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Song for an Empty Hand

This is my bit of bottled moonlight, my lightning bolt.
This, my What-have-you-done-for-me-lately?
my place where men are separated from the boys
and then reintroduced, more susceptible to beauty

and to love. In the long night of the body, the mind
climbs out its snail shell ear. Like an owl.
Its head turns, impossibly around, before it flies
over whole continents of feeling. Snow squalls

raging in the rust-belt do not deter it, nor do
the Himalayas, the Mojave, or Beijing;
skinheads in Vienna, the bones of Mogadishu.
May even the horrors of the earth lengthen its wings.

And the body is beautifully there, like hoarfrost.
Tears on its face now glimmering like dimes
falling from a slot machine, or a stream that thought lost
breaks through fresh snow at wintertime.


The Last Blue Light

If this is my last flight may I still
have time to taste the darkness

melting on my tongue, dissolving
with the sound of sugar maple leaves

blowing around my childhood home;
may wind lift the leaves up to their branches

and air be restored to the last season,
winter’s steamy breath leaving us autumn,

all shovels and rakes remaining in dust.
Unneeded. Let us reach our altitude,

each of us humming our assent, moving
with the sounds of wet machinery. Nothing

visible as we bear down through space
but the last blue light of day, glowing

at the black wings, the seat belt sign now off
and my dead friend, Michael, sleeping

in the empty row beside me. The fire highlights
in his poker-straight ponytail lighting up the aria

on his lap, the one he dozed off memorizing,
the day his plane went down,

his thick lips still shivering and blue
from the icy waters off La Guardia.

Nothing yet has edged us out of the sky,
he says, to show he’s listening. Each of us now

weighs as much as the city we grew up in.
And I can almost feel this sense

of being occupied, of the stampede
of population—

everyone I’ve ever loved
moving through rows of starlight,

and in me,
and what if the dead need us, too,

as much as we need them?
And who wouldn’t give

everything if it meant
having them among us, alive again?


Antique Shop Window, Kraków

What if they could speak?: the pawn shop menorahs
    and samovars, the cherubs torn from

their heavens, suspended here in limbo, hanging
    by five black strings thickened in dust,

their gold wings flaking so close to earth; the jewel-
    shaped chandeliers unmoored from ceilings;

the salty waves in stasis on the black marble maiden
    naked to the waist but for the black curtain

blown impossibly into place, held there by a constant
    wind no one else can feel as she remains

in darkness, deprived of her own shadow. What of
    the desk hands pressed against? The chair’s

own squat suspicions? The serving sets and hand-
    sewn linens, the almost hallucinatory art

deco patterns on tea cups and saucers, and elaborate
    dinner plates? The cracked handblown glass,

and not its maker, held in late afternoon sunlight?


