Poetry from James Cihlar
followed by Q&A
Her alabaster cheekbones rise out of the shadows
as if out of well water,
Ann Sheridan’s bedroom eyes slipping
off the sides of her head,
her shimmering figure moving through dark liqueur,
pulling us into the inky frame,
making the doctor leave his family
as effortlessly as she makes us love her.
Baked cement towers above the black enamel streets,
the Plymouth’s slide is a constellation of white dots
in concert against a midnight backdrop. The city’s
grind and shriek, roil and glow
surrounds the coolness of clubs, stale hotel rooms,
unlighted hallways and offices,
sparking like a transistor panel. Desperate for weeks.
Be with people. Hear some music.
Open the floral curtains and the dark room dissolves into flames.
His disfigured face breaks into gray diamonds,
refracted like a kaleidoscope, dazzling as a funhouse mirror,
the lover in jail, a monster behind a screen.
How quickly the chocolate syrup
and velvety soft serve
of Dairy Queen’s peanut buster parfait
may turn into molten lava,
fire, and brimstone of the hell mouth,
when in the course of a busy day,
in a break between appointments,
you trip and hit your head.
Red pylons in the parking lot
rise up like Satan’s sentinels
when there is so far to fall.
I also live in the Upper World
and know the traps
that mortal clay can set.
The course of fate may alter
with one rushed step
as the twist cone spirals
into the swirling vortex of death,
pulling you down from on high. Lovely
the view from up there,
horizon encircling sight’s perimeter,
the fair and balanced eye
that sounds the hearts of
villagers, implements, and livestock.
Why did heaven blink?
Rushed by strangers to
the Emergency Room,
you began months of recovery.
So close you came to oblivion,
the lactate buzz of creamery
blurring into white noise,
white light, I almost cannot stop
at the site of your downfall
and order a brownie sundae
or dilly bar. Cursed be the ground
where Vickie fell, may white paper napkins
dance a hangman’s jig across,
may sugary liquid congeal
into consecutive sixes,
may nothing grow there.
The body sometimes fails us
as we motor our zeppelin
through waves of phenomena,
a million synaptic reactions in a step,
with just one malfunction
enough to bring us to a halt.
The body sometimes saves us, too,
with its built-in ejector seat buttons,
the dime-sized impervious zones
that hold off fate. How great
the craftsmanship of our design,
how inscrutable the maker,
terrible in his grace.
Let us tumble to our knees
and bless the day when Vickie fell
and rose again.
James Cihlar is the author of Undoing (Little Pear Press) and Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press), and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mary, Rhino, Painted Bride Quarterly, Quercus, Bloom, Minnesota Monthly, Northeast, The James White Review, Briar Cliff Review, Verse Daily, and Forklift, Ohio. The recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship for Poetry and a Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, Cihlar is a visiting instructor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Macalester College in St. Paul.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: I’m inspired by old movies. I have always loved watching Hollywood films from the thirties, forties, and fifties. Film noir, screwball comedies, and melodramas—they were my Mother Goose when I was growing up, my Aesop’s Fables, my Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The stars—Bogart, Bacall, Sheridan, Bankhead—seemed so worldly wise, sophisticated, and mature. To watch them now—wigged, made-up—recognizing the cracks in the facades, and to know the demons and diseases they battled in life, only adds to my appreciation. Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss was nearing the end of her run as Warner Bros’ “oomph girl,” and she was showing her age. She rebounded in the sixties with a TV show, only to die in her fifties of cancer. In life she always seemed to be in on the joke—an authoritative dame with the inside track on human weakness. What a contrast to the underage, drug-addicted, paparazzi-beleaguered “stars” of today.
I also like the notion of story—of discrete units of time, middle sandwiched by beginning and end, and I have always loved the format of the ode. “Vickie Falls” is a loving tribute to a dear friend, Vickie Benson, who experienced a fluke accident—tripping over a parking pylon in the lot at Dairy Queen and injuring her head. It could have happened to anyone—I could easily picture it happening to me—but perhaps only Vickie could manage her recovery as well.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: I am a born collector, and I first collected coins as a child, but soon branched out to include figurines. My family was Catholic, so that meant statues of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I loved the coolness of the porcelain, the faintness of the colors, the toothiness of the bisque. Among my many collections as an adult, I have figurines designed by Holly Hobbie, and I’ve published some articles about her work in Antique Trader magazine: http://www.antiquetrader.com/article/popular_holly_hobbie_collectibles_still_available
Q: In honor of “Vickie Falls,” are those jimmies, sprinkles, or ants?
A: My mom used to call me Jimmy Jay, but I’m going with: sprinkles.