Serious and Frivolous
Reviewed by Bert Almon (Canadian Literature 196 - spring 2008)
The great escape artist, Harry Houdini, was supposed to communicate from beyond the grave if there was really an afterlife. His wife waited to hear from him every Halloween (he died on 31 October 1926) for ten years. The closest we can come to postmortem messages from Houdini is by reading Steven Price’s brilliant book about him. The work is unified by recurring images of lock, key, rope, knot and trunk, all of which have rich symbolic associations, as Eli Mandel recognized in the first line of his classic poem, “Houdini”: “I suspect that he knew that trunks are metaphors.” We have many biographical sequences in Canadian poetry. This one is fittingly marked by formal virtuosity, with poems written in couplets and stanzas and even in prose. Houdini was a man who wriggled out of constraints, so his poet should struggle with forms. The escape artist reaches some of the deepest fears in his waiting audience, fear of confinement (terror of being buried alive is the strongest form), fear of drowning, fear of suffocation. The straitjacket reminds us of the shroud, and the trunk is a kind of coffin. Mortality is a powerful engine in this book, which explores fear of death as a prime source of art. Houdini’s father dies, then his mother, and the impact on their son is immense. Here and there we get portents of Houdini’s eventual death from peritonitis. As Price says, the man who could escape anything “could not escape the strict stanzas of his days.” And yet the character has an intensified sense of beauty, because the man who struggles out of darkness appreciates the light. Freedom is also a motif in this dense and thoroughly written collection. In his “Proverbs of Escape” (inspired by William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”), Price says “No release without being bound.” And the last proverb declares: “Compassion. Attention. Praise. An anatomy of keys. / To leave the self is love.” Price’s Houdini is capable of love and is therefore free. Houdini’s wife kept a candle burning by his picture, but when ten Halloweens passed without a message from his spirit, she blew it out and said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Steven Price has lit the candle again.