Jean Bleakney’s ‘A Watery City‘ explores how deeply a person can engage with a place, even an unfamiliar one, if they are alert and receptive to it. Written after Bleakney visited a friend in Cork, the poem engages with themes of friendship and discovery.
‘A Watery City‘ masterfully conjures the city of Cork and evokes the feeling of discovery one experiences when they travel somewhere they’ve never been.
The poem begins by describing the noteworthy architectural elements of the city, particularly the prominence and number of bridges it has. As the poem continues, its focus shifts to the narrator’s encounter with her friend. They share food and drink and discuss poetry, all while the poet ponders the city and the landscape that surrounds it. The poem ends with the narrator’s surprising acknowledgment that she longs for open water in spite of the fact she cannot or does not like to swim.
You can read the full poem here.
Jean Bleakney was born in Northern Ireland in 1956, and she attended Queen’s University in Belfast to study biochemistry in her youth. Bleakney took the decision to stop working after the birth of her second child but found the reality of life at home to be mundane and took up gardening as a hobby. Through her newfound hobby, Bleakney developed an interest in the language of nature and began attending writing classes.
She published her first collection, The Ripple Tank Experiment, in 1999. She has since published two more full-length collections, and her work is regularly anthologized. ‘A Watery City’ is taken from her 2003 collection, A Poet’s Ivy. Bleakney grew up during the period of violence known as The Troubles, and while she has said that she did not want to address it in her poetry explicitly, she decided she could no longer ignore its impact on her surroundings.
‘A Watery City‘ was inspired by a journey Bleakney took to visit a friend in Cork. After her return flight was severely delayed due to fog, she returned to her friend, and they had what amounted to a bonus few hours together, during which they ate and discussed poetry.
Well if I’d known how many bridges there were in that city
I’d have worried for your soul and I’d never have written
Hope the prose is flowing as effortlessly as the Lee
if I’d considered the sea. I hadn’t reckoned on reversible rivers.
The poem’s conversational tone is evident from its opening line, which immediately implies the narrator to be at ease and foreshadows the friendly encounter around which the poem revolves. The hyperbolic reference to the number of bridges establishes them as a key symbol throughout the poem. The symbolism of crossing a divide had additional significance for Bleakney, who had traveled from Northern Ireland to the Republic during The Troubles, as the poem was set before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The narrator regretted their use of a simile when they described writing “flowing as effortlessly as the Lee.” This perhaps showcases their awareness that writing and even just living were difficult during this period.
But there you were, moon-attuned and berthed between bridges
– girder bridges and carboniferous limestone bridges
– even the weeds were exotic) made me realise
just how far I’d come.
Then something happened.
The use of the direct address emphasizes the closeness of the two figures in the poem. Bleakney’s use of assonance when describing how her friend was “moon-attuned” serves to elongate the words and slow the pace of the line. This distortion of the pace could represent the bonus time together that the delayed flight granted the narrator and their friend. Likewise, the use of sibilance in the third line evokes the sound of running water which helps situate the poem’s action nearby to the river Lee.
Bleakney personifies the buildings she saw as “cheery” and describes how they appear to “blush.” This imbues the city with personality and vitality, demonstrating how much one can engage with a place if they allow their imagination to roam. The focus on the beauty of the weeds further reinforces the poet’s view that beauty needn’t always come from conventional sources.
We had food, I think; some poetry; some drink
and then (this bit’s quite strange) a mist came down
and barely legible, as reticent as contour lines – Desire Straits.
Alone and oarless, not a buoy in sight, we drifted
mercifully past the rocks towards a crescent beach.
The narrator lists the things they did to pass the time, including eating, discussing poetry, and drinking. The order of these is significant as poetry is mentioned between food and drink, without which life would be impossible. Bleakney could subtly be suggesting that poetry, or artistic expression more broadly, is as essential to human existence as eating and drinking. The regular use of parentheses and caesura ensures the tone of the poem remains jovial and relaxed, mirroring the fact it recalls a meeting between two friends. Similarly, the reference to ‘”Desire Straits” is intended as a humourous reference to the rock band ‘Dire Straits’ which further emphasizes the playful tone of the poem.
