The trick was breathing in, you claimed, as if that was all they gathered to watch as you milked the crowd in your matador sash, rum-slurring some speech no one could hear above the river’s thunder, quipping your catchphrase long worn threadbare: Some things can be done as well as others. But most things don’t sputter back even once, like that waterlogged schooner two autumns before, lunging over Niagara as billed, loaded with its Strange Cargo— bison, two bears, a bonneted fox, raccoons, a wing-clipped eagle— & disappearing into a wilderness of froth. Sam Patch, you dropped arrow-straight, untethered from earth, for cash, for booze, a lay, & yet here I am plundering your life for some path towards saying in our water’s blind wrath, in the body from that roaring slosh only a few times given back, despite nearly everything we choose, somehow we are blessed. I might as well beg for an ass-kick, I know. Scotch-soaked, fame-starved, cocksure, you are long-dead, unbreakable until the river broke you too & could stomach none of this. If it helps, forget the poem. Forget I said anything before I turned to you—since today inexplicably you’re all that will do—tottering sun-struck on the platform, preparing to plummet into that luminous rage & whatever that might afford.
HARK ! what sounds of mighty thunders !
O’er those cliffs an ocean pours !
Mark its foaming furious surges,
Booming on the rocky shores.
Why is all this awful tempest
Of Niagara’s flood so vast ?
Why these hurricanes of waters,
Seeming like destruction’s blast ?
Hear the story of these wonders ;
This decree did God proclaim :
‘Let the waters here be gather’d
To adore my glorious name.’
Lakes immense, and icebergs melted
From the stormy northern pole,
Babbling brooks, and countless rivers
To Niagara’s temple roll.
To that glorious altar move they
Not with slow reluctant pace,
But with eager speed and transport
Rush they to that sacred place.
All their garments beam with splendor ;
Some are whiter than the snow ;
These display a crimson lustre ;
Those, like brightest emeralds glow.
Some are graced with tints of azure ;
Those with amber ; these with green ;
Boundless wreaths of glittering diamonds
O’er Niagara’s robes are seen.
Thus the stream, all clothed with glory
To its God with rapture sings,
And the heavenly vaults re-echo
With its awful thunderings.
Then ascend thick clouds of incense,
Which is borne on angels’ wings,
And o’er earth the richest blessings
With unbounded mercy flings.
Then did Christ our blessed Saviour,
For those harmonies so loud,
Paint the rainbow’s radiant beauties
On the fleecy incense cloud.
There I saw the bow of promise
As it came from God’s right hand,
And it spread its arch transcendent
On our own and Britain’s land.
Here a Church has Christ erected,
All these sounds are praise to Him ;
All this stream ‘s a font baptismal,
And its drops are seraphim.
These grand cliffs are altars sacred
To that God who reigns above ;
All this rush and deafening roaring
Are but songs of holy love.
All these foaming crystal surges
Hath a Saviour’s mercy hurl’d
O’er those craggy heights, to christen
And redeem a fallen world.
It is wise that erring mortals
Should frequent these wondrous scenes,
Here to see the God of Nature,
And to learn what worship means.
‘T is not strange that red men always
View this spot, as God’s dread home,
And their pipes and beaded wampums
Humbly offer on the foam.
‘T is not strange that unbelievers
Here betray remorse and shame,
And confess our Lord’s dominion
Over cataract and flame.
‘Tis not strange that Christian pilgrims
Here the richest blessings know ;
Here ‘s the hem of Christ’s bright garment,
Which, when touch’d, will grace bestow.
These dread scenes portend the judgment,
When in triumph Christ shall come,
With a voice, like mighty waters,
To pronounce earth’s endless doom.
Then, O God, in mercy save me
From thine everlasting frown,
That in bliss my ears may hear Thee,
And my eyes behold thy crown.
Source: Burroughs, Charles, Rev. The Poetry of Religion, and Other Poems. Boston, Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1851.
NOTES [from the text by Charles Burroughs].
Note 1. — Allusion is made in the fourth verse to the waters which flow over Niagara Falls. They come from those mighty Lakes, or as they may be more rightly termed, inland Seas, Lakes Erie, St. Clair, Huron, Michigan, Superior, and many others. Lake Superior is four hundred and fifty miles long, one hundred wide, and nine hundred feet deep. It receives constant contributions from about forty rivers. The most distant source, that supplies Niagara, is probably the river St. Louis, which rises twelve hundred and fifiy miles north-west of the Lakes, and one hundred and fifty miles north-west of Lake Superior. Now these immense lakes, with their hundreds of rivers, great and small, all of which flow over Niagara Falls, cover a surface of one hundred and fifty thousand square miles, and contain nearly half the fresh water on the face of the globe. It is computed that one hundred millions of tons per hour, and thirty thousand tons per second, pass over the Falls. Hence old Father Hennapin, who visited the Falls in 1678, said, ‘I could not conceive how it came to pass, that such mighty lakes and numerous rivers should discharge themselves at Niagara Falls, and yet not drown a good part of America.
