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James Cihlar

There’s Always Tomorrow

Manifest Destiny

To Please a Lady

The Wreck of Beauty

There’s Always Tomorrow

The father is neglected by the family.
The son doesn’t care about him until he’s discovered in the desert,
laughing with Barbara Stanwyck in the bungalow of lust.
For that, he gets a pompadoured sneer,
a toy robot walking off the edge of a table,
a single plane flying over the broken L of California.

Joan Bennett looks great in a low-cut dress.
I wear the same style and I’m no ingénue myself.
Fred MacMurray is here on a business trip
with Stanwyck, two trim figures in swim suits emerging from a pool.
After twenty years of marriage
a husband doesn’t rave about anything.

The gingham check of light and shadow covers the office.
The outlines of two middle-aged lovers swell
behind frosted glass as they approach the door.
The shadow of rain slides down Stanwyck’s face.
A room divider splits MacMurray into stripes.
Let’s skip the second act and go to your office, Stanwyck tells MacMurray,

Work is more appealing than fun.
Playing is an industry. His job is making toys.
Outside the beveled window, the manufacturing plant chugs and smokes.
In the showroom, the stillness of the dolls is stultifying.

The contents of her purse spill across a smoked mirror tabletop.
MacMurray thumbs a torn photo of himself.
Someone snapped it of us at the annual picnic.
I cut myself out of it because I looked so ghastly.
A desk is a bed where the image of the self lies down.
I want to look pretty. Not for attracting boys,
but for the sake of my dancing career. Part of love is work.

The son must stop the father from having any fun. It’s his occupation.
Joan Bennett is impervious to passion.
The bedroom’s overhead light fixture witnesses the couple’s desperation.
Stanwyck’s cheekbones and shoulder blades are chevrons,
but her tenor is all business. Let’s go outside to look inside.
The leaves are petrified. Beyond the patio, Los Angeles shivers.

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Manifest Destiny

Melvyn Douglas’s nose
is an isosceles triangle.
Myrna Loy’s Art Deco face
is echoed in the plaster busts
placed about her office. Business
flows through her veins.
Lies are her linguistics.

I can easily picture
Depression-era audiences
admiring her dexterity
as she prevaricates fluidly.
The Mrs. in front of her name
is job security. The absentee
husband is imaginary,

just like the movies,
corporations, nations, marriage,
or anything that pretends
to join or divide us.
Two by two and one by one.
We die alone, says
the justice of the peace.

Hollywood is New York.
America is one big city.
The big city is America.
Her hat is a basket of cherries.
Her décolleté is squash blossoms:
the indigenous below the surface
of every shaky thing on top.

Her story is in his mind.
It tells itself. She invented
a husband and he gave it to her.
She’s the woman’s head
on a man’s body.
He’s the man’s head
on a woman’s body.

The anima and animus
are gryphons, mermaids,
satyrs, windigoos.
I can’t tell which of them is me.
Even if I haven’t seen
this movie before,
I have seen this movie before.

Niagara Falls is the Grand Canyon,
the Grand Canyon is Niagara Falls.
He’s from Waupakoneta,
Ohio, a Shawnee name.
Sitting on her lapel
is the turtle that holds
the world on its back.

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To Please a Lady

Why would you need to take care of her?
            The catcalls on the racetrack are her due.
Barbara Stanwyck is in drag as a newspaper columnist.
            Middle-aged sex emanates from her epaulets.
Clark Gable in a midget speedster is her die-cut toy.

The stadium lights shed moondust on the tracks
            while a spotlight catches in the lens,
a dotted line cuts diagonally across the frame.
            The crowd clamors for blood but is silent
when they get it. She understands he was in it to win.

His head is a cement block that squarely rides the barrel
            of his chest. Her honey tenor goes staccato,
setting the pace for his raspy twang.
            Her retinue is in service to sensation.
She writes scandal while trying on shoes.

When a woman fucks a man on screen,
            Her cheekbones grow higher,
Her eyes spread even wider. The effect of glamor
            on a nice Irish girl from Flatbush.
Clark Gable’s face twitches involuntarily from the war.

On the track, he drives through flames as hot as history,
            a skull and crossbones emblazoned on his shirt.
He crashes through ice as thick as the Russian front.
            This is the unwilled part of our inheritance.
The ferris wheel turns against a starless sky.

Let’s stop the poem while she’s still ahead.
            In life Barbara always called the shots,
sleeping with women as well as men, dropping dreamy
            Robert Taylor’s ass when he fooled around.
He was only worth a couple of lies. 

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The Wreck of Beauty

On the border between perspective and knowing,
distracted by the geometry of Janet Leigh’s sweater,
it’s easy to miss the time-bomb in the trunk.

As the camera floats more gracefully than God
over the tops of buildings, the promise of the grid
is infinity. We trust the city continues beyond our seeing,

I mean, the black-toothed horizon that stands for the city
continues beyond our seeing. At least one set of lovers
is going to die. That’s the story.

We accept that Charlton Heston is Mexican
in the way that red stands for
what sunlight looks like through closed eyelids,

or that gangland is fairyland,
where the detectives rub shoulders like sex.
The lovers in the car that explodes could just as easily be

the lovers on the street who watch as the car explodes.
Janet Leigh suffers in the motel of memory.
Crossing the border, we know we don’t know anything.

Ambivalence results when desire outlives the body,
or is it when ideas outgrow their words?
Marlene Dietrich’s beauty runs down her face,

turning into something without a name.
I think she’s getting ready to be done.
All she wants is a room-shaped room.

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James Cihlar is the author of the poetry books Rancho Nostalgia and Undoing, and the chapbooks A Conversation with My Imaginary Daughter and Metaphysical Bailout. His writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Threepenny Review, and Lambda Literary Review. His website is

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