Within the Canadian poetic tradition there is an amazing history of the long poem, particularly ones like Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, that center around the biography of a mercurial American icon. Stephen Price’s Anatomy of Keys carries on in this tradition, weaving a masterfully dense and complex retelling of Harry Houdini’s life.
Like the famed escape artist himself, the book is a constantly shifting set of poems, morphing between sections of long claustrophobic poetic-prose to expanded lyrical works. The reader must then work like Houdini did, twisting and altering, which in turn creates a very physical, tiring reading experience. The reader too feels “ropetrod or strangled stage/ right rumpled in trunk trick, flushed, tousled…contrary, quarrelsome” (“XIV”). The slipperiness of form creates then the unique and exhilarating experience of a reader having to inhabit his/her own body and reacting, reading not just mentally but physically into text and in turn working the muscles of forearms and calves in an effort to compress and understand the work.
This physicality is due mostly to Price’s attention to poetic language. While the theme of celebrity and performance courses throughout, the actual theme and plot progression are overshadowed by Price’s impressive specificity of language. The verbs and adjectives here are expertly timed, the sentences and phrasing striking, all together creating and reinforcing the vivid repeated images of the “lock”, “key”, and “flesh” throughout. This deliberate and arresting poetics ensure that the images and phrases do not simply slip by, but pile up and resonate deeper and deeper as the reader strains towards its climax.
At the end, with the “hidden/ache of muscle, bruise in the spleen, stubbornness of dark/anatomies” (“XXVII”), the reader emerges refreshingly haggard, appreciative, and weary not from effort but from the satisfaction of reading and feeling one’s own body at work.