Looking for Niagara by E. R. Baxter III

Cover of Looking for Niagara by E.R. Baxter III

It’s Niagara lost
in the 20th century, disappeared
from the cereal box, up in mist,
a canvas backdrop in one hundred thousand
dead photographs, fading from postcards,
gone to Bermuda, Disney World, flown
to Aruba, splish took a bath at Niagara
splash went to Vegas for the weekend—
but had room at the motel
for Joseph and Marilyn
and were they impressed?
There’s no record of it.

But the first human record at Niagara
before it had name–the first human at ?
who left a flint spear point, water
falling at the whirlpool then,
at old gorge, and the spear point:
dropped in fear, in awe,
in wonder at new water,
ice falling who thought of it as !

Wandering hunter, archaeologists say, who
if he were there at all, didn’t stay long,
as if he had, for months let’s say, they’d
have known—would have found the tree
against which he relieved himself,
charcoal trace on stone, where he
cooked fish—as if no Niagara rock
has been left unturned.

The most recent evidence indicates he
did stay but a brief time—only minutes—
that dizzy from spoiled fish innards
he stumbled out of the woods
toward thunder, saw falling water, stared
slack-jawed into mists and steam rising
against south gorge wall, had visions:

The wall exploding, water rushing forth
gnawing south, divers fearful things—
dropped his spear, fled empty-handed
and throwing up back among the trees
and who wouldn’t have?

What he saw: the sun rising and setting
3 million 647 thousand 445 times, ten
thousand winters and springs, trees
leafing out, hot suns, leaves coloring,
withering, dropping, snows whirling,
grass greening, fogs gathering, rains,
trees dying, toppling, new trees as slim
as spears growing thicker than his body,
salamanders mating between his gnarled toes,
mice nibbling algae from his ankles, a wolf
marking territory on his left shin

Caribou, mastodon, moose-elk, woods bison
wandering toward extinction. Mound Builders
heaping earth over the bones of their dead
a handful at a time until the mounds,
smoothed as round as breasts,
rose higher than their own heads,
were cloaked in green grass. The last Mound
Builders creeping past, without descendants
to put them safe to earth

The appearance of Attawandaronks, Algonkins,
Eries, Hurons, Senecas, Onondagas, Mississaugas,
Chippewas, Mohawks, Wyandots, Kahkwahs, Oneidas,
Wenroes, Tuscaroras, then streams of people
hide-covered, black-frocked, red-coated,
multi-clothed–the Seneca naming
the place Onnguiaahra (Ne-uh-ga’r-uh):
throat, suffering Brule, the traitor playing
them, French and British against one another
until, tiring of his treachery, they
boiled and ate him and because
one is seldom enough tortured
Father Brebeuf to death (1648)
and ate him also, the earth spattering
into that dark and bloody ground surviving
battle-defeated Hurons, and tattooed
Neutrals whose tribe went beneath the earth,
rose into mist, Hinu, their thunder god
unable to save them

Father Hennipen proclaiming the Falls
to plunge 600 feet, “the great Fall”
swallowing “down all animals
which try to cross it, without
a single one being able to withstand
its current…[waters foaming and boiling
…thundering continuously]”

The Devil’s Hole Massacre, where Senecas
cast wagon train and horses, clattering and rearing
over gorge edge, wagon wheels shattered roulette
sun-dial stopped, Merry-go-round, Ferris wheel,
eighty dead men sprawling with bloody skulls
scalps swinging in the shrieking air, those
who kept hair crumpled on rocks below—
survivors, two: Wagonmaster Stedman
who galloped toward the Falls to safety,
a drummer boy, tossed over the edge whose
drum straps caught in tree branches
who hangs there insensible, eyes
rolled back in his head

LaSalle’s Griffin sucked toward Falls
on Maiden voyage, Iroquois chief Gironkouthie
taking LaSalle to Devil’s Hole cave
where the voice of falling water
echoing in that stone mouth
foretold his death

Mrs. Simcoe belching and gorging herself
on sturgeon and whitefish, bragging
that the 5th Regiment had netted
one hundred sturgeon
and six hundred whitefish
in a single day
the seven hundred children of William Johnson
three by wife Mohawk Molly Brant
fanning out over the frontier
speaking in tongues, begetting
legions of tour guides who
aren’t working the portage, the I-Am-Crawling-
On-All-Fours, no more, but who
walk backwards, working the tourists step
right this way, walk this way
to the famous waterfalls of Niagara—
and millions of tourists
are walking backwards

