Platt by James Penha

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Joseph Avery Stranded on Rocks in the Niagara River. Daguerrotype by Platt D. Babbitt, 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

All night long they heard in the houses beside the shore,
Heard, or seemed to hear, through the multitudinous roar,
Out of the hell of the rapids as ’twere a lost soul’s cries,–
Heard and could not believe; and the morning mocked their eyes,
Showing, where wildest and fiercest the waters leaped up and ran
Raving round him and past, the visage of a man
Clinging, or seeming to cling, to the trunk of a tree that, caught
Fast in the rocks below, scarce out of the surges raught.
Was it a life, could it be, to yon slender hope that clung?
Shrill, above all the tumult the answering terror rung.
–William Dean Howells, “Avery”

Nothing else I could do. It’s my profession after all. Photographing Niagara Falls. Its views. Its visitors. And selling the resulting daguerreotypes. Quite successfully. Because I’m a damn good daguerreotypist. Ask anyone around here. And I’m on duty every day, 365 days a year. This day, July 16, 1853, I was waiting for tourists along the American Channel rapids when I saw three men struggling to maneuver their row boat to shore. They had been working on the big dredging scow anchored in the river. Their oars were broken. Or lost. I turned my lens toward them just as the boat capsized and I saw two bodies cartwheeling over the edge of the American Falls too fast for me to capture them in my camera. There was no sign of the third man — turned out to be a local fellow named Samuel Avery — until he leapt up like a fucking phoenix and sat astride a log cantilevered in a rocky shoal in the middle of the river. The rapids were way too loud for him to hear my hallo, so I waved at him with both arms, but he was likely too afraid to let go of the log to answer. He was riding the river like a scared girl on a runaway stallion, but luckily he kept still enough for me to create an historic photograph. Took an even longer time till someone thought to hitch a lifeboat to the Bath Island Bridge and send the boat down toward the man. Avery caught and climbed into the boat, but before I could re-focus, the rapids turned the lifeboat upside down, and Avery, thrown back into the river, met his fate just as his friends had hours before. Nothing else I could do. I returned to my hotel where I processed the plate and encased a dozen of the images for sale at my Point View stand. They sold well. They still do.


Source: The author, 2021
The prose poem Platt by James Penha was first published in The Ekphrastic Review, March 17, 2016

View the poem Avery, 1853  by William Dean Howells

Sources:
Getting around.” Luminous-Lint. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
Niagara River – Life & Death on the River: Accidents & Rescues.” 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. .
Platt D. Babbitt (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. .
Weld, Charles Richard. A Vacation Tour in the United States and Canada. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855. Print.

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha

Falling with the Falls: Niagara Prose-Poem by Boris Glikman

FALLING WITH THE FALLS
 


I first came face to face with Him when I was five and skinny to the bone. Mum took me to meet Him as soon as we arrived at the seaport town, even though it was already night. From a distance I could hear His voice, the steady rhythm of His basso. Perhaps it was just as well that I could not see Him on our first meeting, for all my other senses were saturated with His presence. I stood there, absorbing His being through my body’s pores, yearning to sacrifice my child’s body to His power so that in swallowing me up I would become one with Him – He part of me and I part of Him. Mum was calling me to go back to the hotel, but I just stood there, not willing, indeed, not able to move a fibre of my body, a muscle of my limbs.

That was the day water, in its most magnificent and astonishing incarnation, came into my existence and a Love was born.

And now here at the Falls this love affair, after years of tiffs and misunderstandings, is being rekindled.

The flow of the river leading up to the Falls looks menacing and brooding. There is a belligerent arrogance in its bearing, like a bully gearing up for a fight, totally unlike other rivers which flow with sweet serenity and smiles on their faces.

There is water cascading all around me in a form I’ve never witnessed before – air-like and rising as clouds of smoke. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see earth turning into fire or air turning into earth here, fulfilling every alchemist’s deepest dream. Perhaps an error of alchemists was in believing that a philosopher’s stone is a thing rather than a location, for at this place all metamorphoses are possible: the four elements transmute into one another at will; incorrigibly jaded senses, which once saw only disappointment and disillusionment in the world, acquire child-like wonder and see anew the beauty of life.
Incongruously and paradoxically the only thing that has any stability, that survives unchanged and unscathed in this torrential maelstrom of air and water is that most insubstantial element of alllight. There are myriads of rainbows festooning the waterfall, blithely making their home in the very midst of the plunging hurricane. They shine forth gloriously, oblivious to the cataclysm that surrounds them.


For a moment, my rapture is tainted by doubt. Sure, this is spectacular and all, but what significance does it have to my life, to human existence as a whole? What is the meaning of this downpour, the meaning of me standing here, watching it at this particular point in time?

Is this Nature’s allegorical portrayal of the original Fall from Grace? Or is it a liquid metaphor for the final tumble we all eventually must take? For there is no way the fallen water can ever return to its previous plane of being, except as a misty ghost of its former self.

An inexorable flow of a solid wall of water.

How easy, how tempting it is to join the plunge, to become one with the deluge! The avalanche is calling out to me with all its might; it is so persuasive in its roar. The whole world is falling around me and I am the odd one out, stubbornly holding my ground and remaining ludicrously stationary. 

Perhaps only this colossal torrent is capable of wiping away all of my sins, cleansing my being from the layers of inner grime accumulated over the decades. I must position myself so I am standing directly under the deluge, right where the waterfall hits the ground.

And I emerge from beneath the Falls reborn – all shiny and pure again, like that five-year-old child.

Source: The Author, April 13, 2016

About Boris Glikman