Within ‘Material’ Ros Barber takes a caring, gentle, and personal tone to craft a poem that speaks on themes of aging, the past, the present, and tradition. The poem’s mood is at first amusing and exasperated and then transitions into one that is solemn and nostalgic.
The poem takes the reader through the speaker’s youth and delves into her mother’s love of handkerchiefs. She always kept them on her person, usually up in her sleeves. They’d appear whenever anyone needed one, seeming to multiple every time. The speaker expresses exasperation with this traditional “material” in the first part of the poem but as it progresses she turns nostalgic.
She remembers everything about her youth that’s now disappeared and what that means for the present. The speaker compares her children and how they live to how she did when she was their age and then reminisces in the last lines on her mother’s life and death.
‘Material’ by Ros Barber is a nine stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first five contain eight lines, the sixth stanza: nine and stanzas seven and eight: seven lines and the eighth stanza has eight lines once more. There is no single pattern of rhyme within this poem, although there are a few moments of full rhyme at the end of lines, and several instances of half-rhyme.
Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “snot” and “props” in line eight of the third stanza and line three of the fourth. Or, “smoked” and “local” in stanza five.
Full rhyme, also known as perfect or complete rhyme, is seen at the ends of lines six and eight of the third stanza with “not” and “snot” and “crab” and “slab” in stanza five.
Barber makes use of several poetic techniques and devices in ‘Material’. These include alliteration, personification, enjambment, caesura, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. In the case of ‘material’ the word “hanky” or other words associated with it, are repeated throughout all stanzas of the poem.
The image of the hanky, or pocket tissue, is intimately connected to the major themes of this piece, so it makes sense that the barber would want to reiterate that throughout the poem. Repetition is also seen through these and the rise of words or phrases, such as “step-together” in lines five and six of the sixth stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “Smiling” and “stumbling” in stanza six and “hidden history” in the last line of stanza eight.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In the case of ‘material,’ the hanky is at times described as having human emotions, such as in stanza two lines seven: “where dried-up hankies fell in love”.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line eight of the first stanza “she’d have one, always, up her sleeve” and line six of the sixth stanza: “step-together, point! The Annual Talent Show”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza.
My mother was a hanky queen
when hanky meant a thing of cloth,
when hankies were material
she’d have one, always, up her sleeve.
In the first stanza of ‘Material’, the speaker begins by referring to her mother as a “hanky queen”. This is a humorous and lighthearted description that alludes to a very personal and individual preoccupation with “hankies,” or cloth tissues. The speaker looks back on her past and remembers when the word “hanky” meant “a thing of cloth” and not a single-use piece of semi-soft paper from a plastic package. In the past, it was an item that meant a great deal more than it does now. It could not be bought in cheap stores and “late-night garages”. The imagery around the hanky of the past is quite different.
It was, when the speaker was younger, associated with deep emotion and romanticism. This is seen through two images, the first of someone waving the hanky out a train window, as if bidding farewell, dramatically, to someone they love. The second refers to “mopping the corners of your grief”. This lovely phrase is a poetic way of saying it was used to wipe your tears and clean up the chaotic mess that is sorrow.
The stanza concludes with the speaker using the title of the poem, “material”. She says that when hankies were “material,” or in this case necessary, her mother always had one “up her sleeve”. She was always prepared.
Tucked in the wrists of every cardi,
a mum’s embarrassment of lace
where dried-up hankies fell in love
and mated, raising little squares.
In the next stanza of ‘Material’, the speaker explains how her mother often kept hankies up the sleeves of her sweaters. They were embarrassing to her, but always ready in case her mother needed them, or she did. In the old days, they were made of lace and embroidered with a “V for Viv”. This is a very personal piece of information that makes the story feel real and allows the reader to easily imagine this woman and her love of handkerchiefs.
The speaker elaborates on her mother’s love for hankies in the next lines. It felt to her that more often than not there were more than one of those “hankies” in her mother’s sleeves. They’d fall out in groups, as if, using personification, they were mating up there. In another humorous section of the poem the speaker wonders if they could be having children and “raising little squares” in her mother’s sleeves.
The phrase “little squares” is amusing, as it refers to the shape of a handkerchief. But, it also suggests something stolid or immovable, just as one might refer to a human being as “square”. This is might go back to the traditional aspects of the handkerchief and those who carry them. They are old fashioned, and perhaps to the speaker, in some ways, “square”.
She bought her own; I never did.
Hankies were presents from distant aunts
got male ones: serious, and grey,
and larger, like they had more snot.
The speaker draws a line between her mother and herself in the third stanza by saying that her mother “bought her own” but the speaker never needed to. She always received them as gifts from her “distant aunts”. They’d come in “boxed sets, with transparent covers” as they were presents of the utmost value. In the fourth and fifth lines, she describes with the words “ponce” and “naffest” her general dictate for these gifts. They weren’t as special to her as they were to her mother. She found them lacking in taste and style and harkening back to a time she didn’t really care to celebrate.
