Ada Kaleh by Freddie Mason: Little Island Press (Budding New Poets), 2016

This is a book of experimental poetry in mustard yellow hardback and two tones of embossed title text, black and blue; Colourplan papers and a bellyband: in short, a beautiful object with printing qualities more often found in contemporary fine art books. I couldn’t find any other poems by the poet, but wanted to: no searchable poems in online or print journals. The central subject of the book is memory and memory loss, in streams of mostly unpunctuated consciousness that dip in and out of various historical times and locations. Ada Kaleh was a small Danubian island that in the 1930s had a population of 680, a majority of Turkish inhabitants, with Romanians on the north shore, Serbians on the south. It was submerged in 1970 for Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. The strategy for coping with this post-globalised, trans-horizonal world is set out in the opening lines of the book:

Hello I am discussing you with myself

in pieces bit by bit but remember there will

be enough I promise when you need.

As voices try to cope with memory and change, there are moments of accumulative lyricism.

                 the legitimacy of all existence and plummeting away already

dying already needing you for the legitimacy of all existence

and plummeting up give in give in give in give in give in give.

In its repetition, it is reminiscent of modernist poets like Gertrude Stein. The book moves between various locations. Memories are assembled piecemeal, from Finchley to the Finnish river Ivalojoki, and a golf course called Avondale. The Utopian wish to arise and go now to a lake isle is undercut by military violence:

She kept an army of mercenaries in

a small secluded patch of ground near

the park and her Russian accent gave her authority

in the new killing career she was planning

The language of hype and hyperbole is shown with violence: “how are the ways/ in hype this mathematical and held in guzzling/ pastoral tumescence sinking into the careful”. Mason often deploys symbolic language that questions its own symbolic status, that lays bare its own slippery meaning by fluidly shifting between scenes, registers, and subjects.


Ada Kaleh is more of an idea and symbol for the poetry than a linear narrative history, something which Alexander Christie-Miller has examined in more practical terms in The White Review. Blurring, merging, submerging: many islands, voices, and sensations sink into one another through gorges “where the dogs/ bark at false dawns and women pluck grenades out from/ within blackberries”. Concrete images are subject to change: grenades are not hidden within blackberry bushes but the blackberries themselves. For the speaker, reality and the real is subject to fast changes:

I am certainly afraid of this gradient the climate of

a tropical motherland breeding within me like vegetables

on fire I sucked do you remember? out do you remember?

the fire from within those vegetables for you and your followers

This hunger for sustenance, this pull from the isolated isle into the mainland, reads like a strange translation. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Ada Kaleh depended on food, drink and tobacco imports from mainland Romania, and so can not be classified as a self-sustaining Utopia. So while the notion of a lake isle idyll of happy people and no crime rate (the last recorded crime in Ada Kaleh was for a man who did not pay for his meal), there is a tension between remembering and moving on. The question is: what is lost when we sink a civilisation. Ada Kaleh is a beautiful book with some striking challenges to sensory perception, notions of real and imagined places, and the way we construct memories. The illustrations by Alice-Andrea Ewing, “an artist and sculptor trained in the Italian Lost Wax method”, provide a lumpy tactility to the atavistic scope of the poetry.

Click here to find Ada Kaleh at Little Island Press.


About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher run by Andrew Latimer, based in Stroud, working in fiction, poetry, and literature in translation. Budding New Poets focuses on early career newly-flowering poets, its title punning on Edwin Beard Budding, a Stroud-born inventor.

Review by Simon Pomery

Simon Pomery is a PhD Candidate at Royal Holloway and a TECHNE Associate, researching innovative poetry and digital culture in the 21st century. He curates PRAXIS, a text-sound poetry series of events held at Parasol-unit foundation for contemporary art and AND/Or Gallery, with assistance from the Royal Holloway Poetics Research Centre. His poetry and reviews have appeared in The White Review, 3am magazine, P.N. Review, Edinburgh Review, and The Times Literary Supplement.


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