On October 31st, 1983, Canadian escape artist Dean Gunnarson’s first attempt to commemorate the death of Harry Houdini ended when the asphyxiated nineteen-year-old failed to surface on his own from a submerged coffin.
At the time, Gunnarson was a relatively unknown player in the already peripheral world of escape entertainment, but his near death experience at the bottom of Winnipeg’s Red River actually garnished him international attention. Not long after his crew removed his chains and rushed him to hospital, Johnny Carson referred to the young escapist as “that crazy Canadian” on the Tonight Show, and Gunnarson’s career — which has since included over 150 escapes and a series of televised specials — took off.
It seems the popular imagination reserves a special place for such figures, never hesitating to embrace them when they appear on the public stage, whether they happen to be dangling upside down or buried in concrete caskets. And really, such widespread fascination should come as no surprise. There is, after all, something terribly compelling about the silence that envelopes these magicians mid-act, those moments when we envision them wriggling in their claustrophobic caves, unsure if each passing moment brings the artist closer to death or escape.
Our curiosity about this high stakes world of heavy locks and fast-hand picks has also supported a significant industry of mythmaking and popular biography, the foundations of which are steadied by many a thick volume about the movement’s most prominent figure, the one and only Harry Houdini. After dozens of books, a league of imitators and no shortage of biopics, one may wonder what more can possibly be said about the man whose life and death has never fully escaped the public mind. The answer may well lie with Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys, a biographical long poem that attempts to chart the many travels of one Ehrich Weiss, the Hungarian immigrant who — with perhaps his greatest feat of magic — made his own poverty disappear and produced in its place a life of considerable fame and fortune.
While Price is certainly not the first to trace the remarkable trajectory of Houdini’s life, he may well be the first to do so convincingly in verse. For those who have read Kalush’s and Sloman’s recent The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, or Kenneth Silverman’s 1995 biography Houdini!!!, I suspect few surprises will be found here with regards to the factual tidbits of Houdini’s life. Of course, that’s not at all the point. Price doesn’t aim to present another exhaustive, minutia-ridden study, nor does he wish to add his book to the already long list of sensationalized Houdini titles. Rather, he means to channel what we already know of Houdini through the medium of poetry, and, in doing so, create a rich portrait of an often mythologized man, this time from the inside out. By extension, the poet-biographer also explores the associative meanings of captivity and escape, often as they relate to the relationships Houdini shared with his mother, father, and his wife Bess. It is this triangle, in fact, more so than any particular famed escape that Price uses to frame his narrative.
And what a narrative it is. With considerable insight and formal dexterity, Price takes Houdini’s advice, “Make it tight,” to heart, tying together a veritable ream of exquisite passages with absolutely no lyrical slack. The persistent intensity of this book alone is enough to convince even the most skeptical reader that Price is no flash-in-the-pan magician, no opportunistic tonic peddler riding Houdini’s coat tails to the vantage of literary gain. Certainly, there’s no denying that Houdini’s life is rich in poetic fodder, but Price’s careful handling of this material saves it from becoming yet another poetic biography whose movements place a distant second to the reader’s interest in the figure at hand. Such care appears in the following fine passage, where the young apprentice Houdini describes a scene from his tour with a traveling circus:
An elephant stooped, bronzed in mud.
Patient crate of wrinkles. All skin, flap of ear,
tiny eyes fixed sad on a puddle in trampled grass.
Watchful. As if to learn its earth well.
And in the wind a weary dog loped past, ribs tight
as coiled rope. A sack-cart tethered a black pony
to its shade. The air reeking manure,
reeling round a salve of heel-pocked pools.
Then out, beyond, big top, a broiling sky.
I swear all I witnessed there was real.
