Jean Bleakney’s ‘Donegal Sightings‘ describes the narrator’s view of various parts of West Donegal, where Bleakney has long taken her holidays over the course of different days and seasons. The poet appears to feel as though the more accurately they can describe their surroundings, the more attuned they will become to their whims and moods.
‘Donegal Sightings‘ captures the frustrating relationship a person can have with the natural world.
The poem begins by highlighting the changeable nature of weather in Donegal, imploring those who visit to be wary, even if the weather forecast claims the weather will be fair. As the stanzas continue, it becomes clear why the narrator treats the area with such caution, as the strong winds and other natural elements prove to be hazardous. The narrator takes on a prophetic quality, ultimately doomed to be ignored by those she attempts to warn and protect. The poem ends with the narrator’s acknowledgment of the fact that, though she is intimately connected with Donegal, she still has much to learn about its true nature.
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 decided 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. ‘Donegal Sightings‘ is taken from Bleakney’s 2003 collection, The Poet’s Ivy.
Bleakney had already been holidaying in West Donegal for many years by the time she came to write this poem and knew the area very well. Her interest in the area persists across the decades in which she has been publishing work.
NO MATTER WHAT THE FORECAST SAYS
You would need three weather eyes
out here on Dawros Head where the sky,
Atlantic laden, signals its intentions
in airbrushed cliffs and disappearing islands;
where a distant nick of blue can suddenly
balloon and winch the tourist to the beach,
might even make him contemplate
the grassy-cambered drive to Dooey Strand.
But then again, the wind might change,
the day might rearrange its whole barometry.
You would need three weather eyes,
and a pothole eye – for the sake of the chassis.
The use of the direct address in the opening line serves to establish the personal tone of the poem, much of which functions as a warning about the potentially dangerous nature of the environment. The hyperbolic claim that a person would “need three weather eyes” to predict the changes in the weather speaks to the suddenness with which it can change in Donegal. Furthermore, the third eye metaphorically establishes a connection with some kind of prophetic power, foreshadowing the more explicit mention of such abilities later in the poem.
Bleakney’s decision to personify the day by suggesting it might “rearrange its whole barometry” emphasizes the arbitrary, unpredictable nature of the weather. It also implies her intimacy with the landscape, as though she were able to learn its patterns the same way one might be able to predict the moods of a loved one.
SUNSET AT TRAMORE, ROSBEG
Looking down from the dunes at the distant straggler
idling back along the sublittoral
by the time I’ve arrived at the waterline,
he’s gone. So have his footsteps. So has the sun.
This stanza conflates scientific terminology with classical allusions in order to evoke the unpredictable realities of the setting, whose true nature appears to elude the narrator. The use of the word “sublittoral” draws attention to the shoreline and thereby emphasizes that Donegal occupies a liminal space in the narrator’s imagination, perhaps bordering the real and the fantastical. By using a simile to liken herself to the Trojan princess Cassandra, the narrator establishes the futility of their own voice as Cassandra had prophetic powers but was doomed to be ignored. The stanza ends with a hyperbolic list of the things the narrator can no longer see, as though their experience of visiting Donegal was one typified by loss and decline.
Clouds above Gweebarra Bay disgorge themselves
in charcoal smudges and truncated rainbows.
in hedgerow ditches. This churned-up landscape
is an overloaded watercolour, where only blue,
or the memory of it, is true to its own element.
Bleakney’s use of the alliterative “wave-whipped” and her use of the sibilance “slaty sky” strongly imbue the lines with the sounds of the coastline, as they both evoke the sounds of wind and the incoming tides. Bleakney’s decision to use the simile to liken “dirty foam” with “snow” is curious as snow is ordinarily associated with purity and innocence. This incongruous comparison further reminds the reader that logic and reason appear to have a little bearing when applied to the natural world, or at least our perception of it. This notion is supported by the metaphor, which claims the landscape to be an “overloaded watercolour.” The poet uses this metaphor to showcase how much our perception of a place influences the way it appears to us and to others, just as a watercolor painting is an evocation of a place but not the place itself.
To the ringed plovers of Rosbeg
whom I mistakenly identified as sanderlings
and wrote a poem for, entitled ‘Sanderlings’ …
my footsteps triggering your reprimand,
I read it as a game of hide-and-seek.
But autumn finds you focused, less aware
is all the songbirds I have ever known
who’ve sensed my saunterings, and flown.
The poem concludes by issuing an apology to the birds, which Bleakney had previously misidentified. This mistake functions as a warning against certainty when confronted with nature, as it is complex and often difficult to interpret. The continual use of the direct address establishes an intimacy with the setting, implying the narrator regards them as equals. This idea is further explored by Bleakney’s use of the metaphor when describing her engagement with nature as “a game of hide and seek.” This line captures the poem’s essence insofar as it reminds the reader that we are always searching for nature’s true identity. It also implies we are ignorant of its true nature because hide-and-seek is a game associated with childhood when we are ignorant of much of the world around us.
Ultimately, the narrator acknowledges the fact that the natural world, here represented by the birds, will always resist her and her presence. This is shown through the hyperbolic claim that “all the songbirds I have ever known” have fled her approach. The choice of the verb “saunterings” is significant as the word harks back to the birds she mistakenly thought to be sanderlings. This creates an echoic effect to mirror the fact that, so often, nature seems present and clear yet somehow evades our attempts to know it as well as we might like.
Much of the poem is written in free verse, and Bleakney utilizes caesura at various points to ensure the poem’s pace is disrupted. This could be intended to mirror our understanding of the natural world, which constantly evolves as we learn more about it, even though those discoveries mean previous theories are redundant. The final section of the poem appears to resemble the form of the sonnet, perhaps intending to showcase the narrator’s adoration for the setting, as the sonnet is traditionally a devotional form.
On the one hand, the title merely refers to the birds the narrator has sighted in Donegal over the months covered within the poem. However, given the manner in which the setting is described as elusive, the title could, in fact, refer to the number of times the narrator has, metaphorically, sighted Donegal itself.
Cassandra was a Trojan princess and sister to the princes Hector and Paris, all of whom feature in The Iliad, which is one of the foundational texts of the western canon. In the story, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy but also cursed so that none of her prophecies would ever be believed. This ensured she lived a tragic life as she foresaw the deaths of her family members and the destruction of her home but was powerless to prevent it.
The poem’s tone is often one of frustration, whether it be as a result of being ignored or simply by nature’s apparent reluctance to reveal itself to the narrator. However, by its conclusion, the narrator appears to have moved towards a place of acceptance of the things they will never know.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Donegal Sightings‘ might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:
- ‘Spring‘ – An unsettling warning against deferring happiness rather than living in the present.
- ‘Winterisation‘ – Bleakney uses the oncoming winter months to examine her own sense of preparedness for difficult times.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Last Look‘ by Seamus Heaney – Another Northern Irish poet, Heaney’s poem similarly explores the connection between humanity and the natural world.
- ‘Cassandra’s Answer‘ by John Montague – Like Bleakney’s, Montague’s poem also draws upon the classical figure, Cassandra, to explore the modern world.