Epiphanies on the First Cold Day by Robert Billings

The cover of Before the Heart Went Down by Robert Billings

I thought there was nothing in the fields of light
that was not there in darkness

After breakfast in a quiet house
surrounded by pastures of new frost
my heart crouches believing
the next sound will be
something it can sing

This is my persistent nightmare

I jump into a shallow river
Hy feet sink in mud
to mid-calf, the top
of my head
just breaks the surface

It’s November:
too soon for ice
to preserve me

At noon I warm my hands at the apples
ripening on a window sill

The smell of cold through an open window

On the corner of my desk
is a print of a mother-goddess
in a black plastic frame:

Third century B.C.

The guide-book defines
means living together

Sometimes a glancing blow
is the back of my wife’s hand
slowly down my thigh

And so it comes back to this

In Munich 1974
a man in a bar
said a cormorant
dropping from a cliff
is the soul of
whatever flung this
earth on the sea

Midnight on the highway through Perth County
wearing sunglasses against the headlights
I bite through the cold skin of an apple

Source: Waves vol 11, no 2 & 3, Winter 1983

Robert Billings, born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and raised Fort Erie, became well known in Canadian literary circles as a poet, critic, teacher,  and editor of Poetry Canada Review and Poetry Toronto.  In 1983 he penned the poem “Epiphanies of the First Cold Day.” Epiphany 2 foreshadowed his eventual fate. In 1986 after his marriage broke down and bouts of depression hit him, he threw himself into the Niagara River. His body was not recovered until six months later.

Fellow poet and editor Herb Barrett paid tribute to Billings in his poem For Robert Billings

Watch the video At the Brink: A Personal Look at Suicides Over Niagara Falls by Michael Clarkson. Clarkson was a long-time friend of Robert Billings, who is one of the people discussed in the video.

For Robert Billings by Herb Barrett

The Niagara Gorge, c1900.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress


whose body was recovered
from the Niagara Gorge

Some things leave us speechless
‡‡‡‡‡fear of the unknown
‡‡‡‡‡confronting death
‡‡‡‡‡falling in & out of love
‡‡‡‡‡trouble so acute
‡‡‡‡‡we feel strapped
‡‡‡‡‡in a strait jacket
‡‡‡‡‡with no road back
‡‡‡‡‡no forward
‡‡‡‡‡mute as a sacrifice
‡‡‡‡‡waiting to be rendered

‡‡‡‡‡was beauty created
‡‡‡‡‡poems spun
‡‡‡‡‡like tapestries
‡‡‡‡‡to enhance
‡‡‡‡‡the bleak corners
‡‡‡‡‡of existence

‡‡‡‡‡some dark corrosive
‡‡‡‡‡ate at the spirit
‡‡‡‡‡the eclectic rocket
‡‡‡‡‡somewhere misfired

‡‡‡‡‡who can judge
‡‡‡‡‡the why
‡‡‡‡‡the day
‡‡‡‡‡desolate as famine
‡‡‡‡‡that drove you
‡‡‡‡‡to the brink
‡‡‡‡‡lonely as a last moment
‡‡‡‡‡your body engulfed
‡‡‡‡‡by roaring mist…

‡‡‡‡‡the cruel rocks
‡‡‡‡‡keep their secret
‡‡‡‡‡where a cry ends
‡‡‡‡‡and silence begins

Source:  Canadian Author & Bookman, Vol. 63, no.3, Spring 1988

Robert Billings, a Niagara Falls, Ontario, native, became well known in Canadian literary circles as a poet, critic, teacher,  and editor of Poetry Canada Review and Poetry Toronto.  In 1983 he penned the poem “Epiphanies of the First Cold Day.”  Epiphany 2 reads in part:

This is my persistent nightmare:
I jump into a shallow river
My feet sink in mud to mid-calf, the top of my head just breaks the surface
It’s November
Too soon for the ice to preserve me.

In Waves, vol. 11, issue 2/3, winter 1983

In 1986 after his marriage broke down and bouts of depression hit him, he threw himself into the Niagara River. His body was not recovered until six months later.

Read “Epiphanies of the First Cold Day” here

Herb Barrett (c1912-1995) was a poet who first published in the Hamilton Spectator in the 1930s, helped found the Canadian Poetry Association, and was a long-time poetry magazine editor.  The Haiku Foundation named The Herb Barrett Award after him.

The Buildings of the Dream by Cole McInerney

Electric Power Transmission Corridor. Photo by Cole McInerney

The Riall Heights Plaza was a refuge in all weather 

You come
through the door,
yelling about the Republican Party
and the pandemic response,
high on speed.
Magnifying the voices
of breathless men
who score the TV.
Winning in the poll,
losing as I leave.

