Queen of the Mistby Joan Murray
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Queen of the Mist tells the fascinating story of Annie Taylor, who, in 1901, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. But as Joan Murray reveals in this astonishing and absorbing poetic narrative, America didn't know what to do with a mature and self-possessed heroine: Annie Taylor, as an "older woman," was rejected and exploited and finally eclipsed by the man who repeated her stunt ten years later.
"[A] superb book-length poem, Queen of the Mist tells a story about the quest for fame, the cruelties of discrimination and the vagaries of the American dream. . . . [A]n eminently readable, rhythmic narrative that crackles with candor and wry sagacity. I read this in one sitting." —Jan Worth, Detroit Free Press
"Joan Murray's engrossing account of Annie Taylor—the teacher who in 1901, at the age of 63, was the first person to shoot the falls—is just as imaginative as the quest narratives of poetic tradition." —Robert Taylor, The Boston Globe
"Testament to the surprise and beauty that poetry can still be. . . . Murray [has] an admirable dedication to the epic drama, the rhythms, the sounds of poetry. . . . [B]ut what is truly striking is the way she has transformed the forgotten figure of Annie Taylor into an augur of the age to come." —Justin Coffin, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Establish[es] Murray as a major feminist voice working in a dramatic mode. . . . Taylor's preparations, her inner motivations and the plunge itself are all movingly rendered." —Publishers Weekly
"[A] quintessentially American epic. . . . In form, structure, language, narrative, it is wonderful." —Gerald Stern, National Book Award winner
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[ INITIATION ]
Sealed in my barrel,
with an anvil damped beneath my feet,
I sailed upright,
listened for Holleran's tap
twice on the lid staves
then they cut me loose.
I rode low, scraped the bottom stones,
clipped a rock, caught the current.
In a moment I was at the brink,
thudding on the cusp
pitching forward, breathless, blind
from a womb
of my own making.
Niagara!over me!under me!
I spilled into it from every pore,
in the blackness of its roar.
Something openedgrew widetore
till every part of me was new:
Brain. Eyes. Tongue
down to the wet soles in my shoes.
I took my measure, checked my sex
and, pleased with what I'd made,
I slapped my back between the blades
and took a breath
[ EXPECTATIONS ]
What did they expect to find when they got at me?
At first, the lid was stuck, my air was thin,
I was at their mercy.
And then it was a hacksaw that revealed me:
Up from the river I came
I was wetand dizzy
and deafened by the ringing of the bells,
but I could tell
that every part of me
I was exactly what I had expected:
I was alive
and I was what I had to show for it.
So I didn't stand serenely
like Jesus in the Jordan on hisbaptism day,
the sky opening and closing around him
I had to work my own riggings,
supply my own light
on that day I finally
therebeneath the mantel of the Horseshoe,
with the slender Bridal Veil, shimmering to my right
and everyone's eyes on me,
everyone's hands, handing me along,
steadying mereaching out to touch me.
You can see the Hallelujah in their eyes
for that one moment
before their lids screwed down again,
and they realized
I wasn't quite what they'd expected.
[ THE PHENOMENON ]
The church bells rang on both sides of the river,
spreading rumors of "a miracle."
And from everywhere they came to have a glimpse of it
scrambling down the gorge
as if it were the final call at the final resurrection,
and then they saw me
a puzzling phenomenon:
a woman, short and plainand only slightly bruised,
moving dizzily among them
like a fly hatched by mistake in the winter sun.
I saw their puzzled looks
and wondered if they'd like to put me back!
I had done what all the scientists had said no one could do
I was, in fact, the first to ever try.
And though I lied about my age, I was really sixty-three,
I was plump and nearly grey
when they poured into the gorge to look at me
a baffling phenomenon:
I was not a beauty or a man, yet there I was,
the center of attention.
Someone asked about my college degree,
they started questioning my intentions.
Then my manager came forward and gave a little wave
and handed me a single red carnation.
Now they waited for me to regale them:
they asked for details, observations
"gory details!" someone called (he must have seen
my drooping shoulder and my head bruise),
but I was still too stunned to speak
I was a difficult phenomenon.
Yet I tried to find some words that would please them.
But how could I begin to explain
what had occurred in that barrel
that had changed my life into my own possession?
So I looked into their eyes, I even found a smile,
and I told them, I am alive.
