The question of how we should memorialize victims of injustice, those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known is a difficult one. Jay Bernard writes a powerful introduction to their book of poetry “Surge” explaining how they conducted research into the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre and claimed the lives of 13 young people. Many believed this was a racist attack and the reverberations of this unresolved case are still felt today - especially when there are eerily familiar new cases such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Bernard’s poems poignantly embody the spirit and voice of people involved in these incidents including family members in mourning, bystanders, protesters and even the victims themselves.
Some poems reflect more on Bernard’s own personal experience to discuss issues to do with gender, sexuality, national and racial identity because, as the author states, “Many questions emerged not only about memory and history, but about my place in Britain as a queer black person. This opened out into a final sense of coherence: I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” What forms over this book’s journey is a communion and convergence of voices who rightfully insist upon a presence in the nation’s collective memory. These poems are artfully infused with a political urgency, sensitively consider the weight of history and punch through the past into the present day.
A series of poems take on a strong lyrical quality with repetition and rhythms reminiscent of the songs sung in Jamaican patois that emerged amidst the protests after the New Cross Fire. Other poems are more reflective using imagery which considers the border between past and present, memory and forgetting, life and death. The poem ‘Pace’ meaningfully explores a sense of connection to those who’ve come before us in the physical space we inhabit. Still other poems speak with startling directness in the voice of restless victims: “No-one will tell me what happened to my body”. Interspersed between the poems there are sometimes photographic images of individuals or banners involved in the protests following the New Cross Fire. There are also occasional quotes taken from a variety of media such as text messages, news reports and relevant books of nonfiction. These add to the texture of the reading experience suffusing the poems with a living energy.
Several poems are achingly intimate and form kinds of narratives based in memory. One describes the bravery summoned to join a Pride parade and the confused sensation of melding into a community: “am I the steaming black street, am I the banner and the band, the crush, lilting ale, tipsy hug, charged flesh and open eye”. The poem ‘Ha-my-ca’ recounts a trip to Jamaica and the experience of skinny dipping where a new relationship with the body is formed: “I learned of self and other when my waist left the water”. While the poems with a more personal feel stand slightly to the side of the poems which converse with the research concerning the New Cross Fire, they add a sense of intimacy to how the author isn’t disconnected from this mission of bearing witness but is also a presence made solid.
Sometimes I’ll read poetry collections where only a few individual poems make much of an impact, but nearly all the poems in “Surge” made me stop and meditate on them. It’s a richly complex and accomplished book that demands answers for those who’ve been marginalized and rendered voiceless throughout history: “It’s the only question we ask. Will anyone lessen the losing? Will anyone lessen the loss?... Losing and losing and loss. Never recouping the cost.”