Rick Hilles interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Rick, the sequence represented here, Seven for the Last Words of X, came about after you were asked by Dean Whiteside, conductor of the Nashville Sinfonietta, to write seven poems for a performance of Haydn's piece for orchestra inspired by the last seven utterances of Christ. Can you please tell us more about how this collaboration started? What were your thoughts about it? It seems a monumental sort of thing to do.
First, an admission: …Over a decade ago (in January 2002), I saw the performance Mark Strand gave (in Ann Arbor, Michigan) with the Brentano String Quartet of the seven poems that he’d been commissioned to write for a performance of Haydn’s piece, and I fondly remember the experience. (Though I don’t remember saying this exactly, in the back of my mind, I must have said something like: “…Oh well, there is another fine thing that you will never do!”)
So when Dean Whiteside approached me about doing the same thing for the Nashville Sinfonietta, I was honored, of course, but also somewhat taken aback. (“Hasn’t this already been done?” I thought. Then wrote as much to Dean.) But he was persistent. He really wanted new poems. There was the part of me that wanted to decline, from the onset. (Thinking the whole task either too monumental or simply impossible. Especially in the time frame: …I remember reading after I had accepted the task, thankfully, that it took Mark Strand a year to write the poems. I had one summer to do them.) Then the voice—born more of delight at the idea, and wonder, and gratitude at being asked at all!—eventually won out. In the end, I am so glad that I did it. If it weren’t for Dean, and his patiently determined encouraging way, these poems would not exist. So my abiding gratitude goes to him! And to Emma Dansak, one of my most naturally gifted former students (now a graduate student in the music school at the University of Michigan) who first put the bee in Dean’s ear to contact me.
Haydn’s piece, according to music journalist James Reel, was written in 1785 “after a Spanish canon commissioned Haydn to write an orchestral work that would stimulate a congregation to religious meditation during Lenten services at a particular church in Cadiz.” He goes on to write that “this, the church of Santa Cueva, occupied a cave, and for the season every wall, window, and pillar was draped in black, with a single lantern providing scant illumination. The service would begin with an overture, then the bishop would give a sermon on one of the seven last utterances of Christ on the cross. The orchestra would play a slow movement inspired by the subject, then the bishop would deliver a sermon on another of Christ's last utterances, and so forth.” How much of this gets into your poems, and how much research on the piece’s history did you do during the composition process?
A cave would have been amazing. (But imagine the potential fire code violations!)
In a sense, many of the terms were already set: … the performance would take place at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music—all proceeds going to the Shade Tree Clinic. (For those interested in learning more about this wonderful organization).
Aside from our departure from the original setting, I took seriously the original impulse of wanting to write poems (if not sermons) that would “stimulate” listeners to meditate on matters of the spirit, if not specifically of any one religious variety.
At a certain point, I wanted the poems to work autonomously—even in the absence of Haydn’s music.
Both you and your colleague at Vanderbilt, Mark Jarman, are known for poetry that reckons with matters of religion and faith. What are the difficulties you encounter while writing such poems and how does your own sense of religiosity frame or otherwise inform these poems?
It’s funny: I’ve never heard myself characterized as being a poet “known for poetry that reckons with matters of religion and faith.” (If it’s true, and even if it’s not, it’s nice to be known for anything worthwhile.) I do know that I’m honored to be thought of in the same breath as my friend and colleague, Mark Jarman, who I think is among our best and most brilliant poets now writing.
So you ask: How does my own sense of religiosity frame the poems I write? When it comes to “my own sense of religiosity,” if anything I’m something of a ‘secular ecstatic’. (I believe that phrase belongs to poet, Stanley Kunitz.) For the better part of a decade now, I’ve lived in the so-called “Bible belt,” and I have had occasion to describe myself as a spiritual person (whatever this may mean) without any particular affiliation. (Like a turtle, maybe I wear my “church home” on my back?) That said, interesting enough, sometimes when I am writing (and what I think is one of the not so easily articulated gifts of being a lifelong student of the imagination, while one is opening within the imaginative possibilities) all options suddenly seem on the table, but in an entirely different way. Which may be why, the more I lived with Haydn’s music, and thought about various things of our moment (Global warming, a friend in medical distress, even the then impending anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech and the march on Washington), I felt closer to Haydn’s music (and its spiritual aspirations, as I am able to connect to them) than I have ever felt before.
