Harry Houdini is, even now – ninety years after his death – something of a household name. The master escapologist became famous for, among other things, wriggling free from oversize milk cans, escaping after being suspended upside down in a tank full of water, and surviving being nailed inside a crate which was then lowered into New York’s East River. Since his passing many escapologists have eclipsed these feats, but few seem to have garnered the same universal recognition as Houdini. And yet even though many people could tell you at least something of Houdini’s biography (“Wasn’t he the guy who died from being punched in the stomach?”), few are aware that he was married, and fewer still know anything of his wife.
“Houdini’s Wife And Other Poems” – Amy Schreibman Walter’s new chapbook from Dancing Girl Press (published April 2016) – looks like it might begin to redress this. Two poems from the slim, thirteen-poem volume are dedicated to the women in Houdini’s life, and several more echo some of the same themes: loneliness, absence, love and dedication to a particular individual, compounded by an erasure of the self.
“Houdini’s Wife”, for example, shows us both a surprisingly intimate image of Houdini “quieted” as he lies in a warm bath with “his toes curled around brass faucets” as well as a glimpse into the life of his wife of thirty-two years, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, as she mourns his frequent departures and wonders about possible “others” emerging from wooden chests “like butterflies, but dusty”. In the very next poem, “Radio Girl, 1925”, we meet one of those “others”. Although there were never any rumours concerning Houdini and Young, she was nevertheless one of his final stage assistants. Appropriately enough, in a poem that follows one concerning his wife, we see Houdini shutting Young away in a box.
While the poems that directly concern important women in Houdini’s life (and the other poems that revolved around specific historical figures) were interesting (“Mamah Borthwick Cheney, 1909” particularly so), I felt as though they were perhaps less powerful and less human than those that covered more general territory. “After”, for example, is both simple and powerful – in it the narrator speaks about cooking in a kitchen both before and after a significant change in circumstances. The exact nature of the change is never covered, and yet nonetheless the sense of emptiness is palpable. Theis loss and longing is an integral park of a range of other poems in the chapbook.
I wonder if, perhaps, the need to maintain historical credibility, and a desire to respect the poetic subjects is what makes the historical poems that little bit more withdrawn? Either way the poems concerning Houdini are crucial to the overall movement of the collection, and the title is fitting; Houdini – a man famous for forever disappearing, forever slipping out of whatever bonds were put on him – is a fitting focus for a contemplation of loss and absence.
In the later poems, letter writing features as an often-used image. That is, perhaps, what this chapbook feels like: a letter written to someone a long way away… someone who it seems is gone by choice, but who is missed wholeheartedly. At times it tumbles over into more sensuous detail, exploring love, sex and adoration as well as the emptiness that comes in the absense of these. At just thirteen poems in length, there is little space to do more in this chapbook, but she makes use of it well. If you’ve ever missed someone, it’s a chapbook you’ll get something from.
On the other hand, if your interest is more directly in Houdini and the women in his life, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend “Houdini’s Wife And Other Poems”. Though the poems are well-researched, they are much more about the intangibles than the historical facts. Ultimately it is short, sweet read which covers a very niche bit of territory from a number of angles. Amy’s verse is assured and absorbing, while at the same time easy to follow. You can pick up the chapbook from Dancing Girl Press.