The second half of the stanza describes how it wasn’t just her that got these handkerchiefs as gifts, her brothers did as well. They were separated by style, with her brothers getting the “serious, and grey” ones. They were always larger as well as if, she adds amusingly, “like they had more snot”. This alludes to the general absurdity of the gift, at least in her eyes. It is easy to imagine this speaker, who has been depicting her youth from a child’s perspective, rolling her eyes at yet another selection of handkerchiefs.
It was hankie that closed department stores,
with headscarves, girdles, knitting wool
shuttered the doors of family stores
when those who used to buy them died.
The traditionalism that the speaker associates with the handkerchiefs is expanded in the next stanza of ‘Material’. She states that those who were unable to give up the traditions associated with handkerchiefs are the reason that “department stores” closed. People no longer wanted to spend time buying something at a store they could get for cheaper at a “late-night garage”.
No one wanted to “iron” these pieces of cloth and boil them to make sure they were clean. All this effort felt wasted, and since the stores did close, it appears that the majority of the population agreed with this perspective. The “family stores” and the “department stores” closed down. Finally, “those who used to buy them died”. There was no one left who wanted to devote themselves to these materials.
And somehow, with the hanky’s loss,
greengrocer George with his dodgy foot
of haddock smoked the colour of yolks
and parcelled rows of local crab
In a transition from her previous opinion of the hanky as an out of date necessity, the next stanzas feel nostalgic. She looks back on her life and connects the transitional handkerchief to other elements of her childhood. Just as it disappeared, so did the “greengrocer” and his delivery van that brought “veg”. These things are “history”. The same can be said for the “friendly butcher” who in times past would give you “extra sausage”. She continues on, reminiscing on the “fishmonger” and his “haddock” and “parcelled rows of local crab”.
All these references are connected to the family stores mentioned in the fourth stanza. They speak to smaller communities, friendlier neighbors, and more personal relationships with those you meet and interact with.
lay opposite the dancing school
where Mrs White, with painted talons,
would whip a hanky from their sleeve
and smudge the rouge from little dears.
The sixth stanza of ‘Material’ works in much the same way as the fifth. In these lines, she remembers the dancing school where she was taught to smile “from a stumbling” and her instructor played an “out of tune piano. The phrase “step-together” is repeated three times in this stanza in order to mimic the instruction she was once given.
Next, she remembers the “Annual Talent Show” where mothers cried and wiped their eyes with the “hanky from their sleeve”. Everything comes back around to the handkerchief and it is established as a symbol of tradition, the past, and nostalgia. Despite the specificity of the details in the last two stanzas, the encounters and experiences are wide-ranging enough that they should be applicable to a number of readers. If nothing else, the nostalgic tone that permeates this section of the text is likely to connect, in some way, to everyone.
Nostalgia only makes me old.
The innocence I want my brood
and eat bought biscuits I would bake
if I’d commit to being home.
At the beginning of the seventh stanza, the speaker addresses the nostalgic emotions she’s been experiencing. They “make [her] old” as she looks back on her past. Everything that was good about the past, which she didn’t appreciate at the time, is slowly being killed by the present. Its death is coming about in “TV’s lassitude”. It is draining and wearying and the speaker can’t help but compare her own parenting style to that of her parents and the very different life her children have than she did.
There’s never a hanky up my sleeve.
I raised neglected-looking kids,
I miss material handkerchiefs,
their soft and hidden history.
She notes the fact that she never has a hanky up her sleeve and that unlike her own youthful days, her children look “neglected”. They have to have their noses cleaned, metaphorically one would assume, by strangers.
The next lines are part of a rhetorical question she asks herself. Why, she wonders, does she not buy a 50p pack of tissues to keep in her bag? There is some “awkwardness” that prevents her from doing this that she can’t figure out. It is related to her inability, in some part of her mind, to give up the idea of a handkerchief. She doesn’t want to carry one, but she also doesn’t want to give in to the trends of the present.
But it isn’t mine. I’ll let it go.
My mother too, eventually,
that this is your material
to do with, daughter, what you will.
In the final stanza of ‘Material’, the speaker adds that she knows she’ll eventually “let it go”. “It” in these lines is the connection to a handkerchief. It doesn’t belong to her, it isn’t her’s to cling onto. The same, she adds, can be said about her mother. The mood becomes more solemn in these lines as the speaker addresses her mother’s death. She died “not leaving handkerchiefs / but tissues and uncertainty”.
The last lines of ‘Material’ are moving. They address themes of aging, life, death, and tradition. She recalls her mother’s words when she too finally turned to the 50p kind of tissue. She said that this is “your material / to do with, daughter what you will”. In a wider context, the handkerchief and tissue paper come to symbolize life. As well as the choices one makes as they age. They represent how one chooses to live and the amount of the past they allow to penetrate the present. Then also, how they will mold those in their care.