Leaping by Donna-Lee Smith

Niagara, 1857 by Frederic Edwin Church
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art


The first time it happened was on a family holiday when the parents piled the four of us into the back seat of our wood-panelled Plymouth station wagon, circa 1959.

Dan 10
moi  9
Deb  5
Dave 4

I hear ya, the 4 Ds, what were they thinking?

We piled in, we were piled on, we were on a camping trip from Ottawa to see the falls, the mythical falls!
A long day journey with moi pleading car sickness so I could sit up front and not stay squished in the back with the squabblers.  I know, you’re wondering how can 4 kids be packed into the back seat of a station wagon: no problem: this trip was 20 years prior to that belt legislation. Plus, we had Heidi with us, a usually sweet dachshund, but cranky car companion. What were they thinking?
Am writing this in the throes of slouching towards 75, can’t remember anything much about the actual road trip. But we must’ve played horses and cemeteries. You get points for horses you see in the fields and you lose all your points if someone yells ‘cemetery’. This requires lots of I saw it first. 
But I do remember the awestruckness of seeing the falls, feeling the mist, the magnetism of the cataract, the thunderous roar, the trembling…and the irresistible desire, more the irresistible need, to leap. To be one with the shoots, the flumes, the brume….
Even today, with small cascades, like Hogsback Falls on the Rideau River in Ottawa, I want to leap. 
Anyone out there feel the same tug?
Perhaps Annie Edson Taylor did when she first saw Niagara Falls. To design and build a barrel, at age 63, and throw herself into the river and over the falls! We’re talking a drop of 160 feet, a flow rate of 85,000 cubic feet per second! Though she was the first person to survive this remarkable feat, she was not the risk taker you might take her for: she sent her cat over the precipice a few days earlier, and he survived.
You? Would you go over Niagara Falls for fame and fortune? 

This prose-poem, inspired by Frederic Edwin Church’s 1857 painting Niagara, was first published in The Ekphrastic ReviewOctober 20, 2023 in their Ekphrastic Challenges series. Read about ekphrastic poetry in Niagara.
Donna-Lee Smith and friend
Donna-Lee Smith writes mostly from Montreal, but also from an off-the-grid cabin in the Laurentian hills north of the city, where bears raid the blueberries and wolves commune with the moon. At other times she writes from Gotland Island (Baltic Sea) where her grandchildren also eat blueberries and commune in Swedish.
She has a hankering to leap.

Chernobyl by John Wall Barger

Annie Edson Taylor, Queen of the Mist, After Her Trip Over the Horseshoe Falls
Photo by M.H. Zahner
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

Annie Edson Taylor
first to survive Niagara Falls in a barrel
she is our heroine.
The Zone glitters like a mirage
an abandoned city
à la Tarkovsky’s Stalker
fizzing with radiation.
Taylor—praise her—sleepwalks
on the lawn of the soporific
hospital.  She blinks,
eyes yellow, shadowed
by the central chimney.
Is it a lighthouse in the desert?
The Zone wears her dream
like a gown.  The hospital
wears the rubble like a gown.
Taylor wears a long black dress
& a fruit hat.  Front stairs
of the hyperacute hospital,
Taylor coughs, on her knees.
How, you wonder,
did she get here?  Don’t ask me.
I wanted to write a poem
to exalt a nice thing.
Yet here she is, spasming,
spitting a dark thread.
“Stop!”  you say, “Don’t go in!”
Yet in she goes.
Her black dress slips off
& her fruit hat.  She is naked
walking the hallway
past rooms of box-spring beds.
Here is a room heaped
with clothes: firefighter boots,
gas masks. Sooty tables,
murky slime.  An arthritic tree
curls in a shattered window.
A box-spring so tiny
It could be a doll’s bed.
Taylor stops, bows low,
palms together, mumbling words
I can’t even hear.
I’m tempted to remind her
she died sixty-five years 
before Chernobyl.
But now she’s alert,
back straight, listening
with her whole body
for what? I beg her
to put on the fruit hat,
just for the end of the poem.
It’s not too late!
But she keeps tossing it
onto a pile
of melted toys.

Source: John Wall Barger.  The Mean Game. Windsor, Ont.: Palimpsest Press, 2019.

Visit the website of John Wall Barger 

Follow Barger on social media @johnwallbarger

Read about Annie Edson Taylor


El Barril by James Thomas Stevens

Annie Edson Taylor’s Tombstone in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York. Image courtesy of James Thomas Stevens

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

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.

View a far-reaching conversation between James Thomas Stevens and Prageeta Sharma in Bomb, issue 148, September 17, 2019, in which El Barril is discussed

King of the Mist by Diana Williamson

Annie Taylor, “Queen of the Mist,” posing with the cat, “The King of the Mist,” and the barrel used to go over Niagara Falls. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

Annie Edson Taylor

Wanted to be first over the falls

A school teacher from New York

She was gonna’ show them all

She had a custom barrel made

But first tested it on a cat

The poor thing plunged over the falls

It had no say, cause that was that

Luckily the cat emerged

A little tattered but still alive

So on her 63rd birthday, 1901

Ms. Taylor, finally took her dive


They called her Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist

The first to conquer the falls

But in real actuality

The cat deserved it all

The glory, the title, the award for the first

The cat deserves it all

Cause the Queen of the Mist, the Queen of the Mist

Was the second to conquer the Falls


She peddled her wares for many a day

As souvenirs to passers by

‘Til her manager ran off with the famous barrel

And the detectives bled her dry

She swore she’d never do such a feat again

That once, was already too much

They say she lived from hand to mouth

And the fame was never enough

But the tawdry cat he lived the life

Fat on rats and crumpets and tea

Everyone wanted to know the cat

Who was famous, as famous can be


Sometimes you can hear them play their jazz

Near midnight along the old lagoon

They call him King of the Mist

And so they wrote him this tune…..

©2020 by Diana Williamson

Source: Diana Williamson, 2020

Visit Diana Williamson’s website

Read more about Annie Edson Taylor

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