By John Frederick Nims 1913–1999

Driving westward near Niagara, that transfiguring of the waters,
I was torn—as moon from orbit by a warping of gravitation—
From coercion of the freeway to the cataract’s prodigality,
Had to stand there, breathe its rapture, inebriety of the precipice . . .

Fingers clamped to iron railings in a tremor of earth’s vibration,
I look upstream: foam and boulders wail with a biblical desolation,
Tree roots, broken oar, a pier end, wrack of the continent dissolving . . .

Braced, like tunnel workers hunching from implosion of locomotives,
I look down: to ancient chaos, scrawl of the fog for commentary,
Misty scripture—Delphic, Jungian—all mythology in gestation,
Mists that chill our face in passing, soar to a mushroom luminescence . . .

In between, where halos dazzle—as, on a high wire, spangled dancers—
On the brink those waters sluice to, in the devil-may-care insouciance
Of their roistering to glory, no forewarning of what impends, till
Solid earth dissolves beneath them; all they had banked on once, vacuity . . .

Kindled in the hollow wind they flare to a greenish incandescence;
Channels they defined so smartly in the gusto of their careening
All behind them now; before them, blinding haze and the noon’s diffusion . . .


Ten feet over those, our railing perched on a spur where verge and void—there!—
Hiss and arc to touch each other, matter and shadow-matter fuming,
We stare through the flow to bedrock, flashing its Kodachrome geology.
Images swirl by—real, fancied—bits of hallucinated litter:
Gold of oak leaf, taffy wrapper, lavender airmail—assignation?
Yellow Kodak pack, pied comics, tissue a crimson lip had stippled
(Let’s imagine). Some shows vivid, fresh-shellacked in the river’s sepia,
All no sooner seen than vanished—on to the brink, its foaming rotos
Hoarse as all earth’s turbines turning in a thunder of synchronicity.
How deep toward the edge? waist? shoulder? as through a woozy lens we scan its
Floor, old temple tesselation—
                                            No, terrain of the moon! Medusa’s
Ancient face, and we stare frozen: stony glare in its vipers’ tangle . . .

Still a thought returns and troubles: “no forewarning of what impends, till—”
Shadow of impends—more menace coiled in the word than fact itself has:
Fact erodes in action: Athens, in the arroyos of her theater,
Leaned to watch the self-destructing of her blinded grandiosities,
Willfulness and Will, a crash course; then, too late for it, anagnorisis;
Purged of trivia through immersion in the clotted baths of tragedy,
Then she knew and was transfigured by contrarious exaltations . . .


Eyes can’t leave the livid seething, its reiterative Memento!
Reading, in this bubble chamber, stuff of the world as effervescence,
Reading every life as half-life, reading in foam the one prognosis . . .

Mac the trucker—checkered mackinaw, sort of a baseball cap with earflaps,
Fists to crinkle up his beer cans—here at the falls is philosophical:
“Down the tube. That’s life”—he’s waggish, nudging his cozy blonde—“You
                                                                                             know, hon?”
And she knows. We all know: Nature, making a splendor of our banalities,
Lavishes Niagara on us, nudging our knack for the anagogical . . .

Meanwhile, earth itself rolls over, nations caught in its tug of traction,
From the brink of noon to darkness (but the grandeur of the transition!)
Gone, like taffy wrapper, tissue:
                                               ferny world of the stegosaurus,
Heraclitus, toe in rivers, Coriolanus in Corioli,
Dancing T’ang girl, belles of Bali, kings of France with the Roman numerals,
Gone, the fripperies and follies glossed in an Architectural Digest,
Halls of mortuary marble, dinky glitz of the rare objet, the
Aubusson, netsuke, scrimshaw, Tiffany, Tanagra, Bohara,
All things au courant, things current—what a word with the gorge before us!—
All our bookshelves, facts in folio, paleontology, agronomy,
Jewels from that cluttered dump, statistics—
                                                                 many a scuffed Aladdin’s lamp there:
As: one cell’s genetic lore’d fill seventy-five Manhattan phone books;
As: for each poor soul among us, many a galaxy out there somewhere,
Each of us more precious—rarer!—than a glittering island universe . . .

We could catalogue forever; there’s no end to the world’s diversity,
All that affluence from somewhere, more than a continent behind it;
There’s no diminution either from the torrential cornucopia
Since that primal burst of fireworks, first explosion from singularity;
All the things, their scree, diluvium—go to the malls for confirmation:
Lurid brass shop, teak shop, tech shop, patio ’n’ pool shop, campy duds shop . . .


Most we’re through with soon enough, but some! how they lacerate the heart—not
Savage indignation’s gash—but thrilling, with finer blade, pain’s inmost
Nerve: the unsigned card I love you kept in a bureau drawer for decades;
Sweater she wore once, that autumn, rich with the campfire musk; then letters,
Lavish o, impulsive flourish, “When you’re away, in other cities,
It’s their weather reports I look for, first thing in the morning papers . . .”
So once the Provençal poet, in his rapture about freid aura:
“Winter winds that blow from your land
                                                          feel like heaven upon my cheek here . . .”

They’ve gone too, Provence and poet, off in the jumble-carts of history,
Who was she? that rueful beauty, jewel of the court and joy of kings, who
Dying murmured, “Je me regrette!”—wistful dear, with her curls disheveled
On that last of all her pillows, feeling the dark impend—“I’ll miss me!”
Images swirl by: châteaux that dance in the pool’s hallucination,
Fêtes and follies effervescing—champagne, glass, and the hand that held them—
Last, herself, the self where soul is, world of her lavalieres and lovers.
Did she dream, through mists arising, how on the high wire, floodlit dancer,
She had lived her brilliant moment? Hear, as the blood ran hushed, sonorous
Thunders of the living river, more than a continent its source? And
Not divine—so near the brink where verve like hers and the void meet, seething—
Wreathed in opulence of sunset, some transfiguring of the waters?

John Frederick Nims, “Niagara” from The Six-Cornered Snowflake and Other Poems. Copyright © 1990 by John Frederick Nims. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Six-Cornered Snowflake and Other Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1990)

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Poet John Frederick Nims 1913–1999

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Social Commentaries, History & Politics

 John Frederick Nims


An important translator and previous editor of Poetry magazine, John Frederick Nims (1913—1999) was equally skilled as a poet. Although Nims was born in Michigan, he spent most of his life on the other side of the lake, in Chicago. Generally a classicist in technique, Nims is also well known for his witty epigrams.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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