Source: Niagara Powerhouse by Joseph Housley was first published in Nashville Review, Issue 39, December 2022.
Joseph Housley’s poems have appeared in The New York Quarterly, Nashville Review, The Shore, and Sixth Finch, as well as other journals and anthologies. He was selected for a residency at Hewnoaks and received an MFA in poetry from The New School. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.
Tonight (May 18) at 7pm I’ll be doing the online presentation “The Niagara Way of Death: Depictions of Death & Near Death in the Poetry of Niagara Falls” at the Niagara Poetry Guild meeting. Please join us through the link at Meetup
Death is a pervasive topic in the poetry written about Niagara Falls. In the poetry of the 19th century, the Falls themselves were seen as a metaphor for death – the approach to death, the brink between life & death, the fall into purgatory, the ascension to heaven & the covenant between the human and the divine. See how the poetry of previous times as well as today reflect those metaphors, and how the 18 categories of death at Niagara Falls is treated in the poetry of the last 250 years.
Originally presented at the Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, Andrew Porteus will be sharing with us “The Niagara Way of Death: Depictions of Death and Near-Death Experiences at Niagara Falls” a 45 minute slide presentation.
The last few days my wife, Louise and I have been in San Antonio, Texas, for the 53th annual Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association 53rd annual conference. I was presenting “The Niagara Way of Death: Depictions of Death and Near-Death in the Poetry of Niagara Falls,” a more academic, but briefer version of a presentation that I had done at the Lundy’s Lane Historial Society meeting earlier in the week. The panel that I was on, “Poetry Studies & Creative Poetry IV: Forgetting What the Fox Says: Nature in Pop Culture” included presentations by Li Zhuang, Marlon Fick, and Gwen Hart. and the whole poetry stream of the PCA conference (8 sessions over 2 days) had been organized by Professor Katie Manning. It was a good combination of creative poetry and more theoretical presentations. One of the interesting discussions that followed was about overcoming imposter syndrome, the feeling that despite skills, talents, and accomplishments people have an internalized feeling of being a fraud. That feeling is what prompted me to get my MA degree in Popular Culture after I retired, to give solid academic credentials to the work that I have been doing for decades with the Niagara Falls Poetry Project. The stream ended with dinner at the Iron Cactus Mexican Grill, on the San Antonio RiverWalk.
Louise and I had never been to San Antonio before, so after the PCA sessions finished, we took the opportunity to explore the surroundings somewhat. The most notable feature was the RiverWalk, designed in the 1920s to control the flooding that happened on the river that snakes through San Antonio. The river is controlled by a series of sluice gates that can divert flood water from the area, keeping the water level stable even after torrential rains, which we did experience on the first two days of the conference. The RiverWalk is lined by bars, restaurants, shops, and some cultural attractions, including the Briscoe Western Art Museum which features great paintings, statues, and artifacts of Texan culture, one of the highlights of our visit there. San Antonio was founded on the backs of 5 Spanish missions, including the Alamo. We took a tour of the 4 outlying missions in the rain one day, which included a stop at an aqueduct crossing the San Antonio River, notable because I say a yellow-crowned night-heron, a lifetime sighting for me. The next day the rain had stopped, the temperature was higher, and we took a guided tour of the Alamo, including the collection that Phil Collins, who has been fascinated by the Alamo since he was a young boy, had donated.
Unfortunately, our time had to come to an end, so after a boat tour on the RiverWalk and a visit to the Mexican market, we headed to the airport.
Born July 3, 1793 ; Died July 6, 1862, Aged 69 Years
If, in thy wanderings o’er this beauteous earth, ….A solemn thought should contemplate the doom
Of minds inheriting intrinsic worth, ….Go mark the spot where Merritt lies entombed !
An active life, the path he sought aright ….For his adopted country ;—through each change
He watched its progress with intense delight ; ….His mind capacious took extensive range.
A wilderness around his boyish days, ….When first he strolled through woods so dense so green ;
He lived to see vast schemes matured, and gazed ….With pride and admiration o’er the scene.
The Lakes’ bold shores, the angry waters stayed, ….Were altered in their course by one great plan ;
After comingling opened wide a trade ….And commerce vast to high-aspiring man.
Still incomplete to meet his restless eye, ….Which ever beamed with generous emotion,
He soared beyond a bright Canadian sky ….To carry on our commerce o’er the ocean.
But Death, that intervenes to mar our hopes, ….Cut short his measures for the country’s weal ;
A funeral dirge at last, in moving tropes, ….Proclaimed at large what all survivors feel.
The loss of one so useful in his day, ….A chasm left that none can e’er supply ;
The mourners walk abroad, and wend their way ….Each to respective homes, to heave a sigh,
Exclaiming, “Truly, wonderful is death !— ….A silent monitor to each from birth—
A power that robs the human race of breath, ….And levels giant minds to mother earth.”
Many men of talent still that path pursue, ….Which our departed friend so wisely loved ;
Walk in his footsteps, with the self-same view ; ….And ultimately rest — rewarded above.
July 13, 1862
Source: St. Catharines Constitutional, July 17, 1862.
Many thanks to historian Dennis Gannon for bringing this poem to the NFPP curator’s attention.
William Hamilton Merritt had many ties to Niagara Falls: he served with the 2nd Lincoln Militia during the War of 1812, stationed at Chippawa; was the driving force behind the Welland Canal, which followed Chippawa Creek part of the way; and was a driving force behind the construction of the first suspension bridge across the Niagara River.