Racing the sparkling,
champagne SUVs
which pour down the street.
Asking for a truce
once they take the lead.
Passing a string of houses
with front yard pesticides
and driveway gates.
The kid sleeping inside,
born with a royal name.

Settling at the commercial plaza
which shelters a bar,
campaign office,
and other businesses;
which end and begin to end again.
Beneath the desperate cover
of a patio umbrella,
I find a childhood friend.
just as the rain collapses
on the peeling parking lot.

We talk about holidays,
the pitcher pricing,
and attempting to forget
every lie we’ve told,
as we create the next.
The rain moves on
in a moment of disbelief.
Likely toward downtown.
Standing to walk home, he says
you better not fucking die.

Source: The author, 2021

Cole McInerney is a student studying English at Ryerson University. He lives in Toronto. He was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario. His poems have been published in several print and online publications, including Dots PublicationsThe Continuist, and Lippy Kids.

Follow Cole McInerney on Instagram

See Cole McInerney’s other poems on the Niagara Falls Poetry Project website:

•     Lake Erie
•     Russell Street

My Grandmother Was a Waitress in Niagara Falls by FJ Doucet

Fallsview Boulevard in centre of photo, running from top to bottom. This is at the bottom of the hill. Imax Theatre on right, Best Western large rectangular building on left. Niagara Falls is to the right of this photo. August 22, 2005. Photo by Alina Rashid. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

My grandmother at forty woke up before dawn
to dress, put on make-up, and curl her hair.
She was divorced, a mother of five, and a waitress
at the Best Western hotel in Niagara Falls.

The job started at eight o’clock but, always,
she left her apartment on Main Street early. Turned
the key in the lock. The click in the lock
told her she had the freedom to claim the open,

silent walk. She was a waitress at the Best
Western hotel in Niagara Falls. The boss was waiting
at the job, but the shift started at eight o’clock,
and just after dawn my grandmother still found worlds

of time. Worlds enough to breathe the air and know
she was alive. In 1980, in Niagara Falls,
the air smelled of water and smoke and big car
engines. Morning leavings of tourist bacchanals

performed all night before. But she didn’t care
for any of that. She was a waitress at the Best
Western hotel, and when she walked down
the Fallsview Boulevard hill she knew—she was alive.

These days my grandmother’s legs are frail
as the stilts of dying birds, but four decades back
they were still strong enough to work all day—
work and wake again before the dawn, wake

to descend the last stretch of hill. Watch
the rising sun turn Niagara’s jagged trench
and torrent liquid gold. Now at eighty years,
my grandmother trains my gaze with misty eyes

and lifts a brittle claw. When I was forty,
she confides, I was a waitress at the Best Western
hotel. Every morning before work, I’d walk down
to Niagara Falls. Watched the water. Knew

I was alive.  A smile snakes across her skull. You know,
I thought I was so old. My God, she whispers,
I’d give anything now to be forty. Walk
down the hill to the water. Alive.

Source: FJ Doucet, 2021

FJ Doucet’s work has been published in grey borders magazine, The Banister, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Red Bird Chapbook website, Ascent Aspirations, and The Lyric. She is the newest president of the Brooklin Poetry Society. Doucet was born and mostly raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and though she has since lived on three continents, Niagara continues to haunt her.

Click here to visit the website of FJ Doucet

Journal of a Day’s Journey in Upper Canada in October, 1816 by Erieus (Adam Hood Burwell)

