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Inhabiting the Historical Houdini

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Issue: 40 Section: Literature & Ideas

September 28, 2006

Inhabiting the Historical Houdini

by Linda Besner

price-anatomykeys_web.jpgAnatomy of Keys: Poems
Steven Price
Brick Books: Toronto, 2006.


Towards the end of Price's poetic interpretation of the life of the escape-artist Houdini, the speaker says, "the dead do not return, not as you desire them:/ in keys, perhaps, in keys pretending to be keys." The task of an author who attempts to recreate a historical character is to be a key pretending to be a key. The reader expects the qualities and concerns of the character to be unlocked for them. We want to feel ourselves closer to the person, closer to knowing how they thought, what they did, how it felt. To some extent, Price is forced to colonize Houdini, and the Houdini we get is both real and imaginary, both Houdini and Price.

Price has made several choices that highlight the artifice of what he's undertaking. The most immediately striking is his choice of diction. Price has chosen a mannered, archaic sounding syntax:

I learned my name belonged to the grasp of forefinger and fist, to a slanted shaft, to the brace and heft of grip: not of mine, not to me. Solemnly he'd rustle and blot, scratch a line, each page knarred, ink-rubbed: in that candle's pitch and toss he held loose the word that in holding held all else aloft.

This choice effectively yanks Houdini out of his historical context—early twentieth century America—and positions him instead in a more distant time and place. The obtrusive, insistent use of Anglo-Saxon sounding words like "knarred" can be seen as a reminder that Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss to Jewish immigrant parents from Hungary, would have heard Yiddish or German at home. However, it's a choice that obliterates much of what must have been Houdini's own way of speaking, since he came to the U.S. as a child.

The use of this tenor of language is also problematic in that it emphasizes the poet in poems that purport to be in Houdini's voice. Price has constructed a narrative voice which switches back and forth between third and first person, and at various times we assume the speaker to be Houdini, an unnamed observer, an unnamed scholar/historian, Ehrich Weiss, or Price himself. I think the success of this tactic is mixed; because it's sometimes hard to tell who's speaking, the import of what's being said is lost, and the gap between Houdini and the reader, rather than shrinking, grows.

There are a few occasion when it seems that this distance between the reader and the intended meaning of a line or phrase has been allowed to drop off the writer's list of concerns. Price is undoubtedly magnificently skilled. There's a poem in which a bird gets trapped in the Weiss' kitchen at night: "all flack and wing/ and furied battering of sink, dishrag,/ kettle, sink, and off, up, a fierce thing hurtling/ high in that kitchen its harsh batlike stagger". Price's command of rhythm makes this poem breathtakingly dramatic, makes you want to memorize it for the sheer swelling music of the lines. Sometimes, however, Price's metered lines don't add up to much. The villanelle that appears late in the collection uses, as its repeated lines, "The bound no more believed in blood or chains," and "the thin insane ropes no longer kept men sane." Neither of these phrases really seems to mean much, and since they can pretty much be dropped in anywhere and perform the same function, they don't pose a proper challenge for a villanelle,

They're indicative, though, of the kind of image that peppers this book. The world that Price has created feels a little bit like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; there's a tossing-and-turning feel to the poems, a nightmarish quality heightened by the dense syntax crowding out the light. Time loops back and forth so that the there's no strong line between the living and the dead, the bound and the free: as one poem says, "When he is bound, the crowd is. When he is free, the crowd is not." Price even manages to do something seldom tried: he invents words with, not a humorous, but a serious intention. "Hoofkicked bloodily back, her left elbow/ still fanked up in cartspokes like a braid of grass," he writes, and we allow the imaginary word 'fanked' to elaborate the image for us.

Anatomy of Keys is a book about binding and escape, considered in terms of family, in terms of the self, and in terms of language. Price's interpretation of Houdini takes a lot of liberties, but at the same time leaves the important boundaries intact; it's the friction between words that creates poetic energy, it's the dialogue between lock and key that makes meaning out of escape.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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