I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back,” writes Jay Bernard, a young black Londoner whose debut poetry collection follows the ghosts of the 1981 New Cross fire, finding in the authorities’ inadequate response to those 13 deaths “a mirror of the present”, specifically 2017’s Grenfell Tower blaze.
Researching the 1981 fire, Bernard handles archives as tenderly as bodies: “I remove the rusted paper clip, dry-sponge its brittle red remains/ unfold a liver-spotted note in copper ink […] wonder which words to file/ the damp smoke and young bones under”.
Surge is exactly Geoffrey Hill’s idea of poetry: a sad and angry consolation, alert to the past. The voices of the dead have a nightmarish directness: “He takes my head and places it in a plastic bag,” one poem begins.
It’s a sober read, and I’ll confess to missing the playful fizz of Bernard’s thrilling pamphlet The Red and Yellow Nothing. But Surge is a mature work, with lyricism both poetic (windows “are cups of water filled with winter”) and pop (one poem takes the form of a dub reggae toast).
Bernard embraces both kink and Keats (at a Pride march: “My body taps me on the heart when someone in soft leather swims/ into my ken”). Not every topical move succeeds. “Blank” includes news cuttings about a Grenfell survivor, but was more affecting without them, in a 2016 version.
Still, it’s a good time for ripped-from-the-headlines poetry. Surge arrived days after another book inspired by a June 2017 tragedy: Richard Osmond’s Rock, Paper, Scissors (Picador). Caught in the London Bridge terror attack while on a stag-do, Osmond juxtaposes deadpan poems about that night with translations from Beowulf and the Qur’an. It’s clever, risky, effortlessly readable, unexpectedly funny. The audiobooks of both, read brilliantly by the authors, are an ideal introduction to two of British poetry’s most distinctive new voices.