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Anatomy of Keys

by Steven Price

Anatomy of Keys is Victoria-based poet and teacher Steven Price’s first book. A poetic biography of Harry Houdini, its closest generic analogues in Canadian literature are Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Stephanie Bolster’s White Stone: The Alice Poems.

In both form and narrative scope, Price’s book is far more ambitious than most contemporary books of poetry, debut or otherwise. One of an emerging vanguard of younger poets embracing the possibilities and challenges of form, Price has certainly heeded Houdini’s own dictum, quoted as an epigraph, to “make it tight.” This book is a gallery of formal experiments, ranging from villanelle to prose poem. His technique is virtuoso, but never merely showy; it complements rather than overpowers the story.

The book’s few minor weaknesses seem to be corollaries of its major strengths. Price’s verse line is highly textured, an effect achieved in part by clumping heavily stressed assonantal and consonantal monosyllables (“Stick, staff, crutch, cane, cudgel, truncheon, switch”), and in part by evocative and unusual choices in diction (“crunked,” “knarred,” “ruddled,” “barrowed,” “scurled,” “bleamed,” “knap and knag”). The influence of Hopkins (another figure from the epigraph page) and Heaney is evident here. The techniques are effective, but become somewhat gimmicky through overuse. Price also overplays the latent analogies between escapology and poetry, with metaphors drawn from language and poetic form (“end-stopped line” and “strict stanzas”).

Price demonstrates profound psychological insight into his subject, but leans a bit heavily on abstractions such as fear, grief, and loss, and has a predilection for homiletic utterances. Both are common flaws in contemporary poetry, though, and they’re made less serious in this book by the robust narrative structure. The tightness of Price’s prosody supports them more readily than an isolated lyric would.

Price is an abundantly gifted poet, and this is an exciting – even astonishing – debut. Like Houdini’s increasingly daring escapes, it will be a tough act to follow.