As the joke has it, Harry Houdini could escape anything, except Canada. That’s not entirely true; he did make it across the Detroit border before appendicitis (inflamed by a Montreal prankster’s punch) ended his odd, profound life. The son of a rabbi but a committed debunker of spiritualists and frauds, Houdini changed not just the lowly world of magic, but performance itself by using his body as a shoulder-popping, key-regurgitating trick. It was a method of inquiry into the limits of life that makes him a line connecting everyone from performance artist Chris Burden to the guys on Jackass. Taken whole, Houdini’s biography blooms effortless metaphors for writers — notably Michael Chabon and E.L. Doctorow — but that biography has never been so expertly gathered and arranged as in Anatomy of Keys (Brick, 144 pages, $18.00) by Canadian poet Steven Price, who very much makes up for that Canuck sucker punch.
By pushing himself to the brink of death with chains, locks and suffocation as a daily job, Houdini created a kind of revelation-for-atheists, a curiosity about the other side sated only by getting precipitously, scientifically close. That revelation is the heart that drives Anatomy of Keys to a shocking level of poetic perfection. Writing about a person who began life as an immigrant and ended it, literally, on stage, Price opens his story with an image of a trunk, “For it lurks in the shadows / of an unlit closet rustling with mothballs, dusty scarves / it is the bed we are born to and the bed we are buried in… and it is the five great books when shut / and the five great books when open, and it is, it is.”
With the text extending out to full-page prose at points, Price reveals himself a master novelist in hiding. But that shouldn’t diminish his accomplishments with metered line. Even the moments when he uses a rhyming structure work, mostly by being written in a kind of barker’s belt, hoarse with carny-nihilism. “Of throats and groans and fist-clenched thighs” that section concludes, “death had seized them here / for it’s not in ease most men believe / true art is found in fear.”
For all the wit, joy and bawdiness throughout this book, death appears always as an ellipse at the end of a page or when Price recreates Houdini’s escapes: “In the tall air he spins / blood-fat, holstered / in his straightjacket, spins / heel-snagged then snags / bonelessly akimbo… / The earth a black blood-filled skull below / where pocket watches flare with sun / where streetcars brake as darker buildings loom / over swarms of drudging men. He writhes. / You raise a hand to your eyes to see.”
Through Houdini, Price may acknowledge death as the ultimate headliner and all of us as only openers on the bill but he also shares his escape artist’s suspicion that it’s not as simple as huckster clergymen and mediums make it. The reader is left comforted that words will do in place of those ever-elusive keys. “Thus does the marvelous interrupt our lives,” the final line reads, “brief, and particular, and unseen.” Marvelous indeed.