Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants
Reviewed by Patrick Warner (Books in Canada - December 2006)
In Anatomy of Keys, Steven Price lifts the lid off the life of Harry Houdini and slips inside. It is a deft trick and a remarkable one for many reasons, not the least of which is how thoroughly the poet tests the capacity of a single metaphor. Over the course of this 122-page poem, Price entangles himself in biographical chains, locks himself up in rhyme, straps himself into straightjackets of form and immerses himself in a relentless and bloody-minded flow of prose and verse. The reader holds his breath and watches, at times exhilarated and moved, and at others bored by the relentless repetition of the illusion Harry Houdini was, after all, something of a one-trick pony. And yet the reader continues to watch, unable to take his eyes off the struggle, and delights in the sounds of a guttural muse as Price works to regurgitate a key. Will the poet succeed in escaping, or will he fail and thus reward the reader with the ultimate spectacle (the one, according to the speaker in these poems, that we really came to see): death?
Questions swarmed as I read the first few poems in this book: knowing nothing of the life of Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss), how would I orient myself in the poem (the brief biography at the back of the book is essential reading); to what extent does he follow the life ("Truth, if not fact", says the speaker in the last verse of poem XXVII); is it not a conceit of youth (and a questionable one) to use another's life story as a literary device; and why tackle the life of Houdini in poetry (one senses a novel in Price's future)? The answer is that while Price does demonstrate an interest in biographical truth, in character, and in dramatic incident, these are simply supporting elements. In Price's hands, the life of Harry Houdini is a form, a means of engaging the author's imagination as he mines for poetry. The good news is that for large sections of this collection, Price's imagination soars; and the sheer force and evocative power of his language was sufficient to quell my early concerns: "A gangplank rattled farewell. Oily swells, a lifting/ hull, swarms of fat yellow gulls in foam" (from XXXII).
In his use of language, Price may be lumped in with a group of young male Canadian poets that I've come to think of as the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants (members include Ken Babstock, Carmine Starnino, Joe Denham, and Zachariah Wells). All of these writers, at various times and to varying degrees, can be said to have fallen under the spell of Seamus Heaney (or perhaps it's Hopkins via Heaney). In Price (as in the works of some of the others mentioned), there are also reminders of Ted Hughes"In the tall air he spins/ blood-fat, holstered/ in his straightjacket, spins/ heel-snagged and then sags/ bonelessly akimbo like gut-slit game" (from XIX.ii) as well as Dylan Thomas: "and keys knuckled like fingers, keys harsh-voiced/ and stunned like a blaze of cold bells" (from XV).
But who knows the ways of influence and how it arrives; sometimes Price sounds like his contemporaries, as in the following lines which could have been lifted from Starnino's recent collection, With English Subtitles: "O I admit a seam-split, bulging, abundant love,/ a drawn-up, drenched-off, brimful, dripping-with-it-love/ that sated all and overspilled our sleep (from VI). As masters go, one could do worse than to understudy Heaney, Hughes and Thomas. That Price is a quick study and can do a pitch-perfect imitation is indisputable. The following passage could have been taken from Heaney's Seeing Things: "and something shivered in me, strange/ and tongued like a bell, an unseen door/ unlocking above us. Our dark gaze gone upward:/ a seething love in the given and not earned./ That austere unlit hall, set echoing again" (from III). Likewise, early Heaney is invoked in a poem which describes the exhumation of Houdini's father:
A squelch and slub of shovel-blade.
All day rain-bloated ditches made
digging difficult, floated spades,
foamed up flecks of rotted pine;
his sogged gravesite gushed a slime
of silt and peat . . . (from XXXIX)
Price states his antecedents so emphatically that his own voice can be difficult to hear. Are the following syntactically muscular lines Price: "his words laid out the tackled thunk and buckle/ of chests, of leather-wrought thickened holdings hoarding/ thicker words like coins (from XIV). Or how about this wonderful passage from IV:
"Stick, staff, crutch, cane, cudgel, truncheon, switch,
her love slumped in harness, staggered lagged in it.
Her small fingers folding apelike as dusk ruddled
in her room, and us, two boys barrowed in our
skirts, love a gust riffling bedclothes, ruffling curtains;
like black wool we unravelled, dark spools in her lap
amid the barbed click, tock, click of her knitting
this clockwork of slender bones in yet more slender
this small stick, staff, crutch, cane, this cudgel,
It might be argued that Price knows exactly what he is doing when he channels Heaney and others, that he is simply employing their luxurious and guttural language as a device. Lines as aurally dense as some of those quoted above create an interesting effect: they make the reader hyper-aware of the sound of the words, which in turn creates a kind of vibration or looseness between the word and its known meaning. Reminded in this way that words signify the things they describe and are not what they describe, one feels a slight loosening of the bonds of meaning. This is a very neat trick to perform in a poem about an escape artist. Only subsequent books will tell if this is Price's style or if it is simply a style that he chose for this book.
Price also has a magpie's eye for unusual words and uncanny sense of where to place them. The passage quoted above is notable for the use of the word ruddled; other interesting pickings include glistered, fanked, drathing, scantling and straked, as well as a boatload of compound coinagejsun-glarred, wind-bloodied, to name a few. Price's facility as a poet also extends to traditional forms. He uses the sonnet, the ballad, the villanelle and complexly rhymed stanzas to flesh out episodically the life of Harry Houdini. He throws in some wonderful proverbs: "Where conscience is the door, privilege is the hinge" (from XX). Some of the most enjoyable and formally clever poems in the book are those in Section II, The Escapologist, in which various escapes are described: Metamorphosis, Water Torture Cell Escape, etc. Price can also work metaphor in miniature: the elephant as "a patient crate of wrinkles" (from XXVII) is a nice turn; "White pears in jars floating foetal and bald" (from XLIII) is as arresting a first line as I've read in a long time. There is not much in terms of poetic craft that he can't do!
The question then is how well Price succeeds: does he slip loose from the shackles of form and manage to raise the ghost of Harry Houdini that "life raised and raised again as metaphor" (from XIV). The answer, I think, is yes and no. The flaw in this book, if there is one, is in its tone. The same willed, muscled-into-being feel of the language results in an overwrought and overly emotional quality when present in tone. Once locked inside the escape artist's chest, one hears the speaker's heart beat a little too loudly. There is too much reaching for emotional effect. Many of the scenes depicting Houdini's relationship with his father and mother are too grief-stricken, too haunted, too obsessed with blood and suffering and death. The perspective on Houdini's life is consistently that of the anxious young man: "I could not comprehend this gift of escape/ bestowed on me and no other, given/ as if to transcend my station on this earth" (from XXVII). Part of the problem is editorial: the book reworks obsessively the same tropes and reaches time and again to achieve the same emotional release. The ropes could have been a bit tighter, the water a little bit colder.
Anatomy of Keys is weakest when Price steps in to mediate the vast metaphor he has unleashed. The relationship between poetry and illusion, as well as parallels between Price the poet and Houdini the escape artist are too often alluded to and detract from the impact of the work as a whole. But if one thing emerges clearly from the sweat and toil at the heart of this book, it is that Steven Price is an enormously gifted poet. Anatomy of Keys is an excellent debut.
Patrick Warner's most recent book is There, There (Signal Editions, 2005). He lives in St. John's.