Note 2. — In verse seventh I speak of some of the robes of the Falls as covered with glittering diamonds.’ As you stand at a place, called the Platform, on the American shore, near the ferry-ways, the Falls at your side are thrown over the precipice for a long distance beyond you, in perpetual showers of huge drops, which continue as drops till they enter into the river below, and which, when seen about an hour before sunset, seem like a miraculous and perpetual shower of millions on millions of diamonds and other most brilliant gems.
Note 3.- In the 8th verse I speak of the ‘thunderings of the cataract. It is supposed that this circumstance led to its name. Niagara in the Iroquois dialect signifies the ‘thunder of waters.’ They produce not only a concussion of the air, but a constant trembling of all the adjacent country. So writes a beautiful Poet, —
‘Niagara, as thy dark waters pour,
An everlasting earthquake rocks thy lofty shore.’
Note 4.-In verse thirteen I have called the cliffs of Niagara “a sacred altar.’ Since writing that passage I have seen the same idea applied to the Falls by another writer. He calls them the everlasting altar, on whose cloud-capt base the elements pay homage to Omnipotence.’
Note 5. — The fourteenth verse associates the Falls with our redemption. So some other writer has well said,
“A Pavilion it seem’d, with a Deity grac’d,
And justice and mercy met there and embraced.’
Note 6. — The homage of Indians at the Falls is no fiction. Whenever they first see this wonder of our world, they offer at the cataract to the Great Spirit whatever they have valuable about them ; as mentioned in verse sixteenth.
Note 7.— I speak of God in the seventeenth verse as ‘over cataracts and flame.’ Beside the unsurpassed wonder of the Falls, there is near them a burning spring, an everlasting lamp of flame, which is kindled by the breath of Omnipotence.
Note from Charles Mason Dow’s Anthology and Bibliography of Niagara Falls
“Composed at Niagara August 10, 1846. To the clergyman author [ Burroughs ] the rush of water was a song of rapture to God, the clouds of spray were incense, the rainbow was a reminder of redemption by Christ, the cliffs were altars, and the whole Falls an inspiration to worship.”
[n.b. – this is an excerpt (lines 405-422) of the Niagara section of the poem ]
Have we not seen, at pleasure’s lordly call,
The smiling long-frequented village fall I
Beheld the duteous son, the sire decay’d,
The modest matron, and the blushing maid,
Forc’d from their homes, a melancholy train,
To traverse climes beyond the western main—
Where wild Oswego spreads her swamps around,
And Niagara stuns with thundering sound?
Even now, perhaps, as there some pilgrim strays
Through tangled forests and through dang’rous ways,
Where beasts with man divided empire claim,
And the brown Indian marks with murderous aim—
There, while above the giddy tempest flies,
And all around distressful yells arise—
The pensive exile, bending with his woe,
To stop too fearful, and too faint to go,
Casts a long look where England’s glories shine,
And bids his bosom sympathize with mine.
In the one-time mecca of the hard-up honeymoon, we were both born.
Yours, a life above the waterfall. Mine, below.
And Annie Taylor? We were all schooled in her story. How Miss Michigan schoolteacher took on the cataract at sixty-three. In her petticoats and lace-up boots, clutching her good-luck-heart-shaped satin pillow, she stepped into the barrel where, two days earlier, she had placed her cat to test pilot the way. Air pressured in by a bicycle pump, bung in the hole, mattress wrapped. And the fall, fall, fall, emerging twenty minutes later. Only head gashed and rib bruised to proclaim: I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.
And in our two year, two year, two year fall. What was bruised if not ‡‡broken?
Your C-3 vertebra, out of whack. Slack, from practice. Your tendons overwrought, too taut from the bow, taught by the bow.
And my base pain, in the neck. Now I know the days you play, curse Bach and his concerto for a doubled violin.