Fort Niagara and the House of Peace
being one and the same, 5000 Iroquois
clustered around the Fort winter of 1779
afterward known as Starvation Winter

General Brock in a coat as red
as a bullseye, sword waving, charging
up the hill to forever, Come on you
scoundrels, do you want to live—
taking a rifle-bullet heart-center
of the chest and spake
not another word, leaving
the question unfinished, to be asked
in another century

rising atop stone tower: Brock’s Monument,
where he stands saluting those who later died
in Lundy’s Lane, nearly three hundred up
on a funeral pyre of fence rails, the river
flowing, automobiles going beneath his stone gaze

An entertainment in which the schooner
Michigan, with “a cargo of ferocious wild
animals” was advertised to be floated over
the “falls of NIAGARA, 8th September, 1827,”
after the “greatest exertion…
to procure Animals of the most ferocious kind,
but in lieu of these, which it may be impossible
to obtain, a few vicious or worthless dogs,”
which turned out, on the day of the spectacle,
to be a bison, two bears,
two raccoons, a dog,
and a goose.
Twenty-five thousand people, who
knew what entertainment was
when they saw it, lined the riverbanks
cheering and gasping

the bison lowered its head, got
into defensive posture against the roar
of the thing with wide water-mouth, hooves
splintering deck planks as it
heaved to stay balanced
and then went down, swallowed
entire, far from the prairie,
though cheered by the crowd.

Bridges, following a kite string
suspending and cantilevering themselves
across the gorge, wooden beams clunking,
planks rattling, pine against oak, steel
girders clanging like wind chimes, cables

thrumming, everything hanging: trains,
troops, homes and carriages, trucks, cars.
Bridges appearing, changing names
to avoid detection, disappearing:
The Queenston & Lewiston
Suspension Bridge: Gone
The Lewiston Arch
The Niagara Suspension: Gone
The Railway Suspension: Gone
The Railway Arch, Grand Trunk Railway, Grand
Trunk Railway Arch, Lower Steel Arch, Lower
Arch, Whirlpool Rapids Bridge
The Railway Cantilever Bridge: Gone
The Michigan Central Railway, The Canadian
Pacific Railway
The Upper Steel Arch, The Falls View Bridge,
The Honeymoon Bridge: Gone
The Rainbow Bridge

Age taking some, wind taking some, and ice
taking the Honeymoon and the Honeymoon’s
done—leaving the Rainbow
toward which we all run, arms spread,
ready to stumble over pots of gold,
over Canada, over Canaan, from where walked
The Reverend Josiah Henson, a head engineer
of the Underground Railway, over the 1850
Niagara Suspension, to meet Harriet
Beecher Stowe, who wrote the story he told:
Life Among the Lowly, though Henson’s
name was Josiah, and he wan’t no Uncle
Tom—he’d wangled seven hundred tickets
for fugitive slaves to ride
the Underground Line, sixteen
coaches long, pulling root cellars,
barns, secret rooms, shank’s mare,
dark woods, owls hooting

Campfires burning, fireplace logs and stove
wood snapping, torches flaring, candles
flickering, gas globe lamps glowing, canals
shovelscrape, wheelbarrow roll, horses
leaning into harness creaking, got
a mule, gal, Sal, Erie Canal, low
bridge everybody down, the Hydraulic Canal
through the breast of town, accepting knives,
pistols and broken strong boxes, the flowing
of river water to generator, dynamo,
Barge Canal, Birth Canal, Love Canal
walk, canal talk, canal come out and play.
Lights in dance-hall gin-mill nights,
thousands of windows square and rectangle-lighted,
electric days, electric nights,
the air humming with currents, bulb-gleaming
network sky-dropped to the land,
street, search, spot, colored-lens
light on falling water and mist-mingle
smoke and vapor, the slam of steel
on steel, furnace roar, molten ore
puddling, eye-burning, face-searing,
pour splattering, foundry and coal,
titanium, chromium, all massing
in great memoriam, railroads chuffing,
wheel-squealing, freight moving, long
drawn whistle blowing, industrial hymn
of grimy shirts and pants working, who
hang on wash day lines, river water clean,
chlorine scented, blue sky, daring the breeze
to dance a little, take a little chance,
time of your life, time and a half.

