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

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

Wirewalker by John B. Lee

Nik Wallenda Crossing Niagara Falls on a Tightrope Wire, June 15, 2012. Photo by Peter Conradi. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

he set out on the cable—walking
over Niagara Falls
as though balanced on a thread
in his electric-orange raiment
like a brilliant spider
on a silk
a lovely incandescent
Marbled Orbweaver
this Wallenda
a third-generation daredevil
slowing over the plumb weights
then quick as an arachnid in a rush
from suddenly seeing itself being seen
in a busy garden
confident and striding
until he entered
the complex crosswinds
where vapours plumed and swirled
in a wet smoulder
it was then he felt
the breath and push
of unanticipated weather
it was then
he began
to pray to the God of sparrows
the God of gulls
and wind-hovering hawks
as he felt
the nudge and mischief
that does not love
and the ineluctable perils
that blur the burning thorax
of the wirewalker

his heart
and the drum-echo
of its pulse
blooming at the wrist with the flesh stung blue
the image of ancestors
the long drop of their dying
into the damp tear-gather of ghosts
the grey sorrow of rain pooling
in the long veins of an upcurled leaf
the thirsting lifeline
of a widow’s palm
what morbid wishfulness
hushes in us all
though we’re carried
by his brave motion
we also long in the deep plunge
of a common faith to go
roaring over the emerald edge
as we fall beyond knowing

Source: The author. “The Wirewalker” was previously published in my book The Full Measure (Black Moss Press, 2017) and then in my book Beautiful Stupid: poems selected and new (Black Moss Press, 2018)

John B. Lee  is the Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity and Poet Laureate of Norfolk County for life.

Dave Munday Went Over Niagara Falls Twice in a Barrel—and Lived by Aimee Nezhukumatathil


John “David” Munday being interviewed after going over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel for the second time, Sept. 27, 1993. Photo by George Bailey. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

The first he knew of danger, he recorded it
all on video. You could see the rush of river
as the barrel bobbed the lip of the gorge.
But during the fall—all you saw
was white, as if the camera was flying
for a moment—then, a black screen. And maybe
that’s what brought him back. The lack of color
did not capture what he heard: a string of viola
at its highest pitch, the tender impossible cry
of a newborn crow. The first I knew of danger,
I ice skated on a pond and found fat goldfish
curling in long, slow patterns Just under
my boot. I knew the ice was thin, but

I continued anyway, the way I did
with several men that year. Each one
was a poor replacement for the one I lost
but each gave me a small gift: a bruised lip,
a cup of Dutch coffee, a tap of ash
on my windowsill. If there was a video
of me that year it would have opened
in a bank of snow, widened to reveal
the pond, the woman skating by herself
in circles. Perhaps there’d be a cardinal, just
a small slash of red on the screen. Everything
else would be white, white, and what
is the color of ice—blue, or is it more white?

Source: Bellingham Review,  Spring 2008, p. 115

The Falling: Three Who Have Intentionally Plunged Over Niagara Falls With the Hope of Surviving by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

1. Annie Edson Taylor (1901)

Annie Edson Taylor posing with her barrel and cat. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Don’t hate me because I sent the cat first.
Darling, desperate times require—
well, they require.
I told the little girl who owned the cat
I’d buy her a new one.
Days of waiting for a coin
of mention in the newspaper.
Days of waiting for wind—
for a sign, a purple swallow
circling the falls in a figure eight.
Draw me a line of three corks
and three holes so I can breathe in the barrel.
I thought I’d have all the floppy feathered hats
a gal could hope for.

No one seems to realize I am a star,
the original Queen of the Mist.
Tell me: What does a soul
look like after you dash
a plump cat to smithereens?
All I have are beat-down tap shoes
(someone even stole my barrel!),
a feather, a snip of string.

Diagrammatic View of the Barrel Used by Charles Stephens, July 11, 1920. Photo Courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

But look at the elegant line
of the arch of my foot, my boot,
how each hoop in my skirt
sings when I walk.
Isn’t that a picture?
Surely that’s worth a picture.


2. Charles G. Stevens, the Demon Barber of Bedminster (1920)

The right arm:
only thing
to be found.
It even waved
a little.


3. Steve Trotter (1985,1995)

At age twenty-two, the youngest person to go over the falls successfully, and twice  

Steve Trotter Raising His Hand in Triumph Moments After Going Over the Falls in a Barrel for the First Time. August 18, 1985. Photo Courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

In Tallahassee,  you learn‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡to make the drinks
real sweet.  Sweet drinks‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡equals sweet skirts
to wait for you long after‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡the bar closes. At the base
there are boulders—‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡smoothed by years of drumming
water. And somehow,‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡you missed every single one.
You’ve got a charmed life,‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡a deer-bone amulet,
and star-spangled shorts‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡to cheer you on both trips,
But even you  know‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡your boundaries. There’s a limit to
how much  you are able to‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡ridicule her. Venus flytraps
snap shut  when the trigger hairs‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡are touched not once, but
are tapped  exactly twice. Look‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡at your life: It can count.
Two  is  good,‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡just enough, for you.

Source: Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 93(1) Winter 2017, p.68-69

Click here for Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s website


The Niagara Scow by Amanda Tulk


Scow Rescue in Niagara River – Gustav F Lofberg being pulled to safety by breeches buoy. Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library. August 7, 1918

Now it sits a pile of unstable rust
Amongst the falls
And their murderous rush
Two men on a routine trip
A few hours later Red Hill screaming
Dont lose your grip
A split second decision
Could have ended their lives
Lucky to make it home to their wives
One man risked it all
He figured as long as he tried
There was no fault
The unstable scow
Hung by a tree
Attached by a weak buckle
Inching the rope to answer the mens pleas
With each breath taking stride
Praying not to end it all
With a wavy ride
One man hooked and back on shore
Clipped to the rope
He goes back for one more
To this day
The scow sits, where waves strive
Two men, forever grateful
To be able to enjoy their lives

Source: Tulk, Amanda.  Can You Hear It? : Poetry by Amanda Tulk.  Niagara Falls, Ont. : Grey Borders Books, 2013

Click here to see a newspaper article about the scow rescue