Rick Hilles is the author of Brother Salvage winner of the 2005 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize (Pitt Poetry Series, 2006) and named 2006 Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine. His work has appeared in Harper's, The Nation, The New Republic, Poetry, Ploughshares; he's been the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholar, a Stegner fellow at Stanford, and a Halls fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He grew up in northeastern Ohio and is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Vanderbilt University.


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Brother Salvage

Two poems by Rick Hilles


Larry Levis in Provincetown
            (June, 2007)

So, this is how I am summoned from nothingness:
in faded cut offs, moonlighting at Connieís Bakery

where I keep reading Rilke to Jenny, the pastry chef,
who rolls her eyes, & blows flour into my tired face.

Beneath my limp bakerís hat & stained white smock
I still wear my favorite Hawaiian shirt, the color

of bubble gum, absinthe & night. We are permitted
to choose but one companion for the great journey,

so Garcia Lorca is here with me;—we arrived last week
as "guest worker summer help." Youíll be happy

to know that our work continues, as before, in Death.
Last night we finally had that conversation about

the moon, & mirrors—why they canít tell us
everything they see. We stood at an ivy-lined gate

two summers too late to deliver Stanley Kunitz our best
vermouth & news of Roethke and the other immortal poets

whose ranks by now, at long last, heís joined. Instead,
our poet of black notes took off his white tuxedo shirt

&, facing Stanleyís last masterpiece, his front yard
garden, which still revises itself in preparation

for his return, Garcia Lorca revealed thumb-sized
lavender crescent moons, the eerie constellation

across his chest above the heart, the scars of bullet holes
from Francoís Guardia Civil; he told me everything—

from the faces of the firing squad to digging his own grave.
He says the landscape of his dreams has already drifted

from the Alhambraís gardens, wading pools, & almond groves
to the salt marsh at Black Fish Creek & the starlit wisteria

he affectionately calls, "These endlessly creeping vines
of strumpet braids!" And the delicate braids of Challah

we braid each day rise like old lovers awakening to our touch
restored. You should see the lean, aristocratic

hands of Garcia Lorca—theyíve never been so strong!
I didnít think such mortal progress was still possible for us.

Or that I would again be permitted access to the knowledge
that comes in a love amplified by the stirrings of the world.

And then I recognized something in the insistent, winding
taproot of an oak, which pierced me with the recognition

that is holy, & I felt the tug of gravityís widening spell.
So that even if Garcia Lorca and I are just scraping by

with all the others working for peanuts in high season,
to be alive again and living in a hot seaside town

is good as any afterlife
& probably our best chance at happiness.

[first appeared in Columbia Magazine (Winter 2007)]


Flashlight Stories

                      1.

The women in this family play pinochle,
smoke, toss back salted nuts with the dregs
of their drinks. Ethel, Gladys, Esther,

Vesta, Effie—names you canít imagine
anyone being named again. One would say,
Richard, would you like more to eat?

The men are out back still taking turns
grinding the ice-cream maker, their biceps
swollen and warm from crushing the ice

to slush. One by one, even the laughter
of these ghosts becomes less audible.
You want to ask them in, to tell them stories

by flashlight to make them want to stay.
You could begin with anything, anything—
the smallest thing that ever made you want your life.

                      2.

The air after rain. The sounds of lovers
making love, tea and toast, and nevertheless
going about their days. It has something

to do with gravity. One moment youíre walking
at the edge of a street, when your brother
is taken from your hand. You go your whole life

thinking, Why him and not me? You wake
and are no longer young. Traffic is still insidious,
but now the hours come apart like soft-boiled eggs.

You spoon the round bellies out, pour on tabasco,
grind fresh pepper, eating the moments so they
sizzle in your mouth, so they burn as they go down.

It takes a kind of courage, sometimes, just to say it.
Whole days spent otherwise have proven this to me.
Step forward, and the wind braces you on all sides.

3. Ghost Story

In the tent, we point the flashlights toward the roofs
of our mouths and flick the switch. Like wax heads
from Graumanís Chinese Theater my best friends become
two terrifying African death masks. We shiver; the rain
falls harder through the maples and our friend tells us
how his father tore open his knees running home from school,
went swimming anyway, and heard eerie muffled voices
coming from the docks; how he moved toward them,
and they pulled him from the water, pointing at a spot
now teeming with shark fins. I pull the scratchy blanket
around my neck, and another says that his great-grandmotherís body
was kept uncovered in his motherís childhood living room for days
before her funeral; and one night his mother watched through tears
as her bedroom door dissolved, her grandmother walked in
and kissed her, once, on the temple, the way she always did.

4. Fender Strat with Wah-Wah, Fuzz Box, & Whammy Bar

A smeared note swells and scatters
like a voice inside a cave, tugging
the vibrato till the sound divides

like an egg yolk dropped in broth;
inside you now, swirling like a geyser
trapped in earth before the whole thing

blows apart. As if the spirit-world will
talk back, the more you face the amp
and lean into yourself. You think,

there are so many ways to pray. This being,
of course, another lining up of hands,
the way to take the vagrant silence in yourself

and make it deafening. Now it is the whole house
breaking in the sound of surf, the echoes
rattling the bookshelves, even without the sound.