[ DOING CARTWHEELS ]
I know you're wondering how I thought of such a thing
an educated woman, at the beginning of the twentieth century,
and if I had a Muse to illuminate my story,
you might see the hand of Fate
but all I can tell you on my own
is that my plan was born of Necessity.
I was in Bay City, Michigan,
a lumber town on the Saginaw
in a studio with gaslights
and a bargain-priced, hardwood floor.
And since it was a time of promise and prosperity,
I found credit for a secondhand piano.
I had a hundred students from the finest families
and taught ballroom dance and manners, fall through spring
culminating in a coming-out cotillion
into lumber-town "society."
But then the number dropped to seventy.
They were strained by the expense
of year-round classes,
their requisite corsages and livery coaches,
and embroidered satin gowns,
shipped C.O.D. from Chicago and New York.
So I modified my theme to "rhythmic dance"
they got by in local taffeta for their seasonal recitals.
And when enrollment fell to fifty,
I gave them "Summer Promenades" and "Winter's Eve Tableaux"
where they could learn some simple movements in a week
and stroll about the streets
or pose as the Fates or Muses (in homemade crepe paper gowns).
When the count had dropped to thirty,
I switched to acrobatics. (I had studied physical culture
and was a certified instructor
the gifts were quite amazed to see my cartwheels).
But my rent was overdue, I'd run up a tab for food,
I needed winter boots,
and enrollment fell to twenty.
I held an evening tea-and-social for the parents.
I showed them my diploma from the Normal School in Albany.
I told them where I'd taught and been a principal.
Why, I could tutor every academic subject
teach them French or Spanishor instrumental music.
Why, I could even teach their daughters proper English
Couldn't they see them,
with improved elocution,
moving comfortably "in fashionable society"?
But when I asked them what they wanted
how I could serve them or their children,
someone asked if I'd demonstrate my cartwheels.
[ A WOMAN'S OPTIONS ]
I walked in my despair along the Saginaw
listening to the water toss itself against the darkness,
watching it rush headlong on the same purposeless course
it had been following for seven thousand years.
Now and then, a human thing
a piece of fence, a box or barrel
bobbed to the surface, was whirled and upended,
battered from bank to bankand kept on going.
I watched it twist beneath the same bruised moon
that was inching through the same forsaken sky
it had inched through fifty million times
with its borrowed light and empty mythologies.
I could see it was the ending of a story
where a deluded mortal wakens from a dream.
My teaching days were gonealong with Saginaw "society."
Even if I placed an advertisement,
or paid a boy to put my card in every door on every city street,
at last I understood: it was now the twentieth century,
and no one wanted waltzes, no one set a value on civility.
I saw the options left me
the options of all single, destitute women over forty:
I could turn to poorhouse charity
or keep my self-sufficiency by scrubbing pots and privies
and spend my nights doing other people's laundry.
But another option spread itself before me:
I looked down at the riverthe current that could not refuse me
and its lethal invitation held the one endurable future I
I could see where it would drag me:
Up to Saginaw Bay and down through Lake Huron.
Down the St. Clair, the Detroit, and into Lake Erie.
Two hundred miles more till I reached the Niagara
and there I saw what I'd become:
a splinter of wreckage, a shard of myself,
a thing beyond caring or meaning.
And I wanted to be that
I climbed the rail, stretched my armsand gave myself to it.
How can I explain how something lifted me then
not only off the railing and up from the river
but held me hovering above a chasm more luminous than heaven.
And when it set me down again,
soaked to my skin, with my hair dripping down my neck,
I knew I'd seenNiagara Falls.
I had seen it once before
from my father's wagon, the autumn I turned seven.
I remember how I dropped my apple from my hand
as my eyes climbed its brilliant plume of mist,
rising effortlessly to the light
And how the rim of the Horseshoe came in sight,
and from its roiling crucible, the sound
the sound!as a billion simultaneous poundings
struck like thunder every knot down my spine.
I had no words then to describe its impact,
no means to distinguish its energy from mine.
It imparted everything to me
(a farmer's daughter from Auburn!)
It entered mevision and concussion,
and coded itself in my nerves and my brain.
And now in Bay City, on a rail above the Saginaw,
it revived itself: A ledge where I could leapto save
[ A LONG PREPARATION ]
At once I knew the summons in that rescue:
Since the days of P. T. Barnum
half a century before,
all America knew "the challenge of Niagara."
It seemed every other year
another challenger appeared.