I imagine that one might be lured into giving one’s artistic self away to the composer’s strong presence and the music’s original intention; however, it doesn’t feel to me like you’ve done this. Instead you negotiate with the music and bring into the collaboration that which defines you as an artist. I suspect, for example Haydn would not have been thinking of manatees, the Pacific coast, or medical ethics as he composed the piece. How conscious were you about having these poems being yours and not Haydn’s? Or were you thinking they needed to be yours AND Haydn’s?
At some point, on an unconscious (or maybe preconscious?) level, I wanted to translate my sense of Haydn’s spiritual purpose—and the beauty I saw in the possibility of it—into poetry. At this point, I was already in my element. (In a sense, like a beach walk my wife and I took once at sunset in St. Augustine, Florida, I was writing toward the sense of when the dorsal fins of proved to be a mother and baby dolphin, moving in their element, suddenly appeared and, for a while, walking beside us—in their element, but at our pace—before almost as quickly moving on.)
So, this collaboration was performed at the end of August 2013 at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music. How did it go?
I think the whole performance went very well. Michael Hime, a Senior Lecturer in the Blair School of Music (with a wonderfully expressive, resonant, baritone voice) read the poem. …When we first met to go over the poem, he asked me to read it to him, and when I did, he very kindly said that he could fake an illness the night of the show, if I wanted him to do so. It was an extremely generous offer. But Dean had a vision for the performance, that the three of us would be a part of it, I said; after meeting Michael, and taking an instant shine to him, I knew that he was the one to read the poem aloud.
What else is going on with Rick Hilles these days?
I’m back to school, teaching both the graduate and undergraduates at Vanderbilt, which has really been a total joy. I’m working on a new manuscript, called The Far Wall, which is very nearly done. And just this week (on Tuesday, September 24th) my wife and I celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary. Though we all know what to give for the silver and gold anniversaries, and that the first year is something involving paper, it seems that the eighth year of my marriage, at any rate, is about giving each other a new roof (as I’m reminded by the sounds of hammering and scampering feet above my head as I write this!). Thank you, John, for all the wonderful questions. If time weren’t such an impatient muse, I’d have been glad to have taken much longer with them all!
Seven for the Last Words of X
—written for a performance of Haydn, based on the last seven utterances of Christ
X, which marks a spot for the unknown,
X, for the variable we can’t solve,
the treasure just below our feet, X,
for those we don’t know who, nevertheless,
give all that we may persist—X, for what
lies under every flame—X, for the martyr’s
charred fallen cross, for the one who said
of his tormentors: “Forgive them, for they
know not what they do!” X, for the kiss
that singes our flesh, even now, X, for each
name that does not fit—some brutal legacy,
a final violence of master to slave, as for
Malcolm, or the way a mother’s right to
sign her work—which we all are—in one
gesture is erased. And so an X, to honor
these on whom we stand, we, drawn from
the living soil (which knows no single oath
or fealty but that of our shared betterment).
X marks the spot, for what lies buried in us,
still waiting to be unearthed, and may be yet,
so long as we listen—X, for the clear instant
that insists on our presence for the story to
begin, as it must, and grow in the attention of
others, in whom we live, long after our story ends.
One day, the ships on the horizon,
clinging like insects to the wet rind
of the world, will enlarge and come
for you, to take you past the island
of yourself, toward the distant music
that only now you begin to hear—
the sounds of a far-off place, wind-
swept, imagined, if by imagined
we mean unreal, and so alive with all
we do not know—and will not know,
ever—before the music summons us
there; where we may come to say
to those who deliver us: “The longer
I live, the less sure I am of what I know!”
So that when you are summoned,
hearing: “Today you will join me
in Paradise,” the words stop you
in your tracks, no matter how much
the breeze rushing through you with
its clarifying air broadens your sails.
In this version of our story, Death
passes over us, again, and we are spared,
if only once before that distant music
summons us, bending our final attention
to its will. Say that, if you were spared,
Death would take another in your place.
In the thrall of that last awakening,
what would you do? If Death, looking
to meet its daily quota of souls, seized the lost
shade of a boy, the latest lost to violence?
Mother, Behold Thy Son,
the coroner says
without a sound but for the slide of
morgue drawer, out and in.
