James Cihlar, “A Conversation with My Imaginary Daughter”

A new poem this week by James Cihlar.


In a dream I argue with the daughter I never had. In this alternate universe the embodiment
Of a path I didn’t choose says she wants to take a cross-country train trip alone,
On the Empire Builder, sweeping through the northern states and Canada.

Fearful of kidnapping, rape, of her getting lost or left behind, or other separations,
I tell her that she cannot go. The problem is, I don’t have veto power.
She says the trip is an opportunity for learning,

You know, Mennonites, James J. Hill, flood diversion plans, Buffalo Commons, Emily Carr,
Gang of Seven, Henry Kreisel’s The Betrayal, Robert Kroetsch’s The Stud Horse Man,
Louis Riel, the Red River Rebellion of 1869, Sharon Butala’s Luna.

I enter a fugue state. I had thought we’d be close, synergistic in our thinking.
I tell myself love her—her steady eyes, her straight brown hair casually decorated
With braids—but she’s just old enough that I don’t entirely know her. My grasp

On our connection is tenuous—I can’t read the future, and cause-and-effect escapes me
At my age. Snapping out of it, I come back with arguments as convoluted and fixed as the
Ruching on her embroidered blouse, a hint of peasant flavor.

I’ve seen this before, an argument at cross purposes, the assembly line production of opinion,
Where the act of manufacture overtakes the product as end result. Repeat this exchange
Too often and Union and Management’s talks break down for good.

I know inside that she will go. I’m not helping myself by continuing the argument.
And as Tom Waits asked the beauty of the sky, Wait a minute, can’t you see I’m driving?
I acquiesce, although I fear her life growing in a direction I can’t attain.

What if the second worst happens? She meets a boy I don’t like on the train. She gives up
College dreams to move to his small town in the West. His family owns much of Main Street.
They have a secure if conservative home, some would say cozy. I don’t visit often.

All the old bromides would come back: It was meant to be. What matters is what she wants.
They have a long life ahead of them. They will be happy together. I’ll abandon
My dreams for her, her bucking of convention, an unfettered intellect. I’ll go back to work.

Before the existence of dialectics, before the invention of opposition, before train cars,
Cubicles, farmhouses, we lived free from the tumors of obstinacy
That grow in our guts, the ones so painful we’d choose no conversation over touching

That pain again. Offices are unnatural environments. When we lived in the wild
We chose what we did, spoke our minds, selected our own beliefs. From the pit of our hearts,
We started each morning by saying to God: Thank you for another day alive.


JAMES CIHLAR is the author of the poetry book Undoing (Little Pear Press) and chapbook Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press). His writing has appeared in American Poetry ReviewColdfrontEmprise Review; Forklift, Ohio; Future Earth Magazine; Mary; Painted Bride Quarterly; Prairie Schooner; Rhino; Verse Daily; and Western American Literature. A visiting instructor at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College, he lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.