Fountain of the Great Lakes, Lorado Taft, 1913
Oxidized breasts no water falls on
is what I think of when I think of winter
in Chicago: bare vines, bronze figures.
The rounded arms bore rust and vessels
they might have poured. Too lovely,
said they, a century ago, who seemed to know
where contours of natural phenomena end
and art’s begin. Indecorous in delicacy,
the figures couldn’t embody
surge and wave, wind-scourged expanse
of the Great Lakes they’re named for.
Nor were gentle fold of robe
or trickle so terrible as the myth
Taft suggested of them, damned
Danaides forever pouring water
through a vat that won’t fill.
The broad bronze women need no one
now to save them, unremarked-on
as anything else aging in public spaces.
Polite despotism of symbol has reigned
waterflow and human form alike.
We expect their submission
to antique allusion, lofty gesture –
we who invented ourselves and our passions
boundlessly, without tame, stolid molds
the unsexed dead bent to.
So we say. By we I mean you,
of course, as in plural, as in not me.
You threatened to tear my attention
into pieces, your color and appetite
coursing down Michigan Avenue:
Teenagers drilled out a trash-can rhythm
for the clicked pace of beleaguered mothers,
shoppers grappling purchases, art students
(plumed, affected, eying each other),
and the man selling papers at the crosswalk
who tried indignantly to convince me
that “some pervert takes pictures every day
up ladies’ skirts who sit on the stairs” –
these currents, prosaic, unmastered.
I wintered within you, but oftener
along your edges, in an effort to see
you as you were and a whole.
What remains, most of all, are things
that don’t move: the hotel’s Moorish roof,
gold, molten (coldest days
were the brightest); bridges and cornices;
and that small, well-mannered park
where the women’s coiled hair,
though metal-wrought, looked wet,
around their throats and collars clinging.
I considered them and the poems
that might come from them all
which would also be small,
and well-mannered, held carefully in.
A few blocks east, under ice sheets,
the lake tossed and groaned in its sleep.