Speech made by Alice Maher at the launch of Pond in the Meyrick Hotel, Galway, as part of the 2015 Cúirt International Festival of Literature (April 25th 2015).
Gaston Bachelard writes eloquently about the poetics of space and the dialectics of Inside and Outside—corners, cupboards, boxes, shells—places that are often smaller than us but which can contain the very cosmos of our imaginings. He says that once a thing has emerged from a small space, rather like a newborn, it cannot be put back in there. And here we have today the birth of a new artwork out of the intricately interconnected thought spaces of writer Claire-Louise Bennett.
I have read Pond a number of times now and it really rewards double and triple reading. This is not a conventional book. You do not begin at the first page and conclude at the last, there is no denouement, there is no problem solved. Her protagonist is a mysterious female, living alone, almost as if the world is not in the correct order and she is a visitor to it. Her relationship to language is very particular: ‘I haven’t yet discovered what my language is,’ she says, ‘so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.’ And the whole book is suffused with this kind of new approach to English and to language and even to ‘the Self,’ and the habits and foibles of Self.
However it is not a ‘stream of consciousness’ as people like to so often label anything at all that isn’t a conventional descriptive tale. No, her language use is a very careful, forensic use of words which follows the mind through and into the body, and in turn follows the body to the depths of the mind. In her writing she is that spiralled being, a type of human snail who lives both inside and outside, above and below, cerebral and corporeal simultaneously.
Now this is a very new and exciting way of writing and I am sure it must belong to a movement that has not yet been named. It’s in the new writings of many female writers, though not exclusively so, writers like Anne Enright and Eimear McBride. It has a viscerality that is contradicted by a calm surgical style. It gives close attention to corporeality in the feminine sense but it is not confined by it, and in fact it bursts that myth of the essential female. For too long, female has been spancelled solely to the Physical and the male to the Intellectual. But here at last we have art which marks out our inner process by uniting mind and body in a single endeavour.
The words of Claire-Louise Bennett travel the filaments and vessels that join mind and body in cogent expression. Hers is a kind of geometry of thought which joins together the disparate parts: impulsion, activity, consequence. You can almost hear the thought becoming word and back again, rather like the fascination of actually hearing your own blood. Or touching a thought.
I first met Claire-Louise a number of years ago, when she seemed to hover at the edges of the visual art field. She has many visual artist friends and this does not surprise me for she puts her own material through the same proceses an artist often does, making and re-making it, and allowing the poetics of space to move through it.
But writers are the envy of artists really because of the wide, wide audience they can reach. Everybody reads, everybody knows words but then of course it takes a very great writer to renew those words and to take language to a level deeper and wider than descriptive. I am so happy to even have my little toe associated with this new work. I am so gratified that Claire-Louise asked for an image of mine for the hardcover edition of Pond and these somnambulists do indeed appear to float out of some dark pond. The title of the woodcut you may like to know is from a poem by W.H. Auden which I heard when young: ‘The nightingales are sobbing in the orchards of our mothers’. When I heard that line I knew that language was more than description, and could open up worlds. Claire-Louise Bennett’s work defies description but there is no doubt in my mind that it is Art and that she is contributing in no small way to the cannon of contemporary writing.
I love the Stinging Fly Press and I commend them for their outrageously successful string of new writers. It is a very exciting time to be a reader. And I would like to conclude by praising inconclusiveness. One of our greatest writers of short stories, Mary Lavin, was very often criticised for her lack of plot, the fact that her stories had no definable beginning, middle or end. Her answer was that life has no plot. And she preferred to think of her writing as ‘an arrow in flight’, or a great flash of lightning lighting the whole landscape all at once for a very short time.
All hail Claire-Louise Bennett, may you forever hover like that arrow and the lightning of your work continue to flash and illuminate the skies.