally unknowable. He is, for now, all exterior.

The following episode is taken up by two perhaps competing exteriors, both unreal in their own ways. The section begins with William Dunbar’s hateful poem ‘Of A Black Moor’, describing a white woman in extreme dishygiene and blackface posing as a black woman for the crowd’s entertainment; Morien spots a woman in the crowd, wearing red and yellow, ‘both cheeks shining black like whorls of wood’, ‘shoulders like a proto-stradivarius / lost to the sea’. She disappears and Morien wakes drunk in a field, ‘the dew that / cradles him finds the word: innocence’, a beautifully poised moment that allows Morien his youth and inexperience, and allows the reader empathy for a character who in this moment is completely lost. It’s possible the idealised and vanishing woman appeared in Morien’s imagination in self-defence against the collective ridicule of blackness, but the gloves left in Morien’s hands seem to suggest otherwise, and the section ends:

‘a red and yellow nothing stands with
her back towards him; red lace
yellow silk, and no-one there.’

The Red and Yellow Nothing is full of these doublings and halvings: Morien and his father dream corresponding parts of the same dream, there is a town split down the middle with one half in summer, one in winter, one character sings a song about promising a song, other examples abound. While a recognisable literary trope, and one that feels right in a medieval romance, its sheer abundance adds to the uncanny sense that the usual relationship between story and protagonist (or even reader and story) has broken down, is in transition to something stranger.

The book doesn’t shy away from the ghoulish. Later, a female convict is ‘hog-tied’, ‘hanging from a pole […] writhing like an errant C’. Though that last simile seems to point to the girl’s existence as a leftover trope of misogynist writing, her fate is still extremely gruesome. A figure called ‘The Something’, which might be the ‘red and yellow nothing’s grim counterpart, emerges from the trees and draws the woman bodily into its anus before releasing her for burial. Bernard’s account is visceral and revolting, giving the whole scene the air of an awful ritual or sacrifice. Like Morien, the woman is painted in innocent tones, ‘She is a child’s finger’, ‘crying for god and her mother’, and their connection seems substantialised by a later, crucial episode in which Morien is transformed and processed (‘Morien is currently a turd.’) by sinking to the lowest point in Earth’s sea and being ‘expelled’ ‘from the slippy slide / of time’. Where the woman’s ordeal is socially inscribed and compulsory, Morien’s seems to be the result of some psychological shift that originates in dreams and comes to reorder reality as Morien perceives it.

If it wasn’t clear, The Red and Yellow Nothing is, by any standard in common currency, extremely weird. But there’s something so clear and graspable and purposeful about that weirdness that has kept hold of my imagination weeks after first reading it. Shortly after the horrific scene discussed above, the whole adventure becomes increasingly surreal, increasingly subject to bizarre and arbitrary laws and rules. And yet those rules are almost followable, the story’s progression right on the brink of logical, while the meanings attached to Morien’s body become increasingly nonsensical, or perhaps their inherent nonsense is revealed.

I can’t help feeling that in someone else’s hands the book and its narrative would have felt pretentious, or merely arbitrary, rather than a faithful account of the odd trajectory needed to get from the book’s start to its finish. Throughout, there’s a wry humour (‘in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah’) that keeps the story grounded, human, and for all its depictions of suffering and brutality, Morien himself (or themself, for a significant passage) is neither the butt of the joke nor a punching bag. The book clearly cares for him, however much it focuses on the change and uncertainty being visited upon him.

Most of all, I think, this is a story about blackness and how the world responds to it. The white people at the fair and the people in the book’s first episode won’t talk to Morien, and the brutal execution scene is implicitly enacted by white society. Darkness appears as a character, and while she doesn’t interact with Morien either, she is invested in his story and knows he is both closer to and further from Camelot than he thinks. Five African soldiers in Scotland speak the book’s most peaceful and mindful sequence, on ‘the strangeness of the land they’re in’, articulating a complex thought about empathy and mutual respect:

‘Their footsteps of mine.
I want to know what people
to whom I give everything
feel when they think they are me.’

The book’s climactic scene has Morien encounter the figure of Saint Maurice, a character who the writer of the Medieval POC tumblr – which Bernard cites as an originary source for the book – argues might be cognate with Morien himself, given the shared linguistic root of their names and the habitual shuffling of characters’ identities in romances of the period. Given this final muddling, the final passage seems deeply significant:

‘The statue stirs, like it’s about
to speak, then of its own accord, blows away.’

This may be the story’s final doubling, or the final doubling’s reconciliation. The canonised Christian martyr Maurice gives way, of his own volition, to the transformed, multi-identitied, genderqueer Morien, to whom Christianity and its official sanctioning have meant nothing. The next moment, Morien finds Camelot, and Moraien begins.

It’s incredible that so much has been fit into about 24 pages, including the handful of full-page illustrations by the poet, without feeling overburdened. The Red and Yellow Nothing has the feel of a heartfelt and intense investigation into something complex and significant, a true poetic quest, and one that has compromised little, if anything at all. It’s confusing, it’s challenging, it’s deeply satisfying, and it would be a real mistake to let such an exciting piece of work pass by uncelebrated.

The Red and Yellow Nothing is available now from Ink, Sweat and Tears Press.

Further Reading: 

Jay Bernard – Breaking Ground – Speaking Volumes

Jay Bernard – How I did it – Poetry School/Ted Hughes Award

Medieval POC tumblr

Review by Theophilus Kwek – The London Magazine

Review by Fiona Moore – Sabotage Reviews

Review by Emma Lee – London Grip

OPOI by Helena Nelson – Sphinx Review

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.