by James Cihlar
Little Pear Press 2008
Reviewed by Scott Hightower

“How can we live like this?”

cihlar coverThe poems in James Cihlar’s first book, Undoing, do not roust or jostle themselves onto the page. They do not screech for the reader’s attention. Undoing is a quiet and clear book that begins in the reflective glow of a dashboard and with granite stones beneath white fence posts:

Start with the granite stones
laid at the base of the white post fence
with grapevines wound through.
Someone had to place them there.

(from “Lincoln Avenue”)

Divided into four sections, the collection takes its footing in the wake of a failed marriage, paternal betrayal and the false starts and “dodge ball” of other people’s lives. But there is more to life than a choice between two houses. A lone boy who lives in the backyard is really

Superman in a blue bath towel
safety-pinned at the neck

the boy who lives in the backyard
has the courage to split an eyebrow
against a table edge as he pretends to fly

the courage to sit on a ten-foot wall
cupping an ocher kitten in his palms,
wearing white shoes and belt for the bleary photo

white adhesive tape over the split eyebrow
always healing, kitten cupped in his palms
always safe over a ten-foot drop.

(from “The Boy Who Lives in the Backyard”)

The poems do not jostle about, yet the lad at their center is surrounded by a catalog of appearances: aunts, sisters and a brother, blood stains on the playground, a variety of domiciles, a kitten, a runaway dachshund, and of course, while laying in bed… “that long, skinny green hand coming up from the heat register.”

In the second section, the Nebraska landscape, among other things, is backdrop for a glide in a sixties Impala. Wheels and the radio take the youth out into a world where there are new beauties, new risks of intimacy, new dangers and “new things to be bitter about”:

the way breath in winter rises
and is trapped in the branches of a linden tree


I could speak the words linked to this place
if I could trace the feathery pattern
of evergreen past the bough,

past gestures the branch will make in the wind.
The elms have been here longer
and can see farther than I,

past saw-toothed leaves to bare, black horns of winter.

(from “Walking Home”)

Section Three is committed to new beginnings, new findings. There is a scene of a grandmother’s red, scarred chest, a couple nesting in a first rental, the new seat of adventure, Minneapolis, the tedium and economic liberation of the job run, and the unencumbered and immediate gratification of shopping expeditions in second-hand stores, the “sift through the wreckage of unknown neighbors’ past lives” for residuals which will make up the new elements of the new foundation of a new life (“Start with the granite stones / laid at the base of the white post fence… / Someone had to place them there.”) Each person comes to the promise of the new with “self” marked “as is.” Minneapolis proves to be the seat of a new economy (Ethan Allen) along with being the seat of new personal melodramas (bad home-repair work) and community tragedies (AIDS). Cihlar’s artistry is quiet; the thoughtful poems rivet together seamlessly.

Section Four abounds with poems attempting to snap the book, and its assorted griefs, shut. But the genie of domestic happiness is not one easily bottled. It is more like the image of a slinky in one of the opening poems of the book:

refusing to lose its spring
expanding and snapping shut
like a slinky down a staircase

The dualities established earlier in the collection begin to become burdensome: mother/father; past/present; story/lyric flight; old instability/comfort in new order; received frame/achieved frame. In some ways, the poems in the last section—while more mature in their logic—are less poetically revealing. They are more sociologically centered; their shapes more mannered, and as a result, less dynamic. The poet in one particular poem, “Twin Cities,” comes closest to peeling to the quick, presenting a more ambivalent must/may divide. When a damning pamphlet surfaces, the poet asks,

How can we live like this?

Maybe by knowing
I live in a city that is one half
Of a whole,

And by knowing the rule here is change—
Where something is removed,
It must also be returned…

in the places
where I once have received,
I may later give.

Undoing is a poetic journey to reach a state of “always healing.”