The poem’s title and its central image rest on the pun of the material of the handkerchief – cloth, stuff – and the stuff of life, that which is material to us. Barber couches that universal concern in a disarmingly casual tone, with relaxed colloquial diction, with a ‘hanky’ tucked up the sleeve of a ‘cardi’, and equally relaxed stanzas of iambic tetrameter just held together with rhymes and half rhymes with lines 2 and 4 paired as well as 6 and 8. While the poem’s speaker is disparaging about her own parenting skills and her ‘handy packs’ of tissues, the gentle formality of the poem underneath its casual language harks back to the formality of her mother, ‘the hanky queen’.
The first four stanzas mark the handkerchief’s obsolescence, now replaced by ‘paper tissues bought in packs’, and a number of associations are used to evoke an earlier time, now distant in memory, such as ‘things for waving out of trains’, reminiscent of black and white romantic films, the ‘embroidered’ and ‘lace’ hanky which is ‘spittled and scrubbed against my face’, raising nightmares of unwanted motherly attention. The hankies become embarrassing in their own right, ‘the naffest Christmas present’, and their unfashionableness is blamed with other obsolete items such as ‘headscarves, girdles, knitting wool/ and trouser presses’ for the changing retail demands which have altered the high street by closing department stores. The nail is in the hankies’ coffin ‘when those who used to buy them died’, closing the fourth stanza with a tone of finality.
However, in the only two stanzas in the poem linked by enjambement, Barber then takes a different tack about the past. The change of tone is evident with the introductory ‘And somehow’ and instead of disdain for that past world, Barber evokes it with affection. It’s a world where independent traders are known, ‘Greengrocer George with his dodgy foot’ as well as ‘the friendly butcher/ who’d slip an extra sausage in’ and ‘the fishmonger’. We have a world where trade is made human, where relationships are fostered. This sunshine vision of the past is even evoked in the visual imagery of the fish: ‘haddock smoked the colour of yolks’, the satisfaction suggested by that internal rhyme, and of course even the crab is ‘local’. The whole community is recreated, even ‘Mrs White’ the dancing teacher producing her annual pupils’ dancing show, which of course prompts mothers to ‘whip a hanky from their sleeve’ to tend to their children.
Contemporary life has lost its obsolete handkerchiefs and headscarves, but it has also lost the community and social cohesion of the world of which they were part. Barber terms the mood ‘Nostalgia’ and the speaker compares her own life in a self-deprecating way, filled with the ‘TV’s lassitude’, ‘bought biscuits’ instead of home-baked, and ‘neglected-looking kids’. The naff and embarrassing handkerchiefs, accorded their unabbreviated name for the first time in the poem, are now ‘soft’ with their ‘hidden history.’
Just as the handkerchiefs have been re-evaluated, so is mother, as the loss of the past is accepted: ‘it isn’t mine. I’ll let it go.’ The caesura breaking the first line of the final stanza suggests that steadying and decision-making. The consideration of hankies has created a link back to the speaker’s mother and it is significant that the poem ends with her imagined voice, encouraging her daughter forward into an acceptance of her own time and her own world: ‘this is your material/ to do with, daughter, what you will.’