(born 1988, London, England)
At last we are alone
At last we are alone
And I can tell you how it felt
To stand in front of a blank wall
And spray ‘NF’ in white letters
So big they shone against the gloom.
I’m amongst the crowd watching
It being scrubbed from the school wall.
It’s eight a.m. The low clouds are yellow
With rain. Two men in council overalls
Are blasting the thin, erect letters
That salute the dark morning.
My classmates are nervous.
The head teacher, unaware, calls me a thug.
I am a thug. I lie down in the soft grass
After school and rub my bald head.
I call myself Tom. I am Tom from 1980:
I am from a story my father told me –
I am Tom who sees my father
And chases him down the street.
A wet afternoon shrunk to a red bus
Slurring past a vast estate. Scratched windows.
Tinny hits leaking from an earphone.
A chicken bone slides back and forth
In the aisle.
We come to the superstore that draws breath
From everything around it; the one pound shop
With its leaning towers of garish tack.
I honestly don’t know which I prefer:
The bored employee or the pot bellied shop owner;
The girl with orbits dangling from her ears or the girl
With the peculiar god, bangled and painted in a
Procession of relatives –
And I don’t know if I can talk:
My eyes are English spectacles and everywhere
I see decay; I see cheap shoes; I see fast food; I see women
With fake hair and plastic gems on their toenails.
I see pierced children. I see bags in the trees and animal entrails
On the road. I see damp take-away boxes. I smell weed.
I hear a girl call her son a dickhead when he cries.
And who am I to judge?
And if I don’t, who will?
And who knows the depth of my hypocrisy
When I cross the road,
When I change seat,
When I move to another carriage,
To avoid the sound and the smell?
One night a boy comes upstairs
And begins playing music from his phone.
I ask him to stop and he ignores me.
I ask him again and he stares.
When we are alone, I take a sword from my bag
And cut upwards from the navel to the chops.
I draw him and set alight each quarter.
We asked Jay Bernard to tell us about these poems…
At last we are alone
My dad moved to the UK in 1970 when he was ten. He hated it, not least because he was regularly the target of racial abuse. It was so frequent, in fact, that he and his other black friends had come to anticipate it whenever they saw groups of white boys. One afternoon, he was walking home with a friend when they came across just that – a group of schoolboys who had spotted them coming down the road. My dad noticed that they were looking and said to his friend, “shall we keep going?” When there was no response, he turned, and saw that his friend was already running for his life. This poem is not a re-telling of that story, but it came out of thinking about it. I ended up writing from the perspective of a black girl who graffities her school with racist slogans and imagines being a white fascist. Being the perceived victim of a particular ideology does not stop someone from fantasizing about the associated power. In this case, the power to instil fear, to mess with others and to get away with it.
When I was young, around seven or eight, I was conflicted because on the one hand, I recognized my position as a member of a marginalized group (endlessly re-enforced by tales of butchery, injustice and poverty); on the other, I did things like write “FUCK” and “BITCH” across the toilet walls (I could never bring myself to write racist things). Then I’d report it to the teacher, who was always white, and with whom I felt some solidarity. They never once suspected it was me. In fact, there were a few Soviet-style interrogations and innocent children were sent to the gulag. I feel terrible about that now, but it was an insightful childhood. I was always aware that I had limited power, so I played with what I had, and this surfaces again in “At last we are alone”; at last, I can talk about this.
This is based on a true story. I once asked a boy to stop playing music out loud on his phone and he essentially said he’d stab me if I didn’t go away. As far as I’m concerned, this poem is unfinished. I think the rhythm is off, the part about ‘my eyes are English spectacles’ and ‘if I don’t judge, who will?’ comes off badly. I always feel strange reading it in public, because it doesn’t fully express the ambiguity of my feelings about Croydon (which is where the incident happened and where I’m from). I regularly berate myself for being ‘judgmental’ when I feel something approaching hatred for people whose raison d’être is to make everyone else’s life miserable; I say, “no, no, it’s society; it’s class; it’s race. You have to forgive.” Which I do, most of the time, but increasingly I feel this approach means that people get away with all kinds of bullshit in public. It’s analogous to those old chestnuts: how do you deal with the freedom of people who are anti-freedom? How do you deal non-violently with people who are violent? How can you be both polite and effective in getting someone else to stop their aggressive impoliteness? Since these questions are not going to be answered any time soon, I wrote a violent, angry poem. I continue to be mild mannered and soft spoken to people who spit on buses, swear loudly, smash shit up or play their music. If they read my poems, I’m sure they’d laugh at my repression.
Jay Bernard is from London and is currently the writer in residence at The Arts House and the National University of Singapore. She has performed all over the UK and internationally, and her first book “Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl” (Tall Lighthouse) was PBS pamphlet choice for summer 2008. She is currently working on her second, to be published this year by Math Paper Press, Singapore. Visit her site: http://www.brrnrrd.wordpress.com