Houdini Explodes from the Deep, Laughing

At nine years old he was Prince of the Air,
a trapeze artist already kicking his heels
at earth’s gravity, at seventeen the Wild Man
in a circus who outroared and outran tigers
while doing card tricks. Later
he thought it a comparative snooze
to escape from a Siberian transport van—
after all, the guards weren’t going to leap onto his shoulders,
crush his spine and bite through his neck.
He challenged police to confine him in shackles.
They stripped him nude and searched him intimately
for hidden keys and he escaped just the same.
He burst free from milk cans and bear traps.
He was the Jonah man who
regurgitated himself from a whale’s belly—
chewed through it like a rat, some said.
Once (just once)he was well and truly snared in steel cuffs
and his wife, adorable Bess, privately passed him the key
from her mouth to his in a deep kiss.
He could not be trapped. Could not be bested.
Every time he escaped from the Chinese Water Torture Cell
he saved the audience too.
He exploded roaring from the depths laughing
and young believers would scream with one throat,
leap around him like tipsy fish,
hang from his ears like fond pygmies.
The launching pad of his brave shoulders
gave them faith in their own blazing escapes.

—Margaret Benbow