Rick Hilles

My Polish and Another Poem
February 26, 2020 Hilles Rick


When I try to thank it, it shushes me. Then illuminates my way to the Exit.
What little Polish I have
likes me best when I’m trying harder to deserve it. Meanwhile, it will have
none of my shenanigans.

Least of all my pocket phrasebook sayings. Even if those who have spoken
her their whole lives sometimes
encourage me with an “Oh, your Polish is so good!” when I simply say Hi!
on a train, what little Polish I have

knows better, and elbows me in the ribs, then she just laughs and laughs.
Lately, she seems to prefer me
when I am at a perfect loss with her and have to ask her all kinds of questions.
Then, she looks me in the eye

and seems to take a genuine interest. I fear, though, that I remain too eager
for her ever to give me the key
to her innermost rooms, so I might bask in her albums of Chopin and come
to comprehend her great depths

and secrets. Clearly she reserves these intimacies for others who’ve earned her
trust, her almost family, who have
proven their fidelity to her over many years. If not decades. Even then, sometimes
she needs more proof of loyalty.

To hear them say a shibboleth I never had. Even without her password, still I
pursue her sometimes like a lover
who sees his having a beautiful future with her. I have to admit. It is unlikely.
Yet sometimes even now that

kind of seeing, and love, well up in me. I’m inclined to think my Polish—
promiscuous as she is—
encourages it. How else could she have survived those generations of occupation
and partition? But for the many mouths

that coveted her cigarette and pastry taste. Even now, the sudden whiff of wild
mushrooms. Maybe in an autumn broth.
Or a particularly gamey sausage will bring her back, the way a smile on the Sphinx
still trembles with the riddle of her Great Mysteries.


for Walter and Marie
Of course I have to dedicate this poem to my sweetheart’s parents
even if they are likely never to read it.
Which reminds me just a little bit of the fun fact I heard on NPR once about
crickets—who make noises that we can hear
but at a frequency that never reaches their own ears.
(If they can be said to have ears!)

Which makes me wonder if there is a music that we can make
that others can receive, even if it never reaches our own ears?
So maybe this also means that there is also a music we make that we can hear
even if certain others never get to hear it?
The writers behind the Iron (or was it Velvet?) Curtain had something like this
in their mimeographed Samizdat editions:

Those years that Ivan Klima and Zbigniew Herbert
were thought to write only for the top drawers of their desks
publishing nothing in the nationally approved presses and passing their poems
and stories along to friends—in copies of purple-blue ink.
But please don’t think, Walter and Marie, that I’m trying to leave
you out with the freezing rain and decaying leaves, equating you
it seems with the Communist censors

who were so disapproving of free thought and individual expression
that they accused poets like Joseph Brodsky of being
“parasites of the State.” It is the far more insidious relation between intolerance
and ideology that makes me link totalitarian
regimes, even and especially those founded on Marx’s premise that
“Religion is the opiate of the masses!” with religious fundamentalism.

I imagine you’ll be offended by this analogy, and forgive me if it does offend,
but the poet’s work, at least as I understand it, is to make
such connections, even and especially where these conjoinings of twins
make us most uncomfortable, even writhing a little
with the clarities that they give rise to in us—the more we sit with them.
But now I feel the need to return

to an analogy I made earlier, or, really, more of a question that I asked:
Is there a music that we can make that is only for
others and not our own ears? If there is, how would we ever know there is?
Unless others heard it and told us what it means to them.
As part of me—a surprising to me large part of me—wishes, really hopes
that either or both of you will find a way

to communicate with your daughter and me to tell us that some music
that we’re somehow responsible for, but have no knowledge of
directly, has found its way to you and you have been glad to bask in it.
And maybe while it doesn’t jive completely with your
fundamentalist Christian beliefs, somehow it still speaks to you
nevertheless, and kisses you with its beauty.

Maybe you are hardly even aware of hearing it, let alone what it says,
but one morning you wake with an almost unspeakable tenderness
filling your eyes, your whole body lit with some dawning recognition
that even you will want to call, Holy.
And even as you have this immense sense of opening, all day,
it’s still too much to speak about to anyone.

And yet, somehow, this same music fills even the awkward silences between us.
And nourishes you both, and all of us, even when we’re not listening.
Oh, Walter and Marie! If you were to ask me sometime what all of that is
I’d tell you both: To me, that’s poetry!

Rick Hilles is the author of Brother Salvage, selected by Kim Addonizio as winner of the 2005 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize (named the 2006 Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine, which celebrates independent and small press publishing), and A Map of the Lost World (2012), a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award, both with the University of Pittsburgh Press. He has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, a Camargo Fellowship, and an Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry from the Tennessee Arts Commission. He lives in Nashville and teaches at Vanderbilt University. The poems here are from a new poetry collection called The Empathy Machine; other poems in the collection have appeared or are forthcoming in Five Points, Literary Imagination, and Ploughshares.