Then – Poem to Remember My Father Who Died 20 Years Ago Today

Posted: July 16, 2015 in Samples of My Writing, Writing Posts

My Dad on Smith Farm 1940sMom and Dad 1957Four of us in River Hills 1957Picture 001

My father, Austin Edwin Hilles (Micky) died 20 year ago today  (July 16, 1995). He was the inspiration for this early poem of mine and the last lines in particular are an homage to him. I have written many poems about him over the years but this poem in particular recognizes what he tried to give me. I wrote this poem 40 years ago now.

The poem, Then, from my very first book, Look the Lovely Animal Speaks, published in 1980 by Turnstone Press. I wrote this poem in late 1975 with a pen and paper. Did not even have a typewriter yet. Seems a long time ago now that I wrote this (I was in Chris Wiseman’s creative writing class at the time – he is a master teacher and poet).


poverty teaches no one
it’s just dark and small
like a revolver.
always ready to be
the final judge.

I remember dirty walls,
macaroni, television, and
dumping the slop pail.
there was no beauty
you just survived
between paydays.

my father
drank every Friday
and Saturday nights
he lived between
the borders of the day shift
and the night shift.
that was the only
structure I knew.

I know now
that he sold
what little of himself
he had so that I could eat.
what kind of change is that?
where one generation sacrifices
itself so that the next one
can walk on its bones
with a new pair of shoes.


  1. Chris Wiseman says:

    Robert – thanks for the words about me. I appreciate it, especially as I and my ex-writing students/friends are being written out of UofC histories very quickly! The poem is so like the poems you were working with back then, but more complete and less of a fragment. It’s very moving.

    Odd thing. I’m DELIGHTED to see you using upper-case letters at the start of lines in your new poems, whereas you didn’t earlier. Usually it’s the other way round – poets start with the long long tradition, then feel it might make them look old-fashioned and start leaving off caps. and punctuation. How good that you’re rediscovering old virtues!! I bet Larkin has helped?

    Seeing this gave me much pleasure and happy memories.

    • Chris you are most welcome. Thanks for noticing that I start each line with uppercase now. It is a attempt to go forward and backward at the same time. Some of that tradition is valuable. Yes Larkin has helped but you have helped more! Never forget that! In Thailand they honour their elders and masters as I so honour you!


  2. Gabe says:

    please explain this poem for me. i.e. the message within. that would help alot.

    thanks you:)

  3. Kelsey Chan says:

    Dear Mr Hilles,

    I would like to thank you for sharing such a thoughtful and poignant poem. It artfully illustrates the asperity of poverty and justly recognizes the wondrous sacrifices one generation makes for the ones following.

    I recently came accross your poem in the Inside Poetry anthology for Grade 12 students, and was immediately taken with its strong, yet, concisely written message. I would like to lead a class discussion on your poem, and I would very much like to gain some insight from you. I would love to be able to understand it from your perspective, as I find the contrast between one’s own ideas and a poet’s actual intent to be a very interesting aspect to consider. I understand that this was written quite a while ago! Hopefully, still, you might be able to share some of this poem’s background and/or the process you went through to write it?

    Thanks so much,

    Grade 12

    • Kelsey:

      Sorry for the slow response but I’m in Chiang Mai Thailand for the winter. This poem is from my first book and is pretty accurate in terms of the world I grew up in. It is fairly biographical and I think you’re interpretation is pretty accurate in terms of what I was trying for in this poem. I think this is the strongest poem in my first book: Look the Lovely Animal Speaks and I do get a lot of requests like yours so it makes me happy that over 30 years later it readers still connect to it. I am happy to answer other questions you might have about the poem if there time before your assignment is due. I wrote this poem when I was 24 in the fall of 1975 or spring of 1976 and I was wanting to write about the real things from my life like dumping the slop pail which I did every morning in winter. It was quite nasty. I grew up in the bush of Northwestern Ontario at Longbow Lake which is about 11 miles east of the town of Kenora (about 120 miles east of Winnipeg). I still end up writing about Kenora and Longbow Lake a lot. If you have other questions post them here.