The velvet curtain was already falling, the twentieth
century losing its last gray hairs, when the man
brought back from death safely reentered
the war-ravaged city of his birth; the long shadows
flooded him, filling him with sparrows and broken glass.
He unwrapped himself to bandages of lilac cloud,
the ancient dirt road of river still there and shimmering.
The street-cleaners sprayed the sidewalk, and vendors
steadied their fresh flowers, and fruits, and meats;
one elderly woman’s hands like gloves the color
of crushed raspberries, held out a fat peach,
the best the season had to offer, or so it seemed—
it was all that he’d longed to touch again and taste
and see and would, he knew, soon mourn,
when he turned his back again on the great river,
the sun warm on his shoulders as he pushed through
the revolving glass doors to the library, imperceptibly
passing the distracted guards to one unlit corridor
where among the higher shelves he brushed off
the dusty volumes with an ecstasy that held him
wide awake in the nightmare—more than anything
now he needed to fill in the years of his exile,
his appetite transforming his native tongue
to a new fluency—the readiness and dexterity
in him surpassed, nearly complete. He raced
through a language transcribed from fire
when on the next page framed in the window
by four sudden prison bar shadows, he saw
the photos—bleary, colorless, but images he knew
and recognized—the Warsaw ghetto’s first days:
a crowd of children’s faces, some smiling and full.
Electric cable car #61 wearing the Star of David
blurring beside a hand-drawn rickshaw; and after
the Typhus, a headshot of the boy smuggler
who hid food in his knickers, lying in a black
pool of blood; a starving woman trying to hold
her grief—and a newborn infant, already dead;
the woman lost consciousness soon afterward.
They were the photographs Tadzik had taken
half a century ago—in the first months
of his own captivity after he smuggled into
the ghetto his birthday present: a loaded
Leica camera with two rolls of film. Now
his left hand moved over the faces, the way
he tended them when they were still alive,
and he scanned the wreckage of a shelled-out
hospital for anything that might hold back
death, a spoon or handkerchief to improvise
a splint; overlooked laudanum for pain.
The sudden fusion of purpose and frenzy
a kind of maddening ecstasy
that held him wide awake in the nightmare.
So that even as he stood holding the faces
of the ghetto dead, the buried lives returned,
resurfacing like water startled from the Carpathians.
The foreheads, still wet and feverish, pressed
back against his fingertips; and late Autumn
rattled the windowpanes. —And he remembered
another runner: a man, like him, in the resistance.
But one with access to the outside world, a man
he somehow met and did not meet on a park bench.
Below a fruitless tree—along the ghetto wall
(a suit!) ashing a smoke said, Amchu?—“Friend?”
and Tadzik nodded, lowering his brim, the man
calmly sat and pocketed the shriveled bag of film.
And then, not looking up, the man rose slowly
(slowly!) and walked away. And that was that.
(Then fifty years.) The nightmare was exposed.
And the runner had made it, if only once,
back to the world of fruit and light.

Preparing for Flight

    “All I need is this phonebook, this tasty freeze, this…”
                    —Steve Martin, The Jerk

All I need is this square of sunlight falling through me,
the runway out there, bending out of sight. All I need
is the scar above my lip to speak. The antechamber

to flight is filled with cell phones and neon highlighters,
pink, green, violet and every color in between. People
play with their thumbs and bottom lips and double-chins.

The man across from me talks inventories and bottom
feeders, and signing off, and moving forward, and what’s up?
And that’s just tossing $23,000 into the garbage! that’s

just a heads up, he says. I want that language to find itself
lost and returned to splendor. I want it to pull down its pants
and stick out its shiny ink-black tongue. I want it to be afraid.

I want that man to listen to the woman with the lump in
her throat, she’s talking suicide at cheetah speed. It seems her
would-be husband got cold feet. I want him to find a way inside,

to go to her, like the friend who holds her now, and let her
know that she is better off. Just so we are on the same page,
the suit beside him says. Just so we understand each other,

love. I was just checking the numbers. I just put out a voice
mail. I’m trying to crunch the figures, love, to fax them to you
via ESP. But now it seems the light’s flipped on its side,

angling like a salmon. Or a prism. I want to resist all talk
of bottom-lines. Maybe I’ll fax this to you, maybe I won’t,
but sure as starlight and this man’s fierce business-sense,

the dreamlife of everything we love and lay our hands upon,
we’re on the edge of something luminous. I know we are. So often
now, dear one, I thought my back would break before it,

before this scrub-jet would arrive, and I could get to you.


"Antique Shop Window, Kraków," "Amchu," "The Last Blue Light," "Song for an Empty Hand," and "Preparing for Flight" are from Brother Salvage, by Rick Hilles, © 2006.  Reprinted and used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rick Hilles

Rick Hilles is the author of Brother Salvage, which won the 2005 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was named the 2006 Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and has been a Stegner at Stanford and the Ruth and Jay C. Halls Fellow of the University of Wisconsin--Madison's Institute for Creative Writing. His work has appeared in Harper's, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Salmagundi, Field and Witness. He teaches in the MFA Program at Vanderbilt University.

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Brother Salvage