The Red and Yellow Nothing by Jay Bernard
Ink Sweat and Tears £7.50 (incl. delivery)
Is ‘horrible’ horribly good?
I didn’t like this ‘prequel to the tale of Sir Morien’ but I can’t forget it, which must – I think – be a sign of potency. What I remember best is the bit that appalled me most. That’s the way memory works: there are hotspots for disgust, sex, violence.
So for me, it’s part five of Sir Morien’s quest, when he witnesses ‘an execution’. He sees a ‘hog-tied girl’ and she’s ‘crying for her mother’. She’s carried ‘hanging / from a pole between two men’. Meanwhile, Morien, the knight and central character, buys ‘a relic: a cuticle from the mother of God’.
I am stuck with this picture of the girl crying for her mother ‘writhing like an errant C’. It’s graphic. I can see her. Someone do something!
Oh but what happens next? It’s gross, it’s horrible. There is a Something with a capital S and in my minds-eye picture (which I wish I could get out of my mind’s eye), it squats above her (‘squats’ is repeated three times – such a vile word) and the Something (some kind of monster or god) does the reverse of defecating on her: it pulls her into its anus (I think):
Turns and squats and sits on her head, shifts,
withdraws, relaxes, rescrews – presses down.
Pink sphincter splits like a sheath and pulls her in.
The Something squats and sucks, receives:
to the chin, to the neck, shoulders; then up.
Gets good and steady, then again. Then slop
and grind, muffle the screams, then slop.
The Something unfocuses its eyes.
The friction and the huffing, the pleasure
for The Something, is two hours before finally it sighs.
Out falls the girl, slick and silent, heavy and wet
as if she’d drowned. She is a child’s finger, yellow-brown
to the knuckle of her neck. The stink begins.
I couldn’t believe Jay Bernard had let this happen to my girl, my emotional investment. I went back and read again and again, horrified and confused. Oddly, but not inappropriately, I recalled Spenser’s Faerie Queene and his monstrous ‘something’: the half-serpent, half-woman Duessa. I read Spenser forty years ago and had forgotten everything except the disgust:
Her neather parts misshapen, monstruous,
Were hidd in water, that I could not see.
But they did seeme more foule and hideous,
Then womans shape man would beleeve to bee.
But The Faerie Queene’s an allegory, and again I’m reminded that when I first met the word ‘allegory’ I thought it meant a story you couldn’t fully understand. And so it is, for me, with the The Red and Yellow Nothing. I don’t understand it at all but I can’t forget it. I wish I could.
The author suggests in her introduction that the sequence is ‘an inquiry into the idea of blackness in Europe before it became synonymous with a less romantic history’. Other parts of the sequence are lyrical and attractive. A review by Fiona Moore explaining more how the whole narrative works is on Sabotage. DavePoems has also written well about this one, so you can see it's sticking in other people's minds too....