Here is my PowerPoint presentation of the views expressed in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence (Word Power Books, 2012), a collection of essays by 27 poets, novelists and playwrights. I delivered it at the annual conference of DATE (The Danish Association of Teachers of English) in Esbjerg yesterday (28th February 2014).
“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.
All Saints Day, Andrew Duncan-Jones, Andy Murray, Brian Allgar, Celtic-Barcelona, Claus Hebor, Connolly’s Corner, Coolin, Corcoran’s Irish Pub (Bastille), Corcoran’s Irish Pub (Saint-Michel), Da Vinci Code, falafel, Finnegan's Wake, Françoise Allgar, France vs Australia, Guinness, Hall’s Beer Tavern, Halloween, Heidi Dueholm, Ireland, Irish Corner, Jayne Osborn, Jens Jönsson, Kaare Bork, Kim Sönderskov, Marie-Louise Hurup. Thomas Björndal, Mette Nörby, Mumford and Sons, Niels Brage, Niels-Martin Trier, Novak Djokavic, Paris, Patrick's Irish Pub, Peter Bögsted, Place de Edith Piaf, Place des Vogues, Quigley’s Point, Rue de Chemin Vert, Rue de L’ Avenir, Saint-Sulpice, Shannon River, Stade de France, street art between Télégraph and Beauville, Sune Petersen, The Delacroix Museum, The Guinness Tavern, The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, The Louvre, The Quiet Man, The Seine, Wonderwall
Last week I spent five days in Paris, the first three in the company of seventy of my eighty colleagues, and the last two along with twenty of my colleagues. The last time I was in Paris was in November 1984.
Wednesday 7th November
In the morning I participate in a Da Vinci Code tour that starts at the Louvre and ends at Saint-Sulpice.
In the afternoon Peter Bögsted and I, inspired by our recent trip to Ireland, have organized…
Le pub crawl irlandais
In the early afternoon Kaare, Niels-Martin, Peter and I start out from our hotel, which is – appropriately – situated on Rue de Chemin Vert (Road of the Green Path). I’m wearing my green cap from Dublin, and Peter hasn’t taken his cap off since Ireland. And the green men at the traffic lights wave us through. After a half-hour walk our first stop is a pub called The Quiet Man (5 rue des Haudriettes, close to métro Rambuteau). The good news is that its exterior is painted green. But, far more to the point, it’s closed. We’re not too disappointed as the plan is to return tonight to hear some live music.
Before we reach the second pub on our list we spot a Guinness sign, and, feeling rather thirsty, we make an unscheduled stop at Hall’s Beer Tavern. The Guinness costs €7.20 and we’re served by an apprentice barmaid who’s max. 12 years old. There are four bar stools at a table, all solid as a rock (see the rocky-chairs sagas below), which we appropriate. We’re pretty comfy. We’re also the only customers. Two more do come in later. The Halloween decorations are still up, even though it’s November 7th. We decide that the All Saints Day holiday they’re considering moving in Denmark should be moved to November 1st, so people can celebrate Hallowe’en properly, on the actual night. The music is pretty crap. Not a scent of Irish there. This is redeemed slightly by an Oasis number, “Wonderwall”, later on. The toilets are okay.
Hall’s Beer Tavern ¶¶
We proceed to Quigley’s Point (5 rue du Jour, close to métro Les Halles). Here’s another pub that’s painted green. The Guinness costs €7, and as well as pouring a better pint here the barmaid speaks English. We sit outside and get chatting with Pierre, who recommends a pub called Coolin. It’s not on our list, but it’s on our route. He tells us to ask for Michael. The toilets are okay here too, but the chairs and tables are rickety. We watch some tennis – Andy Murray giving Novak Djokovic a spanking. The music is reggae, which with a bit of goodwill can be translated to Irish music.
Quigley’s Point ¶¶¶
We wait a bit to allow another colleague, Mette, to join us. Our next stop is Corcoran’s Irish Pub (28 rue Saint André des Arts, close to métro Saint-Michel). The barman is Australian, and the Guinness costs €7. There’s no tennis on, but the barman fixes that at our second time of asking. He’s also very helpful with regard to directing us to Coolin. The music is total rubbish, and then out of the blue they play Mumford and Sons. My colleagues say the bar is hyggelig (i.e. cozy/friendly). Toilets okay.
Corcoran’s Irish Pub (Saint Michel) ¶¶¶
We find Coolin easily, and it’s got a lot of ambience and atmosphere, though the one very weird thing is that it’s part of a shopping mall. There are also some gaps in the decor. The bar is impressive though, and the bar staff are colourful. An efficient and charming platinum blonde is serving along with what looks like two brothers, but it turns out one’s from Peru and the other’s from Columbia. It transpires that the Australian barman, Michael, went back to Australia over a year ago. It’s Happy Hour, so the Guinness that normally costs €7.50 only costs €5.50. Likewise the Jameson whiskey. The music is quite nice, a sort of rap-reggae-acid rock, though hardly Irish. They have a nice big screen they roll down to show us the tennis, but it’s all over (Murray triumphant apparently). The toilet isn’t great. And again the furniture is rickety.
