Thursday, February 22, 2018

Readers Choice Award Contest Poem: “The Great Escape” by Yoni Hammer-Kossoy

Editor’s Note:  Nominees for the Songs of Eretz Readers Choice Award have been or will be published/reprinted in Songs of Eretz Poetry Review every weekday from February 19 to February 27.  Vote for your favorite in March by sending an email to  The winner will be announced in April and receive a one hundred dollar honorarium.

The Great Escape
Yoni Hammer-Kossoy*
The greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin. - Harry Houdini
"Houdini" Ink on Paper
By J. Artemus Gordon

The box, the shipping crate,
the plate-glass tank, the flooded 
milk can, the Spanish Maiden, 
the solid steel chains

ladies and gentlemen,
the water torture chamber,
the shackles, the straitjacket, 
the triple-sealed jail cell,

the mirror cuffs with nested
Bramah locks, certified unbreakable,
sworn to be impossible, 
for the first time ever on stage.

The setup, the story, the pressure
of more, always more, hidden 
behind a curtain, dangled from a crane, 
pitched into a river, the fear, 

the crowd, they crave spectacular 
failure, they flock, they swarm,
they see what they want and miss 
how the trick works.

The fix, the shim, the palmed key, 
the milk can's fake rivets, the grease-
lined seam, the custom-built crate,
the half-nails, the hinged bottom,

the trap door, the air pocket, the slack
in the straitjacket, the jump-cuffs,
the bellows table, and the secrets
in sepia photos and stuttering movies

that we share: the changed name,
the home left behind, the great escape 
that never ends no matter how long 
I learn to hold my breath.

Poet's Notes:  A photo of Houdini in the prime of his career was the initial spark for this poem. It's clearly a publicity shot, but several details caught my eye: his good looks and bulging muscles, the heavy-duty chains and shackles, but most of all, his mischievous smile directed at the camera. It's quite an exaggerated image-- practically a comic book character turned flesh and blood, although we're maybe not quite sure if he's the hero or villain. And it's his smile that seems to say something to the effect of, "You might think this is impossible to escape but I know I can get out of this in about twenty seconds and not even break a sweat." It's also a remarkable image exactly because of its staged nature, which would fit right in with our current media-crazed reality, but back in the beginning decades of the 20th century was incredibly sophisticated.

I was hooked, and wanted to know more about Houdini and, after falling down a few online rabbit holes about his life (I wonder what he would think of this magical creation we call the internet), I was ready to start writing. I actually tried a few early drafts as a sonnet, knowing that I wanted to utilize some kind of form with the given subject matter, but the poem appropriately slipped its bonds into a more expansive arrangement. And when I found Houdini's words about his great escape, I felt the poem once again transform from simply a tribute to a master performer to something that resonated at a personal level.

I too live in a place far from where I grew up and interact with the world with a different name and through the poem I wanted to try to explore some of the dynamics of self and self-invention. The extent to which the poem hopefully manages to communicate all of the above represents, I suppose, a third and final escape--namely the creative act itself, through which ideas and feelings become expressed as something new in the world.

*Yoni Hammer-Kossoy was not invited to be a Songs of Eretz Frequent Contributor until AFTER the 2018 Songs of Eretz Poetry Award Contest was closed for submissions.  Therefore, he is eligible for the Readers Choice Award this year and this year only.  So, if you like his poem best, do not hesitate to vote for it. 

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