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