Burnham’s Mandalas

Poem by William Mullen

I
Mandala of the White City

Chicago 1893
 

Yes, it was meant to vanish. A vision of a world perfected.

It stood encircled by the city’s wisdom,
That planned, and brought to pass,
These fragile models, made of staff.
The White City, designed by the Black City,
October to October
Awed the citizens, nation, world,
Only to fall, the following July,
To arsonists—were they strikers?
Chicago was wise to let it vanish.
Nothing so beautiful can last forever.

Enter it first by its East Gate. From the lake to the Court of Honor.

Remember, everyone who enters here
Is visitor, and equal—
Men and women, black and white,
Yellow and red, American and Moor,
By foot, by yacht, by train.
Façades stupendous, statues gigantic,
Around a basin, axial east to west,
Adazzle all day long,
By night adance with incandescent
Bulbs, reflected down like comets’ tails.

Some visitors, on entering such beauty, simply wept.

And what did the axis honor, to the west?
The Administration Building’s
Lingam dome, the Fair’s highest—
A tantric bliss, that all had been brought to pass,
Planned and administered,
To last a year, then disappear.
Remember, this is a perfected world.
Its Mayor, never corrupt,
Manures his city like a garden,
Is neither Republican nor Democrat.

Enter and see the Exhibition of dynamic wonders.

Try Electricity first, the most frequented—
The incandescent bulb,
Kinetoscope, and phonograph,
Edison’s Tower of Light with its colored globes.
Peaceful Deities, these.
The Wrathful Deities, as well,
Are on view here. From Essen, Germany,
The Krupp Pavilion’s Baby,
Largest cannon in the world,
Krupp’s pet monster. Greatest gun of the age.

And further west, outside, the Midway Plaisance—Buffalo Bill,

Dahomans, Zulus, Turks, and belly dancers.
One hot mid-August night
They all danced at the Midway Ball,
Strangest gathering since the Tower of Babel.
Chicagoans danced with them.
Cemetery, and charnel house,
Final reminders of impermanence,
Were there too, on the fringe—
Holmes stalking gullible young women,
Incinerating them, then selling their bones.

Of course it had to vanish. This vision of a world perfected.
 


II
Mandala of the Mall

Washington D.C. 1901

 
Mandalas are for meditation. So should be the Mall.

And so deemed the Commission Burnham chaired.
Reflecting pools, therefore,
Axes towards memorials,
Vistas, and terraces, and balustrades.
In a round pool, at its foot
Just west, Washington’s obelisk
Would copulate with water reflecting it—
Along the axis south
From the White House to a Pantheon,
In honor of the Constitution’s authors.

PHALLUS PATRIS PATRIAE. Himself a childless man.

And what does dawn touch first, on the axis west?
It touches, furthest west,
Lincoln’s countenance, gigantic.
Touches the pyramid of the white tip
Of the Father’s obelisk.
Touches the dome Lincoln demanded,
Touches his face, life-size, in Lincoln Park.
At the East Gate of the axis
Touches the hair of five foot three
Mary Bethune, facing Lincoln and west,

First woman, first black leader, with a statue in this city.

Speaking from the Lincoln Memorial’s steps,
Obama, African and
European, American,
Facing Mary Bethune three miles away,
Declared his greatest hope
Arose not from the stone and marble
But from what fills the spaces in between.
It is you—Americans
Of every race and region and station.
Two million people those Inaugural days,

All on the Mall, two million Peaceful Deities in that space,

Where Wrathful Deities, many times before,
Assembling, protesting,
Have taken, too, their place in the frame,
In harmony with the laws and the Constitution,
As King wrote from his jail.
No edifice in this capital
Is older than its nation’s Constitution.
Will the monuments last as long
As the laws? The laws as the monuments?
Imagination stops, like an axial vista

Blocked by memorials, to people great and still imperfect.

Enter the Mall, as you entered the Court of Honor,
At the East Gate, like the sun,
Like Mary Bethune, with a walking stick
Wielded simply because it gave her swank.
Each new person to enter,
From the black city to the white city,
Can look for freedom here, or enlightenment,
Alone, or with two million,
Each time in a more perfect union.
Light of enlightenment, white light, black light.

Mandalas are for harmony, and so should be the Mall.
 
 


III
Mandala of the Plan

Chicago 1909

 
On the lakefront, a summer’s day, just linger and look west.

Visualize the Great Plains, limitless
As the pure sky above them,
And plan in your mind a Pure Land
Radiant as the scudding summer clouds.
Then think of common justice,
Its majesty. To men and women
So degraded by long life in the slums
That they have lost all power
Of caring for themselves.
For them

Conceive an impressive dome at a civic center,

A symbol. Rising from the plain on which Chicago rests,

Central metropolis of the United States,
On flat land by a lake.
Whatever man undertakes here
Must be, or seem, without limit. Not heights
Of buildings, though, of course.
The Paris of the future, too,
Would limit buildings to a single height
Beneath a central spire,
Some twenty stories, the skyscrapers’
Height at the time, “Chicago skeletons.”

Note at your feet the pit begun for the Chicago Spire

One hundred fifty stories, if ever built.
It was never built, of course,
His civic center at the grand crossing,
Halsted and Congress Streets, on the grand axis.
Nor did they, from that center,
Ever lay out, symmetrically,
Diagonal avenues of stately width.
No, 90/94
Would intersect 290 there,
A wondrous cloverleaf, with underpasses.

Center of bliss, and limitlessness, you must just imagine.

If you turn round, to north and east and south,
Beautiful at your feet,
Is the built half of the Burnham Plan
Harbor in the embrace of Park and Pier,
Long classical museums,
Broad terraces, parterres, cascades
And fountains. Space enough for great orations,
For gala times at nights,
Harbor adazzle and adance,
The light afloat, the fireworks in the sky.

From Lincoln Park to Grant, from Grant, to Burnham, to the Midway Plaisance,

To the transitory city at Jackson Park,
Staff of its Fine Arts building
Science and Industry’s limestone now.
And now, as then, thousands and millions of people,
Pacific, murderous,
Day and night, move around within
The spaces in between the stone and marble—
Deities, just like you,
To be united with your mind
By meditating on the city’s beauty

On the lakefront, a summer’s day, just linger and turn around.
 
American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2009, Volume 26, Number 4