Claire-Louise Bennett,
Her Living Images

Hey, nonny, nonny . . .
be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey, nonny, nonny.

— Wm. Shakespeare

None shally shally on that here hill . . .
None shilly shilly on that here first rung . . .
None ganny ganny on that here moon loose . . .

— C-L Bennett

The Universe Inside

The terrain of some writing is personal. Sometimes authors write about the small instead of the big. Their universe seems small because the writer is his or her own universe, which stops at the end of the body. So you have to go inside the body to get to the heart of the matter. Which means you have to go inside the mind, that is, the universe of the mind.

This is one of the hardest things in the world. This kind of writing may seem too simple-minded or self-obsessive to a reader who needs a bigger playing field, a reader who finds nothing compelling about a character who focuses on his or her daily life. But this is what many writers do.

You can’t automatically say that an author who writes about the small is narcissistic. It’s just that the writer starts somewhere personal, and then that place or experience entangles itself in set points within set boundaries. And then opens up, effusively and maybe in a paroxysm. Observation and recognition, not plot, move the story to its ending.

Writers who are good at this effortlessly take the reader through a character’s personal impressions and reactions, funny little likes and dislikes, to the resonant and not always conscious events they relate to, so that a story can start, say, in someone’s kitchen and end somewhere far away, say the cosmos.

picture of claire-louise bennett
Claire-Louise Bennett. Photograph
copyright © Conor Horgan

Claire-Louise Bennett’s book Pond is such a collection of stories. She has a through-the-back-door style, one not seeking attention. Events often move like waves in her pieces, hitting the shore, receding, and thrashing up again carrying matter from ever lower sea depths. Sometimes her female narrators may seem claustrophobically self-centered, but this is only because their interest is in discovery and they tend to live within their own thoughts.

And what thoughts!

In her short story Control Knobs, the narrator’s mind stumbles back and forth from reality to impression, finally to a recognition of self versus other, all stemming from her problem of having only one working control knob (out of three) on her stove. She has a very old cooker, a Baby Belling (or is it a Salton?) no longer made, and she’s worried about it becoming useless once the last unbroken knob decides to crack, which could be any day.

This makes her remember the dystopian novel she read recently and then shared with her friend, a story about the last woman in the world and how that woman counted all the matches she had left because those matches were the number of meals she had left in this world, and about how the novel doesn’t deal with the woman’s death per se but leaves it to the reader to imagine it.

[I]t is quite impossible to stop reading because in a sense you want to go where she is going; you want to be undone in just the way she is being undone. Indeed, it is like a last daydream from childhood in many ways because hopefully the world for a child is mostly sticks and mountains and huge lone birds and as such almost all of childhood is taken up hopefully with just these kinds of boundless fantasies of danger and solitude. (Control Knobs, p.89)

This sounds a little bit lovely until our narrator is struck by the awareness that this woman counting her matches, the only human left on the planet, will no longer be mirrored by any being that resembles herself.

For a few moments I looked away from the pages so that there was an opportunity for me to feel a little of what she must have felt when she looked at her face with the same sort of attention one brings to bear upon the bark of a tree, the surface of a rock, the skin of a peach, and in those few moments it was as if the pupils in my own eyes became tunnels and I was suddenly sucked backwards. (p.89)

The author has brought us somewhere else now, introduced some dislocation. We have also entered nature, worlds smaller and larger than the world of the narrator's stone cottage. What will that woman in the book see, feel, on the surface of the rock, the tree bark, or her own face? What is she now, in relation to these things that by their nature may be indifferent to her? When she dies, how will she fade?

Our narrator's eyes, her guides to the outside world, become in her own words "tunnels" that swoop her backwards. It's backwards and forwards for now.

She must return to the problem at hand, her broken control knobs, where she now sees as if for the first time the grains, seeds, grease, and crumbs ensconced in their ridges, and the little swan in the stove’s mirror frame that tells her her stove is from South Africa. She recalls a dinner she cooked in London with a South African and how he scored the cucumbers, scored their “cold lusterless skin lengthways" to produce some "lovely elliptical loops,” and she is left with the merged images of swan, stove, and ellipses.

And? She thinks it likely that the South African company has no new parts, that there will be nothing to come, preferably by swallow, to the most westerly part of Europe, where she lives right next to the Atlantic Ocean, where the weather is generally bad compared to the rest of Europe, which is why not many people live there, with its uneven public infrastructure and stunted public transport service.

