Houdini and Bess at the Hippodrome/The Magic Handcuffs: 1900/ bio-poem by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

Bess Houdini
Am I the light around his moon?  Or a haze of dissolving mist?  Light turned to dark air?  
Am I the last of the Floral Sisters?  The seven sisters shot to stars?  I hear the insistent 
tap tap of my shoes, my half-sung words echoing inside me….
                                        Over me you cast a spell/I love you, my sweet Rosabelle  

Now I peer at him from the edge of the stage.  My dreams held back 
like folded red velvet curtains.  
I draw into myself, my unsung needs.  

They tighten the manacles.  He enters the ghost cabinet.  Then he emerges, handcuffs 
still intact, squirms, thumb and forefinger needling the lock with the special pick 
no one sees.  Sweating he takes a pen knife, rips his frock coat from his body.  
The cloth shreds around him.  
My own tinker.  Raggedy man.

He angles his wrists this way and that.  I imagine the metal cutting into his skin.  
He sweats; he groans.  He is almost undone by this test.  I see his pasty skin.  
His gray eyes no longer calm, no longer like the frozen surface of a pond.  
One intricate lock.  One thin pick.  One key.  Strand.  Rivet.  Pin. Post.   

Will he fail?
The metal slices through me.

Fifty, sixty, seventy minutes.

We are held in suspense.  The Hippodrome breathes with one breath. 
How will he free himself?  Create a new marker of his worth?

				My eyes strain wide to see. 	
My chest tightens with each breath.

These tests the vise of our lives—tightening us in its grip.  Then a click.  
The mirror cuffs break open.  Awe.  Thunderous applause.  

				I open like a lotus blossom.

What is magic but the will to believe? 


Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz in the Department of English where she teaches autobiography, creative writing, American and contemporary literature, women’s Literature, , and Holocaust literature courses.  Her work has been published in many journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize.  She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and two collections of autobiographical essays, Women/Writing/Teaching (SUNY Press, 1998) and Wise Women:  Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, co-authored with Dr. Phyllis R. Freeman (Routledge, 2000). Her full length volume, Foraging for Light was published in September 2019 by Finishing Line Press. She has a B.A. from University of Rochester (1969); an M.A. from University of Wisconsin, Madison (1970); and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University (1977).

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