It is difficult to put a finger on the immediate aftermath of reading The Red and Yellow Nothing: there is puzzlement, rage, and wonder, but ultimately the sense that Jay Bernard has created a rare and beautiful thing. Part contemporary verse drama, part mythic retelling, the pamphlet – containing one long poem, broken into sections with stage directions – is framed as a ‘prequel to the tale of Sir Morien, son of Agloval’, narrating the backstory of the young Moor’s arrival in Camelot.
Its premise is cleverly, and comically, formulaic. Morien and his horse, Young’un, gallop onto the scene in search of his father, a knight of the Round Table. They kill a poet, lose a tournament, encounter a mysterious woman, find Morien’s mother in a strange village, and endure other fantastical trials before crossing a wasteland to Camelot. The true quest, however, is not Morien’s but ours. Employing metrical ballads and concrete poems with equal vigour, Bernard takes us on a visual and allusive journey to test the imagination, thus putting the poet’s resources of sight and sound to full use.
While two conscientious footnotes point us to direct quotes from William Dunbar and Kendrick Lamar, it does not take long to see that the entire text is crinkled with allusions. Bernard’s use of Sir Morien’s story alone is a case in point: the tale has tangled roots with various Arthurian tales, including Parzival, and she draws fully on the immigrant resonances of Morien’s name (which in Medieval Welsh means ‘sea-born’) as well as his ethnicity. The fact that ‘Morien’ also derives from the Old Welsh ‘Morgen’, which is the spelling Geoffrey of Monmouth uses for Arthur’s gentle healer (or ambitious nemesis) Morgan le Fay, further lends her project its deliberately ambiguous – and subversive – character.
But this is not merely another Arthurian remix. Bernard casts a wry eye over the past, playing with our modern expectations; from start to finish we recognize supporting actors that look and sound, uncannily, just like we expect them to. Morien and Young’un enter (‘page left’) introduced by a bard – rhyming of ‘the distant land where books begin / where maids and men and hermits siiiiiing’ – whose over-the-top, modern lyrics fall into the quatrains of a minstrel’s song. Before they exit, they encounter St Maurice, the third-century black martyr and leader of the Theban Legion, and he is dressed (of course) ‘like a burned manuscript: gold halo, gold / on the collar of his breastplate’. The half-seen, half-remembered quality of each description brings the narrative’s intertextuality to life, and in one of Bernard’s own lines, ‘it is hard to hold the two halves of the past and future apart.’
Poems that aim to do this much with the past often buckle under their own weight. It takes a poet of Bernard’s skill and sensitivity to keep the lyrical movement of the sequence alive, and the joy of this pamphlet is in its language. From Morien’s exuberant taunting (‘Wanna fight? / I’ll fight you…I’ll have a disco inside you.’) to the echoey dream-world he shares with his father in a haunting twin cinema (‘black was the light / black was the field / and the rain was / falling backwards’), reading The Red and Yellow Nothing brings continuous surprise. Bernard is careful not to let her inventions slip into wordplay for its own sake. Many excerpts deliver hard-hitting critiques of colour and femininity; in one scene, after a wild man has won ‘a kiss from a black lady’ in a tournament, and the assembled scrum of courtiers express their relief that ‘beneath her skin the black was white in fact’, Bernard writes –
How white, is another thing. If the colour
Was the smell, then the maid was grey. Tallow,
Fish-oil and potash; saddle seat; monthly blood
In dusty streaks along the base and up the crease.
Brilliantly, this is what never happened as it happened, and not as we expect.
Ultimately, Bernard succeeds in bringing the travelling pair to life, and fleshing out her mysterious knight in the fullest sense. As they arrive at part x of the poem, Morien (now without Young’un’s reassuring presence) undergoes ‘something we won’t call a transition, exactly’, and we get a precious glimpse of the possibilities that are larger than both life and legend. In the slow, almost prenatal dusk where ‘shadow and form change place’, a new Morien is born: ‘s/he has ceased to be a thing, / but a rule – a how or why, / a reason, / a what things are / governed by’. Morien’s plea – and perhaps Bernard’s – is to put aside all we think we know about past and present, about the thingness of things, and learn the value, freedom, and colour of nothing itself. There’s something to be said about that.
By Theophilus Kwek
The Red and Yellow Nothing, Jay Bernard, London: Ink, Sweat, and Tears Press, 2016