Presentation of Memory in Material and Effects ‘Poems of the Decade’ Anthology

How is Memory presented in the Anthology Poems of the Decade?


Ros Barber’s ‘Material’ and Alan Jenkins ‘Effects’ both present memory through a speaker looking back on their childhood and their relationship with their parents; because each poem uses this mix of retrospection, introspection, and comparison with the present, their structure as well as narrative style are very similar. However, the poem’s perspectives are completely different, as each poem’s respective speaker has a different attitude towards both the past and the present.

‘Material’ has a cheerful tone, filled with halcyon imagery such as: “things for waving out trains”, whereas ‘Effects’ feels negative and filled with disdain for the past, opening on the sinister imagery of “scarred” hands. Both poems begin with the speakers talking about their respective mothers, and the first line sets the tone of each, letting you know how the speaker feels about their mother. ‘Material’ opens with “my mother was the hanky queen”, a positive statement that both addresses the mother’s authority and influence on the speaker, as well as the importance of the handkerchief. It’s obviously a positive memory, as the past tense “was” tells us. This is immediately juxtaposed by the present form of tissues, describing them as things bought from “late-night garages and shops” which represents how the speaker’s happy memory is interrupted by the lackluster reality of the present. ‘Effects’ uses the dichotomy of a domestic scene and ominous imagery to make the memory seem almost traumatic.

Despite the similarities in the basic structure of each poem, the poems themselves are almost opposites. ‘Material’ has a regular stanza structure, with each stanza being another shift forward through time, whilst ‘Effects’ has no separated stanzas, the entire poem being only two run on sentences that shift forward and backward through time almost at random. The context for each poem is important in this regard, as ‘Material’ is woman looking back on the past with a sense of nostalgia, lamenting the end of an era that she felt was represented by the handkerchief. The poem has a regular structure, directly contrasting the past with the present in two sets of four stanzas. It presents her memory as being ordered, a window that opens on to whatever memory you wish it to be.

‘Effects’ does almost the exact opposite, presenting the speaker’s memories as a jumbled stream of consciousness. The poem’s perspective is that of one in mourning, and the irregular, broken structure represents how the mind races when in grief. The speaker looks through “all the years they sat together” with a very loose sense of chronology, moving forward to tell a coherent story but being interrupted by flashbacks as the poem nears completion. This technique demonstrates how easily memories can brought to the forefront of one’s mind by seemingly insignificant or random things. It presents memory through the eyes of a man dealing with a rush of emotion, most of it negative. The poem is noticeably lacking in good memories and favorable descriptions. Every good thing is immediately undermined by a dull adjective or insulting description, with the snapshots being “faded”, and the meat the children are fed being “cheap”. The only time the speaker directly acknowledges his mother’s love for him, “giving love” is quickly followed by “the only way she knew how” in the same line, implying that his mother was somehow incompetent when it comes to caring for her children. On the fifteenth line, the word “abroad” is put in quotation marks, implying sarcasm and that he is quoting his mother, which could’ve been a vain attempt on her part to make her children feel special, but due to the bleak picture the speaker has already painted of her by this point, it comes across as another point of ignorance from her. Through this, ‘Effects’ illustrates how memories can be twisted by emotion.

In summary, both poems use the same basic techniques of retrospection, introspection, and comparison, but to completely different ends which creates massive differences in each poem. The nostalgic tone of ‘Material’ makes for an ordered and planned presentation of memory, highlighting the control one has over their own memory. The poem uses the “hanky” and parenthood to demonstrate how object association can trigger memories, even disrupting a flashback already taking place. It presents memory as something akin to emotion, intending to tell a straightforward story through a series of flashbacks, and illustrate the glory of the past in comparison with the future. ‘Effects’ wraps everyday life in sinister adjectives, follows endearment with sarcasm, and undermines acts of kindness, displaying how emotion can affect memory. ‘Effects’ aims to demonstrate how grief shatters the controlled order of one’s mind, using interruption and time shifts mixed with dichotomous imagery. It presents memory as being corrupted and twisted by emotion, something not entirely in our control.

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