Review: Jay Bernard's your sign is cuckoo, girl
Wow. Cock-ups on the Royal Mail’s part aside, and Jay Bernard’s first pamphlet (from the peeps at Tall Lighthouse) was well worth waiting for. What I like about her poems – and what this short gathering of only fourteen demonstrates – is a young, lively and energetic voice sounding itself out, but with a musical and rhythmical conviction that demonstrates a young poet who’s well read, yet unafraid to take what she likes and make it that bit more freer, exciting and wonderfully weird. Take opener ‘Kites’:
Is it true that I was frightened of the dark?
If I sat alone and watched the shadows of the room,
it is because I stood with my ear against the wall:
the words I heard were like a corpse
beside my bed or a hole that appeared
in the centre of the moon.
That’s just the first stanza and it’s a strong, beguiling opening that unfolds into a vivid, sensual poem. Here, the ‘quiet voice’ from the poem’s narrator ‘chim[ing] through the country of […] youth’ may bear resemblance to Duffy, but ‘the man piercing his cheek’, ‘a woman with scissors […] singing bees’ and ‘sweat [like] a conglomerate of flies’ are all Bernard’s own, intensely unique images; capturing the otherworldliness of childhood interpretations and memories. ‘Eight’ is a similar exploration of childhood – that which the Surrealist André Breton once called ‘the only reality’ – where an anonymous female adult is suddenly seen by the narrator through a bathroom door, ‘watch[ing] her ease her apple weight over the side of the / bath’. The poem’s closing stanzas are particularly impressive: a subtle, beautiful and enchanting description that merges the reader’s gradual realisations with the child’s.
What else stands out? ‘Kid Moth’, which Pascale Petit originally snapped up for Poetry London magazine, is a well-executed extended metaphor, and the image of her ‘twenty feet up / high on a pole of a street lamp […] / dream[ing] that she could graze its cusp’ makes for a particularly vibrant ending, though perhaps the tendency to include images for the sake of the images themselves is something that Bernard could reign in. After all, the often brilliant musicality of her poems aside, as a poet who combines page and stage so effectively Bernard nonetheless runs certain risks: namely that while such effects may fair well in performance, they can often seem cumbersome on the page. Thankfully, this doesn’t affect the general impression of technical skill and creativity evident in most of the poems, however, and ‘The Pier’ is proof of Bernard’s being at home with tightly controlled rhythmical precision as with the imaginative and often surprising lyrical wanderings that dominate this book.
Other highlights include ‘tongues in velvet’, a rapid and engaging poem that swings between confessional tones and an exploration of the world of sex, drink and clubs, and ‘Cadence’, where the startling lines ‘Being young is an oxymoron - / our genes are old and gnarled as the moon’ demonstrates a young poet with the ability to step out of herself, to look at herself and the world with penetrative thought and a certain objectivity. As Pascale Petit states in the blurb endorsement: ‘Jay Bernard writes powerful and sensuous scenes from the metropolis […] disturbing, joyous and always surprising.’ She’s not wrong. For a young poet – for any poet – to display such a variety of technique and memorable images in only fourteen poems which, by and large, come off successfully, bodes well for Bernard’s future. I look forward to seeing how her work develops, and to a full first collection.
Jay Bernard, your sign is cuckoo, girl. tall-lighthouse, ISBN 1 904551 41 6 Order here.