Niagara Falls. To Thomas Dixon esq. this view of the American Fall taken from Goat Island / painted & engd. by W.J. Bennett, 1829. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The air was soft, the sky was clear
October’s sun shone mild and fair,
With orb depress’d and slanting ray,
While hastening round the autumnal day;
With mellow fruit the orchard hung,
Where birds the parting chorus sung,
And spread their opening wings to fly —
For winter frown’d in northern sky,
Black o’er the wide-extended plain
The crested buckwheat wav’d amain;
The Indian corn along the vale
Bow’d rustling to the passing gale —
Scene of delight! Reward of toil,
The product of a genial soil.
‡‡Fort Gorge is now far in my rear,
And the great cataract I hear: —
And shall I pass? No, turn and see
Thy wonders, famed Niagara.**
There the Saint Lawrence silent glides,
A broad and smooth, yet rapid, tide;
Then, tumbling with a sudden force,
It tosses on its foaming course,
Resistless o’er its craggy bed,
Where many a huge rock lifts its head;
Then down the steep the torrent rolls,
And scarce the rock its rage controuled.
The bowels of the earth profound
It pierces with unfathom’d wound,
There dark and deep the chasm lies,
Round which huge cliffs tremendous rise;
Dense clouds of spray, an awful brow!
O’erhang, obscure, the space below,
Admitting scarce the dubious eye
Where, half conceal’d, dark wonders lie.
The bow of heaven, a glorious sight,
Arches the spray in splendour bright,
While, unobscured, the king of day
Shoots down his bright effulgent ray,
The wandering fish-hawk, seeking prey,
Hither perchance, directs his way;
But ah! he finds no finny brood
To tempt him in the foaming flood,
The eagle, as he passes by,
Casts o’er the scene a scowling eye;
Amazed, looks from the dizzy height,
And claps his wings for surer flight.
While the deep bellowing thunder breaks,
The trembling earth, percussive, shakes —
It totters on its quivering base,
And seems as moving from its place.
Heaven’s thunders scarce, tho’ dread to hear,
More dreadful strike the astonish’d ear,
Or dire tempest rolling vast,
Borne on the force compelling blast —
The terrors of the storm combined,
So forcibly can strike the mind,
Emerging from a veil of spray,
The river shoots its giddy way,
Deep channel’d in its rocky course
With eddies, whirls, and sweeping force.
The towering rocks, a dreadful show,
Dark frowning, shade the tide below,
And cast a drear and solemn gloom,
Like deep destruction’s yawning tomb.
There, from the river’s stormy breast,
An island rears its shaggy crest:
With rugged rocks ’tis verged around —
With venerable hemlocks crown’d,
And cedars tall, whose evergreen
Adds to the bold, majestic scene.
Below the isle, from both its sides,
Two tumbling torrents join their tides,
And boiling, plunging, foam away,
Mantled in froth, and veiled in spray.
‡‡Here oft the raised spectator stands
Astonish’d — with uplifted hands —
His eye is fix’d in steadfast gaze —
His soul is chain’d in deep amaze —
His tongue forgets its power to speak —
Imagination — wilder’d weak —
Fancy, unfledg’d descends from flight, —
Confounded — lost, in such a sight! —
What dread sublimity is here!
What awful grandeur doth appear!
We ponder on the scene before
Our eyes — we turn — we view once more:
Then turn away with mind deep fraught —
Big with unutterable thought.
‡‡But yonder is that bloody field
Where war’s dire thunders lately peal’d,
With mingled groans, and savage yell,
While death-guns told their awful knell.
Yes, here, though dreadful to be told,
Here has the rage of battle roll’d,
Here tears of blood Columbia shed,
And here Britannia’s bosom bled,
Here the war-trump’s provoking blast
Roused many a soldier for the last —
And here life’s crimson flow’d amain,
While hundreds bit the gory plain.
And here the cannon’s fiery breath
Belch’d out destruction, flames, and death.
O’er the sad subject of this tale
Night hung a dark and sable veil.
Confusion rear’d his gorgon-head,
While fate was glutted with the dead.
Ah! must the mournful harp be strung!
Ah! must the solemn dirge be sung.
Shall widow tears in torrents flow
While listening to the tales of woe?
Must parents mourn their offspring dear,
And orphans murmur as they hear?
The maid betrothed, in beauty’s bloom —
Ah! death has waved his sable plume
O’er him whose vows engaged thy heart —
But cease recording muse! I start!
My soul recoils, and hangs between —
Come, silence, then, and close the awful scene!*
‡‡No longer could I bear to stay,
But up the river bent my way,
And sought the old paternal spot
Where first existence frail I got, —
Where first the breath of life I drew,
And first my mother’s kindness knew,
Serene in mild effulgence drest,
The sun was sinking down the west,
And Erie murmur’d on his shore
A gentle, dying, soothing roar.
The well known sound I quickly knew —
My boyish rambles rose to view,
Distinct in idea, though away
On time’s swift flight full many a day,
In youth how often did I lave
My limbs in Erie’s limpid wave,
Or sat me down upon the shore
To hear the tumbling billows roar,
Or have I climb’d the hill and stood
To view the tempest-beaten flood
Or frolick’d round in wanton play,