River thick with daredevils
shooting the lower rapids in barrels,
boats, swimming, across the gorge
on tightropes, over the Falls—

understood, if it’s big
whittle it down, stare at the shavings
wondering where it all went, domesticate
the wild, watch it caged until you
lose interest, if it’s wisdom be
a clown until the oracle’s language
is swallowed by laughter—or throw
yourself into its wide mouth, down
the throat—live or die, it can’t
spit you out

then it’s you, too, in history’s glory
an eye-blink, mote, memory trace,
footnote, debris afloat eternally
in the cliche of time’s river:

Sam Patch, jumper, in red trunks,
plunging down at attention, feet
first, arms at his sides, smiling
the 1829 prelim stunt
to tightrope walkers:

Jean Francois Gravelet
aka The Great Blondin, aka The Prince
of Manila, the original thriller, the World’s
Greatest Ropewalker, who walked the rope
in princely style, stood on one foot, perched
atop a chair, pushed a wheelbarrow, rode
a bicycle, walked at night, the tips
of his balancing pole marked by lights,
walked the rope with feet shackled in chains,
did somersaults, paused on the rope to take
pictures of the watching crowd, walked blind-folded
and, to the disappointment of gamblers,
who’d bet against him and cut supporting
wires mid-performance, carried his manager
across on his back, for which courage
Tuscaroras gave him gifts of beadwork.

Blondin’s rival, Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini,
aka William T. Hunt, born in Lockport, N.Y.,
ropewalked also, stood on his head, walked
the line with a sack over his body,
lowered a bucket, pulled up water
for his Irish Washerwoman act,
while perched on rope in air.

Harry Leslie, aka The American Blondin,
Professor Jenkin, aka The Canadian Blondin,
across the rope on a velocipede.
Signor Henry Ballini, aka funambulist,
whose specialty was to lower himself
center-rope on a rubber strap,
an 1873 bungee, and jump into the river.

Steve Perre, whose unrepeatable trick
was to fall to his death.

Signorina Maria Spelterini, forward
and backward across the rope, with wrists
and ankles manacled, with peach baskets
on her feet, with a paper bag over her head.

Clifford Calverly, speedster, across the rope
in two minutes, thirty-two seconds, skipped rope
on the ends of his balancing pole, out on
the rope on one foot, lying down, hanging by
one hand—the last of the rope walkers, 1890,
earns $56.00 The approaching 20th century
turns away from balancing acts, yawns.

Barrel riders and others through the lower rapids
and Whirlpool: Carlisle Graham; George Hazlett
and William Potts, who rode together, then George
again, with his girlfriend Sadie Allen; Martha
Wagonfuhrer; Maud Willard and her dog (the dog
lived); the same day Willard died,
Carlisle Graham swimming the rapids;
Charles Percy in a boat;
Robert Flack in a boat,
died in the attempt;
Walter Campbell in a boat
with his dog, capsizes, dog drowns;
Peter M. Nisseti, aka P.M. Bowser,
through the lower rapids
in the boat “Fool Killer.”

William Kendall, aided
by a life jacket, swims the Whirlpool rapids;
Captain Matthew Webb, the first to swim
the English Channel, tries the Lower
Niagara, dies, red bathing trunks
flashing from the crest of the Forty Foot Wave;
James Scott, swimmer, dies.

And the Hill rapids riders:
Red Hill, Sr., Red Hill, Jr., and Major Hill,
tossing through the rapids in steel barrel,
through the rapids, evading the police
round the Whirlpool, and down
through the rapids in barrels again, down past
Niagara Glen, battered and bleeding, and taking
on water, and crawling out to drink a beer,
to smoke a big cigar.

A rapids run in rubber raft,
twenty-three dumped in, three drown;
Ken Lagergren kayaks through rapids
and four years later again with four
others; Robert Glenville and eight
others kayak the lower rapids.

Karel Soucek, twice through the lower
rapids in steel, wearing a red,
white and blue headband;
Dave Munday through the rapids, whirlpool,
and into the woods, eluding the police.

And the one who first went over the Falls:
Annie Edson Taylor, in a wooden barrel
in which she’d sent a kitten, as a test,
ignoring its death because, even by her
reckoning, she was no kitten.

Bobby Leach, who took the trip in steel, took
a beating, breaking bones, his kneecaps, his jaw,
who sat on his barrel for a photograph, wearing
a bow tie and elastic bands around his white
shirt sleeves to keep his cuffs at the proper length,
who sat by the riveted hatch, holding a knobby cane.

