XVI (from Anatomy of Keys)
sleek sashcord, escapologist’s skin,
umbilical cord of the drowned, shrouded hood
hanged men bladder and drag and stretch out in;
wildfire ripple of rumour through a crowd;
sheath, frayed bloodline, sinew of fire and flint,
asleep in one’s lap like a child or a cat
and like a child all ululation, all wailed lament;
rope of muscle, rope of bone, the elbow of it
ever unbending; black intestine or spleen:
dark many-cornered flesh a knot can be.
A kind of thread and weft he worked behind,
what bound us and unbound him, God to man:
Holy of Holies, spell, sky, prayer, wrist:
the shaking of his father’s hands in his.
A confession: as one of Steven Price’s students a few years ago, I had not yet read his poetry. Even his ability to click open a poem with a single phrase in workshop, or his meticulous attention to diction and syntax, did not fully prepare me for the profundity and linguistic abundance of his book-length poem about Harry Houdini, Anatomy of Keys (2006). The numbered pieces, from which the above is an excerpt, spool and weave through the book, locking and unlocking each other, bound through language so rich it begs a tongue to pronounce it.
“XVI” is a dynamic list poem; one metaphor actively slips to the next, so the men who hang by the “shrouded hood” initiate the rope as “ripple of rumour through a crowd.” As a sonnet, the poem is both rippling and tight. Price keeps close to iambic meter while jamming in extra stresses for syntactical density. He gradually unspools the rhyme scheme into progressively slanted pairings, until “knotting” a perfect couple at the close. Form itself binds and unbinds language, alongside escape, faith, and family; it, too, becomes what the poet “work[s] behind.” The sonnet’s final turn toward the personal is pulled back from sentimentality by the bodily language that has anchored the familial in the physical: “umbilical,” “bloodline.” Houdini’s dying father’s body haunts the book: “the harrowing of your father’s / ribs and hair, a kind of brittle prayer / made bone of” (XXXIX). Physicality also resides in the language’s aural compactness and alliterative excess: “all ululation, all wailed lament.” In an interview Price explains the preoccupation with the body’s “dark, many-cornered flesh:” “So much of what Houdini was was anchored in the body, anchored in the flesh, anchored in the struggle to escape from or to remain in the flesh.” Thus keys are “knuckled like fingers” (XV); rope is not only “skin” but also what lurks under it, “black intestine or spleen.”
Price’s language is lavish, inventive, and unabashed: this bravery in linguistic risk extends to decisive thematic engagement. Price says that in wanting to write his own family “mythology” (his family has owned a lock and security company for generations), “It seemed as if, too often, the poems were becoming devoured by the ‘I’ or the ‘me’ that takes over the poem.” Avoiding a dominant personal “I” is also perhaps what allows Price to take declarative stances regarding traditional lyric concerns—love, death, grief, faith—that many young poets, myself included, barely gesture toward, too timid to dive into collective experiences that Price’s poetry barrels into and splashes around in: “True faith comforts / no one, it confounds, is stubborn, it terrifies / in its immensity. No heart is huge enough” (XXXV).
Price, Steven. Anatomy of Keys. London, ON: Brick Books, 2006. Print.
Price, Steven, and Carlin M. Wragg. “The Architecture of Persona: Steven Price Writes Houdini.” Open Loop Press. July 2009. Web. 8 April 2011.
Lise Gaston completed her B.A. at the University of Victoria and is a current M.A. student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including The Malahat Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Fiddlehead, and Prairie Fire.