Price’s fondness for alliteration, fine syntactical pacing, and gift for metaphor are on full display here, as is his ability to reinvent Houdini’s voice with a convincing, understated grace. This polish is apparent throughout the book, as Price reveals a fondness for punctuating the end of sections with rhyming couplets, while at other times employing an a/b/a scheme of rhymes and off rhymes to anchor the poem’s narrative progression. Such formal techniques, however, do not appear randomly, nor are they solely the result of the author’s fondness for structured verse. Rather, the reaching philosophical discourse of this poem, which includes frequent metaphorical tangents and no shortage of jutting imagery, necessitates a kind of structural underpinning, one that allows the reader to digest in pieces what could otherwise overwhelm. As with other long poems, the overall form of the poem inevitably boils down to the structure of the single line, repeated hundreds of times over throughout the text until it adds up to a whole. With Price, this whole consists of a dizzying array of calculated poetic impulses which he lays from start to finish, all the while refusing, even for a moment, to let the voices in the poem slacken. In fact, the absolute polish is such that the eye can slip in places, moving ahead and losing its place in the myriad images, metaphors, and sounds at play. In fact, I found myself beginning to wear early on in this book, as each section presents a lot for the reader to take in. Of course, no single passage can convey such a cumulative effect, but a syntactical unit such as
Sun-drenched, a scorching gale; still Diggers Rest
delighted, all fiery weed and fierce white sand
and his Voisin’s crackling canvas wings in flight
does represent fairly well Price’s unique brand of alliterative bombardment. Complicating the effects of this rich diction is the way in which titles appear — or fail to appear — in the text. On the first page of each section, readers find a list of “titles” for the passages to come, but the individual poems are actually divided by roman numerals. Without the immediate context a good title provides, readers may find themselves flipping back to these section pages, in search of some clue to kick start the passage’s meaning. Certainly, one appreciates the desire to maintain the poem’s fluidity by not assigning individual titles throughout the book. And, to be fair, attentive readers can almost always establish this context for themselves. But having to do so does distract the reader from the more basic intention of simply appreciating the poem itself.
Perhaps more conspicuously absent from this poem is Price himself, as he clearly chose not to include the same overt, authorial presence that other Canadian poet-biographers have opted to weave through their work. Within the pages of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, for example, we find a picture of Ondaatje as a child, dressed a cowboy, as if to say that somehow the poet’s childhood has a part to play in the largeness of The Kid’s legend. And in Stephanie Bolster’s White Stone: The Alice Poems, Alice travels to the poet’s doorstep through the mail (the unprepared host later serves her visiting protagonist “large Canadian muffins”). For the most part, Price instead opts out of this self-reflexive technique, choosing instead to only once include himself as a character in his own narrative. At the beginning of “The Circus at the End of the World,” Price describes the way in which his work on the Houdini poem has left him “startled and unsure.” In this instance, the poet emerges, presumably from the demands of his work to “gape/ out past glass at a world strangled by rain… to learn late Ehrich’s large-knuckled shame/ at work unfinished.” There’s something very appealing about this small confession, arriving as it does approximately halfway through an ambitious poem that must have been quite difficult to write. Such intersections between biographer and biographical subject can be one of the most pleasing features of biographical verse, offering as they do personal insight into the effects one experiences over the course of a lengthy biographical study. Such meeting points also drape the world of the poet against that of the figure in question, and in doing so present sharper views of both through the vivid lens of contrast. Some readers may find themselves craving more of this interaction in Anatomy of Keys, wanting the dialogue between the young Colwood, BC poet whose family owns a locksmith company, and Houdini, the Hungarian handcuff king, to appear more often throughout the text. Others will find the lack of navel gazing refreshing, considering that it appears within the already too confessional borders of Canadian poetry. Either way, the decision to stay out of his characters way does show that Price is thinking for himself in these matters — a rare quality among young poets, and one which is quite worthy of praise in itself.
David Hickey grew up on Prince Edward Island, in western Labrador, and along the north shore of Quebec. A past recipient of the Milton Acorn Prize and the Ralph Gustafson Prize for poetry, his work has appeared in magazines and journals across Canada and the US, including Arc, The Antigonish Review, Descant, Elysian Fields Quartery, Event, The Fiddlehead, The Gaspereau Review, Grain, The Malahat Review, Maisonneuve, and Prism International. An avid runner and backyard astronomer, he now lives and works in Fredericton. In the Lights of a Midnight Plow is his first book of poetry, from Biblioasis books.