‘Consolidation’ is written by contemporary Irish poet Jean Bleakney and is about a nostalgic act of revisiting old memories to bring harmony and order. The speaker of the poem, who is the poet herself, talks about how she and her two children used to collect cowrie shells.
Now, as her children grew up, they moved on with their lives leaving the speaker all alone. In her leisurely hours, she revisits their childhood memories and thinks about how to bring order in her mind like she wishes to do with the cowries shells kept around her in a disorderly fashion.
‘Consolidation’ by Jean Bleakney is a mother’s attempt to rearrange the cowrie shells that she and her children picked up long ago.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker describes how she wants to pool in her prized possessions (cowries shells) that she and her children gathered while they were living in Inishkeel. They stowed the shells in every empty space they could find, such as in jars, wine glasses, bowls, tins, etc. As the speaker’s children have grown, they cannot remember the details of each cowry shell. All the speaker can remember is the experience of picking shells. According to her, they are the tokens of their mutual past, and now, she wishes to arrange them in an orderly fashion as she wants to live peacefully in the present, without reverting back to the past events sentimentally.
Structure and Form
The text of Bleakney’s poem ‘Consolidation’ consists of a combination of four long and short stanzas. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter in the poem. The text is in free verse and is written anticipating a future activity that is rearranging the cowrie shells the speaker and her children gathered in the past. To narrate what the speaker wants to consolidate, Bleakney uses the first-person point of view sprinkling a personal touch to the piece. Readers can find the use of colloquial diction in a number of instances.
In ‘Consolidation,’ Bleakney makes use of the following literary devices:
- Alliteration: This device is used in the poem in order to create internal rhymings. For instance, the poem begins with the use of alliteration. There is a repetition of the “s” sound in the phrase, “Some sunny.” It is also used in “gathered from the gravel,” “we were,” “beyond and braved,” etc.
- Anticipation: The poem begins marking a future activity. Bleakney anticipates rearranging the priceless cowries shells collected by her children. This is a task that she leaves for a sunny and empty afternoon.
- Enjambment: This device is used throughout the text. For instance, all the lines in the first stanza are enjambed. This technique is used to connect the lines internally.
- Metaphor: In the third stanza, the speaker compares the cowries to “unstrung beads of a frayed timeline.” The next stanza presents another metaphor for the shells that are “emblems of integrity.”
Some sunny, empty afternoon
I’ll pool our decade’s worth
sandwich boxes, sandwich bags,
shorts’ pockets and car boot recesses …
Jean Bleakney’s poem ‘Consolidation’ describes how a mother tries to make amends with “ashen” memories in order to live in harmony with the present. Her children (Stephen and Katherine) have grown up and moved on. Now, she lives all by herself in her home with the things that once meant so much to her children. One such thing is the cowrie shells that they used to collect and store. The speaker describes how she wants to take out all the cowries in order to consolidate them in one place. She wishes to do so on a sunny afternoon when she is left with no other work.
On such an afternoon in the future, she talks about pooling the cowrie shells that once meant so much to her children. They used to gather them from the gravel patch on the Inishkeel shore. Then they stored them in jars, wine glasses, bowls, tins, sandwich boxes, sandwich bags, shorts’ pockets, and the recesses of their car boot. They did not carry out the task in an orderly fashion. This is why the speaker thinks about bringing some order by consolidating the cowries in a single place. This, in turn, would bring peace to her mind.
now that none of us remembers
which year, who found the biggest,
we left it almost too late
to beat the tide …
In the second stanza, the speaker recapitulates how they used to gather the shells. Neither the speaker nor her children remember in which year who found the biggest cowrie or the smallest. She could not recall whether the day was pleasantly mild, rainy, or windswept. All that she can remember is how they immersed themselves in the act of finding and gathering the shells. Besides, she is not sure how they went about gathering the shells: “whether we were bucketless, shoeless.”
In this stanza, Bleakney uses visual imagery in order to depict the place where they went to gather the shells. Being close to the sea, they could often find jellyfish or a sloop (a kind of one-masted sailboat) at anchor. Sometimes, they went beyond the seashore and braved nettles and thistles in order to find cowrie shells. Humorously, the speaker describes how they braved even cowpats. Then they turned among church ruins as if they were pilgrims and went about graveyards looking for cowries.
In the following lines, the speaker compares them to “crazed prospectors,” who were so much engrossed in the beauty of each shell that they forgot to pick it until it was washed away by the tide.
They are the unstrung beads
of a frayed timeline, and if
jigsaws and crosswords past,
to redd-ups and redd-outs.
In the third stanza of ‘Consolidation,’ the speaker describes what the cowrie shells mean to her. She metaphorically describes the shells as “the unstrung beads of a frayed timeline.” As the shells were not kept in order, they are like “unstrung beads” of the past. The phrase “frayed timeline” is a reference to the childhood of Stephen and Katherine.
In the following lines, Bleakney describes how she will be consolidating the shells and she requests her children not to think that she is overtly sentimental. She wants to bring some order after all these years of estrangement and loneliness. She describes how she would be sitting at the conservatory table with a school ruler in hand, arranging the cowrie shells by size and color.
Besides, she would temporarily think about how the warmth of the past gives way to the “grey spectrum” of the present. She does not want to brood over what is gone. Instead, she would consolidate what she has in the present. Her present act of consolidating or ordering the shells hints at how disarrayed her memories are. In the last two lines, Bleakney describes this fact in colloquial diction: “to redd-ups and redd-outs.”
For these emblems of integrity
– survivors of swell and storm –
this late thought: only from
disorder can order be harvested.
The last stanza begins with another metaphor for the shells. Bleakney describes them as “emblems of integrity.” With all these years, she and her children have changed a lot, not these shells. This is why they are true “emblems of integrity.” In the next line, Bleakney personifies the shells as “survivors of swell and storm.” Before being picked up by the speaker’s family, the shells already went through strong tidal force and survived.
For their integrity and strength, the speaker thinks that they can bear any weight, be it physical or literal. She talks about the weight of symbolism and metaphor. Thematically, the shells can also stand for memory, rejoinder, and remembrance. At last, the speaker paradoxically says how order can be harvested from disorder. This means Bleakney tries to bring order to her mind by writing this poem on the cowrie shells stowed decades ago.
Jean Bleakney’s lyrical poem ‘Consolidation’ is about the consolidation or rearrangement of cowrie shells that the speaker and her children gathered from the Inishkeel shore. These shells symbolically represent memories revolving around the mother-child relationship.
The poem was first published in Jean Bleakney’s second book of poetry entitled The Poet’s Ivy in 2003. This poem is dedicated to Bleakney’s children, Stephen and Catherine.
This piece taps into the themes of relationships, love, memories, and nostalgia. The main idea of the poem revolves around a mother’s attempt to be at peace with her past.
The text of this poem comprises four stanzas with no set rhyme scheme or meter. It is entirely composed in free verse and written from the perspective of a lyrical first-person speaker.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap into the themes present in Bleakney’s ‘Consolidation.’ You can also read more Jean Bleakney poems.
- ‘Mother and Poet’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning — This poem is about a mother who lost her sons in the war.
- ‘My Mother’ by Ellen Bryant Voigt — This piece depicts the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship.
- ‘Family House’ by Gillian Clarke — This piece explores the cherished memories of a childhood home that no longer exists in the same form.
- ‘Grown-up’ by Edna St. Vicent Millay — This poem presents the truth about aging in contrast to how it appears in childhood.
You can also explore these nostalgic poems about childhood.