Charles Stephens, who strapped himself
in a barrel, feet to the ballast anvil,
who on impact shot through barrel-bottom
and died, leaving an arm tattooed
Forget Me Not, still strapped inside,
as if to wave goodbye to the waiting crowd.

Jean Lussier, in a rubber ball, 4th of July
1928, came out smiling, waving flags,
the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes

George L. Stathakis, who wrote The Mysterious
Veil of Humanity through the Ages, who took
a pet turtle named Sonny Boy with him
over the brink, who spent nearly a day
behind the falling water—suffocated.
The turtle lived, but told no tale.

Red Hill, Jr., carrying silver dollars
a piece of the Blarney Stone, and a four-leaf
clover, went over in a barrel of inner
tubes, webbing, and net, but had no luck,
barrel going to pieces on impact—Hill
floating to the surface a day later.

William A. Fitzgerald, aka Nathan T. Boya, who
said he did it for “very, very personal reasons,”
over in a rubber ball: the Plunge-G-Sphere.
patterned after Lussier’s ride.

Karel Soucek, in 1984, in a red barrel,
“Last of Niagara’s Daredevils” painted on it.
who said afterward, “I feel fine.”

Steven Trotter, in August 1985, in modified
pickle barrel patterned after Hill’s;
Trotter sits relaxed on Gazette front page:
in checkered trunks, one leg crossed at the knee,
sun glasses around his neck, he’s smiling, displaying
newspaper headlines of his plunge in one hand, the other
making a thumb’s up sign as if he’s hitchhiking a ride
somewhere, or reviewing the movie of his life.

John D. Munday, in Oct. 1985, carrying a rabbit’s foot
and a silver dollar, whose barrel on which was painted
“To Challenge Niagara,” was hoisted into the water
above the Falls with the help of six tourists,
who had no idea he was inside.

Peter DeBernardi and Jeffery Petkovich,
Sept. 1989, over the Horseshoe Falls
in the same barrel, equipped with oxygen tanks,
strap-hammocks, Plexiglas windows, and a video
camera. “Don’t Put Yourself on the Edge—Drugs Will
Kill” it says on the barrel. “Like a roller coaster
ride…straight down,” Petkovich says afterward.
They stand together in the Gazette photo:
DeBernardi with unbuttoned shirt and mustache,
Petkovich with an arm around his shoulder,
smiling, a cowboy hat on his head.
Jessie W. Sharp, June, 1990, over
the Horseshoe to his death in red kayak,
“Rapidman” stenciled on it in black.

Me going, looking for Niagara, believing
what’s lost might still be sound, checking
out the Lost and Found, sending invitations—
let us go then me and you or was it you
and I? While smokestacks and observation
towers stick up into the haze
of the helicoptered sky like spears
in the soft gut of a slow dumb
dying beast shambling invisible
through tourist crowd, always
in the background the falling water
sound, a shroud down over rock face,
mist rising straight up, a signal seen
for miles and miles, here, right here,
this is the place, though Twain saw it
as paradise lost, and poked fun at it,
though Hawthorne had to go at it
more than once before he got it,
though Whitman didn’t even try,
but described it from inside
a train, sitting on a bridge,
and Dickens broke off a piece of its rock
thinking he could take it home with him.

Well, Charlie, I want that rock back.
Some descendant or other of yours has it,
on a shelf, or sinking forgotten
into the ground of an English garden—
so you and yours stand accused
and there’ll be no pardon until it’s back
here, cemented on from where it split off
at the smack of that hammer. Where do
you get off, anyway? Just because you can
write a little doesn’t mean you can bust
up pieces of the New World, of Niagara,
and carry them away.

Me going along the escarpment, over rock,
between trees, gorge at my back, shoes torn,
left sole flapping, tied with string,
looking for some sign, for a footprint,
for anything—there’s a hawk drifting,
riding the current down over the Million
Dollar Highway, the vineyards, looking, too,
and it’s dark when I pull up over the top
go cross-country onto Tuscarora land,
heading toward music, stumble
into festival as if into dream, fires
burning, moon floating above the horizon
and Allen Ginsberg’s there talking
to a girl who wants to write, who’s
asking How do I get the moon
into a poem? while it’s shining pale
light into her face and Ginsberg’s
saying gently, Write the moon.

