Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Review: Frostbitten by Mark Walton

Mark Walton

Published by Epic Rites Press

Reviewed by Colin Herd

The first chapbook from epic rites press in their ‘Workers in Blood’ series, Frostbitten is the debut collection from 2008 London Slam! Championship-winner Mark Walton. It’s a great title. It perfectly captures the numb but raw sensation that many of these poems leave you nursing. But whereas frostbite effects the body-parts farthest from the heart, the extremities, the twenty-two poems that make up Frostbitten are mainly bruised love poems, written in an intimate and highly personal first person voice, often addressing an unnamed and varying ‘you’. The language is shorn, plain-spoken and no-holds-barred. Walton’s poems deal with clubbing, dating, sex, break-ups and in some of the most emotionally powerful poems, the threat of HIV.

As you might expect from the first collection of a Slam! champion, the poems in Frostbitten rely heavily on rhythm and sound-patterning. There’s always a danger that these effects do not work as effectively as text in a book. But when it works, it really works. The following example from ‘For a Friend’ reminds me a little of T.S. Eliot; the seedily sibilant half-rhymes of ‘kisses’, ‘recessed’ and ‘darkness’ almost seem like they could be off-cuts from the first stanza of Alfred Prufrock.

for stolen kisses
in recessed darkness.

You rubber clad,
dangerous looking.
A friendship seeded in furtive
sucksuckfumbled moments.

The ‘furtive’, ‘seeded’ & ‘fumbling’ sound plausibly like Eliot too, but it’d have to be an Eliot that had been rubbing up against Joyce like a bear against a tree to come up with that delicious sounding portmanteau, ‘sucksuckfumbled’. Another excellent moment is at the start of the poem Home, which was one of the highlights of the collection for me:

From a distance
you appear opaque,
like a jumbled
and chaotic cityscape.

Functions, styles, vernaculars,
crawling over one another.
Competing for attention.

Hard surfaces reflecting.

The inversion of the rhyme of ‘opaque’ and ‘cityscape’ is ingenious and beautiful, like a confusing, skewed reflection. But Walton can be equally effective when rhyming more conventionally, such as this beguiling tercet from ‘The Maze’, which features a double rhyme- ‘scattered’, ‘shattered’ and ‘mind’, ‘kind’:

My memories of meeting you
are kind of scattered.
My mind shattered by pills.

At times, though, Walton’s use of rhyme and repetition, which I can imagine working very well in performance, doesn’t translate so successfully to the page. Examples such as the one that follows from a poem about coping with HIV feel heavy-footed to me, a relentless punchy rhythm on the word ‘new’ that seems to overplay and undermine the genuinely touching, frightening final couplet.

I have new tricks,
and new hopes.

I have a new pulse,
and new fears.

I have new rhythms,
and new rhymes.

I have new freedoms,
and new deadlines.

I have both the shortest
And the longest of times.

In spite of these instances of awkwardness, the greatest and most welcome strength of Walton’s collection is its honesty and his willingness to take his poems to all aspects of his relationships and complex desires.

Come the night
let me learn
your nocturnal pathways,
and if I should dive into you,
let me emerge
bloodied and juice stained.

Walton writes inventive and daring performance-lyrics about contemporary gay life, and, frankly, that’s rare. I look forward to a second collection. A percentage of profits from Frostbitten are being donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).

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