It is astonishing to learn, after reading Rick Hilles’ just-released Brother Salvage, that this is his first full-length book. The poet, who teaches creative writing at Vanderbilt, has been publishing individual poems for years and has two chapbooks to his credit. His work has been featured in such respected journals as The Paris Review, Salmugundi and Ploughshares, as well as major newsstand magazines, including The Nation and The New Republic. He has won plenty of awards. But it wasn’t until this year, when his manuscript won the University of Pittsburgh’s Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, that Hilles’ magnificent work has been collected into a single volume.
Brother Salvage begins with a poem called “Antique Shop Window, Krakow.” Its opening words—“What if they could speak?”—prefigures much of the book’s concern. While the speaker here is referring specifically to menorahs and plateware and “cherubs torn from / their heavens, suspended here in limbo, hanging / by five black strings thickened in dust,” the poet himself is embarking on a book-long theme of remembrance, often resurrecting historical people to tell their own stories. The technique allows Hilles to honor the uniqueness of individuals while simultaneously universalizing their plight. In the poem “Visions of Captivity: Neulengbach, 1912,” for example, the speaker is the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, in prison on obscenity charges. The poem not only recalls that art is often viewed by the powers-that-be as dangerous, but because Hilles allows Schiele to tell his own story, it also grants access into the mind of the artist. As the judge prepares to burn the “obscene” sketch, Schiele remarks: “This unfinished nude, not my best / unnerves me. I could show them things— / they would bury me alive.” In what would take a biographer paragraphs to explain, the poet accomplishes in three quick lines: Schiele reveals himself as proud, vain, possibly paranoid and a perfectionist more concerned with his art than with the sentence the judge is about to impose on him.
Several poems toward the end of the book, in fact, concern the nature of art and especially artists themselves, or those close to them. In “A Visionary’s Company,” the recently widowed Catherine Blake displays visionary powers equal to her husband’s:
Often my William wasin Paradise.But when he return’d, he brought backAll those images to me. I always believ’dHis Work would live beyond us, & reallyCould not say, How or Whyor When—but often I dreamt the Angels ofTransport were tapping out new Songs in our room:Catherine Blake!
Anchoring the book and setting its tone is the first section, which includes the remarkable title poem, a multipart confluence of lyric, narrative, documentary, epistle—and, in the sequence’s final sections, passages from Seven Hells, the memoir of Holocaust survivor Tadzik Stabholz translated into verse by Hilles. It is a poem so well conceived and executed it leaves the reader stunned even as the inevitability of its end is apparent from the beginning. Even, in fact, as we’ve known that end for over half a century.
Also included in this first section is the book’s most moving narrative, the dream/nightmare-like “Amchu,” which again features Tadzik Stabholz as protagonist. In it Hilles weaves effortlessly between the historical past and the poem’s present, the horror of the Holocaust and what it is to return to it. The poem begins:
The velvet curtain was already falling, the twentiethcentury losing its last gray hairs, when the manbrought back from death safely reenteredthe war-ravaged city of his birth; the long shadowsflooded him, filling him with sparrows and broken glass.
In the library, Tadzik, a doctor, discovers photos he himself had taken in the early days of the Warsaw ghetto. In the following lines, Hilles’ touch is remarkably delicate, conveying Tadzik’s emotions—remorse, fear, hope, determination, compassion—simply by describing his actions. Note the care Hilles takes to have Tadzik notice exactly what a doctor would notice:
[H]is left hand moved over the faces, the wayhe tended them when they were still alive,and he scanned the wreckage of a shelled-outhospital for anything that might hold backdeath, a spoon or handkerchief to improvisea splint; overlooked laudanum for pain.
This poem that begins with such a grand scope—the 20th century—moves steadily toward a single interaction between two human beings, a clandestine transfer of camera film that will ultimately help shape the way the century is viewed. Tadzik handed over the film to a fellow resister, “one with access to the outside world,” a man who “made it, if only once, / back to the world of fruit and light.”
It is perhaps both a shame and a blessing that it took so long for Hilles’ poems to arrive in book form. While easy access to his body of work has been delayed, the result is a text shorn of the hiccups and flaws of many first books, in which talented young poets are still struggling to discover what they have to say, let alone how to say it. In Brother Salvage, Hilles’ maturity and vision are everywhere, from the opening poem’s bold, questioning first line to the final poem’s last, ultimately hopeful, word: “Eternity.”