My Brother, The Poet, At Nineteen
If you were to ask him yourself, he’d say
Nothing probably, but anyone who knows him
Would tell you—once they knew you were alone—
That my brother is a poet, the poet they know.
Sure, he slings drinks for them all night
At the bar where he’s their favorite bartender
(Even two decades later). The older couples bring him
Homemade treats, tickets to ballgames—the best seats.
And it’s not that he goes out of his way to
Befriend the regulars, it’s just that they have
(As some have explained) all fallen for him.
Maybe it’s the way he listens to them
Cry into their drinks, and how he laughs with them
At God and the wrong world. He listens
Like a nurse dispensing reliable cures
With a smile and just enough bedside manner
To show the depths of his genius for empathy.
But that’s not even the half of it.
They love him because they’ve come to know
Him, end of story. But as his brother
There are things I can add, too, beyond the ways
He’s taught me to listen and see the world with him.
Like one time, when I helped him to bed,
After getting him drunk on his nineteenth birthday,
(Don’t worry: it was legal then!) and when I turned
To leave, he asked me something, and I saw he was
Weeping, and when I asked him what’s wrong, he said,
“Would we even know each other
If we weren’t brothers?”
In the Book of Spells
In the book of old spells—some promising
to bring rain while others assure safe passage
for our dead, from here to whatever’s next—
I search for words that might help us now,
past curses that for others are the cures.
Turning the pages makes a crisp, bright sound.
There’s something in moving through this
book alone that comforts as it gives gooseflesh.
So much power in one carefully constructed
tome, and yet each recipe for transformation
stares back silent as a gargoyle on a tomb.
Even if I could cast a spell, what would I invoke?
(The cure might be far worse than the curse!)
Maybe this book is too powerful for anyone
to own? (The press was small and now is defunct.)
Like those who see the holy words of sacred texts
transcribed on what they eat, now I see more
in each seed that might be planted in the earth.
Maybe the ancients saved their best magic
not for words but for what comes to us when
we are overtaken by the sight of a loved one
and words fail us, or we fail them, when we
are wrong in how we’re being right, and truth
eludes us. And now I read of how some wishes
were bound with twine (or hair—one’s own
or of a lover, living or dead) and tied to stones
which were thrown to various bodies of water,
where they traveled the current that carried
them, and dissolved. By now, the book says,
we have washed ourselves so many times
in the waters holding the wishes of others
that the answers they sought still hover near us.
Finally, I close the forbidden book and rise
so I can stand where the answers already are.
Rick Hilles, a recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship, is the author of Brother Salvage, winner of the 2005 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and named 2006 Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine, and A Map of the Lost World, a finalist for the 2013 Ohioana Poetry Prize. The poems in ALR are from a new collection called The Empathy Machine; poems from this collection have appeared or are forthcoming in Five Points, Kenyon Review, Literary Imagination, Ploughshares, and Plume. He teaches in the English Department and MFA Program at Vanderbilt University.