Book Review

The Houdini Monologues, by Karl Elder. Seems 43 – 44 / Word of Mouth Books, Lakeland College, 2010. $10

Reviewed By Michael Kriesel

I experienced The Houdini Monologues live at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets 2009 spring conference. Introduced by David Hillstrom reading his excellent essay “Calling Harry Houdini,” Karl Elder performed the whole series of poems in his gravelly molasses tones, accompanied by Kevin Fitchett’s cello embellishments, which were sometimes comic, sometimes chilling. It was like eavesdropping on a 19th century séance—sans ectoplasm.

A CD recording is included with the print issue, which boasts a haunting cover photo by Lawrence W. Oliverson of an abandoned drive-in movie theater…the speakers on their stands like car-high crosses, or dwarf telephone poles…a blank white screen, done dreaming. A navy blue sky ushers out the last light. The scene evokes the poems inside, which first appeared in Linda Aschbrenner’s Free Verse #96 (Spring 2008).

There’s musicality throughout Houdini’s speech, set in a minimalist heaven where inhabitants suffer from one of the poem titles, “Metaphysical Laryngitis”: “You do not know what silence is until you say it. {…} when one speaks a bubble appears, something like cartoons with no caption.” The imagery comes from Houdini’s own mind, as he uses memories of physical objects from life on earth to convey his confrontation with heaven’s absolute zero, the afterlife’s blank slate.

I have a hunch Wisconsin winters might have inspired heaven’s monotonous landscape…or vice versa. Though set in the realm of intangibles, as a reader I felt one (of the thirteen) poems was too abstract, “Psalm: the Persistence of Light.” A constant hazard when working with rarified, zennish material of this nature. According to Elder, readers who’ve shared their reactions to that section either cite it as their favorite, or least favorite—nothing between. It’s almost a shame we’re in heaven. Back on earth, Houdini’s era was so stylistically rich: art nouveau & deco, old cars, Victrola horns, newsstands bursting at the seams with every possible genre of pulp magazine (Houdini himself even had a couple of his Egyptian adventures appear in the fantasy / horror pulp Weird Tales—though the tales were ghost-written by H.P. Lovecraft).                                                                                                            
But I digress.

My favorite nugget of profound humor came from“Halo.” “You must not confuse your halo with the halo around the moon. / One is real. The other is illusion.” Meanwhile, horror rears its head in “Castle”: “If an angel falls / and lands on a human, can / heaven hear the scream?” (Fitchett’s cello augments this mightily)

But the ruling horror is Houdini’s spiritual torment, his longing for life, for earth. Matter’s what matters to him, as at the end of “Flight”: “What I would not give to see the shadow of a moth, // for chains in place of these gossamer wings.” Love torments him even further. His afterlife is filled with longing for his living wife, even as her name fades from his memory.

“Being” in Houdini’s heaven is like suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s, where you still have sufficient presence of mind to realize what’s happening. “Pie in the Sky” coveys this horribly well:

I’ll take a table near the window,
my back to a wall of deep, fabular blue.

My waitress will wear a sheer apron
and as she feigns scratching my order
she will do so with a stub of pencil
you can see there is no lead left.

Because I am a regular
we need not speak. Stormy or mild
she sees through me,
as I see through her,

as I see through the table top
through the menu to my shoes,
which look like howling holes(…)

Here’s the tension: until he lets go of his earthly attachments and embraces dissolution, Houdini’s heaven will remain a lesser hell. The great escapologist needs to either escape heaven and descend to earth via miracle or magic (neither one forthcoming), or escape his ego and ascend to blissful union with the Godhead via mystic renunciation. He needs to slip off the cuffs of his wrists, and loose the shackles of the memory of muscle.

But history’s greatest escape artist is unable to escape himself, and remains trapped between existence and non-existence, stuck in God’s foyer, trapped by desire. Ironically, love holds him back from heaven’s higher realms.

“The Houdini Monologues,” Elder explains, “is my paltry response to Stevens’s challenge:  ‘The great poems of heaven and hell have been written. What remains to be written is the great poem of the Earth.’”

As David Hillstrom states in his fine introductory essay, Karl Elder channels Harry Houdini here. Much more than a persona poem, The Houdini Monologues is an original, unique poetic achievement! But Karl should have the last word: “Had I attempted to write a love poem in my voice,” Elder explains, “I would have failed; I tried a lot of windows until I found one unlatched.”

The Paucity of Unending Light

With the exception of your kiss,
less the key it sometimes contained,
of all things on Earth to miss,
that which I miss most is mirrors.

All of the light of heaven I’m here to tell you
is a mirror to a blind man.

So I dream of a haberdashery, a man
across from himself before a folding triptych of mirrors
in—instead of a straightjacket—a tux,
the tailor over his shoulder without a face.

I think of your lipstick, your purse,
which held your compact,
but not before I think of its mirror,
which is no mirror until, unlike a music box,
I open it and it bears your imperfect portrait,
your absence—its perfect silence.

Open the medicine cabinet. Presto. You vanish.

It is only through a turned-down mirror, Dear,
you shall know the truth of here
and the unimaginable magic,
the divine beauty,
of there. 

Michael Kriesel is a poetry reviewer for Small Press Review and his reviews have appeared in Library Journal. He has won both the WFOP Muse Prize and the Lorine Niedecker Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. He’s been nominated for nine Pushcart Prizes. Books include Chasing Saturday Night (Marsh River Editions); Feeding My Heart To The Wind and Moths Mail The House (sunnyoutside press); and Soul Noir (Platonic 3way Press).