Source: El Barril was published in Prairie Schooner, vol 89, No. 4, Winter 2015
James Thomas Stevens, Aronhió:ta’s, (Akwesasne Mohawk) attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics, and Brown University’s graduate creative writing program. Stevens, originally from Youngstown, NY, is the author of eight books of poetry, including, Combing the Snakes from His Hair, Mohawk/Samoa: Transmigrations, A Bridge Dead in the Water, The Mutual Life, Bulle/Chimere, and DisOrient, and has recently finished a new manuscript, Ohwistanó:ron Niwahsohkò:ten (The Golden Book). He is a 2000 Whiting Award recipient and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Roll on resistless flood ; in mystery roll The restless waters from thy lofty brow ; No earthly arm the billows may control That play upon thy summit ; there they bow, And battle with the winds that through them plow, Till from thy mountain forehead, down they pour ; And as in centuries past, so they are now, The firm base shaking of thy rocky shore, And drowning echo in the eternal roar ; Nor may the tempest shout as loud as thou.
Roll everlasting torrent ; on thy front The Almighty’s signet rests ; the brilliant bow Belts thy broad bosom yet, as it was wont To arch it o’er a thousand years ago ; — Girding the waves to watch them as they flow, And gathering from the spray, in glorious thrall, The rays prismatic as they richly glow, Trembling amid the fires that on them fall, In fadeless beauty from the sunlit hall, Where floods of light their deathless radiance throw.
Up from thy emerald shores in beauty still, A bright memorial of the deed, it springs, That buried guilty nations at the will Of Him who rides upon the tempest’s wings ; — Dread warnings from the mighty past it brings, And gazing on its splendors, man may feel The inspiration which around him flings The past and future ; and the high appeal Of Revelation, on his heart may steal, While to the blessed bow his vision clings.
Thou mightiest of waters ; God hath stood Thee, a stern sentinel on the brow of time, That as the years, with thy eternal flood, Pass swiftly onward to the unknown clime, Thou mightst forever, in thy thunder chime, Peal their tremendous requiem ; years have rolled On from the dark and unexplored abyme, Like thee for centuries; the ages told, Upon eternal pages are enrolled With all their deeds of worthiness and crime.
Amid thy restless waters ; many a star. Hath gazed upon its shadow, and the blue — The brilliant heaven, hath in thy depths afar, Bathed its bright countenance and shone anew. Thou wearest in thy billows every hue, The changing aether wears; clouds flit o’er thee, Throwing the gloom or glory now they threw, When in their anger fierce, or in their glee, In ages of the past, as fresh as free. Above thy crown, upon the winds they flew.
The lovely moon hath kissed thee : queen of night, She rose on dark Ontario, ere day was gone ; And from her throne of silver, threw her light Through twilight shadows, on thy waters dun ; A snowy radiance as her course she run, Mantled the shores where rippling eddies play, Like laughing children in the evening’s sun, Chasing each other in the mimic fray ; Pale traveller ! she gazed as glad as they, And moved in peace her lonely journey on.
The sun hath glassed his glories on thy head. And clad it like his heavens, in robes of gold ; Among thy hoary locks his beams were shed, Eternal youth entwining with each fold ; — With all thy years upon thee, as of old Thou yet art glowing ; neither age nor time, Nor the ten thousand changes time has told, Hath taken from thy brow its morning prime ; Thy hoary honors are thy crown sublime, And all thy early freshness thou dost hold.
Winds claim thy wild companionship, and on Thy surface sport; they with thy dark green waves, Wrestle but for a moment and are gone. The tempest walks thy waters, when it raves, They toss in tumult and expose the caves, Which in the hour of peace beneath them hide : And winds like human passions, are the slaves Of impulse, dashing in their strength and pride ; And on, in their destructive madness ride, Regardless that they sweep o’er men or graves.
Storms tremble ‘mid thy terrors ; lightnings throw Their lurid fires from cloud to cloud on high ; Deep in thy waves the vivid shadows glow, Fierce as the flames athwart the angry sky, That flash and in majestic grandeur fly ; Upon thy lofty forehead thunders break, And dreadful whirlwinds dash their dangers by ; But Nature’s war, thy purpose cannot shake, The deep Inundations of the earth must quake, Before thy mountain rocks in ruin lie.
Roll on unrivalled queen of rivers, crowned By heaven’s immortal King ; thy coronal The rays that burn his glorious throne around, And on thy glowing summit richly fall ; Thy girdle is the light ; its beams enthrall The throne of pearl, reared on the mount of snow, That foams above thine own eternal wall Of rushing waters, where earth’s ocean all Have trembled into drops and plunged below, Forever rolling through the rocky hall.