“Poem for a Birthday” was published 1½ years ago in a small collection called Invisible Ink, and it featured in The Guardian shortly afterwards.
Here Dunn is no doubt giving a nod to Larkin’s, “Born Yesterday“, not only thematically, but specifically in L3: “It wasn’t yesterday.”
L3 also shows us that Dunn is composing this poem on his son’s birthday eleven years after the birthday celebration that he is describing. “Almost to the hour” (L4) is a discreet message to the poetic impulse that has occasioned this piece. Dunn is in nostalgic mood. Dunn’s only son, Robbie, was born in January 1987 (when Dunn was 44). Dunn separated from Robbie’s mother when Robbie was ten, the two children remaining with their mother. Dunn has often chastised himself for being a failure as a father. First remote, and later on absent.
The title may well be a reference to Sylvia Plath’s seven-part poem of the same title, which in turn echoes Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son sequence.
My guess is that Dunn wrote this 16-line poem on his son’s 16th birthday. His coming of age. This would mean that the magician was hired for his son’s fifth birthday, which also seems like a likely age for this kind of entertainment.
In the poem there is the idea that Dunn is now the (absent) entertainer at his son’s birthday, and that he is no better than “that lousy conjuror” (L1). Note that the preceding words, “I can’t get over”, have the extra meaning of “I can do no better than”.
Some of Dunn’s phrasings have a special sonorousness and I read some special significance there too:
L4-5: “That slipshod sorcerer,/ Butter-fingered wizard …”
Perhaps this ellipsis in L5 that precedes “Remember, when” is a way of conjuring up the fifth year of Robbie’s life.
L10: “When the white rabbit shat on his shaking hand,”
This is brilliant – the bathos of “shat” right in the middle of the line. And I can’t help but connect this tenth line to the traumatic tenth year of Robbie’s life. L11 begins “And made a break for it?” Where “break” has an obvious connotation.
L11-12: “Don’t shillyshally,/ Bunny-boy.”
Just as Dunn equates himself with the conjuror, here the rabbit is equated with Robbie. The magical switch from rabbit to Robbie occurs in “Bunny-boy”, which can be transformed to “Dunny-boy” (as in “Danny-boy” with a twist), and of course “Dunny-boy” is Dunn’s son, Robbie. The “B” in “Bunny-boy” also brings in the initial of the boy’s mother’s maiden name (Bathgate), while the next word in L12, “Run”, is a reduction of “Robbie Dunn”.
Note: ‘finale” in S3, L1 is a true rhyme with ‘shillyshally” in Dunn’s Scottish accent.