The metaphorical description of floating aimlessly on the water somewhat challenges this lighthearted tone as it is strikingly eerie by comparison. The use of the word “oarless” perhaps evokes a sense of panic as it implies the two figures have no agency when it comes to the direction of their lives. However, it could also be interpreted as a mark of their faith in each other or their surroundings, as they feel confident the current will direct them to safety.
We both managed to graze something or other
Maps were one thing, tide-tables were something else.
We were clueless. Would time and tide wait for us?
This stanza explores the innate human desire to learn and explore by describing how the two figures went in search of shells and fossils along the coast. The alliterative “bleached branches” draws the readers’ attention to the description and encourages them to ponder the significance of the fact the color of the branches has seeped away after exposure to the sea and sunshine.
Ultimately, their adventure is curtailed by the basic human need for food, as demonstrated when Bleakney uses personification to describe how “hunger caught [them] then.” The poet, therefore, implies that life is a struggle between the more abstract, imaginative parts of our nature and the mundane realities that all animals must live by.
The stanza ends with the hyperbolic assertion that the figures “were clueless,” as well as the rhetorical question that follows. These admissions of uncertainty are liberating as they remind the reader that we are all ignorant of things and places we have never seen, but that need not be a barrier to learning more about them.
That’s when I lost the gist (again!)
Those rollers of sliceable mist came back
and blanked the whole thing out; and as it lifted,
But then you spoke; and looking down, I saw the ice
melting in the glass, the ice melting …
The final stanza returns to the bar or restaurant in which the two figures were meeting, implying the entire description of the coast was a memory from earlier in the narrator’s visit. This geographical and temporal distortion has an effect on the narrator, who feels nostalgic for her memory, as shown through the hyperbolic claim that she was “lonely even for the slightest glimpse of water.” However, once she notices the sight of ice melting in her glass, it appears that her longing for the sight of water is not satisfied. This is perhaps because the thing she really wanted was not the water but the feelings she experienced when near the water with her friend.
Thus, the poem ends with the ambiguous ellipsis, which perhaps encourages the reader to contemplate the things they think they want and explore whether they are actually longing for something else entirely.
For the most part, the tone is friendly and lighthearted, reflecting the friendly nature of the encounter it depicts. There is, however, a reflective and perhaps melancholic undertone to the poem, which could link to The Troubles as well as broader concerns about memory and the nature of happiness.
The poem is written in free verse and is frequently disrupted by caesura and parentheses. This has the effect of evoking the natural patterns of speech and reminds the readers that much of the poem revolves around a conversation between the two figures. However, Bleakney uses sporadic examples of internal rhyme to elevate the poem and lend it an echoic quality. This could be intended to showcase the narrator’s longing for the time they spent at the beach together.
The Lee is the name of the river that runs through the city of Cork and has been featured in countless poems and songs over the centuries. In this poem, it functions as a chasm to be literally and symbolically crossed, perhaps mirroring the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. However, it also represents how we cannot relive the past, and sometimes that can seem heartbreaking, as it evokes the common phrase: ‘you can’t cross the same river twice.’
The main themes of the poem are friendship, journeys, and, by extension, the passage of time. The longer a friendship lasts, the older the people in it become, just as a journey is never just geographical but must also relate to time. The passage of time, the narrator learns, cannot be undone and only moves in one direction.
Readers who enjoyed ‘A Watery City‘ might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:
- ‘Out to Tender‘ – A contemplative poem that explores doubt and hope in the context of the 1994 ceasefire.
- ‘How Can You Say That?‘ – A humorous rebuttal of belittlement.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘To Brooklyn Bridge‘ by Hart Crane – This poem is similarly preoccupied with the symbolism of bridges, this time in New York.
- ‘Windfall, 8 Parnell Hill, Cork‘ by Paul Durcan – Another mediation on the city of Cork. However, this poem is more concerned with the memory of the city.