Grace Lake, ‘Bernache nonnette’ and the ‘sweet nunsongs’ of Finnegans Wake

August 26, 2013

Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese

Coriolanus, Act 1, Scene 4

Reading Andrew Duncan’s 1997 review – ‘Nine fine flyaway goose truths‘ – of a pamphlet of poetry, Bernache nonnette (1995 Equippage), by Grace Lake, I was struck by the metaphors of metamorphosis aligning Lake’s poetry and James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake, in a pattern of wingbeats. This uncanny resonance accords with the evanescent ‘something’ I’m seeking to grasp with this blog: the fleeting wisps of social hope hidden in ‘these secret workings of natures’ (FW 615. 14), ‘the chaosmos of Alle anyway connected’ (FW 118.21-22) that James Joyce sought to imitate in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Elements, I suppose, of what Walter Benjamin called ‘the mysterious in the everyday’, or Joyce’s ‘great myth of everyday life’. These gossamer-drifting threads of passage out of this world are invisible to a more instrumentalist emancipatory perspective enchained to the idea of progress. Homologous with the capitalist society to which it is the loyal opposition, this perspective of a ‘forward march’ of socialised capital requires a rational language of functionality – information (‘the poetry of power’) – with which the rhythms of life are out of step, a dissonance recognised by Joyce: ‘One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’. Joyce’s reference here to Finnegans Wake in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver (24 November 1926) could as easily describe the elusive language of poetry, which could be regarded as a ‘usylessly unreadable’ (FW 179.26-27) luxury in the workaday utilitarian world.

Grey Lag Geese, Geneva

Grey Lag Geese by Lac Leman, Geneva – ‘that greyt lack’ (FW 601.5).

I suppose the easiest way to illustrate the resonance is to quote at length from Duncan’s review (the bits of indented text in bold)…

Bernache is a barnacle goose, so called because its young were supposed to grow out of barnacles which then became eels (in a variant, the barnacles grew on trees). Nonnette is also a kind of goose- actually, the same kind of goose- called “little nun”  because its nests were nowhere to be found in northwest Europe, being safe in Greenland, and consequently its sex life was a mystery to Europeans. Tales about gooseberry bushes probably have the same folk-myth source. The theme is sexuality, coming into season, bearing, breeding, dreaming about the child’s growth and birth, but only by periphrasis, substitution, fantasy, and camouflage. I think the phrase ‘jars of tadpoles for aversion therapy’ is a reference to the male essence. Grace wrote to me that “‘Bernache Nonnette’ is a concept that has found a name- Barnacle Goose, St. Bernach was an Irish monk who tried to settle a fight in the South of Wales. Nonnette is also gingerbread, & 9 of anything.”

Already, there is a rich mother lode of mythical material in this passage, so consonant with the ‘sweet nunsongs’ (FW 457.29) of Finnegans Wake, with its invocations of the riverine habitats of geese: ‘O loreley! What a loddon lodes!’ (FW 201.35-36), and its allusions to the mysteries of generation, revolving around the person and ‘good mothers gossip’ (FW 316.11) of ALP, herself an avatar of Joyce’s partner and wife, Nora Barnacle. Indeed, one of the names of the depiction of the ‘sixuous parts’ of Nora/Anna Livia Plurabelle – the ALP diagram on page 293 – is ’round Nunsbelly Square’ (FW 95.35-36), the two circles which ‘dunloop into eath the ocher’ (FW 295.31-32).

It was the unfindableness of barnacle goose nests which led to the saw about a wild goose chase, and indirection, elusiveness, looping around, wild flights, resolutions withdrawn by subterfuge at the last minute, are structural rules in this book. The mystery nesting sites full of fluffy barnacle goslings are a figure both of some Mother Goose fairytale land and of a terrain of poetic fantasy, perhaps the society where we want to live. The goose story is in Pliny’s Natural History and this reminds me of Maggie O’Sullivan’s An un-natural history in 3 incomplete parts, also (I think) an attempt to challenge organised knowledge with personal experience. Fairy tales about female sexuality and reproduction, a kind of Mother Goose Gorgon; on waters where the wild tales spawn. Human sex life is a mystery too.

Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin, eloped with James Joyce in 1904, the couple taking flight from Ireland like many ‘wild geese’ before them: ‘Since nozzy Nanette tripped palmyways with Highho Harry’ (FW 117.16-17). That the starry path of souls, the Milky Way, is known as Birds’ Way (Linnunrata) in Finland echoes the finality of their departure to a new life, ‘while he mourned the flight of his wild guineese’ (FW 71.4). In the looking-glass writing of salices (willows, the arboreal symbol of sadness and regeneration) is found the transformation of an individual life: ‘Secilas in their laughing classes become poolermates in laker life’. I don’t know whether Anna Mendelssohn laughed in class – though she was ‘a brilliant and unruly pupil‘ – but ‘in laker life’ she became Grace Lake. A metaphor of transformation in Ulysses, set on the day that Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle, rehearses this theme of the transmigration of souls in the context of a drowned man being washed ashore: ‘God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain’.


A tessellated image of transformation by M.C.Escher

The liminal inter-tidal zone of the shore is a place of transformation, as I learnt from my grandmother. Her Edinburgh-born mother told her that when the tide goes out, people who are close to death slip away. Perhaps such an idea of transition is suggested by the two carved faces of a water-worn slab, forming part of a cist grave at Easterton of Roseisle near the Moray Firth. One face shows a broken sceptre, two crescent motifs and a mirror and comb. The lunar association of the crescents suggest the moon’s influence over the ebb and flow of the tide, while the mirror and comb are the accoutrements of those uncanny women of lakes, rivers and the sea – sirens and mermaids – recurrently associated with luring unwary sailors to their fate, much like the Lorelei, associated quite recently with a rock in the Rhine, who was consigned by the bishop to a nunnery as punishment. The other face shows the engraved images of a goose and a fish, anticipating the goose-fish transformation depicted by M.C. Escher.

Pictish Stone

In ‘his fiery goosemother, laotsey taotsey’ (FW 242.25-26), ALP is presented simultaneously as fairy godmother, tale-telling Mother Goose, transformer of the alchemical elements of fire and water and agent of Lao Tzu’s philosophy of Tao. In terms of the wearing down of the stone-cold certainties of patriarchal authority, a potent expression of Tao is the phrase, ‘Nothing in the world is as weak as water, but nothing is as effective in overcoming the hard’. Likewise, ALP’s ‘gidd-gaddy… gossipaceous’ (FW 195.3-4) speech pattern, transcribed in the Wake, overflows any ‘cutanddry grammar’.

Aboutness is not one of BN’s main qualities. It’s hard for me to talk about it, knocking nails in with my head, without crumpling its lighter than air swing.

The challenge to scriptural authority and the ‘goahead plot’ of political rationality is present in Grace Lake’s poetry too:

Grace wrote,

“‘She Walked’ is me, frogmarched off the Essex campus in 1970 by a fellow poet who didn’t want me to be either single, younger than him or a Writer (…) I had been handed over-in the middle of a vast lyrical metropolitan exequy’s composition (incepted by me & in the process of being incised upon paper) by a group who were writing for Tariq Ali’s ‘Black Dwarf’ who wanted Politics not Poetry- to a strange flat in Stamford Hill where I was seized by a group armed with stolen chequebooks & weapons.”

At one level, BN, and I think the whole of Lake’s poetic work, is a critique of the determinism of left-wing discourse around 1970 and ever after, including official feminism, how it creates a new imaginary State which imagines the population in the bureaucratic terms of the old one, how it skimps the impossibility of imagining 58 million people as human agents by imagining them as quantities, like money, which can be housed and planned for.

In the spring pool... attendant geese.

Poolermates in laker life – Geese in the spring pool at the Temple of Leto at Letoön

Tragically, Anna Mendelssohn died in 2009 of a brain tumour. Andrew Duncan, again:

Grace constantly writes as if she were talking to children, a Mother Bernache Goose; I find this incredibly comforting. Julian Symons, one of the bity-whiny little communist geeks who hung around in the late Thirties (or was it the Seventies?) sneered at Cyril Connolly for printing “odd fag-ends of the Twenties bound together by no organised view of Life and Society, no stronger thread than his own erratic intelligence”. The poetic history of the past 60 years has, it may be, been the exchange between the endeavour to make life monotonous, artificial, and governable and the passive task of writing poetry which is irrational, shimmering, and realistic. The cosmos is illogical when viewed on a small scale. So its large-scale logic is a failure of definition, an optical smear. ‘Organisation’ here means making your inner life artificially monotonous, and repressing deviance.

Cupid&GooseThe souls of geese continue to slip through the entrapments of police reality…


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