Brother Salvage: Repacking Pandora‘s Box; First book by Vanderbilt poet Rick Hilles released

Fleeting mercies, painful secrets, the living and the dead find asylum – even sanctuary – throughout Rick Hilles‘ first published book of poetry.

Brother Salvage, the winner of the 2005 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and published by University of Pittsburgh Press, is envisioned by Hilles as a genizah. That‘s a Hebrew term for “hiding place.” Genizot serve the unique purpose of “protecting what they contain and preventing their more dangerous contents from causing harm.”

“The hope is that the book becomes a place for protecting these stories and the lives preserved within them,” said Hilles, a senior lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University. “It‘s an imaginative solution, one that doesn‘t prevent people from being damaged by the world, but I loved the idea of trying to put things back in Pandora‘s Box. And I wanted to find some meaningful way of paying tribute to these lives.”

The first words to Brother Salvage‘s opening poem, “Antique Shop Window, Krakow” – “What if they could speak?” – prefigure the book‘s central concerns. As reviewer Pablo Tanguay noted in The Nashville Scene:

“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.”

Historical pieces are juxtaposed with love poems and sequences that include Flashlight Stories, a family recollection, and poems in the voices of historical personas such as Austrian artist Egon Schiele and Romantic poet William Blake‘s wife, Catherine.

Harold Bloom, a poetry critic and Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale University, calls Brother Salvage “a beautiful book of enormous potential. … For someone with my interests – Judaic, Blakean, Gnostic, visionary – I read the poems as though they ‘find‘ me. And they have.”

The centerpiece is the title poem, a three-part epic that plays out a cinematic panorama of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

In one scene, starving prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp are promised soup if they complete their work, only to be betrayed:

“… he says to the SS: ‘Jews are good workers!/ Promise them soup and they will complete/ even the most difficult tasks, surpassing even/well-fed laborers!‘ Then to us: ‘If you can/ do a job like that, you don‘t need soup! Raus!‘/ … We stand there like statues. Our legs refuse/movement. The Raportfuhrer peels back a branch/ from a tree. The SS remove their belts. Not/ one among us runs off or cries under the rain/ of heavy blows. Slowly, we collect our tools./ Later that night ISRAEL says: Remember:/ Even in our silence, friend, they know/ The full magnificence of our distaste.”

The poem is partly a piece of reporting. Hilles‘ childhood pediatrician, Dr. Thaddeus Stabholz, is a Holocaust survivor, and author of a memoir of the experience, Seven Hells.

“He had been a prisoner of seven different concentration camps,” Hilles said. “And, as you can imagine, there are many remarkable stories that never made it into his book. In the title poem, I wanted to give sanctuary to one such story that moved me deeply – the narrative surrounding the origin of his book, which included his friend ISRAEL (in the poem) who was crucial to his survival but who did not survive. My hope is that the poem becomes a way of honoring them and, in some sense, protecting them from further harm.”

Elsewhere in a section titled Flashlight Stories, Hilles looks inward and unflinchingly at issues of family and identity. In “My Mother‘s Bed on Fire,” he juxtaposes a nearly horrific event with its almost comical aftermath.

“And the insurance covered everything./ Now it‘s 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.”

Hilles, who grew up in northeastern Ohio, can‘t recall a time in which he didn‘t write. In his Montessori pre-school, he was outfitted with a desk where he could write and illustrate his own stories. Though Brother Salvage is his first book, Hilles‘ poetry has long been a fixture in magazines and literary journals including Harper‘s, The Nation, New Republic, Poetry and Salmagundi. He was the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholar, a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and taught at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before coming to Vanderbilt in 2005.

His first book is the result of winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, which comes with an offer of publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

“At one time poetry was praised for its ability to astonish ordinary people,” wrote poet and critic Hayden Carruth of Brother Salvage. “Now Rick Hilles, in his first book, shows us how even life in our time can be astonished.”

Hilles says, “There are many things in our daily lives that can make us indifferent to experience.

“This is why poetry and other challenging art forms are worth our best efforts at understanding them. When they open us up again to beauty and real feeling and genuine compassion, they hold the key to our survival.

Contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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