Or chaunted to the woodland lay!
But ah! those happy days are past —
For me a different die is cast —
The silver lake remains no more —
The sandy beach — the pebbly shore —
They all are fled — and manhood brings
A thousand cares upon his wings:
The chequer’d paths of pain and woe
Engross my steps where’er I go,
While clouds of error gather round
Impenetrable, dark, profound,
Alas! frail man! it is thy lot,
And sure thou canst avoid it not.
But for these troubles all combined,
Can we no consolation find?
Is there nought in this world below
But toil and trouble, pain and woe?
O yes! a cure for every wound
Has our adored creator found: —
He’s told us friendship, love, and truth
Should guard us, up to age from youth,
And meek religion’s heavenly ray
Direct us to eternal day.
‡‡I pass’d the wood, where, when a lad,
With cudel arm’d, and buck-skin clad,
With faithful Gunner by my side,
On such emergencies oft tried,
I’d venture forth to seek the cows,
And drove them home at night from browse,
Led by the tinkling of the bell,
Which welcome news to me did tell.
Oft have I sought, and sought in vain,
And luckless turn’d me home again,
Retraced my steps with eager bound,
Yet watched, alarm’d at every sound;
For then the sun had sunk to lave
His disc in Huron’s purple wave.
Oft then as I remember well,
The owl began his evening yell,
And hooted from his hollow tree,
Gods! how his screeches frightened me! —
Gunner I’d call, yet scarce could spare
A whistle or a breath of air,
And keep him closely by my side,
For on his courage I relied.
Bears, wolves and foxes, dreadful foes,
In my imagination rose,
And all the formidable train
Terror could picture on my brain.
Whene’er I heard the bushes crack
I thought them bouncing on my back,
And twitch’d about my head to see
What monster was attacking me!
But ah! how would my bounding heart
Within my bursting jacket start,
When thro the opening trees I saw
The fields, the house, the barn and a’,
Then courage kindled in my breast,
And boldly I defied the beast
That howled so hideous in my rear,
And made my body quake with fear.
Around the evening fire I’d tell
Of the terrific, frightful yell,
And having just escap’d the claw
Of monster that I never saw.
My listening brothers gather’d near,
Intent my every word to hear,
Believed the stories that I told,
And wondered how I was so bold.
‡‡But now I see the fields arise
And greet my long desiring eyes —
My father’s fields — where early day,
My boyish years I pass’d away.
There stand, deep rooted in the soil
The stumps, memorials of my toil: —
There have I swung the axe around
And fell’d the tall trees to the ground,
And listened to the echoing roar,
The fields resounding o’er and o’er:
There have I often held the plow,
And mark’d the field with furrows thro’: —
And here my father once did crack
The oxgood smartly round my back,
Because I did refuse to do
What he was pleased to bid me to.
There oft beneath that plumb tree’s shade, [sic]
I’ve loll’d a summer’s day and play’d.
Or early at the rising morn
I’ve scared the black-birds from the corn,
Arm’d with a sling, and nimbly thrown
Amidst their flocks the whizzing stone,
And forced  the thief to quit his prey,
And spread his wings and flit away.
There old Van Hoozer once went by,
And caught me treading down the rye: —
He call’d —  I ran — he broke a switch —
But I was quickly out of reach.
There oft, beneath the burning sun
The sharp, the keen-edged scythe I’ve swung,
Or spread the new-mown swathe to dry,
While Phoebus glowed in southern sky.
Oft have on this same ground I tread,
My inexperienced fingers bled,
When first I did the sickle wield
To reap the harvest off the field: —
But what for that? — the golden year
Brought the reward of labour near, —
The sheaves upraised their heads around,
And joy and pleasure did abound.
‡‡But cease! — my journey’s at an end —
Out bounces Gunner — good old friend! —
With hearty welcome home once more
He turns to lead me to the door: —
My parents are alive and well, —
Then think the rest — I can not tell.

Port Talbot, U.C.

Adam Hood Burwell published poems under the pen name Erieus

Source: Burwell, Adam Hood.  The Poems of Adam Hood Burwell, Pioneer Poet of Upper Canada. ed. by Dr. Carl F. Klinck. (Western Ontario History Nuggets no. 30, May 1963). London, Ont.: Lawson Memorial Library, The University of Western Ontario, 1963

First published in The Scribbler of Montreal, in two parts.  vol. 2, 18 July 1822, p. 39-42 & * p. 47-52

Click here for a biography of Adam Hood Burwell

** [A note by the Editor of The Scribbler]: “The rhyme here would require Niagara to be pronounced Niagaree. It is singular that the name of this celebrated cataract should be pronounced in a totally different manner on this side of the Atlantic, from what it is in Europe. Here. and all over the new continent, it is pronounced, Niagara, Europeans call it Niagara, which is the way it is accented by Thomson, and the other English poets who have occasion to use it. As it is originally an Indian name, it would be worth while to inquire how the aborigines pronounced it; old inhabitants say that in their youth, it was pronounced even here, Niagāra.”