—now, for another you will never know—
whose loss you will observe each time
a floorboard creaks under your feet.
Here lies the mother’s son: see how
the bones articulate the flesh, the way
that light unfolds, each crease, each
fold and contour, wherever sensation,
idea, thought, insight once moved—
sometimes a fleeing eel, a nervous squirrel,
or a series of clouds filling the mind, angry
storms, a green wind gathering in bare limbs.
Here is the place where the pages of
the day’s intrigues turn to our worst fears,
where love and grief, reverie and pain would
surface like a manatee drawn instinctively
to the warmer regions between worlds.
“My God, My God! – Why have you forsaken me?”
The man’s mother says, or seems to say,
her whole body convulsing in a green light.
And the promise of the son, what woke
in him—nightly, daily, in the living cells—
vanishes—the snail and all its meat,
retreating to the farthest reaches of its shell.
5. (Point Lobos)
Here, the point of wolves is a yellow fang, the bright edge of the world.
Above the wild Pacific, the earth sun-scorched to glassy sand, thirsting.
Below, the Cliff House, Seal Rocks, where for a decade, no sea lions
(the “seals”) sunned themselves after Loma Prieta (the Quake of ’89).
Then, the cusp of the millennium, El Niño boiled, forcing sardine,
mackerel, and white sea bass North. Sea lions chased them all to these
white stained rocks and again lay claim to them.
Other places change.
In Central Michigan, a confirmed sighting of a wolverine—the first
in two centuries.
East, in the Adirondacks, warming weather now
brings mountain lions from Canada back to the U.S. each Spring.
Advice, if confronted by a mountain lion:
“APPEAR LARGER THAN YOU ARE.”
When I rounded the corner junco shrub on a dusty hillcrest road
in northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, I saw a swaggering
muscular silhouette of a full-grown cougar cross my path and pivot,
turning all its power on me, its ropy heavy-weight boxer’s shoulders
rippling down to whip-crack of tail. I looked it in the eye and
slowly backed away.
If you love your life at all, don’t look away.
Face what can kill you. (Soon enough, a silhouette appears.) Stare it
down. Look it in the eye: Directly. Then, for the sake of everything
you will ever love, slowly—slowly!—back away.
No one knew her heart had not grown properly.
Tiny arteries, tiny veins. Failing Zoë at fifty.
Her doctor says six months. Surgery? Risky.
Worth a try. She has to be kept awake.
In the surgical theater, she hears everything.
Imagine. One surgeon gives up. “I am done!”
“That’s it for me,” she thinks. Will we all think
this? How many face death without kindness?
(Could she feel what was beyond the room?)
The surgeon calls for a replacement. A guy
who looks thirteen appears. He says: “Okay.
Listen up. We’re going to do this. Together
we’ll rebuild this woman’s heart!” Zoë
can almost feel the man-boy’s squirrely hands
thread the red and blue wires to her damaged
arteries and veins. Hours pass. She hears
orchestral sounds. Then voices: Children singing.
“I must be dead,” she thinks. “It is finished.”
The surgery is complete. But outside
the O.R., real children do sing. Two long-
haired girls and a woman, their mother, hold
signs for the man-boy surgeon. Happy Birthday,
Daddy! Then they embrace the wiry, geek-
squad guy (still weaving like a boxer). Beneath
his curly, red shock of hair, he grins his wise-
ass sweetheart grin. It’s his birthday. He’s saved
Zoë. Eight years later, she’s teaching again.
Living up north with her own sweetheart.
If only each of us, as we are constructed now—
of flesh, desire, will and bone—
were led back to that waterfall
where light collides with rising mist
our faces damp with gratitude
at our return, in late Summer, to see and breathe
and taste again the scents of early Spring
as they blaze new trails and pathways
in the mind—bright filaments, flickering
neurons, the flash of heat lightning—
in which we see ourselves beyond ourselves.
The secret sense of flowers saturates the air,
an atmosphere that carries us as we carry it,
even here. A distant music summons us
again to that first wonder, of water rising
in air, of the light that opens us
to ways deserving of ourselves and of the earth—
and to you—whom I invoke, without
acquaintance, yet hope to do well by, all the same.
To tend to what is yours as much as ours.
For this I stand and Commit myself: To you.
For this I stand and Commit myself: To you.