If he were a scientist,
there'd be reports in Leslie's Weekly
with pictures of his patented invention:
a cocoon-like boat or inflated suit
an enormous rubberized gyroscope
or other useless whirligig contraption.
And if he were an athlete,
there'd be columns on his regimen and stamina
his chin-ups and his push-ups
how he'd earned his toughness
in a Channel swim
or at the fists of John L. Sullivan.
But despite their boasts and ballyhoo,
the clamoring of the press,
and Barnum's old prediction
of "eternal fame and wealth,"
in the end, not one of them
had the nerve to see it through.
So Niagara was still waiting,
unchallenged and unclaimed,
and what had I to lose to take it?
Hadn't I just stepped across a brink
where something's hand shot through the mist
to pluck me by the neck
and set me down?
And whether it came from the farthest stars
(or maybe from some corner of my brain),
it led me home to my boarding house,
and when I opened the front door,
I already knew its plan.
[ FIAT! ]
Thenlike the Virgin Mary
I was quickened:
I got down on my knees
and spread two lengths of pattern stock
and began to sketch a shape:
I rounded it and tapered it,
added and erased
till I knew it would accommodate my size.
In the morning, I bought some cardboard sheets.
And, cutting them, with a care I usually saved for silk,
I had my second skin
of cardboard barrel staves.
I laced them piece to piece with twine
then crawled inside the thing.
After, I sent a boy to fetch the cooper.
I seated him in the parlor with a cup of tea.
I didn't look up as I talked,
but stared at the gold rim of my cup
my hand trembling
not from fear
but from the excitement of hearing my plan materialize.
When he finally understood,
he stormed through the door (with a trail of oaths
and all my neighbors' eyes).
But three days later,
once I'd pawned my mother's Milanese lace cloth,
I called him back
and watched him change his mind.
And then I got to supervise his workers:
I picked each piece of thick Kentucky oak.
I held it to the light,
examined itfor warps, knots, insect bores
the slightest sign
of any imperfection.
I oversaw the oiling and the joining,
the welding of the hasp and iron bands.
I satisfied myself
with the articulation of the hatch.
I ignored their laughter.
I admired the lines of my vessel
the contours (resembling mine)
of the thing they said would be my tomb.
[ NIGHT TRAIN ]
I left Bay City, just as dark was coming,
and under the thickening stars,
I counted out each second of that night:
metal on metalpounding an endless two-note meter
that took me down the peninsula,
across the basin and on to Niagara.
so I couldn't sleep.
All night I watched the dark
now and then a spark leapt from the track
and flickered for a second
in the grass.
And then it was miles and miles of blackness
then a depot with a glove factory
then a rail spur with a shoe factory.
past a granery. Past a sawmill and a foundry.
Finally stopping at a station where a hackman's horse
drooped its head beneath a gaslight
and the hackman,
calling up and down for passengers,
saw nothing spilling out
past the mazy blur of forests
past a bent shape
lit by a campfire
past a shackinvisibleexcept for its single window
which floated on the center of the night
a framed and disembodied light
wandering the firmament,
uncertain where to land
and finally dropping out of sight
Pounding, Pounding, past the small stations
with their slurred goodbyes,
the handshakes missed, the kisses that didn't land right.
Everything hurrying because the train was leaving
so that even the urgent reminder
or the long-rehearsed blessing
came too late from below the window
lips moving, but nothing heard,
and the train pulling off
in its hiss of steam.
till the light gathered,
and there, at last, was Niagara
arranged along its gorgewith all its grand hotels!
It was SundayI heard the pealing bells,
and envisioned, through the mist,
that a thousand white-gowned sleepers
were rising from their beds,
and hurrying to their windows
to salute me
as I came.
Then the pounding stopped, and the station came in sight
with my manager, Tussie Russell
(and his bunch of red carnations).
I had met him once in Saginaw,
and now as I descended from the train,
I saw him wave to a woman
coming from the forward car.
I called his namehe recovered quickly,
and gave me his bouquet
and told me he had booked me
in a boarding house.
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Meet the Author
Joan Murray is the author of three books of poetry: Queen of the Mist (Beacon / 6857-8 / $15.00 pb), Looking for the Parade, and The Same Water. General editor of The Best of Pushcart Poetry, due in 2002, and poetry coeditor with Billy Collins of the twenty-fifth-anniversary Pushcart Prize, she is poet-in-residence at the New York State Writers Institute. She lives in Old Chatham, New York.
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