“The trunk alone understands the journey.” So begins Anatomy of Keys, a compelling artistic treatment of the life of Houdini by Canadian poet Steven Price. Houdini has been memorialized in biography, painting, sculpture, novel, dictionary, film, drama, musical, bobble-head, and now, epic poetry. Basing his interpretation of the great escapist on accounts by Ken Silverman and Ruth Brandon – and by his own admission altering details where he chooses – Price has woven together an impressive 125-page meditation that follows the familiar story of the immigrant child who grows up in Appleton and New York City, and becomes an entertainment phenomenon stoppable only by freakish chance.
Price imagines the inner world of Houdini, using a variety of verse forms and crisp, startling imagery to explore his bond to his parents, his love for Bess, his circus background, his collecting, and his fury against the spiritualists. Of his drive to self-liberate, we read:
Each weird escape a kind
Of anger at being held hard down
As if such letting-go or slackening
Might drain him of his self: the struggle less
A slaking of the fists than of the mind.
The tone is quite dark throughout and the imagery insistently grim, but it often seems right. As Houdini releases himself from an aerial straitjacket, for instance, he “sags boneless akimbo like gut-slit game.” Or his fatal appendix injury become “a dark syrup dreeping brackish in my flesh.” “I lugged a leg across the world,” Houdini says of the two days before his collapse in Detroit. On the other hand, Price also dwells in detail on the deaths of Houdini’s parents, and there is, perhaps, too much rotting of corpses, too much talk of seepage. Further, he is selective in his treatment of Houdini, choosing not to dwell on the raging egotism and generosity that characterized this conflicted man. But whether he’s exploring the eroticism of escape, or imagining the sideshow acts of the Welsh Brothers circus, or evoking the miserable oppression of Moscow when Houdini visited in 1903, Price adds an imaginative emotional punch to stories you know by heart.
You might expect an English teacher to recommend a book of poetry, but in this case I don’t mind staying in character. If you live and breathe Houdini, of course you must have it. But even if you don’t, this book may help you live and breathe Houdini for a few hours in a way that a biography can’t quite manage.