I know that we should never judge a book by its cover, but every now and then the right cover can help us understand what's inside. On the cover of Rick Hilles's Brother Salvage, his powerful first collection of poetry, is a nineteenth-century photograph of a scholar in a crowded old room filled with scraps of loose papers. Inside the book we learn that this is Solomon Schechter, renowned professor of Talmud and rabbinic studies at Cambridge University, later a central figure in the founding of the Conservative movement in American Judaism. In the photo on Hilles's book, Schechter is in the Cairo Genizah, the place hidden in an old Egyptian synagogue where he made his greatest discovery of ancient and medieval Hebrew texts. Genizah is Hebrew for a hiding place where sacred or heretical books were placed to protect them from destruction or to keep them from the eyes of unwary readers.
For Rick Hilles this becomes a kind of metaphor for his own discoveries. The central person in this collection is not the poet. Rather it is the poet's pediatrician, Tadeusz Stabholz, Holocaust survivor and author of the memoir Seven Hells. The fact that the man who lived this life, who kept the record of names and people otherwise lost to history, became a doctor in Ohio who took care of children, would be, for some, a simple enough tale of the last century. For Rick Hilles, though, it is a moment that brings history out of its impersonal swirl and into the fabric of our daily lives.
For that is really the theme of Brother Salvage: history lives in us and connects us to the larger world before and around us. It is indeed a powerful idea, but in the hands of a lesser writer it could have become tedious. Rick Hilles is prepared for his theme. These poems move gracefully, evocative without ever seeming ornate, and they tell their stories easily, in quick flashes of image, in metaphor, or even in other texts translated by the author into his own verse. The theme, established by the doctor's record of his own survival, is manifest in poems that include small stories of the poet's own family history, or even in poems that find themselves hidden in earlier works of European literature, that speak in voices other than the poet's. The book concludes, for instance, with a visionary poem in the voice of William Blake's wife.
And that sense of connection to the world through history and through vision gives this book its power. In "Preparing for Flight," one of the book's simpler poems, the poet describes a scene in an airport waiting area where a loud businessman dominates the conversations. Hilles thinks mostly of his beloved and his return to her, and he writes under all these influences:
| Maybe I'll fax this to you, maybe I won't
but sure as starlight and this man's fierce business sense,
the dream-life of everything we love and lay our hands upon,
we're on the edge of something luminous. I know we are.
Hilles convinces us that the world may in fact be filled with that kind of potential, even as he sees very clearly the depths of our horrors. This vision makes Brother Salvage one of the most memorable and impressive first books of poetry I have ever read.
Rick Hilles reads from Brother Salvage at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, November 30.
[Review published November 2006]