Sunday, 12 July 2020

Poems from the Backroom 118: Ron Butlin

A few years ago I was charged with organising a group of students to research names of famous ex-pupils for a new plaque outside our school designed to complement the existing one which included JM Barrie, the famous actor John Laurie, and a mix of explorers- the old sort who get killed and the new sort who get rescued. It was an attempt to 'freshen up' our legacy. I'm sure somebody in authority said that in fact. My team of 'Swotty Goths' as they named themselves soon got to work, coming up with a shortlist which was never approved including, among others, the inventor of Viagra, a famous forger, an axe-murderer, Neil Oliver (his name somehow never made it to the final stages), the brilliant artist Christian Fergusson and Ron Butlin. It was all great fun, we had a bit of a skive off school and one of the girls, having obsessed with the idea that Duns Scotus went to the Academy, cultivated a life long interest and went on to do a PHD on the subject. If such a new plaque ever emerged, the last two names, Fergusson and Butlin, should be a shoe-in, in fact I should go this afternoon and chalk them up.

Christian is dead alas, though her dreamy watercolours representing Dumfries between the wars as a kind of shimmering Venice on the Solway still exist and delight, but Ron Butlin is very much alive though you'd be hard pressed to find a plaque big enough to contain his CV. He has in his life worked as a valet-footman, a barnacle scraper on the Thames, computer operator, city messenger, a member of a pop-group, and a male model. He has lived in Paris, Barcelona and Australia. It's the kind of life you imagine a poet should have and some used to have, before the age of MLitts  and PHDs in Creative Writing, working while at the same time writing. Such a variety could only be good for your writing and Ron Butlin's bibliography is another plaque-buster.

He has published nearly twenty books of poetry and fiction, several winning Scottish Book Awards and other prizes. His most recent novel, 'Ghost Moon' was nominated for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2016, one of the most prestigious world book prizes. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages – the French edition of The Sound of My Voice won the Prix Lucioles and Prix Millepages , both for Best Foreign Novel. He has had many residencies and fellowships, including the Scottish/Canadian Exchange Writing Fellowship at the University of New Brunswick.  He is a former Edinburgh Makar / Poet Laureate.

In short, he is one of Scotland's most accomplished, talented and recognisable poets, and it is a delight to have him here, in the Backroom, cheering us all up by  reading 'A Recipe for Whisky'. The text for this is below as well as two other poems with specific locations- one local, Carsthorn, the other Edinburgh- but very universal themes.

Ron Butlin's Website:

Ron reading Nine poems in 'The Poetry Archive':

Interview with the Sunday Post about rain and Scots:

A video Poem of 'A Lifetime':

A Recipe for Whisky

Wring the Scottish rain clouds dry;
Take sleet, the driving snow, the hail;
Winter twilight; the summer’s sun slowed down
to pearl-sheen dusk on hillsides, city-roofs,
on lochs at midnight.
And, most of all, take the years that have already run
to dust, the dust we spill behind us…

All this, distill. And cask. And wait.
The senselessness of human things resolves
to who we are – our present fate.
Let’s taste, let’s savour and enjoy.
Let’s share once more.
Another glass for absent friends. Pour
until the bottle’s done.

Here’s life! Here’s courage to go on!

Histories of Desire 

At Carsethorn, Solway Coast

That was when I threw the stone and then ran after;
splashing into Smallholme burn I made the colours
of a summer’s day cascade around me.
That was when the water stilled to rowanberries,
clouds and dark green leaves I could never reach
before. I tried to pick one up –
that was when the earth and sky first slipped
between my fingers.

All histories are histories of desire, they tell me
how my life begins and ends: a stretch of water,
a stone a child sends skimming
to the other side.

Nicolson Square

The girl's left hand keeps her coat shut, the other's
empty. She's standing in the middle of the street,
the traffic breaking to a stop around her.
Hardly sixteen - bleached hair, bleached skin, fear.

The man she's with – badly healing cuts and anger
clenched into a face, pressed-in bruises
where the eyes should be.
She's telling him she's sorry, and being sworn at.

Nearby, a parliament of two men and a woman sits arguing
upon the pavement; they shout at her to grow up,
can't she? A taxi horn blares.
She doesn't move.

I drop my 50p into the parliamentary cup, and walk past.
Behind me, the street shuts like a book, the place marked
just at the point where he hits her
in the mouth.

When I'm back this evening, the story will have moved on.
No girl, no man and no parliament – only you and I
and everyone else, and the street growing darker around us
as the sun abandons it.

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