by Keith Taylor
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
| 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.
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