  4. ai says:

    who is the spaker in this poem it is a very great poem but i dont understand who the speaker is suppose to be in this poem

    • Hi
      The speaker in this poem is the poet as a young man in his early twenties looking back to his childhood growing up in poverty in Northwestern Ontario. Specifically the poet (speaker) is reflecting on his relationship with his father who worked hard as a manual labourer so that his son would have a better life.

  5. N says:

    What is the tone of the poem? And what are trying to say about life in general? Thank you in advance.

    • Hi N and thanks for the question. I get many questions on this poem because it is included in high school readers and assignments etc and for that reason I can’t give too much away because teachers wouldn’t like that. I can say that I wrote the poem when I was 22 and looking back to my childhood growing up in Northwestern Ontario (Kenora area) in the 1950s and 1960s. Times were difficult then and in the poem I am reflecting on what my father had to give up so that I could have a better life. That is what the last line refers back to. The poem also tries to convey how one generation makes sacrifices for the sake of the next one. Such sacrifices are still going on today around the world. That is about as much as I can say. I hope that helps. I am leaving this here for others who come later to see. Good luck.

      Robert Hilles

  6. Ruth Mul says:

    Mr. Hilles,
    What a thrill to find your site! I teach English Lit and this is a popular poem with many students; they often choose it in an exploration of poetry – it’s in our room in the Inside Poetry text. As a teacher, I don’t mind at all if you reveal the secrets of your poem to students who ask; that would be very exciting for them and mean much more than what I might have to say about it. I’m interested that you grew up at Longbow Lake – I pass it on my way to Sioux Narrows. What a beautiful part of the country! Thank you for being open to discussing your poetry with students.

    • Ruth:

      Thanks for posting and letting me know that your students often choose my poem Then. I am very touched that so many are drawn to that poem as it is fairly autobiographical. I took the bus to school in Kenora from Longbow Lake. I did that for 13 years and for much of that time the bus would be full with students from Sioux Narrows. I also worked one summer at a mine east of Sioux Narrows. If you drive to Sioux Narrows from Winnipeg/Kenora do you remember the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 71? Well I lived about a quarter mile from that closer to Kenora. Much of the poems I have written about Longbow Lake were written about that place. The road is still there. It is the LAST left before the junction and the place is all fallen in now. Please let your students know they can leave a comment and say they are in your class and I will provide a fairly fast response about that poem. It is pretty autobiographical you can tell them and I wrote it when I was 22 and in 3rd year university. That is the most popular poem from my first book: Look The Lovely Animal Speaks (published in 1980). I wrote that poem in the fall of 1975. I am glad that students relate to it now. That means a lot. So let them know that. My father despite his drinking was a hero of mine because he did sacrifice so I could have more. That poem is partly my way of recognizing what he sacrificed but also that in a way he gave too much. Any way thank you for posting your wonderful comments. You can ask questions if you like too.


  7. Mairi Campbell says:

    I first read this poem in high school, which was back in the mid-80s….I was so struck by it. All these years I couldn’t remember the main body of it, but the last 2 lines resonated so strongly with me, I never forgot them. I am so happy to have found it again. Thank you

    • Mairi thank you for letting me know how those lines have stuck with you. That means a really lot to me. Check out my poem Winter Hours here. It is one that means a lot to me. Thank you for the comment on this poem as it has always been a very important one to me. Please read others here when you get a chance.

  8. Reblogged this on Controverse Sunrise and commented:
    I just stumbled across this poem and had to share it. Enjoy!

  9. Illyasviel von E says:

    This is a fantastic poem! As a nonnative English speaker and a high school student I actually don’t like poem at all, and yesterday the teacher shared class the poem and I was like. I don’t know how to describe my feeling that time. It let me remember the story that my great-grandpa told me about his early life. I think its a kind of resonance. I am not good at showing something to others, please don’t mind the grammar. The word I want to say is thank you. It shows me a door, which is connected to a real and painful, but the world I have to face.

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