She is attentive to these thoughts. They sink in. Sinking is a major theme in Bennett's work — thoughts, images, feelings, sensations often sink into other places that may cause a change of direction. Attentive, the narrator thinks that despite her home’s history of starvation

which did in fact takes many hundreds of lives hereabouts and beyond, the exact spot where I live is pleasant overall and taxi drivers often remark upon what an unexpected piece of paradise it is and how they never even knew it was here. (p.98)

The story has crossed another line, another wave brings up a deeper place:

As a matter of fact I read somewhere that as many as two thousand stricken bodies were pulled out of ditches and piled onto carts then wheeled down the hill to the pit at the churchyard below. . . . and so the bones would slot down deep into the gaps and the skin would slacken and mingle with rainwater and sediment and the eyes would soon well up and come loose and sprout lichen and the fingernails would untether and stray and the hair would ooze upwards in rippling gelatinous ribbons and the teeth, already blackened and porous, would suck up against the sumptuous moss and babble and seethe. (p.99)

One must now ask, what is this story about? The imagery of the sunken bodies, victims of the Irish famine, sprouting moss and lichen, fertilizing new vegetation and new wildflowers there on the edge of the ocean, mesmerizes as well as nauseates. Who said “a terrible beauty is born”? Yeats, about the 1916 Easter Rising.

One must also ask, is this imagery of the bodies’ sea-change not more stunning than that of the dystopian novel? Is reality not more stunningly mind-blowing than fiction? And isn’t good fiction hard to write, isn’t it, as Picasso said about art, a lie that tells the truth?

Our narrator realizes she made a few mistakes in describing the novel of the match maiden. She was going by memory, having lent the book to her friend who lives nearby, a Swedish-speaking Finn who agreed that the book was “amazing.” Her mistakes were

elisions mostly, but I’m not going to amend . . . them because in any case it’s the impression that certain things made on me that I wanted to get across, not the occurrences themselves.

What impressions? The walk home from her friend's place foments in her a swirling and not quite friendly meditation on place, as dislocation settles further in. The road home is dark, narrow, with no pavement or “stripes,” just a ditch and some hawthorn trees and trash on the side.

[I] experienced a sudden upsurge of many murky impressions . . . that have lurched and congregated in the depths of me for quite some time. If you are not from a particular place the history of that particular place will dwell inside you differently to how it dwells within those people who are from that particular place. Your connection to certain events that define the history of a particular place is not straightforward because none of your ancestors were in any way involved in . . . these events . . . you have no narrative to inherit and run with . . . And it’s as if the history of a particular place knows all about this blankness you contain. Consequently if you are not from a particular place . . . it doesn’t matter how many years you have lived there you will never have a side of the story . . . (pp.104-105)

This story is about what, then, passage from a kitchen to the land it sits near, to the life that lies beneath that land with its shelf of decomposed bodies — a particular place, this place, whose history she does not share because like her friend she was not born in this place but born somewhere else? So that this place's history

comes at you directly . . . battering up throughout your body, before unpacking its clamouring store of images in the clear open spaces of your mind. (p.105)

In this particular place full of friendly visitors and transplants,

[S]himmered across the pale expanse of a flat defenseless sky
All the names mean nothing to you, and your name means nothing to them. (p.105)

There is no beginning, middle, or end here, only the narrator’s coming face to face with what confronts her. Bennett works backwards, she back-tracks her narrator's thoughts through her mental way-stations and lands her in a new place far from where she started out. This piece is an exquisite rendering of the mind's fermentation processes, the impressions and experiences deposited into it and its subsequent interpretation of our life.

picture of a famine grave outside donegal
A large famine gravesite on the way to Donegal Town. Photograph copyright © Frances D. Stevens

Hey, nonny, nonny.

That Here Moon Loose

In The Gloves Are Off, Bennett's narrator sinks further, right into the dark and sumptuous earth, going back to where she came from, a womb-like darkness that she cannot get enough of. The imagery and poetry here sweep her into a consuming and almost otherworldly reality. In the author's fashion, the beginning offers no hint of what will overwhelm the narrator in the end.

The narrator, not necessarily the same one as in Control Knobs (even though it is generally assumed that the narrator is always the same person in these stories), starts out thinking there is too much land attached to her cottage rental, too much for a woman who normally does nothing with land, no farming, no weeding, no trimming, not even the sweeping of leaves from her front steps.

The landlady is getting the roof re-thatched. The beautiful new reeds must come from along the River Shannon, where they’ve always been from, the narrator thinks, the reeds that get nudged and pushed by the pikes that swim the Shannon for miles and miles. The pikes, that is,

And the adrenalised coots spun out by the whirlpool of their own incessant rubbernecking and the hotheaded moorhens zigzagging to and fro. And the swans’ flotilla nests resplendent with marbled egg. And the sly-bones heron . . . And the skaters and the midges and the boatmen and the dragonflies and the snails and the spawn, and who knows what else the susurrant reeds are raided with. (The Gloves Are Off, p.150)

reeds along the river shannon
Reeds along the River Shannon. Copyright © GoHikingIreland, January 15, 2014.