We take the metro to Jussieu, lose Niels-Martin, who has a terrible cold, and find Finnegan’s Wake (9 Rue des Boulangers). This pub is on a hill in a quiet neighbourhood. The Guinness is only €5 at Happy Hour, which lasts from 12pm till 2am. The bar is hardly full though. There’s football on the TV. The ambience is a tad rustic, but otherwise okay. No one bothers to check out the toilets. Or at least no one reports them to me.
Finnegan’s Wake ¶¶¶
We make our way to The Fifth Bar (62 rue Mouffetard, close to métro Place Monge). It was the sixth bar on our list, and it’s the sixth bar we’re in. (We’ve left out The Guinness Tavern – 31 Rue des Lombards, close to metro Châtelet – as Guinness costing €9 was deemed too expensive.) There are some good things about this bar. Mette joins in a game where you have to chuck a ball into a cup at the other end of the table, and after four consecutive hits makes it into the final. So that’s cool. But apart from selling Guinness (for €6) there are no signs that this is an Irish pub. The exterior is painted pink for a start, and the music can only be described as totally un-Irish. There’s a nice chap from Oregon, Brendon, serving at the bar, but this is severely countered by the French guy in charge, a petty tyrant called Thierry. Nor do they show the Celtic-Barcelona match. My most positive experience here is a walk down the hill to a Lebanese joint that serves me the best falafel I’ve ever tasted. And let me add that I make it a point to taste falafel wherever I go.
The Fifth Bar ¶
There are still five pubs left on our list:
Connolly’s Corner, 12 rue Mirbel, close to métro Censier Daubenton
Shannon River, 153 Rue du Chevaleret, close to métro Chevaleret
Irish Corner, 26 Place de la Nation, close to métro Nation
Patrick’s Irish Pub, 33 rue de Montreuil, close to métro Faidherbe Chaligny
Corcoran’s Irish Pub, 53 rue du Fauborg Saint Antoine, close to métro Bastille
But it’s close to 9.30, and the music should be starting at The Quiet Man, so we take the metro back there, losing Mette on the way. Here, downstairs, the three of us witness a fourteen-man Irish folk music session that lasts till midnight. It’s intense yet tranquil, a piece of Ireland that’s magically surfaced elsewhere.
Claus Hebor says: “You will never find a real Irish pub outside of Ireland – it is in the walls, the beer, the people, the music, the craic. You can´t transform that to another country – it is a matter of heart and soul! A state of mind – which I´m just beginning to understand… It´s the magic of Ireland!” He may well be right, but he’d also be the first to agree that there’s nothing wrong in trying to find the magic of Ireland outside of Ireland. That’s the beauty of magic. It’s about achieving the impossible. For me Ireland is a state of mind I can take with me everywhere I go.
In the morning I visit The Louvre, which inspires me to visit the Delacroix Museum, where I see some more of Delacroix’s paintings, and where I also buy The Journal of Eugène Delacroix. He was quite an Anglophile, and I’m looking forward to his reflections on life and art.
In the afternoon I head up to the 20th arrondissement and along with three colleagues witness street art between Télégraph and Beauville. I’m especially impressed by the town planner who has labelled a street that is a full 20 metres in length “Rue de L’ Avenir” (Road of the Future).
There’s just time for an hour-long bath back at the hotel – my feet aren’t used to all that walking – before we all head off for some supper on the Seine.
I’ve no idea the Eiffel Tower is so close when this picture is taken the other way, which for some reason means the reflections in the windows don’t drown out the lights on the tower.
We carry on partying, first at Cuba Compagnie, close to the hotel, and then, against all better judgment, at the hotel bar:
Friday 9th November
Inspired by fellow poet, Jayne Osborn, who was hoping to have been here, I have invited myself chez ex-pat poet, Brian Allgar. I spend a warm and wonderful evening with him and his wife, Françoise, in the 20th arrondissement near Place de Edith Piaf. The first part of the evening is spiced by the company of a good old friend of his, Andrew Duncan-Jones, a very erudite and literary guy. Brian and I have a lot in common.
In the late afternoon I wander over to La Place des Vosges to meet up with some colleagues for cake and coffee. The café can’t seat all seven of us, and we have to settle for drinks elsewhere.
Later on Kim, Niels and I head up to Stade de France to see France beat Australia 33-6 at rugby.
Tim’s not the only one who’s ambivalent about sonnets. It’s not for nothing that I didn’t write any for 15 years. The sonnet is an exercise in ambivalence, which is what makes it so enticing.
I can sympathise with Tim when he says: “I’m less keen on the ‘punchline’ structure of some Shakespearean sonnets, and the traditionally poetic imagery/trajectory that some sonnets gladly inherit.” And I see what he means about the predictability of “Mama’s Little Boy”. But when the overall construct is so conventionalised, then the details are allowed to emerge more strongly. So, for example, in “Mama’s Little Boy”, the matching pair of “the odd one out” (L4) and “round the bend” (L14) (i.e. “mad”) is an undercurrent that goes against the stream. That ambivalence again.