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This review is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

SYMPTOMS OF LOSS ROS BARBER, Material (Anvil) £8.95

Ros Barber’s substantial second collection follows her debut, How Things Are on Thursday (2004), a book praised for its honesty, finely-judged pathos and formal panache. Readers who enjoyed its subtle-but-firm dealings with domestic subject matters will find more of the same in Material. Indeed, aside from the extent (Material is around thirty pages longer than its precursor), the greatest difference between the two is a shift from the Duffy-influenced dramatic monologues of Barber’s early work to the markedly personal, semi-autobiographical tone that dominates Material.

The collection deals with private and communal loss, a theme established by the opening poem. In ‘Material’, the poet combines elegiac thoughts on the handkerchief (or, rather, the era for which it serves as a synecdoche) with touching memories of her mother: ‘the hanky queen / when hanky meant a thing of cloth’. Remembering this ‘material’ opens a door onto childhood, permitting some fascinating, if sometimes sentimental recollections. But Barber keeps daydreaming in check:

Nostalgia only makes me old.
The innocence I want my brood
to cling on to like ten-bob notes
was killed in TV’s lassitude.
And it was me that turned it on
to buy some time to write this poem
and eat bought biscuits I would bake
if I’d commit to being home.

It is easy to see why Barber’s work has invited comparisons with Larkin’s. There is often a world-weariness in the typically conversational tone of ...


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