Rick Hilles


Believe the couple who have finished their picnic
and make wet love in the grass…
Believe in milestones, the day
you left home forever and the cold open way
a world would not let you come in.

(Part of the inscription on Richard Hugo's headstone
in Missoula, MT, from his poem, "Glen Uig.")

If I could live again as just one thing
it would be this early Autumn wind
as it cartwheels the rooftops and avenues
of the Pacific Northwest; the way the air
of orchards vaulted in the mind of Keats
as he brimmed over with his last Odes
dreaming of the mouths his final words
would touch and kiss through any darkness

like a shooting star; the way a starry-eyed
stranger once blew smoke into the night
before offering me her cigarette outside
the 92nd Street Y, where I'd just given
a reading, so that I didn't even notice
sad-faced Jim Wright in a patch of leaves.
And there we were again, Jim weeping
and breathless to tell me he'd stopped drinking

and was in love; and, in a voice reserved
for children (and the very lost) told me
he had cancer. I wish we had hightailed it
then into my dream of Rome, the dream
where we are laughing at our dumb luck
and near giddy as we exit the gilded portal
and enter a day too bright to see the Spanish steps,
where, for us, apparently, it is always noon;

I always wanted to take Jim to Rome—
to see the black ink of cuttlefish
and shadows blue the edges of his grin
even if we were just to stand penniless and eye
the sparkling wishes tossed into fountains,
one whose water surrounds a sculpted hull
of a boat that's lost its mast, held in a state
of perpetual sinking as Jim points to the flat

where John Keats died, his friend Severn
at his side, drawing him over and over—
even after his last torment; Jim tells me
about the dream he's having lately
in which Keats appears, practically
flying up and down the Spanish Steps
in inline blades; Jim wants so badly
to grab the frilly garment of the white-

shirted Romantic, who now is naked
to the waist and in black spandex,
in death forever beautiful and ridiculous,
but Jim's afraid to wake us from the dream.
Still, there's a melody under Keats' breath.
It might be from Handel's "Water Music"
or just the syncopated rhythms of the boat
we ride, Our Fountain of the Sinking Ship.

Oh, to be so close to the poet we love
who died at half our age not knowing
what he would become for so many of us,
understandably, makes us a little insane.
Jim asks if I know what it all means
and then he's coming at me like Sonny Liston,
as if the only way affection can be shown
between men like us is with an open fist.

And, forgetting a moment that I am
not even the merest breeze in your living hair,
and that a boneyard in Missoula, Montana
negates this vision, just now to my dead friend
I'm real as any man who's loved his life,
and, stunned by it, tries to face what he can't take,
when the trees of Rome rattle their silver leaves,
and Jim picks me up, like nothing, in his arms.

(Originally appeared in Columbia Poetry Review)