Blondin (Jean François Gravelet), 1824-1897
Despite the legs, varicose like branches
veined with congealing sap,
the hands, gnarled and knotted with disuse,
I could still conjure a terrible height
from the verandah to the lawn,
do a softshoe along the railing
then walk the length of the drive,
pausing to dig the stones from my palms.
The life of an aerialist is no worse or less
potent because the body is grounding itself,
weighted to the marrow with decay.
It is only the tools of my high-risk trade
that have fallen to redundancy: the cable
on which I travelled above the falls
of North America, the long pole I held –
an eagle’s slow dark flapping –
they are warping and unravelling in the shed.
My retirement from the windy meridians
of balance and applause has refined
a discipline displaced by youth for the brief
flirtations I made with death and acclamation.
I’ve not forgotten the surreal heliography
of a thousand upturned eyes and cameras,
or the collective gasp from a crowd of mouths
as I wheeled a barrow stacked with knives
towards Niagara’s roaring vanishing-point.
Once the wind rocked the barrow violently,
and knives flashed like slender-bodied salmon
falling back from an unsuccessful spawning.
These days I walk the wire in the high
and silent air of meditation. I can twirl
a blue umbrella, or wheel a box of blades
above the falls for hours – the cheers
and the mist still around me as I rise
then step away into the shadow of an elm.
I’ve returned in recent years to stand alone
at night behind the safety rail.
They’ve lit the falls with spotlights,
now white thunder is a rainbow veil,
with Beethoven’s Sixth coming awkwardly
like muted weeping through the spray.
I rarely discuss my time in the air.
Talk is a tripwire on memory’s corroding line.
Though, when asked to remember
the most difficult walk I’ve made, I tell
a story about my father. One night he came
staggering home through the rain into death,
his heart and balance quartered. I met him
at the gate, then carried him inside.
He was breathing hard the words I would later
speak like prayer above the water and the crowds:
I’ve been trying for years
to heal the private wounds of my life.