May 2009

Jacquelyn Davis


I Go To Some Hollow by Amina Cain

These 15 brief stories press the modern reader to examine both their direct and indirect relationship with the external world, through a number of subtle and at other times provocative devices. Amina Cain writes in “Black Wings,” “It is hot and humid and we are reading Lolita. After we read for a while we take a bike ride, and when we are tired we get off our bikes and sit against a concrete wall.” At first glance, this appears to be an unassuming reference to just another book of the past, yet for those who have read Nabokov, we know its literary weight and are sure to be stirred, if not strangely aroused by this juxtaposition of Lolita to the bicycle -- the one tool every blooming adolescent recognizes as synonymous with liberation, movement and exploration.

Cain documents obscure movements and physical rapports of individuals in response to their surroundings, reminding us that there is a larger, webbed system at play. There are moments when Cain's characters appear to revere the existence of this particular order. In this case, it proves effective when Cain simply states what is occurring, what is being felt, without prescribing additional layers of skewed interpretation to a particular circumstance. Cain understands the importance of being forthcoming. For instance, Cain shares in “Black Wings,” “I walk by the ocean and think of nothing but the ocean. I put my hand in the waves and feel nothing but the waves. But it doesn't last. I try to make it last. The water is green and clear, heavy with salt.”

The characters in I Go To Some Hollow are very present; they like existing and participate in a readily available life of colors, sights and sounds. Yet, being so aware of one's self can be alienating, and Cain weaves this curious, social isolation into her storytelling. And in return, her stories weave a difficult-to-attain empowerment into their reader -- each one releases the reader from the usual responsibilities of finding a necessary conclusion or locating a clear narrative arc. And this can be a good thing. But, a caveat: these stories require a kind of habitual re-introduction -- you might find yourself only reading part of a story then coming back and reading that same part again, then moving on to another story, then back to where you started. This somewhat schizo hopscotch could be seen as a lack of interest by a certain reader x, or it could be viewed as the reader's desire to locate overarching patterns or themes. Don't be surprised if you're carrying this book around with you for a while. It has a way of wanting to accompany your own daily rituals. It has a way of expecting something from you.

With working titles such as “A Body Walking Through Space” or “Watching a Bird Fight as a Person,” one is immediately reminded of a shared, spiritual journey and how this internal place, this hollow is oftentimes in conflict with one's physical reality. The reader may note multiple duplicities and contradictions, i.e. being both a sexual animal but also a creature desiring something more than just fulfilling an urge -- perhaps, it is love, recognition, communion, a sense of purpose, the right to feel at peace. Or maybe: it is the right to freedom, the right to interpretation, the feeling of being responsible for whatever life that we have made for ourselves, the choices that become ours -- if even the wrong ones. An excerpt from “In the Sugar Patches” illustrates this:

At the beginning of winter I had sex with him in my apartment while my husband was at work. Tom didn't work anymore, he had quit the library, and I worked at night. But afterwards, the apartment was so cold that I had to get dressed right away and I felt sad. I stood in the kitchen, listening to the hum of refrigerator.


“You are an installer or you are a collector. Choose one. It is cold next to the ocean. You might drink coffee next to the ocean or you might drink dark tea. Choose one.” And though these decisions might seem insignificant, many of these decisions compiled may lead one either to a life of meaning or some alternative removed from relevance all together. But at least: you have a choice.

Cain injects odd moments of domesticity and craft into her work -- but with hesitation to submit to a particular role or redundant assignment. Often, her characters (with emphasis on females) seem aware that certain tasks need to be done, but that it might not be in one's best interest to claim one role as their own over another. There is a larger inquiry at hand, somewhat inspired by the philosophical tenet: the freedom from something, vs. the freedom to do something. For instance, Cain writes in “Nothing is There,” “This year I have sewn a lot, even though it isn't one of my favorite things to do. I helped sew a quilt for someone as a birthday present, and now I'm helping someone else sew a robe. I'm not a good seamstress.” This shows how we find ourselves sifting through obligations -- some wanted, others unwanted -- how we come to terms with such forces, from both a gendered perspective and from the view of one rolling into adulthood.

Cain writes from the position of someone who seeks wisdom -- yet from a safe distance, with mystery. These stories are not obnoxious in the way that a mother's experience shed onto her offspring might be seen as. They are subdued and unpretentious, and though one may not experience the seductive “punch” that one feels from a Mary Gaitskill or Joyce Carol Oates narrative, Cain is onto something -- a less-than-obvious kind of erotic that isn't pushy or desperate, but it's there. There is no need to adopt one cornered conclusion, and it is wagered that Cain would be more content if yours didn't match another's. Though our means may appear similar, must we all really share the same end?

I Go To Some Hollow By Amina Cain
Les Figues Press
ISBN: 1934254096
108 pages