Anatomy of Keys by Steven Price
Reviewed by Jan Horner (Prairie Fire, July 2009)
Steven Price's first collection, Anatomy of Keys, is a big book in more ways than one. It is essentially a long poem and, at 141 pages, somewhat longer than most first volumes of poetry. But Price is also very ambitious in what he sets out to do. While his book is a re-imagining of the life of Erich Weiss, also known as Harry Houdini the magician, it also examines in depth what it means to be closed up, locked, and secret as well as what it means to have escaped, to be open, to be free and alive. Price also plays with the different meanings of what a key is. Namely that a 'key' may provide a means of access as well as of control and possession and a key can also indicate a bringing into or falling out of harmony, as with a musical key. To be 'keyed up' also suggests intensity or nervousness, certainly qualities inside of which Weiss/Houdini lived and plied his craft. The book demonstrates how language itself often needs to be re-examined or unlocked. Archaic words or spellings of words appear with regularity: firked, bleamed, drathing, grag, fustled, bladder (as a verb), fanked up, gattles, stragg, to name a few. These strange-looking words are at first distracting, but the sounds often make sense and their effect is refreshing.
Price succeeds in making Houdini mysterious and at the same time suggesting the mystery in all human life. The poems work with the well-known biographical facts of Houdini's life: his birth into grinding poverty; his disappointment in his father, a failed rabbi; his attachment to the two strong women in his life, his mother and his wife Bess; his physical discipline; his famous illusions and escapes; and his death from a punch to the stomach. This intense, somewhat superstitious and spiritual man is revealed in poems dealing with magic tricks, vaudeville and the circus, as well as his interest in ancient mystery, the occult and spiritualism. Price's Houdini says that magic for him is not mere artifice but involves ritual; he insists "upon wonder, the incomprehensible, the unknown" as desired responses to his illusions. These qualities are countered by his interest in technology beginning with locks, where his success in escape lies in part in his uncanny ability to unlock their secrets as objects. His interest in machines includes a fascination with aeroplanes and flying that allowed him escape above the "swarms of drudging men" (45).
This book, essentially a long poem, is in five sections, each covering different aspects of Weiss's life: his origins, his feats of escape, his life in the circus and study of illusions and alchemy, his losses, and his death. The third section, "The Circus at the End of the World," is the one I enjoyed most, maybe because it is focused less on Houdini, and more on the circus and its mystique and characters, on the history of illusion and alchemy, and because it is at the same time in parts more confessional or personal: " I lived in debt to those who came before me, as anyone does, yet also looked to all who followed, knowing I must vanish without them./ And understood too late the frailty of my father's faith, long-buried, and the furnace of my own" (66) or "In that place/ I inherited the shabby faith of his wild/ uprooted heart" (75). This section is in fact the "wild heart" at the centre of Anatomy of Keys.
There are 52 numbered and untitled poems in the book, each supposedly representing a year of Houdini's life. At the start of each section its contents are summarized in point form, though on closer inspection the brief notes appear to be titles or "keys" to the poems in the section. While this is appropriate to a book about locks, keys, and secrecy, I found this separation of "titles" from the numbered poems perhaps too clever and even rather annoying. On the other hand, the book displays a mastery of a variety of poetic forms that is truly impressive: sonnet, ballad, proverbs, Spenserian stanza, prose poem, among others. Here is a poet as craftsman, able to unlock the mechanics of poems in a work admiring a craftsman steeped in the technology of locks and escape. In "The Circus at the End of the World" section, Price's identification with his subject is sharpest:
To speak myself as another, to achieve a thing more stubborn than the brief life. Posterity without shame, the bequest of a marvellous thing well-made. Truth, if not fact. Talent, though not of the human tongue. The unfashionable conviction that even misfortune makes a kind of sense. The imagination as witness. A terse dense craft in which the mouth must feel its way toward meaning. Compassion. Attention. Praise. All I would work for in my time, this, serene, luminous, holiest of keys, in the circus at the end of the world. (86)
Price's Houdini arrives at a sense while working his long apprenticeship of his insignificance or unremarkability. Yet he knows he succeeds where more gifted men have failed because of his stubborn belief in his craft. A humility and dedication shine through this book, both the imagined Erich Weiss's and the poet Steven Price's, and it is these qualities that ultimately allow such an accomplished work to capture this reader's attention and praise. .
Jan Horner is a poet who lives in Winnipeg.