Amina Cain, Creature. Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2013.
Eva Heisler, Drawing Water. Noctuary Press, 2013.
Review by Angela Woodward
A few weeks ago, a month ago, or at some time in the more or less recent past, I clicked on a link presented to me by a message in my in-box, or on the sidebar of another piece I was reading on line, or that a friend of a friend had posted on a blog someone else recommended to me. I consumed this glimmer of a piece of writing in a few idle moments, ephemera attached to ephemera. A writer sat at her desk watching some people gathered in the alley below. Nothing happened in this story or essay or fragment except that the woman returned to her desk many hours later to see that the people were still there, this time in a slightly different configuration. One of them was now missing, or two of them stood closer together, or their geometry of two and three had recast itself into four and one, or a different two and three. The writer looked at them through the window, first in the morning light, then in the evening light. At one point, she held the curtain over her face, or a handkerchief or scarf. I clicked away from the story, and have since been unable to find it again. I don’t know the name of the author, or where it was published, or even whether it was published, in contrast to simply having been posted somewhere. The next day I tried to find it again, searching through every deleted and outdated message, retracing my electronic meanderings. I failed, and later searches still came up with nothing. Not only did the words leave no tangible trace, but the writer herself seemed to have crafted the piece out of air. The “I” of the story didn’t pretend to be any kind of person other than a woman writing at a desk. No scenery was set beyond the lightly sketched alley, the room, and the window. No dialog came out of the mouths of the people in the alley, and no characters interrupted the reverie of the “I” at her desk. She did nothing, went nowhere, but seemed to spend her day writing, and writing about nothing. The sense, though, of her whole day wasted, so little in it that the lives of the figures outside came so clearly into focus, ate at me. The partial, minimal narrative aroused an immense longing in me for a completeness I feel I have been denied. Something has been taken away from me, the story said to me, perhaps while I slept.
This may explain my attraction to the cobweb-thin creations of Amina Cain and Eva Heisler. The only thing assuring about these two books is that I can return to them, thumb their physical pages, and so dip repeatedly into their projections of complete worlds refracted by the most partial of half-closed eyes. Both Cain’s short story collection Creature and the essay, notebook, or unclassifiable prose piece Drawing Water, by Eva Heisler, present writers writing about writing, a studied innocence where nothing much seems made up, nothing is analyzed or solved, a few figures appear and then exit. That is, the devices of narrative have been cast off in favor of what looks like a pure or raw setting down. These pieces’ reticence leads to a kind of blankness of feeling, which nevertheless signals a tumult of emotion held off stage. Eva Heisler’s author note states that she lived in Iceland for nine years, and that Drawing Water evolved from “a series of notebook entries published in Icelandic translation” in an Icelandic weekly magazine. Some of the entries are quotes or near quotes from John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing, and others make use of text from a book on the artist Marcel Broodthaers. It is difficult to determine what is quotation and what is Heisler, the lines pushed into a form that reads as poetry because of the precision of the breaks. Here for example is one page in its entirety:
This must be done with a brush, but a brush
soft at the point,
causes such uncertainty in the touch of the unpracticed hand
that it is not possible
to make a last dark certain
The writer is concerned with mark-making, whether she is writing, or drawing, or sketching in the little squares that adorn the ends of some sequences. Snippets of the everyday, the complaint of another person in the room, the telephone, a memory of a long-ago birthday, intercept notes on colors, on lines, on drawing, on refusing any longer to draw. Heisler does little to connect the tiny episodes beyond placing them next to each other. The pages lay the lines bare, white space engulfing most of the utterances. Some are just one line, or only half an italicized phrase.
Amina Cain’s Creature also presents personas who seem modeled on the author, a woman writing. The most effective of these stories offer little beyond the writer’s sensibility. Almost all are in the first person, and often the narrator is reading, or writing. She might note some people on the street, she thinks about a friend, or she looks around her apartment. Cain’s prose exudes extreme humility and uncertainty. Why bother to make anything up, to create a world, a plot, even a sentence complex in its structure? The opening story, “A Threadless Way,” begins: “When I first moved here, I lived in a friend’s room in a loft. I had never lived in a loft before, and it was strange to do so in such a quiet place.” The repetition, the basic vocabulary, the directness of the statements, look unconstructed. It’s as if these words have simply found themselves on the page, and the reader, tilting the book before her eyes, now makes out something about a person. Cain’s characters seem to live accidentally, stumbling into or out of vaguely defined situations—a cut on a hand, a stay at a monastery, a visit to a what? a ranch? a corral? The haphazardness of the narratives, the hesitance of the narrator, and the refusal to do more with the material offered, coalesce into a finely composed absence, a vast negative space around a spare, almost negligible frame.
Cain, Heisler, and the lost author of my first paragraph (who might well turn out to be Cain—this seems somehow likely) seem to be practicing a particularly feminine type of occlusion. The deflection, the deflated responsibility, the way the prose offers up to the reader a hidden immensity that can only be grasped indirectly, seem to me to embody a certain feminine aesthetic that makes much out of decidedly paltry materials. Such writing is an act of resistance, as well as a celebration of the remnant, the unschooled, the hapless. Both these books come to us from presses that publish only women. Noctuary in its end note specifically asks to engage readers and critics with notions of genre, legitimacy and power through the texts it chooses to publish. Though often such humble, minimal texts come off to me as defeatist, as not daring enough to claim the world as women see it, Cain and Heisler project an admirable, restrained power. The delicate unconstructedness of their narratives is the result of extraordinary craft. Their unsentimental writing also exposes a world of sentiment, so that their play with form opens into a depth of emotional engagement. The pose of reckless, vulnerable honesty—just a writer, writing about writing, expect nothing more of me—works in both these books to create tenderness. Their lines, in their expertly hewn insignificance, imprint a lingering, curious grief.