01 July 2012

Ions by Jean Bleakney


by Jean Bleakney
Lagan Press
ISBN: 978-10908188-02-1

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj

At its most obvious, the title of Jean Bleakney’s third collection of poetry, Ions, refers to the titles of the poems themselves: each is an abstract noun, ending in “-ion.” Bleakney’s playfulness and love of words comes through even if one only looks at the list of titles, as every letter has at least one ion, and these are arranged alphabetically. There is one exception to this pattern: the poem “x,y” which counts for both letters it contains. Having lost its “-ion,” this title gains a charge the others do not have and becomes, therefore, itself an ion.
These kinds of small but significant twists characterize the collection. Take the body of  “x,y”: it begins with a playful compression of René Descartes’ mathematical contributions. Then, the reported perplexity of another historical genius become the segue to something broader: 
 . . . Even Isaac Newton was baffled,
allegedly. Where does that leave us, who have to take

so much on trust? Sometimes curve and axes never touch.
These lines could simply be given a mathematical interpretation: those of us who cannot understand calculus must simply accept graphed representations of equations, but the question suggests something broader or more existential. Trust is not a mathematical concept. We are left somewhere, trying to make somethings touch that may or may not ever do so. Where that somewhere and what those somethings does not matter; this is Negative Capability, “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” as Keats once wrote. Uncertainty is foregrounded here by the “allegedly” dropped from its sentence to share a line with the beginning of the question. This kind of overflow is typical of Bleakney’s work. Here, where the comma before the line break emphasizes rather than authorizes it,  the excess adds a charge; if the title of “x,y” becomes a charged particle because of what it has lost, then its concluding two lines become an ion because of what they have gained. 

Charging a line, a sentence, or word through addition or subtraction could serve as a workable definition of poetry. How much a poet adds or takes away depends on aesthetic allegiance and personal taste. Bleakney balances the two impulses. The lengths of the poems also reflect this, as some (such as “Circumlocution” and “Cogitation”) appear two-to-a-page, while others (such as “Consolidation” and “Improvisation”) require two pages each.

Addition and subtraction create different kinds of charges. Abstract titles meet concrete images. The piece with the very abstract title “Alphabetisation” opens with three lines listing vegetables in alphabetical order. The result is a kind of ionic bonding that the rest of the poem explores as it becomes a kind of ars poetica for the book:
Stocking the seed stand, flowers first,
elastic bands in drifts around my feet,
I’m stalled at the vegetables; distracted
by the C to K hiatus, inventing
extinct varieties, their sudden demise.

Close observation leading to imagined objects and their histories might look like distraction when one is expected to be arranging a display (Bleakney in fact works at a garden center) but that is, in fact, a kind of attention becomes clear here and throughout the collection, even or perhaps especially when she describes things that are not real:

 … a little Dutch boy of sorts
(for isn’t that what I’ve always aspired to
in the savior stakes?). As if I could resurrect
deeproot, exceltuce, frailwort, grippage,
hopeso, indurant, jard: an A to Z restored.
The order of the book’s poems fulfills this fantasy, restoring an A to Z that never before existed.
In Ions, Jean Bleakney makes charged particles of words, parts of words, sentences, and images that bond to each other through their oppositions. The result is a kind of serious whimsy in which what is made up may also be well-observed. Plants that are real and plants that could be real turn up in imaginary gardens that never let you forget that they are made of words.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s first poetry collection, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. She has also published a chapbook, The Broken Sanctuary: Nature Poems, with Ypolita Press. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Irish Pages and a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. Her website is www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.

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