Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Trouble with Poetry: Billy Collins's Aimless Love - review

Dubbed the “most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, Billy Collins has won countless admirers for his chatty, witty, wholly dependable poetry. At pains to welcome the reader with avuncular charm, he writes lines that are more serious than they seem, though by how much, you’d be hard pressed to say. Wry and self-mocking, his favoured territory is the suburban everyday – a pop song stuck in your head; people-watching on public transport; a “perfect” spring day – though he is most at home striking a knowing and self-referential pose, “looking every inch the writer / right down to the little writer’s frown on my face”. ‘If This Were a Job I’d be Fired’, quips the title of one poem, its narrator swanning off having penned the most inconsequential of verses. Philip Larkin would have surely labelled him the “shit in the shuttered chateau”. But while some critics have called Collins a philistine, there is a productive quirkiness to his poems, finding surprise and profundity in unp…

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …

Poetry in Motion

POETRY IN MOTION
Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse


Liverpool FC and poetry have a lot of previous – from John Toshack’s Gosh It’s Tosh collection in the late 70s, to the verse of Dave Kirby and Peter Etherington in the fanzine Red All Over the Land, to the lines written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, a University of Liverpool graduate, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hillsborough findings. Now there’s Ben Wilkinson, Reds fan and book critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, who’s compiling a series of poems commemorating the club’s legends. “Football is part of the fabric of life, and anything that’s important to people finds its way into poetry,” he says. “Wilfred Owen’s poem 'Disabled' describes a soldier who loses the use of his legs, meaning he can never play football again. Philip Larkin’s 'MCMXIV' compares boys queuing to join the army to fans outside Villa Park. These poems have stood the test of time because t…