The Magician’s Handbook
by Grant Clauser
P.S. Books, October 2017
94 pages, $15.00
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer

In the song “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Bob Dylan wrote “to live outside the law you must be honest.” He might have been putting his own gloss on a Woody Guthrie line, “I love a good man outside the law, 
just as much as I hate a bad man inside the law.” Both songwriters were tapping into an idea that transgression is not necessarily a flaw but an expression of another kind of rigor.

Grant Clauser’s The Magician’s Handbook, the most recent release from Philadelphia’s P.S. Books and the poet’s third collection, comes at this idea in an appealingly idiosyncratic way. In his book of poems, Clauser explores the human desire for marvels that persists in an era that often seems bloody-minded, technocratic and decidedly un-marvelous. We ache for something else. Enter “The Magician” who, in a poem like “The Magician at Airport Security,” blithely ignores the uniformed men with tasers:

while he steps unnoticed
from the other side
of the X-ray booth
jingling coins in his pocket.

The persona of “The Magician” offers other ways to see, other ways to be. Turning from the light-hearted to the deadly serious, the character projects possibility. He also provides the organizing conceit for the collection, which is divided into three parts: “Neophyte”, “Adept”, and “Magus.” The reader witnesses him as a curious child growing into a high school misfit; later the performer pursues a career of illusion even as he settles down with a wife and pays bills and sends his kids to college; eventually he turns sixty and takes inventory of his life of deception and, in the last poem, speaks from his deathbed. The result is an intriguing sort of biography in poetry, of both a trickster and a regular guy, who is simultaneously an escapee from the modern world and a representative of it.

Not all the poems, however, refer directly to this persona; the overall unity of The Magician’s Handbook is more a matter of atmosphere and a fascination with elements that some people consider an atavistic side of show business, a world of carnival freaks, fortune tellers and knife throwers. What is the appeal of midway attractions like a “geek” with “meat-hooked nipples” who “chewed on broken glass?” What invites the poet to write an “Ode to a Jackalope?”

Jackalope is the door we step through,
the name we give to small nightmares
or delights, the hope we place in stars
that mysteries are real […]

What Clauser grasps, and conveys with entertaining originality, is how these seemingly crude or gimcrack trappings speak of deeper emotional truths. Sure, the smart phone in your pocket can perform certain wonders, and its design is indisputably more sophisticated than any conjuror’s gear with trap doors or mirrors or dissembling silk kerchiefs, but it doesn’t take you outside “the law” in the manner of an escape artist or the girl who is sawn in half. These “miracles” signify human longings and fears; they lay bare the desire for restoration of what was lost, for giving the slip, however fleetingly, to the relentless violence of time.

Consider, for instance, “The Magician Practices Sword Swallowing”:

Start small, a butter knife
or broken switch blade
until you advance to screwdrivers
up the nose.

The more you want, he tells himself,
the farther you’ll go
until one day you feel
the cold blade slip
past your heart.

With each beat
the edge chips a tooth.

Other poems, such as “Planting a Garden”, and “Ode to Bats,” focus on the natural world. At first glance, this choice might seem to reflect a different sensibility or even a contradiction, given the emphasis elsewhere on the life of a showman and the delight of artifice. But these poems, too, testify to the need to shake up habits of perception, to break the rules, if not of nature, then of how we engage with nature, by considering alternative forms of honesty. “Naming the Hurricanes” is a love poem about the transformative power of language to shape experience:

I want to name this bright day
after you. Call it daughter
for the way it rose sleepy
in the morning then warm
on my arms in the yard.
Every wind becomes someone
we once friended.
Everything that falls from the sky
should be someone we loved
and need to go on touching.

This poem shows the sweep of the poet’s imagination and makes, I think, an important larger point, inasmuch as it breaks away from the traditional “me and it” pose of a poet observer commenting on the natural world. Instead, Clauser situates the speaker within natural processes, as a sentient and, yes, loving participant. Just as the personal is political, it is also natural, and Clauser’s handling of this fact relies less on a reductive anthropomorphism and its temptation of narcissism (which renders nature as somehow “just like me”) and more on a mature understanding that there are still unexplored possibilities of connection.

Assuming this perspective is no trick but a piercing kind of attentiveness to being alive, it is this quality that makes The Magician’s Handbook worthy of attention. This is a consistently inventive and rewarding collection, notable for its range and for the sympathy of its imagination.