When my son was little, he used to spend hours paging through a book on our reference shelf, Gray’s Anatomy. Drawings of bones and peeled-back eyes, muscles with overlapped striations—it must have seemed like magic to him, those miles of tubes and nerves.
And so it is for me in Steven Price’s book, Anatomy of Keys. The more I look at it, the more I am fascinated; I keep finding new puzzles and patterns waiting to be unlocked.
The poems track the life of Erich Weiss, AKA Harry Houdini, the man whose very name we equate with the word magic. Because the poems work so closely in accordance with facts about the illusionist’s life, it makes sense to read the Biographical Note at the back of the book before taking a stab at the poems. Although initially the book may seem to share similarities with Kimmy Beach’s Nice Day for Murder, and its predecessor, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje, the scope of this book surpasses both of those.
The first section deals with Houdini’s less-than-magical youth spent mainly in Appleton, Wisconsin. His world saw the daily poverty of immigrants as well as his father’s death from cancer of the tongue. Yet even in the midst of harsh circumstances, when a circus comes to town it exerts its thrall, inspiring him to take the name, Houdini.
But the listening. Reciting Robert-
The nearness to it. Knowing in French an
meant likeness. Above us, Ma’s Theo!
set my brother giggling: Ehrie Houdini –
and something shivered in me, strange
and tongued like a bell, an unseen door
unlocking above us.
This discovery of the power of name is only the first unlocking. When the child in the bathtub holds his breath too long underwater, long enough to frighten his mother, he takes pleasure from “… the awe in her dark face.” He is hooked by the experience; the die is cast for what he will become.
But make no mistake, there is so much more to this book than the retelling of a life, and this is where the keys come in. I start finding subtle rhymes and even half rhymes in the poems. When I look closely, hidden structures come to the fore. This, I think, is what poetry should be: language used in new and inventive ways.
Not only does Price use language in new, ways, but he seems to actually make up words—and they work perfectly. “Father’s cane crunked … the awful grag of things.” He plays not only with words, but also with form, even parodying Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” in a poem about the Water Torture Cell Escape. Blacker than Service’s vision, the poet avers, “… true art is found in fear.” The poem concludes with this admission: “For it was not he they’d come to see; / that crowd had come for blood.”
This blackness of vision pervades. In a piece about the aftermath of a circus fire comes this “For a crowd drawn to catastrophe is more natural than one gathered in a drawing room after dinner, catastrophe being a kind of radiance in the human memory.” The narrator/Houdini persona speaks of the “imminent fatality” of circus acts—understands the audience, its lurid attraction to death. And as the character ages, he seems to become disillusioned with illusion.
This book contains more than poetry. It encompasses psychology, philosophy, and history; there is a small but haunting treatise on knots. Even the book’s structure is magical and full of charms. The first two sections each consist of thirteen pieces, like the number of cards in a suit. The central/pivotal section of the book is one extended poem (but then, so is the entire book), and it is in this section that Price exercises the most freedom in his always-controlled writing. With its vivid depictions of circus freaks and animals, this section plunks the reader into the thick of carny life. Amidst the fire and frenzy, you can almost hear an off-key hurdy-gurdy. The fourth, and probably most dense section of the book, again contains a full run of thirteen pieces; while the final suite, dealing with Houdini’s death, contains only twelve, rounding out the total number of poems to a full deck of fifty-two.
While this might seem like fanciful mind-games, this is a book that demands we bring a sense of looking beyond the illusion. After all, what is a book but gathered bits of paper marked with black scritchings—an illusion privy only to those with the ability to read? As Price says in the first poem, “All things open here.”