Darker with the Lights On

Darker with the Lights On, David Hayden: Little Island Press

Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018

“The mind is a slope and the words run off like water and who knows where they go?” (from ‘Memory House‘)

Darker with the Lights On is a collection of 20 short stories by David Hayden, a prolific writer of short fiction, published by Little Island Press.  

With an abundance of imagination through surreal and unbounded worlds beyond and beneath the world we inhabit, Darker with the Lights On is like taking a train in the dark, the carriage so brightly lit that you struggle to see a world you know is there, beyond the pane of glass. You cup your hands around your eyes and press your nose against the window, trying to see into the darkness, only to be confronted by your own reflection. You cannot see past the ghost of yourself. If only they’d turn the lights off, so you might see clearly the world outside. It is this strange juxtaposition of sense, sensation and rationalising that Hayden captures so brilliantly in this collection.

“The dark was outside, thick and blue, while in the dining room light glinted off silk and silver becoming general glitter that, if seen from the night, would have signified a happy party.” (from ‘The Bread that was Broken’)

Hayden inhabits nowhere places and nothings as intrinsic parts of life. He asks what it means to call somewhere a place and what it means, in fact, to say or do anything at all.

“The train travelled through quiet places with unused piles of gravel, abandoned cars, hard patch farms […] Michael paid close attention to the gradual aggregation of the city, trying to discover the point at which nowhere became somewhere.” (from ‘Last Call for the Hated’)

The stories are works of metafiction that assert the idea that the most radical, surreal, illusory imaginings can be brought to the page:

“Words are just mute smudges until you know what they mean, and when you put them together they can tell all manner of things. There’s plenty you can’t say with words. You can fall through words down into a seething belly world of billions of objects and notions, all shrieking and hiding.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)

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Hayden constructs pockets of hyper-reality that are nonsensical and radiant: “When you die – when you die – you revive in the world of the last book you were reading before your… demise” (from ‘Reading’). It is writing that reaches for the depths of our minds’ possibility. It asks: what can be imagined? Beyond sense, rationality, logic. On reading, I admit, I became confrontational, annoyed, indifferent, dozing off. How dare you, Hayden, try to test the limits of my mind! But I caught glimpses, symbolic moments of meaning, which pulled me in, and continue to do so. Mine was the response of a reader tired, rushed, distracted, shut off, but I fought the shadow of myself to find ways into the text that Hayden offers wholeheartedly.

“I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down.” (from ‘Memory House’)

Much lies dormant beneath the juddering page inflicted with Hayden’s prose, poised to ambush the reader with its brilliance. This is writing that it is a pleasure to write about – to think about with as much vigour as if it were your own. That is what it asks of you: to be curious, clenched and to grapple with consciousness in the act of reading.

“Books let you circle around time, find the root of time, lose time, recover time.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)

Often returning to the first line in the last, each story picks words out of themselves, repeating and filtering down its own language. Time is a curious factor throughout, how it passes and how it is experienced. Each story balances philosophical, psychological and physiological elements, and contributes to the balance of the collection as a whole. Not a balance serene and unwavering, but a struggling and unstable attempt at equilibrium that is inexplicably human. 

Click here to buy David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On direct from Little Island Press.

About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry and essays. Founded in 2016, it publishes innovative, intellectually ambitious writing in elegant editions designed by the award-winning design studio typographic research unit.

Review by Kirsty Watling

Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.

 

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“Press this memory out of you”

“Press this memory out of you”

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.

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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.

 

XxX: 100 Poems

XxX: 100 Poems

Merrill Moore, XxX: 100 Poems : Little Island Press, 2016

Merrill Moore’s (1903-1957) biography is, unfortunately, significantly more interesting than the majority of the poems in XxX: 100 Poems (published by Little Island Press, 2016). A psychiatrist by education, Moore counted among his clients Robert Lowell – with whose mother, Charlotte Lowell, Moore may or may not have had an affair – and Robert Frost’s children – one of whom committed suicide and another who was later committed to a psychiatric hospital. Yet, as a poet, Moore left behind somewhere between 15,000 to 50,000 poems, all written in his own, occasionally loose, interpretation of the sonnet form.