5. One Underworld

My seventeenth summer, sweating all day
long in the underbelly of a local Y, breathing in

a boiler roomís dry furnace heat.
The sun-scorched janitor tells me

how the whores in Vietnam
unclasped their necklaces and moved them

bead by bead

inside you; and when you came
pulled out that headless rattlesnake so fast

your entire body would explode.
And something then would silver

in your mind, and napalm would spill
its orange acid from the trees. And everything,

for that one moment, would be still
and perfect and impossible to bear.

6. My Motherís Bed on Fire

First there were just a few zeros
singed perfectly like nihilist monograms
in her elegant nightclothes. Full moons
blackened at their edge. A nightstand;
the ashtray by her bed overflowing

with a pile of broken doll fingers
with lipstick at the ends where
the life-force had been sucked away.
When it finally happened, we were lucky:
She woke up.

And the insurance covered everything.
Now itís the best room in the house.
We joke about it now; call it her Pleasure Dome.
When I talk about visiting, she says: Bring
your girlfriend, honey, and you can sleep in it.

7. Taking a Shower with My Father

After I dislocated my shoulder the second time
I stood in the shower of a local Y with my father,
onion-bellied men lathering themselves, lemon
meringue froth running off their bodies, inching
across the tile and down the drain.

When he saw me unable to wash myself,
he spread a cloud of soap across my back.
He said, The guys are going to think
weíre queer, ha! Let them! And Iím the one
getting nervous, eyeing the doorway,

calming myself with thoughts of the house
he had in Michigan with his second wife.
When I had nightmares there, no matter what,
heíd open the coverlet like a storm-cellar door
in tornado season, still half-asleep, to let me in.

8. Arcana Mundi

After the divorce Mom read every book she could
find on the Afterlife, Divination, Atlantis, Lost Worlds.
Ancient Cities. At some holiday party she discovered
a gift for hypnosis, channeling. One by one she held
the willing in waking sleep, walked them backward
through their lives to who they were before they were.
It came so easily. We sat in elementary and she taught
Special Ed at a country school in Salem. By day, her kids
basked in the glow of an incubator bought out-of-pocket,
the speckled eggs warming until they hatched. At night
she read Seth Speaks, roamed the darkest rooms inside
herself to find the opening. When other voices came. As if
some station buried deep inside our skulls broadcast
a music you could learn to tune in. When the voices
finally came for her, the flood of static never went away

9. The Temple

Before they even knew what
it could do to you, they pulled back
my motherís lovely midnight hair,
a moon and its reflection rising
at each temple, two strong men
pinned her down, put electrodes there,
a pincher here—cold metal on teeth
on tongue—and fired up the furnace

to her brain: the shock, electricity,

shrugging through her body, oh, oh,
she told me she heard the woman in the bed
beside her moan, as if on fire, already bending
at the knees. She still hears the woman screaming
sometimes at night, the screaming wakes her
and she says, herself, "My God, itís me!"

10. Alarm

By your thirtieth year they say
it should manifest. If not, in most cases,
you have been spared.

But there are exceptions.

Even two years beyond my third decade
the dormant, snaky coil of DNA
            might hiss itself

awake, snap its distorted spine
and strike. But my mother says: Honey
            as long as you can point to
a reason you feel a certain way

you donít have what I have. And even now
I am afraid I feel the alarm about to go off in me,
            the harried beating in my neckís

carotid artery, the green branching veins

inside my wrists. See now, if you canít feel it here,

the second hand ticking its true course,

a heart pre-set to detonate.

                      11.

Sometimes you have nothing left to say, and still
you keep on muttering like a set of wind-up teeth.
Other days, your eyes just glide across the words.
Like a catamaran. What is it that makes this
the moment you rise into yourself, a set of overalls

that ripple into being? You watch your love hug
what seems to be a beaten horse, just like Raskolnikov.
But when you look later, she wants to console a tree?
She can be so dramatic! Even the old Russian men playing dominoes
in Golden Gate Park look on and scratch their heads.

Itís just another fish wrapped in aluminum, they seem to say.
Someone grown heavy with the world, not ready yet to speak.
When my mother woke up from her coma,
the first words to escape her were, Iím hungry!
What if each moment opened up for you like this?

                      12.

After so much build-up, who should
arrive but the little Thai delivery-man
with the white walrus mustache, the one

you always overtip because he is so old
and still delivering dumplings, chicken with lemon grass
on a rainy Friday night. The strangers

youíve opened your doors to!
How many times have you held off sleep
just to think again of an idling car

where you could fall in love.
Or the jukebox in your favorite bar,
how it shoots sparkling pink and green

soda pop through its veins. You can never fill
yourself enough with your beloved, you think,
and it seems almost impossible to die.


[from Brother Salvage, by Rick Hilles, © 2006.
Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.]