We are on the river and halfway into the bog now, but the reeds, she learns from the thatchers, come from Turkey. The Shannon’s reeds have become too brittle from the nitrates in the fertilizers now employed in the intensive new farming methods.

This truth about the reeds washes over the narrator a sudden wave of curiosity about what's there, in the ground. She'll clean up outside, she decides, she'll cut out the dead stuff, trim the overgrowth, sweep the leaves from her steps; she'll get under the leaves, and under the stones until they stand naked before her.

Because she is a person who is conscious of herself and her surroundings, her curiosity is tinged with the awareness that she is changing along with the landscape. She wills the change.

There were a lot of rampant brambles . . . I was . . . pulling up weeds and patting the soil back down . . . I didn’t stop because I was so curious to find out what changed if I carried on. (p.153)

She’ll do it because otherwise “how will you find anything out about how you feel?” She accepts the risk, the work pulls her in as she is absorbed by forgotten sensations.

I . . . watched as my hands tore about indiscriminately. Is this kind of frenzied pulling and wrenching what happens once you begin? . . . I wanted to get to bare soil — I missed it — it was all covered over and I wanted so much to push everything aside and see the earth. . . . I want to . . . hear the earth gasp and settle into a warm and tender mass of radiant darkness. . . . I want most of all to get inside there. That’s right, that’s always been true. It’s the first thing I can remember . . . wanting to get back there.
. . .
I believe that’s where I lost my heart.
. . .
Out beyond and way back and further past that still. . . . And such was it since. . . . No, no. None shally shally on that here hill. (p.154)

The structural language decomposition at the end of The Gloves Are Off becomes Finnegan's Wake-like as the narrator falls into a deeper layer of consciousness. The words, the language, start to make sense only in pieces, like snippets of thought, as linearity gets lost in the fierce sensory nature of the narrator’s experience, which surprises even her, I’m sure.

Images and phrases come like spits of the mind, like neurons firing but not quite connected to where they might need to go to form the completed thought or feeling. Bennett consciously captures this experience of preconscious exposure. The narrator is aware of watching her own hands tear into the earth. She is her own subject and object.

So, much girded and with new multitudes, a sun came purple and the hail turned in a year or two. And that was not all. No, no. None ganny ganny on that here moon loose. Turns were taken and time put in, so much heft and grimace, there, with callouses, all along the diagonal. Like no other time and the time taken back, that too like none other that can be compared to bovine heap rising steam, or the eye-cast of a flailing comet. (p.154)

Gone are the roof thatchers, the friend, the landlady, as she sinks into "egg spill" and "clowning barnacles," the ground where “among this chafing tumult fates were scrambled and mortality made untidy . . .” (p.155)

Living, moving imagery. From it, a stark realization:

All night waking with no benefit of sleeping and the breath cranking and the heart-place levering and the kerosene pervading but failing to jerk a flame from out any one thing. No, none. None whoosh whoosh on that here burnished cunt. Oh, the earth, the earth and the women there, inside the simpering huts, stamped and spiritless, blowing on the coals. Not far away, but beyond the way of return. (p.156)

From a thatched roof repair to the stones to a world under the earth, where sit women in simpering huts, with no way out. This landscape, this nonromantic landscape, is not intended to tell a story so much as to paint a picture of consciousness. And it succeeds.

Bennett uses wonderful words to describe semi-conscious events. She might even send you to the dictionary once in a while. The joy of words lives in her work. Words make art, and I worry that the Internet is partly robbing people of the chance to know what it is like to get lost in words, really lost in a forest of words, like we can do reading Faulkner, Joyce, Conrad. Bennett loves words.

Yet Words May Escape Her

Oh, Bennett loves a whirl-about, a tale (and I think of the Pond stories as tales) begun in an ordinary fashion that without warning drops you down the rabbit hole.

Sometimes a narrator is so doubly ensconced in the natural world and her own circuitous thoughts that the reader’s grasp is tenuous, but this is only because the narrator's experience is so internal that she herself is grasping for a glimmer of meaning.

In Words Escape Me, the narrator considers things from nature’s point of view rather than from a human intelligence point of view. Looking through her window at the knots and orifices in a tree, she asks herself, in the form of an internal monologue, “[I]sn’t it remarkable, and a bit repugnant, how the ivy always knows where the chaos is and wraps about it, siphoning off and getting greener with its potent volatility?” (p.165). You start thinking, well, yes, this ivy is smart. And it is.

