Jean Bleakney’s ‘Winterisation‘ offers a reflective view of the season of winter, as the narrator feels the need to prepare themselves for its arrival. This preparation is both pragmatic, insofar as many of the tasks they complete are mundane and tangible, but also emotional, as the narrator believes winter to be the season that takes the greatest toll on a person.
‘Winterisation‘ explores how a person prepares for both the physical and emotional disruption caused by the passage of time.
The poem begins by making clear that, despite the title, winter has not yet arrived. Instead, the season is always ahead of the narrator and the reader, occupying an ominous and foreboding presence in the poem. The narrator details how they are weather-proofing the caravan, which functions as a metaphor for the manner in which they are protecting themselves emotionally from the difficult winter months ahead.
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. The poem ‘Winterisation‘ is taken from Bleakney’s 2011 collection, Ions.
Winters in Northern Ireland can be tough as the weather is very wet, cold, and dark for several months. While writing this poem, a member of Bleakney’s family was terminally ill, which clearly influenced the poem’s preoccupation with preparing for difficult times ahead.
Halloween at the caravan.
All along the strand
sand is rearing up
like smoke from a bush fire.
Somebody else’s roof
has peeled back as if
yanked by a ring pull.
Ann’s lying across hers
applying something black
from a 5L can that shifts
with each gust, as does
the ladder. A clatter
brings Ernie to the rescue.
The reference to Halloween serves to ground the poem in the final days of Autumn before the weather turns. However, it also subverts the reader’s expectations as normally Halloween is associated with frightening things, but Bleakney suggests that we should instead be afraid of what comes next. The use of the simile in line four imbues the scenery with epic and destructive power, possibly as a warning against the havoc the natural world can wreak if we are not prepared for it.
This evocation of the power of the weather is further emphasized by the simile, which describes the roof as being peeled back “as if yanked by a pull ring.” By likening the power of gale force winds to the opening of a blind or curtain, Bleakney showcases her anxiety in the face of the weather growing worse. This simile also showcases the gulf in power between humanity and the natural world, as it is able to cause destruction with almost minimal effort.
Otherwise he’s on his knees,
bad hip or no bad hip,
with power screwdriver,
Ann lowering the whirly line,
Ernie snagging on marram
with Richard’s strimmer.
Line fourteen functions as a literal description of how everybody, strong or weak, is called upon to help prepare for winter. However, the line can also be read metaphorically as the man could be falling to his knees in prayer, which could demonstrate his fear or his desperation. Similarly, the reference to “tightening the cladding” evokes the common phrase that people should ‘batten down the hatches’ when preparing for a difficult period or a crisis. Once again, it appears that the narrator fears something more than just the onset of bad weather. These lines take on a list-like quality to suggest the preparation is an almost ritualistic event that brings people together. It also speaks to the fact this is unlikely to be the first winter these people have had to prepare for the worst.
Rain. They retire inside,
I’m in the next door van;
papers and a laptop,
smoothing out the old
to-do list for departures.
The caesura in line twenty-nine represents how the sudden, often unexpected arrival of rain can interrupt plans and daily life, just as the pause disrupts the flow of the line. Bleakney then juxtaposes her caravan to those of her neighbors, drawing some comfort from the fact hers is newer and better protected against the elements. However, the caravans could metaphorically represent a person’s ability to cope with difficult times, so while hers may be newer as she appears to be younger, the others have experienced hardships before and are perhaps better equipped to handle them.
Bleakney then also juxtaposes the physical nature of mending a caravan with the more abstract realities of her life as a poet. The use of the verb “smoothing” evokes a sense of bitterness or guilt, as though she feels her clean and polished lifestyle is somehow inauthentic compared to those around her.
Every year I seem to leave
more of myself behind
– as if body or soul
No histrionics, little bird!
Thus begins, bright thing,
a season of goodbyes.
These lines begin with the metaphor, through which the narrator expresses their belief that they “leave more of [themselves] behind” every year. This confirms the fact that her visit is indeed an annual event, but contrary to some expectations, that does not mean it is unchanging. Given Bleakney’s success as a poet by the time ‘Winterisation’ was published in 2011, it appears she feels her life is less and less anchored in the routines she had before her career took her in new directions. The sibilance in line forty-five creates a sinister tone to reflect this apparent realization.
The poem once again lists mundane tasks, and each line that does so is end-stopped as though attempting to achieve a sense of finality. By definition, though, these tasks will need to be completed again, just as they were before. This reminds the reader that we cannot delay the inevitable any more than we can stop its arrival altogether.
Finally, the poem ends with another metaphor when describing winter as the “season of goodbyes.” This captures the incongruity of the season as, on the one hand, winter is associated with seeing old friends around the Christmas period, but these greetings also necessitate farewells. For Bleakney, as with many others, the season also coincided with the death of a loved one, which represents finality, though not the kind the poet appeared to wish for.
The poem features many short lines to create a frantic, episodic quality that may reflect how the narrator is busying themselves as a means of distraction from their sadness. Likewise, the episodic use of caesura ensures the poem’s pace remains unpredictable, just as changes in the weather or people’s health can interrupt our lives without warning.
The speaker appears to represent Bleakney herself insofar as they appear worried by something in the future beyond just the changes in the weather, and Bleakney was expecting the death of a loved one while writing the poem. Likewise, the reference to papers and a laptop implies the narrator is a writer like Bleakney.
The poem’s message is complex as, on the one hand, it appears to advocate being prepared for future uncertainties and potential issues. However, the longer the poem goes on, the more these preparations feel futile, as there are always things we cannot predict and some obstacles that we cannot prepare ourselves for, no matter what we try.
Robins are generally associated with Christmas, as well as a variety of symbols and omens, including happiness, good luck, and rebirth. In this poem, the narrator wants to ensure the bird hasn’t entered the caravan without her knowledge. This could be intended as a rejection of the aforementioned qualities as they feel cruelly ironic in her current situation. However, it could also be a sign of generosity, as the narrator wishes these omens to be passed on to others, who she believes may need them more.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Winterisation‘ might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:
- ‘Spring‘ – In this poem, Bleakney turns her poetic attention to another of the seasons.
- ‘Breaking the Surface’ – An extended metaphor that views skimming stones as akin to artistic creation.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Change Upon Change‘ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – A poem about lost love, as told through the changing of the seasons.
- ‘The Visionary‘ by Emily Brontë – An unsettling poem in which a spirit-like presence arrives during winter.