Houdini epic is pure magic
Reviewed by Patrick Watson (Globe and Mail, June 23rd, 2006)
When Ehrich Weiss died in a Detroit hospital on Halloween, in 1926, the world was shocked: He had seemed to be something invulnerable, the man who could escape from any coil, mortal or otherwise - Harry Houdini.
He was 52.
Born in Hungary, he spent much of his childhood in Appleton, Wisc., the son of a would-be rabbi who ended his days as a worker in a sewing factory in New York. His father's death haunted the son, as did the death of his adored mother 21 years later.
It was in Appleton that the young Ehrich caught the magic-and-mystery bug from a travelling circus, and while he would for a while bill himself as the King of Kards, and would late in his life stage elaborate illusion shows, it was as Harry Houdini, the escape artist, that he made his reputation from New York to Hong Kong, from Melbourne to Bombay to Montreal.
Crowds gathered to watch him, many times manacled and shackled to heavy weights and then nailed into a crate thrown into the sea, to emerge on the surface, sputtering and grinning, long after he should have drowned. On stage, he would be locked into a huge milk can full of water, inspected by detectives and members of the audience, hidden by a curtain for a minute, then two, then unbelievably four minutes, until he reappeared, free, gasping, soaked, triumphant. Upside-down from a crane over Manhattan in a straitjacket, escaping in full view of a huge crowd, few of whom could begin to discern how he did it.
There have been biographies and novels and movies. The brilliant silent conjuror Teller played Houdini with me in the television series Witness to Yesterday. Posters from Houdini's shows in the early 20th century are sold on the Internet for substantial prices. Eighty years after his death, his name is still legendary.
And now a young B.C. poet, Steven Price, has imaginatively recounted that life in a gripping volume that travels through a mind stricken by his parents' deaths to the point where the idea of escape becomes the driving image: the pilgrimage, the grail. It is a psyche that is always a part of a body, and a body always part of its own ending.
..... a throat believing evil inevitable as breathing.
This is a dark, compelling book that may have you looking over your shoulder for something lurking in a dark corner.
Seeking not escape, but a way in.
There is a poetic adroitness here so knowing that it often hits you only afterward how deliciously chosen each syllable has been. Comfortable to the point of invisibility with metre and rhyme - or without. A touch of the Villanelle, a touch of Dante, echoes of Eliot, touches of poets and forms I know I've read but cannot quite .....
This is a long poem by a poet and teacher of poetry whose technique allows him frequently to achieve what all artists dream of: the virtual disappearance from our awareness of the subtle technical intricacies that are unfolding there.
When I bring to a dinner party some treasures from one of my recently discovered poets, I am often met with, "Oh yes I used to like poetry when I was a kid, haven't read any since school," and so forth. This usually evaporates after I've read them a piece or two from, say, Karen Solie's Short Haul Engine or Billy Collins's Sailing Alone Around the Room. Or I bring some Yeats, in which I've found something that I'd missed before, or Auden.
Well, now I'm going to start bringing The Anatomy of Keys, and probably extra copies to give away. Darkness and light, glare, dazzle, shadow, the immanence of evil, the poet finding extraordinary analogies for Houdini's struggle through the agony of those parental deaths, to reach through the darkness to some form of light. And also a cunning narrative way of touching on the humour and playfulness of stunts like the famous Sub Trunk Escape he loved to do with his wife Bess. Loved, but - Price suggests - feared as well, not physically but symbolically.
How she'd stub or shamble into trunks
ladders, chests, awkward before a crowd
yet glide with the careful verity of monks
when alone, when her wasp-slender waist flowed
with the relied-upon and regular-as-rust
assurance some goodness must come next.
By the way, Price uses a lot of archaic words, some so far from my ken that I at first wondered if he were inventing them, "dreep" and "firked," for example. Most writers who do this lose my sympathy, but there is something about Steven Price that, early on in my reading of The Anatomy of Keys, led me to say to myself, Well, that's kind of ..... ah ..... I have to admit that works well. Or something like that.
And there are visual moments that are breathtaking, as when Harry and Bess come back to their tent one night, on the circus grounds to find their cat eviscerated, hanged by the neck, its entrails shaped into some kind of message on the bloody ground beneath.
This is not a morbid book, but it has much to do with Death:
That sudden bright distance between us.
The pen lowers.
The books shuts, it shuts. Stillness.
A constant interweaving of triumph and fear, in which escape becomes the great metaphor of life, of getting through life. An Old Testament ring, sometimes, the performer and the poet both (and they merge and emerge, join and separate during this strange narrative), both of them under some profound obligation to survive their own incarnation of the mystery and the fear:
Escape became a kind of consolation
as it always was and is: he'd slip confined
behind his curtain and step suddenly free
thickset, at ease, free- dangling from a fist
the loosed, smug, still-locked cuffs
or tear aside the drapery to show
a box or trunk still nailed casket-tight.
Nothing altered, yet all somehow changed;
as if to prove that what binds men also unbinds.
Reading The Anatomy of Keys, I thought it must have felt like this when T.S. Eliot came on the scene. And I thought, the most germane thing I can say of Steven Price's work is what Ezra Pound wrote when asked to contribute to a collection of Eliot anecdotes after Old Possum died in 1965: READ HIM
Patrick Watson's latest book is the novella Wittgenstein and the Goshawk.