‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’ by Ron Butlin

Ron Butlin has built a solid reputation as a skilled writer of poetry and prose. Among his highly regarded books are the novella The Sound of My Voice and the poetry collection Ragtime in Unfamiliar Bars. Both these titles are works of considerable brilliance — virtuoso performances from a very precise and versatile author. The poems in Butlin’s most recent collection centre around that most literary of cities, Edinburgh, of which Butlin is Makar, or Poet Laureate. The first thing one notices about the book is the warm and beautifully characterful illustrations provided by Polygon’s Creative Director, James Hutcheson.

Hutcheson has similarly complemented the poetry of other writers in the past, such as Andrew Greig, one of Butlin’s peers. Indeed, with that whole generation of writers, including Butlin, Greig, Liz Lochhead, Brian McCabe and others, Scotland produced a successful and influential group of writers, all of whom excelled in more than one form, including drama and prose fiction. The common denominator is that all of these writers are terrific poets.

The Magicians of Edinburgh is a mix of the anticipated and the surprising. Familiar Edinburgh tropes are explored, including Greyfriars Bobby, the National Monument on Calton Hill, the controversial, long-awaited trams. Some of the poems are already dated (the trams are now running) or, if you prefer, they seek to keep alive specific moments in time. Perhaps it is inevitable that some of these poems date quickly, because after all, given the cultural and political climate, what a swift-moving time it is to be alive in Scotland’s capital. A number of the pieces fulfil commissions asked of the laureate, including one (‘Not for Profit’) which prefaced a government paper on arts funding:

That long-ago king knew a nation’s arts
are a nation’s best PR. And cost-effective.
Artists are not for sale, of course, but they come cheap —
ridiculously cheap when set against the going rate
for consultants, say. Or cluster bombs. Or nuclear upgrades.

Butlin prefaces most of the poems with a few informal words describing the context in which they were written. For the above-quoted poem, Butlin writes, ‘Politicians and artists do not always see eye to eye […] Only time will tell if they got the message.’ The poem concludes:

Not for profit, but for us all.

The poems are sometimes a little more prose-y than I expected, some even lacking the musicality which is often present in Butlin’s work both as theme and technique. This is not to say Butlin ignores music — one of the book’s sections is titled ‘Music Edinburgh’ and features poems such as ‘Haydn and Chemotherapy’ and ‘Contemporary Music in Scotland’. The latter attains a fine lyricism, typical of Butlin at his best:

The fire burns low. He stares into a darkness silvered here and there
by stars and transatlantic flight paths. He cannot sleep for listening
to the restless hills and streams, to their unplayed music,
to the wayward moon soundlessly turning
on its invisible rope.

Not all the poems are so successful. ‘Going Brueghel in Edinburgh’ is inspired by a cold winter. ‘The city was frozen to a standstill,’ says Butlin in his brief introduction. ‘The sub-zero streets resembled a winter scene from Breughel — and yet, there were those who still went around in T-shirts and party dresses!’ After a strong opening, the poem feels slight and rather strained. I’m afraid this is also true of ‘The Singing Butler’. Similarly, the ‘Four Haikus [sic] for a New Year’ fall flat — and do not really constitute haiku, even in the most modern, broad-minded sense:

Lay down the Old Year
like stone, like dead weight. Raise up
the New Breath of Life.

That’s seventeen syllables, but it’s not a haiku.

The best of these poems are lyrical, unpretentious, beautiful and quotable (‘A memory is something to look forward to’, ‘We’re so well-balanced, some of us — / a chip on each shoulder’, ‘The history we make, will make us in return…’)

Commendably, Butlin doesn’t see his role of Makar as that of panegyricist. There are elegies among the eulogies. He confronts social inequality, war, homelessness. ‘EH1 2AB’ is a hard-hitting piece about an anonymous woman who froze to death:

A hospital sheet to cover her face.
Her ankle tagged to record the location
of where she was found —

A postcode to stand for her name
when at last she’s given
a place of her own.

The Magicians of Edinburgh is a fine if imperfect collection. Its most successful poems achieve lyrical peaks without false sentiment and provoke the heart and mind to greater understanding. The weaker poems by comparison feel flippant, conversational, unconvincing. With a little judicious editing of prose-y lines and whimsical poems this collection could have presented both Butlin and Edinburgh at their very best. But even on a dreich day Edinburgh is a magical place, and even a less-than-pitch-perfect Butlin is a pleasure to read.

The Magicians of Edinburgh by Ron Butlin is published by Polygon Books, 2012.

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