Houdini at 40

Handcuffed and head down in the tank
two and a half minutes behind
the black velvet curtain, deadbolts
across the opening and nothing
but the sound of water filling my ears, I discover
myself on the verge of a possible mistake.  This is to say

I meant for Anatole to leave me bound this time round;
the longer the lapping occurs in my head,
the closer I come to the governance of happiness.  I am truly
singing in here, not drowning but singing, and if only you

could hear me strumming in this little ocean
of sleep, you would know this is my real gift; to sleep
through the séance of my life, awakened only
by the cleverest of parlour tricks—waxy eggs sliding
through ear canals and leaden pencils
pulled through long fingers.  There is nothing
that disarms me like milk-cans full of pennies

Always get the last word.

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and your heart, nothing that unlocks me
like disremembering the dead who tell heaven
through blue flame, nothing secretly more disheartening
than the idea of an afterlife that means I will have to live

on beyond the chains of this one, clasped and traveling
from one watery cylinder to the next, proving myself again
the prince of air.  If cuffed and spun long enough
will I forget how you forgot how to
kiss me that night, how your mouth

is still the dark space my hand slips into before pulling
the blinking yellow canary from the crushed velvet
of a gentleman’s top hat?  If I let the burble of water
that asks to be my breath back into the pockets of lungs,

can I have you back again, telling me over pans of apple betty
skate blades on the frozen Danube

and a girl’s magic is cutting men’s hearts to lace?  Anatole
slips the bolt, unbraids the clank from my hands, the coil
of what I know I can escape from.  I flip myself
rightside up, dripping like a newborn,
ready to pretend I have willed myself alive.


Heather Altfeld is a lecturer at California State University, Chico, and the board chair of Blue Oak Charter School. She is at work completing an untitled manuscript of poems. “Houdini at 40” appears in ZYZZYVA‘s Fall issue.

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