The Death of Joy Gardner by Benjamin Zephaniah is a narrative poem about an incident that took place in 1993. Joy Gardner was a mature student of Jamaican descent living in London at the time and was not a legal resident (she was an undocumented migrant). Her death was caused by police who raided her home under the motive of detaining her for the purpose of deporting her from the country. Things took a turn for the worst when the police became aggressive and ended up hurting her enough to cause her head injuries which resulted in a cardiac arrest and lead to her death a few days later in the hospital. The police officers involved did not suffer dire consequences for their actions. Zephaniah uses this poem to express his hurt and anger, to document how undocumented Joy Gardner was. You can read the full poem here.
The Death of Joy Gardner Analysis
The first stanza of this poem starts to tell the story of Joy Gardner as she suffered an assault from police officers in London. This stanza introduces the brutality of the incident that flows into the other three stanzas. The reader is quickly able to pick up the accusatory tone that the poem conveys. The first four lines of the poem illustrate quite a graphic image of a person (the reader is aware of this person being Joy Gardner due to the title of course) being abused. The imagery of a “leather belt”, “13 feet of tape”, and “handcuffs” paint a picture of imprisonment and confinement; and the added comment of “And only God knows what else” in line four opens the door for the reader to imagine much worse. It is obvious that Zephaniah is angry about the incident and is using the poem as a tool to express his frustration at the lack of humanity that was found in this case. Lines five and six expose that Zephaniah blames the government for not being able to protect her for the reason that she did not reach London illegally, she couldn’t get residency based on some changes to the law that initially could have given her legal residency due to her mother’s citizenship. Lines seven through nine satirically express that no one is accepting ownership of the murder of Joy Gardner; Zephaniah is questioning who is supposed to step up and take responsibility for the death of this woman. The next four lines display estrangement and hostility towards the officers that came for Joy through the word “alien” that is used to describe the “deporters”. Lines fourteen and fifteen turn to the accusatory tone again as they state that they falsely publicized that she had a warning and should have expected the sudden attack. The final two lines of the stanza reveal a chilling point of the incident taking place while her child was present in the residence. Zephaniah makes this clear to stress how brutal this tragedy was and continues to be.
The second stanza dives into the details of how horrific this confrontation truly was. The first three lines of this stanza express the dominance of the officers over the venerable figures of “mother and child”. By opening up the stanza with the action of the officer unplugging the phone Zephaniah is underlining that they cut off Joy from the rest of the world before they even killed her. Line twenty specifically reminds the reader that they were not felons or hard criminals; they were mother and son wanting a home. The next line really allows the reader to imagine how intense it is for a child to be present at the site and watch his own mother struggle to stay alive and then to pass out cold. How traumatizing to grow up knowing the officers one is supposed to respect and turn to for help was the cause of the greatest pain that can be felt: the loss of a mother. Lines twenty-two through twenty-five express the obvious idea that this was not right under any condition, so what happened to basic human rights in this case. Lines twenty-six to twenty-nine communicate Zephaniah’s declaration that she was discriminated against, that he knows that no place is actually perfect and that Joy Gardner’s case was not a simple case of a Jamaican who lived abroad either. These lines convey that he is rationally assessing the information about Joy’s case and understands that not everything is clear-cut right and wrong but he is still enraged because basic humanity was missing. Lines thirty to thirty-three convey Zephaniah’s message that the topic of race and belonging needs to be brought up openly in order to help things “improve” in our world so that such brutal incidents can hopefully be avoided.
Stanza three is more bold as it tries to awaken the reader’s mind and heart to not only see but feel the trauma of Joy Gardner’s death. The first four lines of the stanza paint such a horrific image of Joy “in 13 feet of tape” mockingly stating that she “died democratically. Zephaniah is trying to allow readers to also see the injustice in her case and feel the frustration that he feels. He also questions religion in the next few lines asking what happened to Christianity and the good and the justice the Christians believe and apply in their lives. He also stresses that Christianity was supposed to make “Great Britain great”, so why was there an absence of morally and religiously correct behaviour in the presence of this Jamaican migrant. Zephaniah also mocks the people who silently let this happen by taunting them and saying that when it comes to the deportation officers everyone should just pray to God that they don’t make mistakes on the job because that would cost lives that no one is willing to defend or stand up for. Lines forty-six to forty-nine convey Zephaniah’s point that because no one is taking responsibility for what happened and no one received any consequences, it can easily happen to anyone else, as a result, causing the innocent public to live in fear of meeting the same fate.
The final stanza of this poem discusses the aftermath of the occurrence of Joy Gardener’s death. Zephaniah mentions that he sees the public react to the injustice and people creating opinions of what is right and wrong causing divisions amongst the people. Lines fifty to fifty-four express how involved the public became in this case and how strongly they formed their opinions on the happenings of Joy’s death. By starting the stanza off this way Zephaniah is allowing the reader to experience that the public did not stay silent as the law did in this specific case of murder. The next couple lines communicate that people just want justice from the people who are responsible for instilling and ensuring the application of it in their everyday lives. He also mentions in lines fifty-nine through sixty-two that so many “poets” have taken it upon themselves to grieve and cry through their writing, this is important because it tells the reader that the topic of Joy Gardener’s death was given due respect and importance in the eyes of the public and writers specifically were choosing to reach their readers and convey their grief like he himself is doing. Zephaniah concludes the poem by expressing his amazement how the officers can continue to live life when they were responsible for taking an innocent one, let alone feel “relief” at the close of this case.