Reviewed by Robert Cooperman
A Magician Among the Spirits
by Charles Rammelkamp
Blue Light Press
Nov 2022, 83 pp, ISBN-13 : 978-1421835310
Prestidigitator, magician, illusionist, escape artist: all of these sum up Harry Houdini, whom Charlie Chaplin once called the greatest entertainer in the world. A Magician Among the Spirits, Charles Rammelkamp’s latest poetry collection in the form of a verse biography, does full justice to the man who astounded live audiences, including police experts.
Actually, of all those above terms, “escape artist” is the dominant one for Rammelkamp’s treatment of Houdini. It seems “escape” was in Houdini’s genes, since the family story went that his father, an ordained rabbi in Hungary, had “…fought a duel/over an anti-Semitic slur,/killing a prince, fleeing to London/before coming to America.” (“My Father Flees”). Later, Houdini would emigrate to the States, but in an act of self-invention, would declare he had been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, and changed his occupation from “actor” to “artiste,” a far more slippery term.
In Rammelkamp’s very capable hands, Houdini tells his own story. Images like “strait-jacket” and handcuffs recur throughout. During his career, Houdini was escaping from one sort of confinement or another, for the entertainment of his audiences, like “The Milk Can Escape,” (p. 33) in which he was
Lowered into a galvanized iron can onstage,
nothing on but my bathing suit,
hands fastened by cuffs, the tank filled with water,
assistants secured the top with six padlocks.
… Then bang! I emerged, dripping,
heaving deep ragged breaths,
the can still padlocked.
the crowd went nuts.
In the first half of the collection, “Inventing an Identity,” we’re carried along by Harry’s exuberance, his sheer delight in creating bigger and more intricate and seemingly more dangerous “prisons” from which he can escape. The man’s charm and enthusiasm are infectious, and we’re rooting for him all the way, especially when he’s confronted by the self-important, and even worse, the malevolent, bent on his destruction, or at least utterly indifferent to his survival, as, during his tour of pre-Soviet Russia, the Moscow chief of police, Lebedev, suggested rather than Houdini breaking out of the virtually impregnable Butyrskaya Prison, he instead try his rather esoteric skill set against “the Siberian Transport Cell,” “the safe on wheels . . . used to transport/political prisoners to Siberia” When Houdini freed himself in an hour, the police chief reneged on their deal to provide him with an affidavit stating that he’d successfully completed the trick, which he could use as free publicity. Houdini’s only recourse, never to return to Russia. Still, Houdini got the last laugh, word of his exploit “got around; as it always does” and he got to extend his tour of Mother Russia and perform for a Grand Duke. Still, Houdini never returned: “The whole country felt like some sort of mild prison,/getting out alive itself an escape.”
In any biography of a great and celebrated figure, we’re always carried along by the climb to the top of their field. And it’s the same here. We applaud as Houdini goes from triumph to triumph, accompanied by his darling wife Bess, and even more by his first great love, his Mama. Inevitably, the crash occurs, if not the fall from grace, then at least the consequences of advancing years. Here, the great catastrophe is the death of Houdini’s mother, which he never really got over, and which is the impetus for the second half of the book, “And Then Everything Changed”. In “Aftermath,” Harry takes us through his first stage of grief:
After the funeral,
I stopped working for an entire month,
visited Mama’s grave every day.
I read through every letter
she had written me since 1900,
had them transcribed, bound in a book.
He tries to lose himself in work, but work for once fails him, so rather than stay in Paris, where he’d been engaged to perform, he and Bess travel to Nice to find distraction in gambling, but it’s at the cemetery for suicides that he spends most of his time, lamenting that it was only for the mere loss of money that the poor souls buried there killed themselves, whereas “I have lost so much more.” (“Aftermath,” p. 45.)
It’s also in this second section that Houdini comes more and more into contact with the world of spiritualism, a world he despises, for at its very heart is flim-flam, trickery, deception: the whole spirit world of ghosts and revenants, the dead talking to us is all fakery, based on lies, and is inherently cruel in the way mediums play on our grief, as Rammelkamp has Houdini say in “Spiritualism”:
I hated the way these dimestore frauds
played on the vulnerabilities of their followers.
I yearned so much to speak to Mama,
knowing it was impossible in this life,
infuriated by the cruelty, taking advantage of grief.
Fakery demeans mourning, and mourning is sacred.
One of the many pleasures of this collection is the way Rammelkamp has Houdini speak. His Houdini expresses himself in what I can only call a verisimilitude of real American speech of the early 20th century. He’s a guy who eschews highfalutin language for the diction of telling us what’s what. This is even more evident in part II, in which Houdini is almost constantly in battle against the flim-flam of mediums. And the debunking is reinforced by Harry’s plain speech. Upon returning to America at the start of WWI, Houdini finds himself a fellow passenger with “Colonel” Theodore Roosevelt. To entertain the voyagers Houdini puts on a fake séance. The next day, accosted by TR, he’s asked if that was “genuine Spiritualism.” “No, Colonel, I told him, it was just hocus pocus,” forthright and plainspoken to the end.
Rammelkamp finishes the collection with a “Coda,” two poems spoken by Houdini’s widow, Bess, who tells us how he probably met his end and concludes the final poem, “The Great Escape,” with this:
Every escape is a success story, no?
Now you see me,
now you don’t.
Escape into this terrific collection and be entertained and elucidated.
About the reviewer: Robert Cooperman has taught composition and literature at the University of Georgia; Bowling Green State University, in Ohio; and the University of Baltimore. He’s also led various poetry writing workshops. Cooperman has had more than twenty volumes of poetry published, among them In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains (Western Reflections Books), which won the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. The Widow’s Burden (Western Reflections Books) was the runner-up for the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West. Draft Board Blues (FutureCycle Press) was named One of The Ten Best Books by a Colorado Author for 2017 by Westword Magazine. My Shtetl won the Holland Award from Logan House Press. Cooperman’s most recent collection is Reefer Madness. In addition, Cooperman’s two most recent chapbooks are Saved by the Dead (Liquid Light Press) and All Our Fare-Thee-Wells (Finishing Line Press),