Jean Bleakney’s ‘Nightscapes‘ explores the power of the imagination and its ability to find beauty in almost any situation. By contrasting the night sky of her youth with the flowers in her garden in the present, Bleakney captures the essence of memory and a sense of awe in the face of nature which she has still not outgrown.
‘Nightscapes‘ captures the feelings of isolation and longing one experiences when feeling cut off from nature.
The poem begins by evoking the narrator’s memories of rural Donegal, where they recall feeling as though they were surrounded by stars. This memory is then juxtaposed by the relative absence of the stars in the present due to the light pollution in the narrator’s new urban environment. Rather than functioning merely as a lament for the loss of the stars, the poem also celebrates the power of the human imagination, as the narrator seemingly replaces the stars’ beauty with flowers in her garden.
The poem ends with the narrator musing on the nature of urban living as she contends with the fact that she will have to create the beautiful if she wishes to keep encountering it.
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. ‘Nightscapes‘ is taken from Bleakney’s debut poetry collection, The Ripple Tank Experiment, which was published in 1999.
Bleakney grew up in rural Northern Ireland, moving to the city as an adult to study and later work. Like many who have made this transition, she would have been acutely aware of the limited visibility of the stars due to light pollution, certainly when compared with her rural youth.
If this was Donegal
I wouldn’t be able to breathe
for fear of swallowing stars…
Tonight, summer thunderclouds
are bloomed sandstone pink
– city-lit to saturation;
The poet immediately establishes the tension which defines the poem by juxtaposing the rural memories of the narrator with their urban presence. The use of hyperbole in the opening stanza serves to illustrate the childlike wonder with which the narrator perceives the natural world. Whilst initially appearing as though it might have been claustrophobic, it quickly becomes clear the narrator enjoyed the feeling of immersion in nature and preferred it to their current situation.
The reference to thunderclouds in the second stanza could be viewed as a pathetic fallacy, as clouds obfuscate the sky and mirror the narrator’s feeling of being cut off from nature. However, the use of the verb “bloomed” challenges this notion as it has connotations of nature and growth, which suggests the narrator still feels connected to her past. Finally, the reference to artificial light creates an unsettling effect for the reader, as it suggests the people in the city are under watch and are perhaps denied rest even at night.
etched with high silhouettes
– its swell of uncut hedge
could be a distant ancient forest.
These stanzas focus on the plants in the narrator’s garden, which begins to establish a connection between her present circumstances and the rural surroundings she remembers in Donegal. The use of adjectives like “blurred” and “uncut” lend the garden a wild quality that is perhaps a deliberate attempt to evoke the appearance of genuinely uncultivated plants. This apparent ruggedness is at odds with the readers’ expectations of urban spaces, which are clearly planned, and city gardens, which are usually more carefully cultivated. This tension is further emphasized through Bleakney’s decision to use both the botanical Latin name “Lonicera nitida” and the more common name “Poor Man’s Box” for a type of bush. This contrast represents the manner in which the narrator is attempting to draw two different aspects of her life together through her garden.
Below the horizon of hedges,
beyond the quiescence of chromatophores
And Magellanic Clouds of Artemesia.
The use of alliteration in the first line and sibilance in the third both imbue the lines with a sense of clarity and purpose which belies the earlier attempts to showcase the garden’s ruggedness. Furthermore, the use of the word “horizon” indicates the exterior of the garden functions as the edge of the narrator’s world. Finally, the word also imbues the garden with a sense of wonder and possibility, as the horizon represents the unknown and adventure.
Similarly, the metaphorical claim that the narrator is “standing in a bowl of galaxies” establishes another incongruity by implying that never-ending galaxies can fit into the finite space provided by her garden. The metaphor also serves to challenge the idea that we must always look far afield for beauty and inspiration when, in fact, beauty surrounds us every day.
In spangled panicles of privet
I count thirty-seven Pleiades
sampling a trillion vintages
of nectar, dusting aeons.
Stanza seven lists stars the narrator can see from her garden, which perhaps challenges the notion that they are difficult to find in the city. However, the Pole Star is conspicuous by its absence which is crucial as that is the star that establishes the direction of North. Bleakney could therefore be suggesting that, while the stars and her garden are beautiful, she lacks a sense of purpose and direction now she lives in the city.
The poet uses a metaphor to describe how “night moths are time-travellers” to further instill the ordinary world with beauty and wonder. Similarly, the use of the hyperbolic “trillion vintages” reminds the reader that the only limits to our appreciation of beauty are the ones we impose on our own imaginations.
Here in the sub-night of cities
we shape our own mysteries;
Cast our own constellations.
The final stanza celebrates the power of the individual by highlighting their ability to conjure beauty even if their surroundings are not conventionally beautiful. The metaphorical claim that we “cast our own constellations” is another example of the celestial imagery which aligns the narrator with some kind of divine or occult being. Furthermore, the use of the plural pronouns “we” and “our” signify the narrator’s view that this power is not limited to any individual but rather can be harnessed by anyone if they push past the limits they have placed on their own imaginations.
The poem has nine tercets and features the occasional use of rhyme, notably in the third stanza when Bleakney rhymes “silhouettes” with “leaflets.” The fleeting use of rhyme creates an echoic effect, which in turn hints at the narrator’s memories of the place they left behind. They also create a sense that the poem is somehow in flux, as though still being constructed, just as the narrator feels she must construct her own beauty if she wishes to be surrounded by it.
The title simply refers to the view of a landscape at night, which is appropriate as this is the poem’s primary subject. Night also has associations with magic and the occult, which lends itself to the narrator’s sense of their own creativity. Finally, the celebrated Irish writer James Joyce also wrote a poem entitled Nightscape, which explored questions of dissonance at night. Bleakney may have been attempting to pay homage to James Joyce or simply invite her poem to be read in dialogue with his.
The poet makes explicit mention of hedges several times throughout the poem. This is curious as hedges are often highly cultivated and thus represent the uneasy relationship that nature has with modern, urban life insofar as it is present yet carefully preened and restrained. It could also represent the limits we impose on our own creativity, which the narrator believes we must move beyond.
The main themes of the poem are nature and its relationship to the individual. The poem also explores questions around memory, urban living, and creativity, the latter of which is viewed by the poet as a means of empowerment and escapism.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Nightscapes‘ might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:
- ‘Breaking the Surface‘ – A gentle, insightful poem that likens the act of skimming stones to artistic creation.
- ‘Out to Tender‘ – Another poem that uses natural imagery to explore larger questions, this time relating to the 1994 IRA ceasefire.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Acquainted with the Night‘ by Robert Frost – This poem uses the darkness of night to explore one’s inner darkness.
- ‘Apostate’ by Léonie Adams – A sonnet that expresses the joy one experiences at the sight of the stars in the sky.