A Magic Book, Sasha Steensen’s first collection of poetry (and winner of Fence Books’ 2004 Alberta Prize), is a grid of intertextual, transhistorical tensor points, mapping the “magic” blur of the American “sleight-of-hand.” The landscape is a palimpsest of cultural memory threshing against the contemporary political notion of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, thoroughly saturated in oil—a perfect marriage of anxiety and greed that maintains a kind of fidelity to both hysteria and historicity. The main attraction here is “Faith,” the magician’s naïve assistant, strapped passively to the “Wheel of Terror” as Steensen lobs deadly accurate verbal sallies at the dizzying mess. What’s left? The pandemonium of the spectacle, undercut by a mortally wounded sense of stability.
It is within this chaos that Steensen’s aporia is firmly established in her choice of epigraphs, putting Cotton Mather (“The notion of procuring Invisibility by any Natural Expedient, yet known is, I Believe, a meer Plinyism”) in conversation with Pliny himself (“See how magic and the practice thereof is spread over the face of the whole earth!”). The ensuing slippage takes the posture of a snake-oil salesman sweating Puritan anxiety, ducking for cover as Steensen’s language ricochets off its own content:
Sail (or sell or buy) as much of the shore as possible, or steal,
preferably steal. We were to become the biggest producers of steel
in the world, the biggest in a thousand senses. All of those
grandfathers worked in that big mirrored building to make sure I
could have my metal, which brings me to errand #4:
Make sure we are in a position to mettle. (14)
“A thousand senses” indeed. The real magic here is Steensen’s own sleight-of-hand: tracing the now-you-see-it of the political theater back to its distant ancestor, the machinery of illusion:
Money from thin air has always intrigued audiences. Macaluso delighted
Parisian theater-goers by plucking gold pieces from a candle flame, and
the art of now-we-see-it-now-you-don’t became firmly engrained in
American consciousness. (43)
Steensen troubles the relationship between authenticity and appropriation, faith and naivety, in order to hold the spectacle up to its own grotesque silhouette. All of this to remind the reader that often with “astonishment,” what-you-see-is-never really-what-you-get:
When the Davenport brothers, boys from Buffalo, masters of the
cabinet séance, created a sensation in Europe, Robin, famous French
magician, insisted that the Davenports’ tricks had nothing to do with
the conjuring of spirits. He easily duplicated the Davenports’
mysterious manifestations. He moved into. He made or didn’t make
or showed that the Davenports had never made or at the very least
had made something other, something less authentic, than they had
proposed to make.
In short, you’ve got to see it to believe it. As Buffalo’s magician in residence, Steensen is at the head of the table, conjuring voices that sound suspiciously like our own. And this isn’t just tricky ventriloquism, even if Steensen somehow articulates the pitch of our voices in the movement of her lines. Look closer, you only think you know how the trick works.