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Cave Art: Poems
Paperback: Wiseblood, 2014
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Review by Michial Farmer
In the title poem of Cave Art, Charles Hughes’s excellent first collection, he ruminates on the ancient paintings in Lascaux, miraculous surviving the millennia:
Inside the caves,
The painters left, in vain, what more they saw—
Stark, dazzling life that tugged them in and in
And still survives as art and evidence.
The tension, as the poem makes clear, is as old as homo sapiens, as old as human creation and imagination: Art is simultaneously a pale imitation of human life and the most enduring part of it. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen famously quipped. “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Yes, well—if the latter’s not available, the former will have to do.
Not every poem in Cave Art is about art and/or death—there are lovely poems here on subjects ranging from fishing to marriage to prophecy—but enough of them are that the collection feels haunted by these twin specters. The book opens on a college welcome weekend in 1969, hardly the best year to be an able-bodied eighteen-year-old man, and we watch as a group of incoming freshmen struggle to pay attention to a reading of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” But death continually intrudes, in the form of “Images of the distant, bloody war, / In which they do not fight.” Death is louder and flashier—but it’s art that gets the last word, in its “Becoming memory like other things / That happen and abide, happen and vanish / And still abide as part of who we are.”
Where art is not present or is debased, however, death is allowed to triumph. In “Darkness and Dave (Who Lived Down the Street When We Were Boys),” the death of his abusive, shell-shocked father leaves the titular character hovering over the abyss himself. He can achieve neither community nor creation, turning instead to
angry, solo games
Like making gopher pie—
Dave, decked out in his father’s boots and hat,
Stomped gophers, mashing them flat.
This is a diabolic parody of the artistic process. Dave pretends to be his father but manages no empathy from the experience, and his oeuvre is destructive and terrifying.
More often, however, Hughes seeks the beauty that radiates, almost imperceptibly, from our daily sufferings and disappointments and failures—in other words, our daily rehearsals for death. The narrator of “Signs” copes with a friend’s miscarriage by planting seeds a bit too early in the year, “counting the signs a decent bet” and banking on the earth’s endless and mysterious self-renewal. A couple entwined in a “Late Thirties Romance” oppose their love to Hitler’s demonic surges. Amidst an economic crash, a blind woman sings a sad country song aboard a bus in a torrential downpour before she “disembarks the CTA / Into the weeping and expectant world.” Art pushes gently against death.