In poetry, one faces the pervasive claim that everything in a poem is metaphor. The metaphor is the foundation of a poem and anything can be and is fair game as a subject of metaphor—the more unusual or obscure the subject matter the better. But scientists would argue the brain craves or best comprehends concrete pictures: the more abstract the metaphor the less the metaphor can be absorbed, the less meaning conveyed. Metaphor is the science of making clearer through enlargement of perspective, but also of simplification or removal of boundaries between unlike objects for a common likeness. Yet, there is a limit to the number and stretch of metaphors. It can never become a contest to see who can build the most convoluted and highest tower. The rule that governs the appropriateness of metaphor: whenever great clarity is desired. Steven Price, a talented young poet from British Columbia, confronts the limits of metaphor in Anatomy of Keys, a book that is suffused with metaphor, often oversaturating and overdetermining the poems with meaning.
Anatomy of Keys is a poetic biography of Harry Houdini told in five parts. The choice of subject matter should seem odd to many. More than once I’ve heard a writer described as a con-artist, but never have I heard a poet compared metaphorically to an escape artist. The metaphor is unusual. This is Steven Price’s endeavor.
The theory for Price is that “words are escapes.” But I wonder? At its highest, writing — poetry — is very different than a cinematic escape. It brings us closer to our greatest fears and anxieties. The persistent challenge for Houdini (even after he found success and escaped his impoverished immigrant beginnings) was to attack the social forces upon which his entrapment as a young child coming into this world were based and escape them, transcend them. He was a Marxist philosopher, but one who existed not in between the page but in the public eye. His art was inimitable—more difficult to locate and master. This made Houdini a folk hero.
But this idea is never given voice in Anatomy of Keys. This is a choice. I wondered again, when the character of Houdini is never fully developed or realized in Anatomy of Keys, Why are we left with this distance from Houdini himself when we are ostensibly reading a “poetic biography”? What we get in Price is what feels like a very long account, one that lacks the pace or rhythm of Houdini’s life. It tells its story of Houdini chronologically in different poetic forms, voices, and perspectives — sometimes Houdini’s own, sometimes from the perspective of a “key” or “latch.”
Anatomy of Keys is sure to find a niche market of magicians and Houdini-lovers, but on the whole this tour into largely unmarked territory in poetry feels something like a grand gedanken experiment. Price’s interest in Houdini may not be so hard to master. By trade, Price is a locksmith: Price’s family owns the oldest lock and security business in Canada in Colwood, BC, and Houdini seems a perfect template for writing about locks and keys and Price the perfect candidate for doing it.
Price’s relationship does not, however, seem a natural transition or marriage. At the back of Anatomy of Keys Price acknowledges the use of several historical and biographical accounts of Houdini’s life in an effort to get the escape-artist into poetry. I would not go as far as to say that the relationship seems forced, but it does seem concocted and Houdini is not as natural a partner as one would like for Price’s writing interest.
The extreme detail that Price goes into telling Houdini’s life-history in a matter-of-fact way makes the recommended reference texts almost essential reading to understanding the whole of Price’s world. This is why I say that Price could have done more to absorb his subject. While I realize these poems cannot be read alone, I feel there is so much foreknowledge that is assumed in this book. To say this book lacks the aphoristic quality of Nietzsche, where you can open a book to any random passage and cleanly make sense of a passage is not fair. What is true is that some of these poems seem altogether inaccessible without the companion volumes on Houdini or the proper context. Consider the opening to this poem “XXXIV”:
Shrouded lamps. Dour carpeting in parlours.
The blind spectre wavering incandescent
in a glass. Margery’s gorgeous, Greek struggle
in her ropes. A Flemish medium fumbling
his slates in a dinghy farmhouse outside Paris,
his mellifluous cursing at such clumsiness.
Certainly, the language is rich, the images palatable (if beyond our reach), and it is clear that sounds are evocative in a convincingly eerie way. But still the poem feels incredibly diffuse. Price has extracted moments from Houdini’s life, framed them and adorned them with mysterious music, dipped them in ghost-like metaphors and asked us to read into them all sorts of meaning.
Price has created a difficult task for a critic, whether to judge his ambition or the poems themselves that make up “the artistry of Houdini.” This poem towards the end of the collection is a perfect set-piece for trying to speak about a collection that at every step tries to surprise and fool the reader:
Created capable of good and evil.
Yet seemingly unable to distinguish.
So that small kindnesses inflict a kind of harm.
Not towards one, but away from another. This.
That she died. That now, limping and crooked, you want.
Alas, man selects his evil too often without coercion;
in truth you were not called; you might have lived many lives
absent with joy and fully of the world.
You chose this.
Many of the lines treated unto themselves are very interesting, many of the delineations and periodicity are worthy of pause, but together the poem is difficult to crack. It is more analysis or essay, epistolary answer or internal monologue to one enigmatic intended recipient. Somehow the reader is left out of the mix.
At times throughout Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys we are left to gawk at Price’s poetic feat and poetic ambition, but more often than not we are left to wonder and scratch our heads in confusion. Price’s collection only adds to the enigma of Houdini, making the man and the mystery more daunting and providing further evidence to the claim that we can never get to the bottom of Houdini’s bag of tricks.