The Bridge Builder by Maxine Kumin

June 17, 1848. Charles Ellet, Jr., the civil engineer who designed the suspension bridge soon to be built over Niagara Falls, today tested the service span to be used in its construction by driving his horse across the planking.  – Brooklyn Eagle

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Kite Flying Contest Held To Get The First Line Across [The Gorge] For The Suspension Bridge. Based on an unsigned sketch by Donna Marie Campbell, Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

I, Charles Ellet, Jr., licensed engineer
son of a provident Quaker farmer
now stand at the gorge where Niagara Falls

offers a prospect so sublime no rival
as yet is known on this great globe of ours.
Let men deride me as actor, rainmaker;

let it be said of me that I have loved
all carriageways and catwalks, all defiles
wide gaps and narrow verges to be bridged

am fond of women and horses equally
although the latter’s sensibility
is plainer far to read. However much

respect I hold for Nature’s rash downrush
her virginal ebullience, I itch
to take it in the compass of my fingers.

One does not “break” a horse, but wins its trust.
With towers and cables, not brute trusses;
with tact, not tug; suspension, not piled piers

I mean to overarch this wild splendor.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Let them think me odd who see as if
asleep my silent self reflecting how
to span the rapids boiling at my feet

two hundred forty feet below the cliff
to be exact. An arrow from a bow?
A bird or a balloon? Why not a kite?

A kite could soar across the open rift!
The public loves such deeds. I’ll offer a prize,
a decent sort of prize, say five gold dollars

to the first man or boy who sends his string
to Canada.** The placard up three days
a local gap-toothed lad steps forth to win —

a widow’s son, shy skinny Homan Walsh.
He’s going to outlive me. Will he grow
up bold, race Thoroughbreds, get rich

performing acts of wild derring-do?
I don’t at this point know, nor know that
I’m to die a colonel in the Civil War

a hero slain leading a charge of rams
— warships rigged to ram opponents’ hulls —
on The Big Muddy to rout the Confederates.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Backward looks are licensed. To look for-
ward isn’t done; is not acceptable.
But give me leave to leap beyond the date

of my flamboyance, 1848,
and introduce High-Jumping Sam: Sam Patch
clad all in white, who dives from the cliff into

the rainbowed pool at the foot of the cataract
and not content with one dive, makes it two.
Reprises at Genesee and straightway drowns.

Or Blondin in ’59 adored by thousands
who cheer his tightrope walk across the chasm.
He’ll have a score of successors, circus clowns

who mock the danger, simulate cold fear
half-fall, recover and go blithely on
some piggyback, some skipping rope, afire

with the same lust for fame and fortune
as those who dare chute down the drop in barrels.
The first a cooper proving his staves would hold

then scores of imitators taking the falls
by barrel, boat and cork, a steady parade
of madmen. And always the suicides . . .

Dramatic death! Love also knows no season.
Though bliss be brief that attends unbridled passion
romantic couples will hasten by canal

or rail to flaunt their ecstatic portion
fulfill the fleeting period of joy
that one wag titles “honey-lunacy.”

Some say the falls gently distract the lovers’
overweening focus on one another.
Some say the tumult of the cataract

conceals the newlyweds’ embarrassment
caught, as it were, in the rapturous nuptial act.
Others aver the falls’ ceaseless descent

evokes a rich manly response. Some brides
claim happy negative ions are produced
by falling water. You may take your choice

of savants, sages and hypotheses
but thus Niagara will come to boast
hotels and curio shops and carriage-rides

to vistas for photos of the just-now wived.
Skeptic I am, unmarried by design.
Still, might not the spectacle conjoin

male and female qualities into one?

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Now let us turn back from this clairvoyant
glimpse to the day that Homan’s kite string held.
I tie it to a somewhat stouter cord

and next, a heavier one of finespun wire
and ever-mightier cables to support stout
wooden planks until from shore to shore,

just wide enough to let a phaeton pass,
a catwalk spans the gorge. The boards are spaced
to let rainwater through. Side rails? None.

I test it harshly across and back, first at
a walk, then jog, then crow-hop up and down
assured that it will hold. Once I trust it

I harness up my mare, to show she will.
A chestnut Morgan, foaled in my own barn
and trained to voice commands the way a skilled

driving horse need be, to keep from harm.
Vixen by name but not by temperament,
spirited, willing and confident.

Do not mistake submission, the highest
accolade man can bestow on a horse,
with truckling subservience. The mare must trust

the steady justice of the driver’s hand.
Fingers that speak, not snatch; a voice
that soothes and urges but withholds choice.

Vixen and I prepare to take our stand.
I stand up in the cart as in a chariot
the better she may sense we are allied

and ask her to move off at a rapid trot.
She never casts a glance to either side.
The crowd is aghast. Several women swoon.

The catwalk sways most fearfully but holds
beneath the mare and horseman in the sky
and that is how we cross, Vixen, my bold

partner, and I, Charles Ellet, Jr.,
bridge builder, licensed engineer.

**The kites were actually flown from Canada to the United States using the prevailing westerly winds. Both the poem and the painting have the kites flying from the United States to Canada.

Source: Kumin, Maxine. “The Bridge Builder.” TriQuarterly, Winter 1995, p. 162-166.
Also published in her 11th book of poems, Connecting the Dots, Norton, 1996
Maxine Kumin (June 6, 1925 – February 6, 2014) was an American author and poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973. She was the Library of Congress Poet Laureate for 1981-1982