A native of Johnstown, NY, I retired in June 2016 after 29 years of teaching writing and literature at Ripon College in Wisconsin. I've published six collections of poetry, including Stutter Monk and Second Wind; I also co-edited (with Kate Sontag) the essay anthology After Confession: Poetry as Confession. Essays, reviews, and individual poems have appeared widely, both in print and online. In recent years I've spent nearly as much time on photography as poetry. A gallery of my work is online here: http://instagram.com/doctorjazz
Author's Note: Near as I can recall, I wrote section one of “The Elusive American” in the summer of 1973. I was 20 years old, studying poetry in college, dreaming of a writer’s life. Though I can’t find any record of this, I believe the first section was printed in my college literary magazine under the title “Elegy for Harry Houdini.” I know I added sections 2-4 a couple years later, and changed the overall title. It was inspired most immediately by my discovery of Allen Ginsberg (“Howl,” especially) and Robert Bly (“Sleepers Joining Hands”)—two works that made a deep impression on me in both form and style. I didn’t really know it at the time, but both those poets had been inspired by Walt Whitman, who later became one of my essential poets.
As for the subject, I had been a stage magician throughout my teen years, after discovering my late grandfather’s box of tricks in Grandmother’s attic. I became fascinated by the life of America’s greatest magician, Harry Houdini. He embodied an archetypal American success story: poor immigrant Jew (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest) who through talent and nonstop hustle transformed himself into a mythic All American star.
My submission records show that I unsuccessfully submitted this poem many times to various journals, then finally gave up trying to publish it. So this is its first appearance. Looking back, I find I still quite like it, and so I am happy to have it represent my earliest poem that I think succeeds. Sure hope you like it, too.
Here I am — at twenty years old :)
The Elusive American
Harry Houdini with a voice that wants to prod limp flags to wave
and penny brochures to pile high the streets of Manhattan,
Houdini, whose handcuffed struggles were sermons,
who led the crusade against spiritualist sharpies,
didn't believe in disease and cured pneumonia with three hard hours of handball,
who wore onstage a presidential smile--
despite manacles and ropes, padlocks and Siberian Exile Vans,
everything would be all right,
who knew the counterfeit ease of a hustler in rented clothes
but walked through walls anyway
and when his mother smiled turned muscles to keys,
his devotion dissolving knots into rags,
whose second home was any orphanage, comforting kids with rabbits
and card tricks, who sold War Bonds and slept in your city,
Houdini, whose small stout body transformed itself nightly,
born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, but claiming Appleton, Wisconsin,
Houdini, who believed in stage names and dime novels--
America won the war and flung itself into this century
because children and shoe salesmen loved him
and elephants vanished at mention of his name,
because Houdini did his own stunts in the serials
and hadn't found the theater marquee big enough for his name--
Houdini speaks today in an accent thick with trolley cars,
travelling carnivals, biplanes, and the five languages of his father,
words that ring like the huckster on a tin megaphone,
grotesque demands among leather-skinned women and six-legged cattle.
This was a boy from Wisconsin,
who taught himself to swallow a slice
of potato and bring it up again,
a circus talent. And the circus those days
was a place where a boy really could run--
build up his arms sledge-hammering
tent stakes, helping elephants
heave the big-top up.
Even as a boy this was a man,
lock-picking his way across Kansas,
Punch and Judy, second sight, hawking soap.
And Ehrich was Wild Boy of Borneo--
chained half naked to a horse tether
he'd eat the tossed nickels and pennies
and bring them up later. Years after,
he sent his mother an apronful of gold.
Look up, he wriggles out of a straitjacket
suspended from a flagpole. Look down,
he's being lowered into the Hudson
tied and cuffed in a packing crate.
What vaudeville could top his escapes
from a beer vat, sea monster, cannon barrel
with lit fuse? "If I die," he said,
"it'll be the will of God and my own foolishness."
This was a man to break out of Scotland Yard,
then in again, sue critics for libel, and halt
the U.S. Senate for card tricks. Punched
in the belly on a dare, he let the rupture leak
three days before he was carried raving
from the stage. For this was a man afraid
of doctors, skittish around phones, who would not learn
to drive, decline a challenge, or fail.
I'm Harry Houdini and I don't need sleep.
Even as a baby I baffled Mama--
bent over my crib at any hour, she'd be met
by unsettling steel-gray eyes.
Elusive American in Europe, Undisputed
Handcuff King and Monarch of Leg Shackles--
before the crown heads of countless nations
I have escaped from every contrivance, etcetera.
You get the picture. Have you ever heard
my Underwater Escape from Icy Death?
It was Detroit, 1906, and I
had them hack a hole in the river ice.
Down I go, manacled, wearing just swim trunks.
I escape the cuffs just fine, but lose track
of the hole in the ice. I do not panic.
Just at the limits of endurance
I notice strange glimmerings on the ice above--
air bubbles. Floating on my back
I tap the thin air pockets and continue.
By the time I rise, the reporters
have all rushed off to phone in my death.
You believe that one? I told it a lot--
sometimes it was Detroit, sometimes Pittsburgh.
Want to know my secret? I'll tell you.
I never bribed a cop or stagehand.
People want to be fooled, not cheated.
Yet when all those table-tapping con men say
a floating bit of luminous cheesecloth
at the end of a black stick looks just like
your dead mother, you agree. A little
ventriloquism, you think it's Heaven.
But there's always an obvious, unseen
solution. Can Houdini keep that secret?
Yes. And I always speak Danish in Denmark.
Remember Houdini? Vainest man
this side of Teddy Roosevelt, he left
notes by his wife's pillow signed "Houdini."
He who climbed into the belly of a whale
in Boston, Massachusetts
remains as hard to love as he was to kill.
Remember Houdini in Hollywood?
The worst adventure films in history,
his onscreen kisses the tamest
ever shown. Melted from an iceblock,
Houdini blushed in public just once:
when a suffragette leaned to kiss him.
Son of a rabbi who died penniless,
Houdini pronounced death "the verdict
from which there is no appeal." He knew
how to make the competition sweat, sputter
and die in Iowa, while Houdini
steamed across France in his gilded train car.
Yet at last he proved that the show
does not go on. It stops dead in Detroit,
dropping half its luggage in Toronto.
The day before he died, delirious,
Houdini sat up in his hospital bed, smiled,
said "I should have been a surgeon."
©2017 David Graham
Editor's Note: If this poem(s) moves you please consider writing to the author (email address above) to tell him or her. You might say what it is about the poem that moves you. Writing to the author is the beginning of community at Verse Virtual. It is very important. -FF