Gazing on rapids mighty sea,
Struggling fiercely to be free,
But drawn downwards in its course
By gravitation’s wondrous force,
O’er those perpendicular walls,
Hurled ’mong mighty rocks it falls,
Causing the earth to throb and shake
Like to the tremor of earthquake.
Thus the world’s greatest wonder
Reverberates like peals of thunder,
Enshrined with mist and beauteous glow
Of varied tints of the rainbow,
Most glorious sight the human eye
Hath ever seen beneath the sky,
Along these banks none ever trod
But did feel grateful to his God,
For lavishing with bounteous hand
Glories majestic and so grand.
The foaming billows soon are seen
Transformed into a beauteous green,
Plunged by whirlpools dread commotion
It becomes a seething ocean,
Where furies join in surging dance
From centre to circumference,
This is the favorite abode
Of Neptune, mightiest sea God,
He hath decreed none shall survive
Who will into this vortex dive.
Webb swam the English channel brave,
Like seabird he did love to lave
His breast upon the mightiest wave,
Alas, found here a watery grave;
Torrent onward rushes frantic
On its course to the Atlantic,
But on its way doth gently flow
Through blue lake Ontario,
Rejoicing on its way it smiles,
Kissing the shores of Thousand Isles,
Mingling with St. Lawrance motion,
It soon is blended with the ocean.
Source: Niagara’s Charms and Death of Webb was published in McIntyre, James. Poems of James McIntyre. Ingersoll: The Chronicle, 1889.
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.
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.
Rapids rage, in furrows to their end and fall, Off the edge, as if dropping off the face of the earth And thunder resonates, as foam and mist rise, Into nature’s cauldron, that churns and abounds.
A family possessed with this mighty river,
Gain fame meeting its constant challenge
Traversing the worst of treacherous rapids
Yet needing to conquer the Cataracts alone.
Their barrels, carrying father and son,
Each defied those waters several times,
Passing through the swirling whirlpool,
Wallowing in the cheers of their success.
Immersed in steel barrels, over they rolled
The tumultuous waves bob them like cork
Captive prisoners’ to nature’s full wrath,
Death looms in those currents…beware!
Father dies and son now takes the torch,
Family honor means pay forward the promise.
The ultimate challenge of Niagara looms,
Over the falls is his next ride to glory.
His commitment made, one year hence
Work starts on his device to conquer.
Inner tubes netted securely with rope,
Named “The Thing”, standing beside it proud.
The August day comes, glory will now, be his.
His crew readies him for his timely journey.
One last wave he enters his creation.
Capped, the darkness opens his mind.
Visions of glory mask the fear he felt.
His vessel rides the rapids, weaving waves,
He rides the path, to the brink, of his desire.
Soon the deafening thunder; he knows he’s close!
A sudden surge and he vanishes in white
His stomach drops with a deadly plunge
And darkened silence brings the end,
To a promise, broken, by a son who dared.
A mother’s cry on the quiet shore of rock
“Where’s my boy what’s happened?”
Brothers scramble to find their daring sibling,
In the waters, churning cold, before them.
Remnants of rubber and frayed broken rope
Leave no doubt as the fate of Red Hill Jr.
Swallowed by a watery tomb, his nemesis.
A day later he is washed to familiar arms.
What tragic price this thing we call honor.
The need to challenge what nature creates.
A family possessed by a river so cruel
Close, but never fulfilling their ultimate goal.
Rapids rage in furrows to their end and fall, Off the edge as if dropping off the face of the earth And thunder resonates, as foam and mist rise, Into nature’s cauldron, that churns and abounds.
A note from Bill Hamilton:
In 1951 Wm. Red Hill Jr. created a barrel-like vessel using large inner tubes surrounded by canvas and secured by netting. He named this contraption “The Thing”. His mission, honor a Hill family promise, to ride this device over Niagara Falls. On August 5th he climbed into his creation and was released to his fate. Needless to say, his plight ended in tragedy. The loss of a son and brother to the Thunderous Cataracts of Niagara!
I own the Red Hill Estate including the 3 Hill daredevil barrels currently on display at the IMAX theatre.
Biography of Bill Hamilton:
My interest in writing started in University at Waterloo. Reactivated by the NOTL Writer’s Circle I have had several of my works published. Poetry is my main passion and my poem “Angel’s Ghost” hangs in Ontario’s oldest tavern the “Angel Inn” in Niagara on the Lake. I am currently working on an anthology of poetry for publication.
My poem “The Thing” was a topic of interest, as I own the Red Hill estate barrels on display at the IMAX Theatre here in Niagara. I grew up with stories of the many Daredevils of Niagara, which inspired this poem.