Selecting the one hundred poems that make up the collection must have been an incredible undertaking, but on reading XxX one is left feeling that one hundred may still have been too many. The editor of XxX, David R. Slavitt, writes that while ‘it is easy to find deficiencies in Merrill Moore; what is more important is that there is so much admirable achievement and that the poems, taken together, build to become a persuasive account of a time in the life of America.’ I am much more inclined to agree with Slavitt’s opening claim regarding the deficiencies in Moore’s work than the latter, more grandiose, suggestion. The sonnet form that Moore chose to work in, where a single out of place word or phrase can derail a poem, does not allow the space for the ‘deficiencies’ that Slavitt points towards to be discounted so easily.

‘Dust’, for instance – at points one of the stronger poems in the collection – opens with a display of Moore’s fleeting ability to balance his take on the sonnet form with an ear for rhythm

Dust is always prepared to levitate

When chambers are re-heated by the tall

Columns that surmount the fabulous

Intricate and geometric wall.

but an awkward line half-way through the poem leaves the remaining lines clinging on, unable to rectify Moore’s misstep:

The trustful stone has fallen to distrust

And ships are sunk, and, deep in the Ganges

Dirt settles that was dust.

The holy men

Who prayed for days, return to it again,

Ceaselessly suspended in desire,

Beyond the touch of ice, and out of fire.

While there are issues with the opening lines, the line ‘the trustful stone has fallen to distrust’ is delivered so awkwardly and linguistically naive that the rest of the poem struggles to recover. This is true of much of XxX.

‘Sleeping By My Pad And Waking With A Pen In My Hand’ and ‘In Re Sonnets That Choose To Arrive At Meal Time’ – these are not even close to being the longest poem titles in the collection, one poem’s title runs to roughly eighty words – recounting a poet who finds himself ‘interrupted / By several sonnets trying at the same time / To get release from the net of the unconscious’. Many of the poems of XxX feel like interruptions, leaving behind nothing after their first reading, and would have been served by much stricter editing when Moore were alive. Through reading the collection, Moore comes across as a writer who did not know where his strengths as a poet lay and, more often than not, is unable to carry a poem through to its conclusion effectively.

A number of the poems concern themselves with observational character portraits and this is where Moore may well be at his strongest. In ‘Aunt Dora in the restaurant’ the fragility of the Aunt advancing ‘porously over the floor’, ‘because Aunt Dora was already seventy-two / And she knows that the glistening tiles are hard’ is captured perfectly by Moore reining in his tendency to unsettle a poem with an overwritten line. Having said this, some of the character poems have a misogynistic quality – ‘He said: there is something about a woman’, ‘The Bitch Goddess’ and ‘He was telling me about how he managed to get what he wanted’ being three of the worst – that I’m unsure can be explained away as a simple character portrait or as being wholly satirical.

Obviously Moore passed away almost 60 years ago and this collection, as mentioned in the introduction, is clearly a passion project of Slavitt’s, Moore being someone who sparked the editor’s interest in poetry. Slavitt might be correct, XxX is much more interesting as a collection than the individual poems that comprise it. I am glad the book exists as I’ve now been introduced to the truly eccentric life of Merrill Moore, and all of that credit must go to Slavitt and Little Island Press for bringing Moore back into public consciousness. However, without the biography of Moore that precedes the poems, the poems in XxX simply do not stand up for themselves.  Apart from one.

‘Two Things I will Remember As Long As I Live’ starts from a point of confusion and ends with a line so perfectly weighted that it makes the rest of the collection pale further in comparison. Moore could do it, it is just through the poems in XxX he doesn’t do it often enough.

 

‘Two Things I Will Remember As Long As I Live’

 

(And both, come to think of it, are similar;

I had not realized that until this moment)

 

They are: the look on the face of (believe me) a fish

When he is jerked out of water, by the hook

And is trying to disengage it from his mouth

In a dumb brute animal way that is pitiful

Also the effort in the eye itself

To see, to comprehend this awful state

The look of wild defeated frustration there

As the fish is suffocating in thin air

Gasping, gulping, convulsively moving his gills

And body, seeking water to cure his ills.

 

The other, I nearly forgot it, the other is

The look on the face of a man dying of heart failure.

 

Click here to buy XxX: 100 Poems from Little Island Press.

About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher of new and classic poetry, fiction and international literature in translation. Based in the UK, it is the work of a few dedicated individuals who believe that great literature survives in great books: each one a little island of its own.

Review by Mike James

Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work.