With my summer classes over as of yesterday (and so the actual means to provide my family with a vacation secured), my thoughts have turned to what adventures lay ahead. One stop on the itinerary is the trip many make twice in a lifetime: once as a child (in my day, inevitably crammed into the back seat of a station wagon) with one’s parents and siblings, and once as an adult, with one’s own significant other and child(ren) in tow. Yes, this is the Niagara Falls summer. As I will serve as poet-in-residence at the nearby Chautauqua Institution in August, logistics and tradition will have their way. Its time has come.
The collective name for three individual waterfalls located on the U.S./Canadian border between upstate New York and Ontario, Niagara Falls hold an iconic place in our history. It has been the site of hundreds of dramas, from wars to the spectacle of thrill seekers attempting to go over them in a barrel. On October 24, 1901, a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to take the plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I was born on October 24, 59 years later, and have also learned that, in 1960, the year of my birth, a seven-year-old boy named Roger Woodward was the first person known to go over the falls without any sort of protection and live. He suffered only minor injuries. I’ll need to keep a close watch on my eleven-year-old stepson; he’s a thrill seeker. Yikes.
I remember, too, a sketch I enjoyed as a young person, performed by two of my favorite comedy teams, Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges, a piece that turns out to be a classic vaudeville sketch: “Slowly I Turned.” Apparently, though I don’t remember it, it was also done on the I Love Lucy Show. Rebecca Day, writing for the Niagara Falls Reporter, finds that “comic Joey Faye claimed authorship of ‘Slowly I Turned’ in its many formats. Born Joseph Palladino in 1909, he appeared in many burlesque and vaudeville shows, usually as a sidekick to the star, often Phil Silvers.” Later he was a grape in Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials.
I’ve been reading up on the falls not only so I can be a know-it-all pain-in-the-ass on the trip, but also with the thought that I might maybe squeeze out a poem or two about it: why waste a trip to a unique spot and not write a poem, right? Before my research, I remembered only one other poem about the falls, “Commerce,” a wonderful poem by my friend Michael Waters. It brilliantly captures the tawdry side of the falls’ history. But are there more? I did my research and find that, of course, there are more. Here are a few that I’ve located. Slowly I turn...
“Commerce” by Michael Waters
“The Assassination of John Lennon as Depicted by the Madame Tussaud Wax Museum, Niagara Falls, Ontario, 1987” by David Wojahn
“A Collegelands Catechism” by Paul Muldoon
“Niagara” by Vachel Lindsay
“Avery. 1853” by William Dean Howells
“The Niagara River” by Kay Ryan