In this particular story, you walk through the landscape with the narrator, around the impervious tree, aware of the “distantly available” sky, taking in the stones and moss spread against a wall, and then, suddenly, your host is gone. She has fallen into the earth!

The day got late and very dark; she started writing in her notebook at her desk but the words in the darkness were impossible to see; the darkness “abducted” the words. Yet she went on writing them, “sinking words into the pages, perhaps wondering what or who was taking them in.” (p.168) Not only the trees and the moss, but the words too are organic, porous, sinkable, osmotic.

And then, for the first time that day, just as it was ending, I knew where I was — I was beneath the ground. I was far beneath the ground at last, and my blood thronged and my heart flounced back and forth bewitchingly. The pen came to settle in the seam of my notebook. Sooner or later, I thought, you’re going to have to speak up. (p.168)

Rocking Keeps You Steady

Lady of the House has a narrator whose thoughts are so scrambled they include the vision of a monster.

A monster? Well, then, is it “wraithlike” or “scaly”? Is it “something dredged or something fallen” (p.170)? Bennett's unusual sensory awareness, always present, jolts with each new description and highlights her sense of humor, another strain that weaves around her work.

This story mopes about, like its narrator, like the sky “just hanging around.” The silly monster is

Just one of those visions that occur without prompting when your mind has retracted and is alert, or — the other way — when it spreads out and is almost completely oblivious. . . . What a lot of nonsense, really, but then why not spend some time in the evening this time of year trying to recover the landscape of some substratal figments?

Why not indeed. As if it were a simple thing to recover substratal figments, an everyday occurrence. I could get psychological, could analyze the monster symbolism (and lots of other symbolisms), and it would be fun, perhaps, but the narrator at her windowsill is even more fun:

I’m not afraid. Not afraid of any monster. Let it stand in the moonlit lane and watch me. It’s been watching me all along, all my life, coming and going — and I don’t know what it sees as it stands there, I don’t know that it is not in fact becoming a little afraid of me — and I have to be doubly careful I think, not to frighten it away, because between you and me I can’t be at all sure where it is I’d be without it.

Everyone should have a monster, you would think. She likes hers; where would she be without it?

In The Big Day, preparations are underway to celebrate the revival of the narrator's neighborhood — it gardens and various properties. The narrator won't attend, she's not really interested, but she is interested in the properties of the stones on her refurbished cottage rental and the landscape itself. It is difficult to describe a living, changing organism like a landscape in stationary words and pictures, language like that. She lets us know that:

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language . . . I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs. (The Big Day, p.41)

This reminds me of Joyce's opening paragraphs in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the first words of the "nicens little boy named baby tuckoo" were his sensory impressions of hot, cold, wet, and smelly.

Bennett's narrator, at a loss for words examining the stones on the back of her cottage, notices their irregularity. They're not uniform and the small ones look overpowered by the cumbersome large ones. The smaller stone configuration on the back side of the cottage reminds her of the smaller constellations visible on a clear night. But this image only seems nice; something in nature is turning moody and dark. The smaller stone constellation, like the smaller star constellations, is muted like the mute words still simmering betwixt her organs. These smaller stones are like

strange teeth, these melancholy prisoners, these motley iconoclasts, these encompassed crones, there in the bedrock of all that is hefty and firm. And one registers, on the level of intuition, that it is impossible for anyone to make anything without mirroring the nascent twist of cosmic upheaval. (p.48)

In a May 26, 2015 article in The Irish Times, Claire-Louise Bennett said that she writes not necessarily to connect with other people

but to experience and augment my affinity with the universe. It was, after all, the whole cosmos I felt a part of and wished to respond to — not just my small portion of it, the here and now of my specific, increasingly circuitous, circumstances — but everything, everywhere, always.

This state cannot be maintained indefinitely. Who would want it to? The world we walk upon comes bumping back into us.

I think I'll stop here. I could go on. Just one more passage, though, from To a God Unknown. Here, a mountain waits for a storm that comes around to swirl about it, comforting it. The reader at first may consider the effect of the storm on the narrator but is quickly jostled into seeing that the natural event is indifferent to her, and that is the point.

There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain, visiting the mountains again perhaps after who knows how long, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. . . . and I knew it was an old one that had come back — it seemed to know exactly where it was and there was such an intimacy in its movement and in the sound it made as it went along and around and around. . . .
Going around and around, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And even though the mountain did nothing the mountain was not impervious to the storm and in fact dreaded its retreat and longed for it always to come back, and to come back again.

Hey, nonny, nonny.

—Frances D. Stevens

References and Works Cited

Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond (New York: Riverhead Books, 2016).

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Heubsch, 1916.)

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