Monday, May 18, 2009

The One and Only Human Galaxy by Elizabeth Swados

The One and Only Human Galaxy by Elizabeth Swados. ( Hanging Loose Press, NY) 2009. $18.

It’s a debut poetry collection, but hardly at the hand of a beginner! Elizabeth Swados, author of The One and Only Human Galaxy, a poetic biography of Harry Houdini, has composed, written and directed acclaimed plays, dance scores, nonfiction books, novels, and children’s books for some 30 years, in the U.S. and abroad. You can tell from the first poem, “An Elephant as Unwilling Performer and Prologue”, that she can write tightly edited and mysterious, symbolic imagery that gives the reader a sense of an intriguing story ahead.

She starts with what I call Act I, where she defines Houdini as a Jewish man whose rabbi father is “disappointed” in him. Rather than rely on God, “the one I depend on/is myself/I am the arm that pulls me from the grave…”, says Houdini. But he also relies on his wife, Bess, during his early years as a magician, escape artist, and illusionist. She says in “Bess As Slave”, “It’s your clock I wind/your hours I keep/…I am one box folded inside another box…” He himself then continues in “Houdini Gives Orders to Bess”, “When I die, burn my tricks and illusions. /So if you marry, Bess, he must not steal my elephant,/water box, velvet cape/…or curl inside my trunk/for that would be adultery/…blasphemy…/I’ll come back with demons protecting me/and I will cut him in two”!

Houdini’s “Private God” gives “the right card…a gift from Houdini’s God…”
But in the next chunk of the 133-page book, which could be called Act II (perfection),he admits “There is no true magic/without pain/no escape without initial panic…” He’s a built and wounded body, in fact “I am Crime”… “My skin already scabbed from/the last tension/pull in/suck in/steal air/no one can keep me/…keys held in my teeth,/picks embedded in my scalp…” In short, he uses Hindu breathing to “pull my diaphragm against my spine. (Kill half of yourself and/the other half slips through”).

But some of these poems could be mistaken for a playwright’s stage directions to get the actor to describe and present Harry the legend. Then she’ll blend in a “cacoon of chains” and other good poetry images. The emotional Harry is shown in “After Mama Dies”:“You are squeezed by grief/ and strangled by grief /and hammered by grief/Get upside down with grief/enclosed in grief that keeps you there forever/like an iron womb.”

A possible Act III could begin with the book title, “The One and Only Human Galaxy”: Harry says “I’ve Arrived”; “You won’t forget my name (and picture).” I personally had to stop and take a rest before I could go on reading the emotional and kabalistic (mystical) poem “Mother”: “It’s my name up there like the Hebrew alphabet…forms a ladder on which I can/wrestle off the angels, the ones who will have you/instead of me…”

Harry is clearly very full of himself: “I’m made of cells and each cell is/a star that burns/in whipping circles/like the ring of fire outside Eden’s gate./I will shine into a future/that is unimaginable. I am possibility/transformed into action…”
But as Harry gets on in years of notoriety, he gets startled by other people’s fame.
Edison invents a telephone, but Houdini wants one he can use to call his dead mother…Then come an influx of “spiritualists,” women who do shows about talking to the dead. He is apparently very threatened by them, not just that they do popular shows, but that they give the concept of “Performance” a bad name.

Houdini, the fabulous fraud, makes it “The Holy Battle”: “You who claim to heal and save, communicating/with the dead…/are a danger as bad/as poison sold as medicine…/ cheap perfume on which/poor innocents choke…”

Before the poet expounds her epilogue—as mysterious as the prologue…Harry warns us he will “die on my own terms/here I am, death,/flip a coin/but remember every magician/has one coin with two heads/and another with two tails…”

I’ll leave you to figure out the epilogue on your own. You should grab this book and read it if you’d like a good poetic narrative, especially one whose cover photo shows Houdini hanging perilously from a scaffolding by his feet. I usually think of a poet’s first poetry book as a chapbook of stories from one’s childhood, but Elizabeth Swados is of course a playwright, and she keeps you riveted by her book with the power of poetic story telling.

--Barbara Bialick

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