Jean Bleakney was born in Newry, Co. Down and now lives in Belfast where she works in a garden centre. She studied biochemistry at Queen’s University, Belfast, and only turned to writing in her 30s, after the birth of her children. Her developing passion for poetry coincided with a developing passion for horticulture – many of her poems concern themselves with plants and the symbolic associations – and paradoxes – of gardens. Bleakney was commissioned to design the garden at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s. Every plant is a reference to poetry, and, like Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, the result is a garden which is also simultaneously, somehow, a poem. She has published two collections of poetry, The Ripple Tank Experiment (1999) and The Poet’s Ivy (2003), both from Lagan Press, and is currently working on a third.
Bleakney is a wordsmith. She has written several poems about leafing through dictionaries, both medical, and general, (Bleakney is also, and at all times, a scientist). The best of these, ‘The Fairytale Land of Um’, chronicles her journey through all the um-words in the dictionary as though, like Lucy, she has passed through the wardrobe into an otherwhere. And if Bleakney’s subject matter is initially tightly-bound ― the words on a few pages, the sight of ‘bleached stems of harebells’ mid-winter ― they open out, deftly, into a wider astonishment that both convinces and mystifies, as with the question at the end of ‘November Glance’, “When did the word for suffering / become the word for love?”
Bleakney’s double love for language and plants coincides with an exacting concern for visual and linguistic accuracy. Like Elizabeth Bishop, Bleakney’s vision is so concise and her rendering of the physical world so original, she has the ability to make a poem stand on visual description alone. In an early poem, ‘Depending on the Angle’, we get a view of the world from someone lying “face down on the beach, head askew”: “It thins to bedded strand, / a vein of blue and squamous islands.” Such striking images are her hallmark, and though at first it would seem as though the self has been emptied out of such lines to make way for pure reflection, as Aingeal Clare has written in Poetry Ireland Review, “there is a poise to Bleakney’s studies of paintings and plants that masks an inner intensity as fierce as it is eloquent.”
Bleakney is a deft manipulator of form, of end-rhyme in particular, but even when no overt formal devices are evident, there is still a sense of polished workmanship in everything she writes. One of the highlights of her forthcoming collection, unfortunately too long to reprint here, is a homage to the New York poet, James Schuyler, entitled ‘Lacrimation’, in which the naming of plants, the history of Daisy Hill nursery in Newry, lines from Schuyler’s own poems, and the tragic legacy of our own sectarian conflict are interwoven to devastating effect. “Aren’t gardens great / for being cruel in?” she asks. The gate at the end of the driveway may be locked and barred, just as the formal restrictions of her poems herd the words inside their allotted fences, but the whole world is there.
Ripple Tank Experiment Lagan Press, Belfast 1999
The Poet's Ivy, Lagan Press, Belfast 2003
Interview with Lidia Vianu
Publisher page for Jean Bleakney
Interviews with Northern Irish poets - including Jean Bleakney