Michael Tolkien

After the Parade. (Shoestring Press)

Publ.in Thumbscrew, Summer 1997


  This stylishly formatted, eighteen poem pamphlet follows two collections from Peterloo. Its subject matter is small-scale and domestic, but the treatment never small-minded. There is a purposeful continuum from childhood illusions to the scepticism of age. Retrospective poems that frame the collection link past and present in unflinching perspectives.   'After the Parade', stresses what a VE Day celebration did not recreate: '...memories like laminates of paint/ on seaside guardrails chipped away to show/ what rusts beneath...'  Practical, unassuming imagery to strip away surfaces, and complemented by insistence that peace means coming to terms with who we are:

                                             No Year, no Day

                   lets us return to neatly rearrange

                   what's lost in war, obliterates our need

                   to rewrite scripts enacted way back...   Rutherford, born in 1922, is the ageing protagonist  subjected yet squaring up to a forty year marriage, illness, loss of friends, a faster generation. Like Yeats he guards against '...all that makes a wise old man/ That can be praised of all...' In spirit he emulates his recreated prankster, Gilfillan

(who's 'blown his stash at eighty-nine' and returns to his wake to watch the jackals howl.) Or the retired 'Ulysses Smith', who evades

                 'The dullness, even rust, awaiting men

                  like him, who're tossed into the offcut bin...'

This 'anti-contemplative' stance reminds me of Hardy's warning that his final book 'Winter Words' attempted ' no harmonious philosophy', and much of it might seem 'flippant...and farcical.'

    To unseat what is lionised risks trendiness but confident in his Hull roots, Rutherford dedicates his 'View From Hessle Road' to one of Larkin's 'grim head-scarved wives', querying the 'eloquent' perspectives of 'Here' with:                                                               

               ...perhaps there's something to be learned

               in asking why it was he wrote of them

               not they of him...                                                                                                                                             A pointedly rhymed sonnet combines reluctant enquiry with slivers of Larkin to highlight their blandness; and even before the final strident voice swipes 'at Hull's late bard' with 'Poetsarra...crowdacraps !' age-old conundrums come to mind:  how can art deal with the mess we call 'life', and how seriously should it take itself ? Rutherford's craft and eclecticism suggest that for him such questions are not academic.    Attitudes that skim the intractable textures of our lives provoke him into controlled vituperation. In 'An Ideal Couple' outsiders make banal assumptions about the tranquillity of his marriage, and he insists on the stimulus of contradictory behaviour and the 'educated truce'. 'Rothbury Revisited' avoids nostalgia for their past by making emblems of gradients and cul-de-sacs, though it ends in qualified tenderness:

               It's times like this when love has upped and thrown

               more gold into the melting pot, like here,

               first time for months, we rumple just one bed.'That's Channel 4 News' maps his own vulnerability. Jocular and deadpan by turns it re-enacts coping in private and public with a testicular cyst. This is a poetic persona who shares rather than mulcts foibles and inconsistencies:

                    ......The woman opposite

            is hyper-fidgety and sucks her gums-

            I'm glad there are no mirrors here to show

            myself to me....But the 'ego' never declines into eccentricity. It's an adaptable, even elusive 'voice'. In 'Her Green' anxiety over meeting his wife after shopping mounts as he dramatises attempts to play it down. Changes of pace and focus increase the tension and our unease:                                                               

                        ....That a siren? Coming near-

            or not? Hearing's half shot. I never know

            which one's an ambulance and which police.

            Her green...I'm sure. The one she bought last year.

            After her fall. God, how the time goes slow.

  Contrivance is sometimes less well concealed. Hyphenated phrases or assonating details may cluster too densely. The ode-like valediction, 'Afterglow'(for John Alderton ), and two whimsically allusive poems in tight forms(one on Brewer's Dictionary with a page of notes ) feel like displays of technique. But the sonnets give a flexible, sometimes rhymed, rationale to the vitality and eloquence of objects and actions. Denouements suspend the narrative tellingly, as in the sestet of 'Over the Rainbow', where his family is too busy or sentimental to consider wills and legacies:

            They show me Florida and Disneyworld,

            my grandchildren in Kodacolour smiles,

            and whisk me to a pub, a bar-stool lunch,

            four gins- or was it five- to buck me up

            and then...Oh, how time flies !...they drop me off

            back home, half-drunk, unlistened to-  and leave.


This is Rutherford's best idiom: conversational but underpinned by a mainly iambic, five beat line; the encounter understated enough to disturb us into asking why.



Maurice Rutherford