Hughes avoids free verse—an effective choice, since the structure of these poems adds to their power. In a 2011 essay for Verse Wisconsin, Hughes says that “To write a poem in form means accepting significant limits” and gives to these limits a metaphysical character: “The limits that go along with formal poetry can be seen—and I do see them, in all events, in this way—as emblematic of the limits of finite human existence. They are accordingly more or less constant reminders to me of the obstinate otherness of the world.” Another way of putting this, if I understand it correctly, is that the battle between meaning and structure in the formal poem is an emblem of the work the poem itself—not immortal but remarkably long-lived compared to its human author—does in the beautiful, death-dealing natural world.
He is mostly successful in these formal experiments, in the sense that the reader notices the structure only in a secondary way—the power and beauty of these poems, for the most part, depends on their form but does not call attention to it. (The obvious parallel here is with human beauty: No one is beautiful without a skeleton, but an overly skeletal person can also be rather unattractive.) There are a few poems here that are too osseous—most notably a series with repeated lines that comes midway through the collection—but Hughes’s poems overwhelmingly achieve a lovely and wholesome symbiosis.
Two of these poems are odes to two very different martyrs: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the confessing pastor who was executed by the Nazis just three weeks before Hitler killed himself; and Bill Sampson, a communist anti-war activist who was shot to death by the KKK in 1979. Both of these poems are interested in the way a man’s words can outlive him. “Easter Spoils, 2012,” the Bonhoeffer poem, gives language an alchemical power by which they “Can, on occasion, be the love they praise”: Bonhoeffer beats the Nazis in the final analysis, and his testimony to love wakes the poet up on Easter morning, the day of the Word’s ultimate victory over the powers of the grave.
The four-part “In Memory of William Sampson” is more ambivalent toward its subject. Hughes clearly admires Sampson’s life and mourns his brutal death, but he freezes in the face of the overwhelming hatred of some of this planet’s residents, which is, horrifyingly, powerful enough to convert even the righteous: “Even soft hearts might harden, / Lose their capacity for pardon, / And come (his gun fired back, I’ve read) to grief.” And yet Sampson’s words outlive his last-minute actions: “If you had heard his soft heart speak / For peace, the peacemakers, the meek.” The tone here is betrayal that can’t quite stomp out Hughes’s admiration—but which tests it nevertheless.
Hughes belongs to that rare group of artists—Walker Percy, Toni Morrison, and George Eliot among them—who came to their talent relatively late in life. Born in 1951, he worked as a Chicago-area lawyer for 33 years before his retirement. (Cave Art, in fact, includes two poems called “Lawyer Story,” which are artistic triumphs rather than the droll cocktail-party anecdotes their titles suggest.) One almost hates to see a profession that is as publicly distrusted and scorned as the law lose such a sensitive and insightful thinker. I say “almost,” of course, because the law’s loss is poetry’s gain—and everyone who reads Cave Art will, I suspect, be stunned by what they gain from it.
Ultimately, these poems accomplish the goals that Hughes identifies for the Lascaux paintings. The final stanza of the title poem—and thus the last words of the collection—addresses an unnamed other who
lace[s] an arm around my shoulder,
Reminding me of morning and a love
Larger than earth’s confusion—hidden, though,
Leaving to restless creatures room for visions
Of beauty they’d risk death for in the dark.
Charles Hughes’s project is the creation or the discovery of that kind of beauty—and Cave Art is what I hope is just the first example of his success.