Jean Bleakney’s ‘How Can You Say That?‘ is a light-hearted rebuke from the narrator to her husband for suggesting she had her head in the clouds. The poem weaves science and common sense in order to showcase the narrator’s subtle but not insignificant degree of both intelligence and attention to detail.
Jean Bleakney’s ‘How Can You Say That?‘ is a humourous rebuttal of the suggestion that the narrator, and perhaps women more generally, are silly or cannot retain information.
The poem begins by asserting the relationship between the two figures and goes on to list the reasons the narrator feels they ought to be taken seriously. Curiously, the poem is structured to ensure that the reader only learns of the husband’s accusation in the final line, having been denied this context until then. This lack of clarity enables the poem to be read as a more universal critique of the belittlement of women on account of their imagined failings. Despite this, the poem retains a sense of humor throughout, most notably through the evidence chosen by the narrator to illustrate her point.
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, from which ‘How Can You Say That?‘ is taken, in 1999. She has since published two more full-length collections and her work is regularly anthologized. Bleakney grew up during the period of violence known as The Troubles and, while she has said that she did not want to explicitly address it in her poetry, she decided she could no longer ignore its impact on her surroundings.
I am your wife.
I can name and nurture
twenty-nine hardy geraniums.
I know that the secret of not ironing
is tumbling to the point
where gravity and steam
conjoin to creaselessness.
The poem begins with the refrain which establishes the close connection between the narrator and her husband, to whom the poem is addressed. The use of the direct address in this line serves to create an accusatory tone that highlights the narrator’s strength in her own convictions. The poet then begins to list things they regard as evidence of their own abilities, though the reader is not yet aware of why these qualities need asserting. Bleakney initially directs her attention to domestic skills like gardening and washing clothes. However, the latter of these is imbued with metaphorical language, as demonstrated by the description of how “gravity and steam conjoin to creaselessness.” By using such a beautiful, figurative description to describe the everyday, mundane realities of life, the narrator challenges both her husband and the reader to examine their own perceptions of value.
I know that cholesterol
gets a bad press considering
it is to sex hormones
what flour is to bread.
I think that low-salt
is also very suspect.
The first three of these lines have enjambment which increases the readers’ pace in order to create a frantic, breathless effect. This could be intended to mirror the narrator’s sense of injustice, even if the reader is still ignorant of its cause. These lines exhibit some of the poem’s humor, by conflating an impressive knowledge of science, as demonstrated by the narrator’s understanding of cholesterol on the body, with her own seemingly unfounded beliefs about salt. By metaphorically conflating cholesterol and flour, Bleakney playfully highlights the unsung importance of homemakers like herself, who are rarely praised but are essential if domestic life is to continue.
I know that in life,
there are no straight lines–
it’s all angles and loops.
I know that colour
is the effluent of light;
that greenery is only thus
because reds and blues
are all a leaf desires.
The narrator’s assertions of her own wisdom grow increasingly abstract in these lines, as shown through the hyperbolic claim that, in life, “there are no straight lines.” This claim is likely intended to remind the reader and her husband that life and relationships do not exist without conflict or obstacles, rather than be viewed as a literal statement. The use of the anaphoric “I know” affords the narrator a level of authority that grows the longer the poem continues, as if suggesting that the more she is given the opportunity to demonstrate her skills and abilities, the more those abilities come to the fore.
Bleakney then again chooses scientific examples to showcase her narrator’s intelligence and knowledge. Bleakney herself studied biochemistry at university and the scientific references could be intended to challenge long-standing stereotypes around male-dominated STEM subjects. However, these references are not merely scientific, as Bleakney imbues them with poetic significance through her use of the word “effluent” which refers to liquid waste or sewage. In this poem, the effluent is the source of color and beauty which is another example of the poet showing that beauty and value can arise from any number of unexpected places.
On very windy nights
I am struck by the suddenness
of disappearing moonlight.
I have always thought
that infinity cuts both ways…
I am your wife.
How can you say that my head
‘is full of sweetie mice’?
The poet uses sibilance in lines 23 and 24 to evoke a serene quality to match the narrator’s awe of the beauty of the fading moonlight. It appears the narrator is both amazed by and frightened by this process. This could link to the subsequent metaphor about how “infinity cuts both ways” as the passage of the moon is both finite, insofar as it is a process that begins and ends each night, but also infinite as it will return each new evening. Bleakney possibly finds this concurrent finitude and endlessness reminiscent of her own position as a belittled wife, who is both an individual example of that dynamic but also a part of a much larger struggle for respect.
This interpretation is strengthened by the refrain in line 27, which reaffirms her position as her husband’s wife but also allows her to embody the countless other women who experience their own marriages in a similar way. Ultimately, the poem ends with a rhetorical question that shows her reaction was against a phrase used to describe her as absent-minded, which may have been intended as endearing. The poem, therefore, treads a line between humor and light-heartedness on the one hand, and much more serious issues on the other.
Suggesting someone’s head is full of sweetie mice is a way of saying they are not grounded in reality or that they have no grasp of details. It is a common phrase in Bleakney’s native Northern Ireland and is usually considered playful rather than especially insulting.
The poem is written in free verse and features a series of short, declarative lines to reflect the narrator’s impassioned, punchy response to her husband’s accusation. Likewise, Bleakney uses enjambment throughout the poem to increase the pace and suggest a level of frantic speech. This gives the sense that the narrator has been building to an outburst like this for some time and, once she has begun, seems fearful that she will be cut off if she pauses for thought.
The title is important as it is a curtailed version of the poem’s final lines, which rhetorically ask the husband why he said her head was full of sweetie mice. By curtailing it, Bleakney allows the reader to project their own version of what the husband said which allows the poem to be read more broadly as an examination of the treatment of women in a domestic setting.
On the one hand, the phrase simply proves the narrator’s scientific knowledge, as colours are formed as a result of refracted and reflected light. Likewise, the word “effluent” could simply be used to show off her broad vocabulary, as it could easily have been replaced by “waste” or “sewage.”
However, the phrase also serves a more subtle purpose as it shows Bleakney’s view that we should not underestimate things just because the general opinion is that it is worthless. By reminding the reader that beauty arises from waste, she asserts her own strength and wisdom by emphasizing how she should not be undervalued just because of sexism and misogyny in the wider population.
Readers who enjoyed ‘How Can You Say That?‘ might like to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:
- ‘Breaking the Surface‘ – An extended depiction of skimming stones that functions as a metaphor for writing poetry.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘The Ache of Marriage‘ by Denise Levertov – A poetic exploration of the difficulty of marriage and the pain an unhappy one can cause.
- ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband‘ by Anne Bradstreet – Another poem that addresses a husband and affirms their love and commitment.