By Stewart Florsheim
When I think about contemporary poetry books that focus on one story, I think about Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate. It’s a novel in verse comprised of 590 Onegin stanzas (sonnets written in iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme). The novel, set in San Francisco in the 1980’s, is about the relationships within a group of young friends. The story is engaging, and the formal style underlies the humor in Seth’s descriptions of San Francisco, as well as his insights.
Although Charles Rammelkamp’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, is not written in a formal poetic style, it tells an equally compelling story. It’s about Harry Houdini, the well-known Hungarian-American escape artist who was born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1874, and died in the US in 1926. In 55 poems—all written in the first person–Rammelkamp captures the highlights of Houdini’s life and achievements.
From the start, Rammelkamp brings his own magic into the book. In the first poem, Alternative Facts, when Houdini describes his immigration experience, he invokes Whitman:
I am an American!
As Walt Whitman once asked,
Do I contradict myself ?
Very well then,
I contradict myself.
I contain multitudes!
As the book unfolds, the reader will begin to see just how complex Houdini is. He’s a refugee who will save himself again and again—his escape acts a metaphor for his own survival.
Rammelkamp does a very good job capturing the historical context of the times. In My Father Flees, Houdini explains why his father lost his job as a Reform rabbi:
But he fell out of favor with the machers –
too old-fashioned, didn’t speak English,
resisted assimilation, too attached
to his Old World ways.
In the early twentieth century, the Reform movement in the US was still in its early stages. One of the hallmarks of the movement was to promote Judaism, but in an American context. As a result, for example, many of the prayers were recited in English instead of Hebrew.
When Houdini’s father leaves Appleton, Wisconsin, he tries to make his living as a mohel (a rabbi who performs the rites of circumcision) and a shochet (a rabbi who supervises the koshering process). He can’t make a living, and finally moves to New York, where he finds employment cutting linings for a necktie manufacturer:
So Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss,
now with seven kids to care for,
out of a job, moved us to Milwaukee,
where he offered his services
as a mohel and a shochet –
various cuts of meat
that never added up to rent.
The story of Houdini and his family’s refugee experience is engaging, but the poems that follow capture what makes Houdini unique: his journey from joining a circus to becoming a world-renowned escape artist. Throughout the story, Houdini refers back to the importance of his family. He is close to his father (“A failure? No, he was an inspiration.”), his siblings, and, especially, to his mother. In Mama, Houdini writes:
It was my sainted mother
to whom I was most devoted,
all my life, even married to Bess.
Houdini takes us on a journey through his acts, from performing magic to donning handcuffs and straitjackets. Although he has some setbacks, he eventually gets noticed in the Midwest by the theatre owner, Martin Beck, and is invited to open a show in Omaha. The breakthrough is described in Jailbreak!:
Beck sent several pairs of handcuffs backstage.
I escaped without breaking a sweat.
A few weeks later, he sent me a telegram.
“You can open Omaha March twenty-sixth,
sixty dollars. Will make a proposition
for all next season.”
No more dime museums or beer halls
for Bess and me!
We’d made the big time!
An escape into success!
Houdini’s success continues, from making $400 week in the US, to $1000 a week after he hits London. All along, he never forgets his roots as a refugee. From Houdini Amazes Detectives:
After a year I was making $400 a week,
more than half Papa’s annual salary at the Appleton shul.
I’d escaped the shackles of poverty.
Houdini eventually comes back home (“I especially liked London/but America was my home”), and buys a brownstone in Harlem and a family burial plot in a Jewish cemetery. The large brownstone has enough room for his mother, mother-in-law, and “various siblings”.
Houdini continues to explore new acts, from the underwater escape, to the Chinese Water Torture Cell, to the jailbreaks. He also tries his hand at being a pilot and movie actor. In an interesting twist, he takes on the Spiritualist movement, explaining that “Professional magicians have always been at war/with Spiritualists.” Clearly not one for seances, in Spiritualism, he says:
I hated the way these dimestore frauds
played on the vulnerabilities of their followers.
I yearned so much to speak with Mama,
knowing it was impossible in this life,
infuriated by the cruelty, taking advantage of grief.
Fakery demeans mourning, and mourning is sacred.
The focus of his disdain becomes Lady Conan Doyle, the wife of the famous writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes. Houdini writes a book called A Magician Among the Spirits (no coincidence with the title of this collection!), where he exposes the movement. Some of the people he attacks try discrediting him as a Jew. From Margery at the Charlesgate:
Bird tried discrediting me by “revealing”
that I was a Jew. Conan Doyle did the same,
calling me “as Oriental as our own Disraeli.”
Even Margery’d sing-songed in Walter’s voice, “
Harry Houdini, he sure is a sheeny.”
But who got the last laugh?
After my lecture at the New York Police Academy
on “How to Catch Fake Spiritualists,”
Edmund Wilson praised me in the New Republic,
a highbrow intellectual journal.
Take that, you anti-Semitic frauds!
At the end of the collection, his wife, Bess, talks about his untimely death, most likely from an acute appendicitis. She tries—insincerely at best—to reach her husband through a séance. In The Great Escape she writes:
Would we ever meet? I wondered, remembering
the letter I wrote to Sir Arthur.
“It was Houdini himself that was the secret,”
I’d explained, no need for “psychic help”
to perform his escapes.
Rammelkamp does an excellent job describing the highlights of Houdini’s life in the first person. He does it with grace and humor. His writing is clear and direct, allowing Houdini to simply tell his amazing story. By the end of the collection, we still don’t know how Houdini pulled off his acts, but I’m not sure anyone knows. It’s part of the magic of his life. Says Bess at the end of the poem:
Every escape is a success story, no?
Now you see me,
now you don’t.
Stewart Florsheim’s poetry has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. He was the editor of Ghosts of the Holocaust, an anthology of poetry by children of Holocaust survivors (Wayne State University Press, 1989). He wrote the poetry chapbook, The Girl Eating Oysters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stewart won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His collection, A Split Second of Light, was published by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Honorable Mention in the San Francisco Book Festival, honoring the best books published in the Spring of 2011. Stewart’s new collection, Amusing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.
Transparency Notice: Charles Rammelkamp is a regular contributor to North of Oxford