That’s it, for sure, but while he’s standing
smiling beatifically there’s this moon soaring,
this hunter’s, harvest, beyond supergibbous
halved-muskmelon moon, this full and gorgeous
heart-break, honey-dripping honeymoon
Niagara moon hanging in the black sky
as pretty as anything ever done on velvet.
It’s a vampire moon, a werewolf moon,
enough to make anybody, or anything, throw
back its head, or whatever it’s got, and howl.

And it’s me going again, dogs whooping it up
way back in the dark, foxes barking, coyotes
crying, owls hooting, all manner of howling
at my back, even the wolf-spiders and sunflowers
and goldenrod raising their reedy voices,
and the snakes, and eels, the turtles, the toads
and frogs, a hoarse and treble screaming and snipe
keening in night thickets, ghost bear roaring,
deer snorting and blatting, the fish poking
stiff jaws and pouting mouths out of the water
and sputtering a cold chorus, lovers
and those who aren’t lovers tossing
their heads back and making noises, babies
wailing, and the dead whispering—a great
clashing, caterwauling, yowling howl for Niagara.

From reservoir’s top, waiting river water
awash with the rippling sound, with moonlight,
high tension towers stalking spread-legged
and stiff-armed holding up their lines, me going
past under them, scrambling flap-soled over roads,
railroad tracks, through fields, shoe-mouth
jamming full of tom grasses, and breathless
me accepting a bag of smelt from fishermen
walking with lanterns and flashlights
near the river now, it’s been a bloody run,
the Falls falling, with that nighttime,
car-horn, wind-chime in the ear calling,
sneaking, wild howling in the memory,
shoe aflop down the streets where
the tourist-dressed are strolling, who
look up at buildings, around in space,
at the moon, with puzzlement of face
Where, they’re asking the air, is it?

And do I point toward rumble, say
Over there? Who’d care? I’m waiting
for my vision, too, cooking for it,
got a trash fire going in a pothole
near the curb where old Whirlpool turns
toward the Falls, got smelt frying
in a garbage can lid, taking a sit
on the curbstone, poking fire with a stick,
looking for a hit of dioxin, PCBs, lead,
mirex, nickel, acid, grass, crack, crank.
smack, tossing back my fourth smelt
with beer, when the cops pull up.

The flash of tourist cameras
attracted them: I got a sign on cardboard
says “Niagara’s Underclass,” grease running
down my chin, burrs in my hair, mud smeared
pants, a howl in the back of my throat,
a shoe that looks ready to talk. I’m
feeling, in other words, right at home.

Released on my own running recognizance, I’m
pounding through back lots, yards, hitting berms
and medians before I realize they’re back there
laughing, not in pursuit—they’ve got what’s left
of my smelt, and they have other flakes to fry.

Me circling back, going toward the Falls finding
deserted streets, alleys, watching for headlights
behind, for piles of garbage, discarded mattresses
ahead, where I’d throw myself if a car hit the alley,
where I’d be just somebody sleeping one off,
or just another body waiting for collection,
another casualty of urban renewal.

Over the night barricades and across
the old bridge to Goat Island, sticking to the trees,
an imagined woods in the dark, sneaking in and out
of a moon-soaked clearing where Red Jacket sits
patiently, dew on his hair, small round likeness
of George Washington around his neck, waiting
for dawn, for the artist to reappear,
to finish painting his picture—
his eyes following me across the clearing,

me going across the road into the brush
toward the brink of the Falls, looking
down, not to see it until the last.

Shuffling slow through a half century
of disintegrating flash bulbs crunching
under my feet, my broken sole, bulbs and cubes,
ankle-deep in a litter of film wrappers and foil—
lifting my eyes to the slick beast leaping thick
with wonderment, swans and snakes, beauty
of plumage and scale curving over the edge
in mindless thundering, terrible fear
of graceful necks and flow of body relentlessly
plunging, growling, throaty, swallowing all,
everything down in the unseen dark right beside
me, for a moment only—then gone to water
flowing behind an aluminum railing.

Lifting my disposable lighter
in the dark, and flicking, thumbsore,
for no flame, not even a single birthday
candle flicker. Nothing sustains, nothing
found forever and I’m dropping my wheel and flint
into the litter around my feet, into the linger
of original wonder, and turning stumbling back
to the streets and houses of the world.

Source: E.R. Baxter III. Looking for Niagara. Niagara Falls, N.Y. : Slipstream Press, 1993.

This poem is also published in the collection Niagara Lost and Found: New and Selected Poems by E.R. Baxter III.

Read about E. R. Baxter III


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