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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Federman's "Shhh", part 2 — the poem "Before That"

[This is the second of a number of entries that trace my thoughts as I read Raymond Federman's last novel, Shhh, which is about his early life with his family before, at age 13, his mother pushed him into a closet, telling him "shhh," when the Nazis were coming and saved him from the fate of the rest of the family, Aushwitz.]

Throughout his fine prose — and the word is "fine," — Federman intersperses poems. The poems often surprise me at how old-fashioned they seem in their thematics. This is not a put down, it is just an observation. Perhaps the poem that affects me the most is also the most old-fashioned, "Before That." On the surface, it is a simple longing for a long, rooted family occupation, as farmers, builders, or sailors.

The first stanza reads:

Some say, can say: my father was a farmer,
and his father before him, and his father
before that. We are of the earth.

The poem goes on to say that a family of builders is "of the stone" and a family of sailors is "of the water." Then he says that "I have no antecedent" because nobody in his family has been a writer. He claims to write to establish an "antecedent for my children."

The last two stanzas are devastating. Federman wonders if he can say anything of his father given his "erasure from history." In the next stanza, the answer is "yes." He can say his father is "a wanderer" from "nowhere" to nowhere. "He came without earth, stone, water, and he went wordless."

What I find so devastating here is the intense longing for family that comes through. The desire for stone, earth, and water, for the elemental, to touch and become one with the elemental, is almost overwhelming. It is what he sees others have that he cannot because his family was taken from him.

In the prose of the book, where he comments on the poem, Federman suggests that it is about his family's historical tendency toward failure and poverty. And I believe him, but only on one level. The "that" in the title could refer to familial antecedents or to his family being taken away Aushwitz. In the latter case, the earth stone water are the fundamentals of life being stripped from him.

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