James Cihlar

It is not so hard to believe
that one’s husband
has murdered his brother

once you have time
to get used to the notion,
Jayne Meadows

tells Katharine Hepburn
in Vincente Minnelli’s
dizzying film noir.

Her husband,
with his fine eye
for the details of women’s clothes,

has transformed Hepburn’s
sporty tomboy
from confident screwball

to stylish, mature victim.
As her silhouette
has sharpened

her confidence has eroded.
Even her crisp diction
has softened with confusion.

How we want to believe
that experiences
contain lessons,

that a past event
dictates the present,
which encrypts the future.

Her husband,
a munitions magnate,
murdered a Jewish refugee

in his employ
and took credit for the invention
that defeated the Nazis.

The movie asks us to believe
she loves her husband’s brother instead,
even though she has never met him.

The husband
is played by glamorous
Robert Taylor,

while the brother
is played by brooding
Robert Mitchum.

Everything we know about the movies
tells us her husband’s sin
will be forgiven.

Only later do we wonder
if the brother is as guilty as the husband
for keeping the secret.

A life without fear,
her husband vows.
He has feared his brother

for knowing the truth,
but has shed his weakness.
His fear has transformed

into anger. Either
he must tell his wife
or kill her.

When he offers her
a cup of coffee
at breakfast,

the camera looks at her
as if through water,
the manifold planes

of her raw-boned face
blurred, a woman
on the verge of drowning.

What it is like
to hear other people
talking about you,

and to hear it
in the presence of others:
The bottom of your stomach

falling out.
In the hotel lobby
the wife and husband overhear

two acquaintances
mocking her naiveté.
On the elevator ride up

Hepburn fumes in silence.
When her husband
humors her, she lashes out.

She opens our eyes
to what we had seen
but not recognized.

This is the inheritance
from our parents, the movies they watched,
the mid-century formula

for adulthood, a world
whose largeness and corruption
is beyond our grasp,

where motivation is visible only
to those whose sophistication
makes them worthy.

The condoned habit
of scapegoating
we have to correct;

the ideas we breathe
come out through our hands,
are left in our paths,

and mark our walls.
The modes of a century
configure into the masks

we assume in the course
of a day, as needed.
At the end of the movie,

the husband is dead
and the wife
is with the brother.

We believe in the power of stories,
of the beginning’s compulsion
to evolve into the middle

and the middle’s need
to metamorphose into the end.
In our fierce determinism

we forget the apocryphal insertion,
the inherent appeal of the alternative spiral,
incendiary in the helix of the DNA,

able to lead to new roles,
and to scrap the past. Beginning,
middle, end.

“Undercurrent” appeared in the 2011 edition of the Labletter.

©2009-2018 Labletter LLC. All rights for individual pieces reserved by contributing writers and artists.