Review: Mark Waldron's The Brand New Dark

The late American comic Bill Hicks once infamously began a stand-up routine with the deadpan line “If you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself now”. He may well have made an exception for someone like Mark Waldron, a poet who writes adverts for a living. His debut, The Brand New Dark, is far removed from the clichés and superficiality of modern commercialism; witty, subversive, often darkly comic poems which are full of unusual images and curious turns of phrase. But the world which Waldron deftly unpicks is also a bleakly decadent and harrowingly pertinent one, uncovering “The King … in his counting house / not counting out his money, but making some swanky / kind of love to his secretary”, while elsewhere, a man dressed in a Mickey Mouse suit at Disneyland becomes a chilling metaphor for our increasingly isolated and virtual lives.

The success of the book, however, stems from the way in which Waldron handles the sinister, noirish aspects of contemporary life; a darkness which frequently rears its head in the commercial branding satirized in the volume’s title. One might expect a fug of depression or moralizing to pervade poems on mass production, sex as commodity, and the drawbacks of technological advancement. But Waldron’s gift is to approach these subjects from novel, oblique angles, often with a tone that is more implicating than accusatory. And so in “The Sausage Factory”, the meat is figured as “wee circus elephants, / gripping the tail of the one that goes before, / marching uncertainly away from death”, while in a series of dramatized poems focusing on a fictionalised, attractive young woman, the narrator is candid about his sexualizing of her: “Oh Marcie, I’ve watched you come half to yourself, // … and, / Oh, say it! watched your body, / a scented buddy to yourself, your self’s pork dolly, / dreaming its own fuckable dream”.

Overall, there is much to admire about The Brand New Dark: only a few squib-like failures occur where the humour misfires, dotted about an otherwise wide selection of engaged and engaging poems addressing modern life in all of its complexity; like the manatees that close the book, “arranging and rearranging themselves / into what we might call stories”. It confirms Mark Waldron as an emerging talent to watch.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement


As anyone with an interest in these things, an inbox crammed with newsletters and notices, and a growing lack of shelf space knows, there are plenty of literature magazines about, plenty of poetry mags among those, and plenty of indie poetry mags among those. When I first started – for my sins – reading contemporary poetry, I took out subscriptions to all sorts, and still do when the bank balance permits. But there really are loads of the things and, while some are certainly safer bets than others, it’s always a gamble as to whether you’ll find stuff to enjoy – be it poems, features or reviews – inside their pages. Will it really be worthwhile parting with your hard-earned dough in exchange for a new sub, even a renewal? Perhaps not, if the mag in question is anything like Pen Pusher who, upon recently folding, told their existing subscribers that their money was gone, and thus, effectively, to get lost and jog on. (Not forgetting the magnanimous invitation to freely “hate” them for it, “if you like”. A master class in how to undo years of hard work in a single stroke.)

But then Pen Pusher’s fate – however fantastically bad the editors’ handling of it – is only the latest in a long line. It can sometimes seem like all the best indie poetry mags have bit the dust. Flick through the acknowledgements pages of poetry collections from the late 80s and 90s and you find all sorts of curious names: The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room, joe soap’s canoe, Blade, Thumbscrew. Exciting, independent, underground and – in the latter’s case – fun-poking (if a little blinkered by its own meanness), these mags are now, sadly, all gone.

Then once in a while something turns up: online, in the post, by word of mouth. Another small mag, you think, which, as the best new poems continue to wing their way to premier league and championship types – Poetry Review, The Spectator, the TLS; Poetry London, Magma, New Welsh Review – will probably fall short. Cynical, maybe, but so often new publications lack real selling points: something unique to fill – that terrible phrase – a gap in the (already tiny) market. By that I don’t mean a half-baked editorial stance like Popshot’s, where ‘making poetry accessible’ amounts to little explanations at the bottom of each page (something you’d think a barely disguised insult to readers and contributors alike, were it not done so earnestly, and with such awful, naïve gusto). No, I mean something like Thumbscrew’s off-kilter tastes and raucous odds and ends; something like – though it's not what it once was – the unique little features and layout experiments of The North, who for a time printed new poems without authors’ names. (The thinking being that poems should stand on their own merits, not merely a poet’s track record).

Fourteen is one such magazine: a stylish but unfussy indie production that’s been steadily building its small reputation, bit by bit, over the past six years. I first came across it some four or five years ago, and found good stuff to enjoy in its charming, staple-bound pages, not least a neat little poem, “Girl Playing Sudoku on the Seven-Fifteen”, by Rob Mackenzie. I ordered the guy’s pamphlet. And on the strength of it and the other poems inside, subscribed to Fourteen. It wasn’t long before I wanted to see my own poems in there. All things that swiftly mark out a good indie poetry mag from the rest, how it keeps going and, of course, why there’s so few of them about.

Dedicated to poems of fourteen lines, Fourteen ranges from formal sonnets to looser experiments; from metaphysical, meditative stuff to light and funny pieces. The editors’ tastes seem broad but discriminating. Peppered with quirky, eerie drawings by Clare Johnson, the latest issue is an eclectic mix of consistently good writing: the twisting, how-serious-should-you-take-me tone of John Whitworth’s “The Fat Clock”; the frail elegance of Andrew Marstrand’s “Unseparate”; Kristian Wiese’s atmospheric “Poem” and its tumbling lines, to pick out just a few. But see for yourself. Go and buy an issue from their site. If you like it, subscribe. Maybe there is an especial lack of quality indie poetry mags these days, compared with the situation ten or so years ago – I don’t know. But what’s clear is that mags like Fourteen stand above most, warrant support, and deserve a wide readership.