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October 2019 Vol. 15 No. 3

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Charles Tarlton

The Life and Death of Houdini: Tanka Prose

The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.
                                                                                                                              — Harry Houdini


Magic is illusion, seeing what is not there, not seeing what is. When the doves or the rabbit come out of the empty hat, we know the hat wasn’t empty. When the saw cuts through the beautiful girl in the box and she emerges later whole, the box, the saw, and the girl must have been differently aligned than we thought. Houdini, with his ankles and wrists in locked handcuffs, bound with coils of knotted rope, nailed into a box that was itself fastened with paddle-locked chains, was then dropped into the East River. When he emerged smiling in a matter of minutes, free from all restraints, it was like magic, but we know there must have been keys, or picks, or a knife, or something, we know it for sure because, well, because magic is illusion.

beauty might as well
be layered on, the colors
careful and distinct
imagined as natural
a place and shape of an eye

the world is heavy
and fastened to us with locks
we can never break
glue sticks our limitations
fast and hard, we need magic

so as not to look
too hard into pain too deep
give us miracles
if we have to look away
dreams always at a distance


There is an expression that might be of use here – “going behind the scenes.” It has at least two senses: in the first, it can mean seeing how things really work, taking the clock apart, for example; in the second sense, it can mean “blowing the gaff,” exposing deceit and fraud behind an appearance or trick. Houdini’s feats have never been completely unmasked (behind the scenes in the second sense), although they have many times been explained (behind the scenes in the first sense).

right before your eyes
the coin between his fingers
falls out of your ear
because he is your uncle
he shows you the way it’s done

sly of hand, faster
than you can see or understand
the eye trails behind
the girl goes into the box
the saw misses by a mile

Others have tried to repeat Houdini’s best escapes, some successfully and others fatally. We know, however, that there must have been a method; it was widely believed that Houdini had trained himself to swallow and then later regurgitate a key.

every trick goes on
behind its curtain of black
because what happens
never happens in the light
otherwise we’d have seen it


They click the handcuffs on to your wrists, then the bigger ones go on your ankles, and the chains with paddle locks to fasten hands to feet are run up behind your back and fastened to the bolted collar around your neck. Next comes the black hood over your head and then they are wrapping you with ropes tied in huge complicated knots. Someone is lifting you up and you’re lowered into the box, but you can’t see anything. The hammers bang as they drive the big nails in. Then you can hear the ropes being tied around the box and you can feel it lifting into the air, and now going down, you feel it when the box enters the water, and you can feel water dripping into the box as it rolls over in the river and turns upside down. Now what?

this had better be
fake! Rivers are indifferent
overfull and they
tear out whole towns
float them far away downstream

dead is dead, for sure
no coming back up from it
they’re waiting to see
secretly some of them wish
you would die, lend it all truth

there is a watchman
on the tugboat keeping eye
looking for bubbles
then they’d have to pull you up
mortified, but hey! alive!


I touch upon the question of death with great hesitation. As I have got older, I find that I can no longer think of death as merely a concept because I irresistibly fall into its emptiness, and can think no farther. The idea, the inescapable fact, that everything I feel and think and everything that is substantial around me will fall down and away, will all at once cease to be (cease for me!) and yet continue fully to surround and fill others, is unbearable. I long ago stopped imagining an afterlife where my body and my mind would continue to exist, but in another dimension I find that when I am in this mood, and have reasoned that far, the question of death annihilates all other questions; it wipes the idea of life away, mid-thought.

black carrion crows
picking at still carcasses
of cold road-killed deer
all the quivering senses
flattened, even the hair dead

eyes focused nowhere
what do the eyes of the dead
think they are seeing
when they stare now flatly up
nothing’s even reflected

beings once alive
becoming merely objects
rocks or rusty nails
pulled roughly out of rotted
boards or pale bleached desert bones


Long before his own death, Houdini sought to understand the “other side.” So-called spirit mediums everywhere claimed that death was not necessarily the final end; escape might be found after all, and one could perhaps discover the answer through the instrument of the seance. Houdini thought it was all fakery, and devoted more and more of his time to its repudiation. Still, there might have been something to it, this idea of a “life” beyond “death” (after all, weren’t the great religions of the world based on just such ideas — salvation, eternity, immorality, reincarnation?). Houdini covered his bets, though, and on his deathbed he told his wife that, if it were possible, he would communicate with her from beyond the abyss on the tenth anniversary of his death. That anniversary happened to fall on Halloween but, even though a seance was duly assembled at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, they heard nothing from Harry.

he who defied death
a thousand times, a thousand
ways, wrapped in iron
thrown into the sea, vanquishing
death, came spurting from the depths

but, call as they might
all their calls went unanswered
now. The line was down
to the hereafter. Was this
box and its locks just too much?

who will set us free
now, show us nothing can be
binding for all time?
Houdini died on his couch
unable to shed his chains


The popular story that Houdini died as the result of a McGill University student’s punches to his stomach, punches that caused his appendix to rupture is too full of holes. That his death certificate says he died of peritonitis following a ruptured appendix is certain, but it could just as well have been caused by Houdini’s stubborn refusal to go to the hospital when advised. Is he even dead at all, some have asked, or did he just tire of the strenuous theatrical routine? Authors of a book that suggested Houdini had been murdered by spiritualists even wanted his body exhumed.

which amid many stories
requires certification
to hold against all
skeptics, a man who can speak
though his lips were sewn shut

you would never throw
a real knife at a person
without there’s some trick
made of rubber, a hinged blade
the audience always blinks

His fancy grave in Queens, N.Y. is still there to be seen, but his wife’s Catholic family reputedly prevented her from being buried beside Harry in his Jewish cemetery. Hardly anyone talks about Houdini anymore, the wild stories of his miraculous escapes dissipate with time until nowadays when someone has not been seen around much anymore he is said to have “pulled a Houdini.”

so many have died
their memories vague, blurring
like trick cards tucked in
between my heaped thoughts, sandwiched
now and then I pull one out