Here & Elsewhere: poetic cul-de-sac

Buy this book at Amazon.comRaymond Federman
Six Gallery Press/Journal of Experimental Fiction ($9.99)

by Karl Krause

Jorge Luis Borges's essay "The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader" identifies literature's ability to "become inflamed with its own virtue, fall in love with its own decline, and court its own demise." If literature is near death, Raymond Federman's Here and Elsewhere fans the flames. Basically a poetic biography, Here and Elsewhere voices memory, theory, metaphors, and devotions—a hodgepodge wrangled by a second, bold-faced voice. As in many of Federman's essays and novels, he includes himself in these voices as a third-personed "Federman." Joining Federman is the character "Moinous," an ominously paired moi and nous (me and we, in French), or, as Federman himself defines it (in "Federman," on, "the secret name Federman gives himself when he pretends to be a spy, or a musketeer, or a paratrooper, or a jazz musician, or a French lover, or an experimental writer."

Federman's reflexive narration reemphasizes the necessity and imperfections of writing, bordering different attempts to create—the artful dodging of inadequacy—with encouragement to forge ahead in spite of failure. For Borges, these failures were "the ocular distraction of metaphor, the auditory distraction of rhythm, and the surprises of an interjection or a hyperbaton." For Federman, the entire act of writing is flawed. Metaphors are hated and incongruous to the self, verbs tangle our world into doubtful relations, nouns cannot name what they name, adjectives and adverbs falsely describe. While not necessarily new, these ideas appear purposefully unembellished in Federman's poetry.

Federman's incessant pessimism for the problems of writing may find some empathy in recognition. Beyond this, Here and Elsewhere manages to become a ________ text (out of respect for Federman, let this blank adjective stand inexactly for something affirming and useful). Remarkable in Here and Elsewhere is Federman's sly working of stylishness—using its deceit and capacity to impress a superficial reading. His initial use of these tricks appears lame and misplaced, using puns ("you're everywhere here / in my house and in me / since you changed tense") and depicting kitschy products ("I had a hot dog smoked a pall mall"). But Federman repeats these superficial techniques to make a point: "a life of words words / that pell-mell babel of / read written spoken words" where his words crash into less obviously meaningful combinations that better carry senses claimed un-formable by nouns, adjectives, etc. These irrational collisions are Federman's most successful experiments: "so you want / a street / named after you / in your home town / when you change tense / Rue Féderman / so be it." Federman uses the falsities of language with precision to create a pointed voice, some harsh ridicule of writers seeking fame, and other wry articulations of popular form.

Theories and precision aside, the memories Here and Elsewhere invent, recall, and denounce are constructive. In a brief section that serves as a sort of devotional to a love interest (likely the "Erica" of the book's pretty dedication), Federman demonstrates a utility and beauty of language in communication and reconciliation: "have I ever told you how appeasing the light of your language is to me / have I ever told you how the smile of your language makes me smile." These lines are long, assured, liberated of concerns from a voice assiduously paired with encouraging censure.

Here and Elsewhere, its own critic and constraint, creates a full voice with occasional insights, such as "One can dance / in the dark / one can sing / in the dark / one makes / love in the dark / but poetry cannot / be read in darkness / that is perhaps / its greatest weakness." Assertive and ruthless in reason, Federman shows that literature is not dying. Elsewhere Federman himself has proclaimed the new fiction "will be deliberately illogical, irrational, unrealistic, non sequitur, and incoherent," a magic that Here and Elsewhere is not. By exploring the contemporary, Here and Elsewhere stakes itself deep in the present to make a point, with cautious risks—maybe deep enough to keep its claim from uprooting to future transcendence.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004