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Watching the Waves Roll In

By (January 1, 2016) No Comment

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Laxpure act
By Michael N. McGregor
Fordham University Press, 2015

Michael McGregor, professor of English and Creative Writing at Portland State University, tells two stories in his new book Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. One is of his friendship with Lax (1915-2000), whom critic Richard Kostelanetz, in a review of Merton’s poems in The New York Times Book Review, called one of “America’s greatest experimental poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words.” The other story is of Robert Lax’s life. As the book progresses, the story gradually shifts from McGregor’s story of a friendship to the story of Lax’s life.

Robert Lax grew up in Olean, New York, a small town in the western part of the state. He was a cautious child — “his aunt,” McGregor writes, “said he was the only child who looked both ways before crossing a street in his baby carriage.” His parents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and his father worked for his uncle’s clothing shop, eventually acquiring his own shop. But though Lax loved the small town atmosphere of Olean, his mother Betty loved to visit New York City and the family even lived there periodically. McGregor writes,

Olean and New York. Country and city. The yin and yang of Lax’s early world. In many ways he spent his life trying to draw the virtues of these poles together—to reconcile the gently idyll he was born into with the more dynamic possibility he found in what he sometimes called the “holy” or “celestial” city.

So it was very natural that he go to New York City for college at Columbia where he met Thomas Merton and the group of students, writers and artists, who contributed to the campus humor magazine Jester, and who were all strongly influenced by the English professor, poet, and critic Mark Van Doren. The most famous students in this set, besides Merton, were the poet John Berryman, the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, and the writer/photographer Ed Rice. Lax and Merton were also strongly influenced by an Indian Hindu monk named Brahmachari who had come to the U.S. for the World Congress of Religions in Chicago and stayed on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago. Brahmachari told both Lax and Merton, who were at the time seeking a spiritual life—when not partying, smoking tobacco and pot, and hanging out with jazz musicians, including Billie Holiday, all of which is perhaps not unrelated to the spiritual search—to explore their own spiritual traditions. But Lax said what was most important about Brahmachari was that he was a holy man.

After living with Merton and other friends in a family cottage near Olean for a spell, Lax moved back to the city. Merton and Lax both became Catholics, and Merton entered a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Merton, then, could not be drafted and Lax, who declared he would claim conscientious objector status if drafted, was declared 4F. He lived in Catherine Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem, where he allegedly distinguished himself by not knowing which end of a broom to use for sweeping yet was well-loved jesterby everyone. After publishing some poems in The New Yorker, the publication hired him. But while there he suffered great mental anguish, depression, and eventually suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t that The New Yorker was such a bad place to work, but rather that Lax realized he wasn’t meant to write copy to order, he had to write what he wanted. McGregor:

Lax told me more than once that the best thing to do was to write for yourself or maybe one other person. If others had a chance to read what you wrote, they were fortunate. Not that he didn’t try to publish what he wrote—he wanted his work to be read as much as any other writer—but he didn’t care about fame or even rejection. “The only criterion for how and what to write if you’re sincere about writing so other people can read it and be happy, is to write just exactly what you please the way you want to,” he wrote in 1939. “If you’re writing for any other purpose there are all sorts of elaborate rules, most of which add up to: Write as though you were writing what you want to the way you want to.”

However, while at The New Yorker he joined a fellow writer for a visit to see the Cristiani Brothers Circus. Remembering visits with his father to the circus when it came to Olean, he fell in love with the circus, its performers, and the Cristiani family. Much as Charles Ryder in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited fell in love with the Flyte family and joined their Church, Lax discovered in the circus a way of life that embodied for him an idea he had read about in the works of Aquinas. McGregor places a Lax quote about this idea before his Prologue; he takes two words from it for the title of his biography:

I think it’s a metaphysical concept starting with Aristotle and flowering in St. Thomas that God is pure act and that there is no potentia in Him . . . . Almost everything else in the universe is in potentia, it’s on its way to being pure act, on its way to unity with God.

In this family circus, then, Lax saw embodied this idea of pure act, the life of God.

He traveled for a while with the circus in Canada and developed a deep friendship with the circus’s leader, Mogador. He later published a book of poems about the circus called Circus of the Sun and then later still a cycle of poems, Mogador, about riding in a truck with Mogador and what they talked about in the night. These two books and a third set of poems about another circus trip Lax took in Europe called Voyage to Pescara are available in a book edited by Paul Spaeth called Circus Days and Nights. Many Lax fans, including the poet Denise Levertov, consider these poems Lax’s greatest achievement.

Lax, however, was always moving on, poetically and geographically. He returned to Europe, where he had briefly traveled in his younger years, and was especially drawn to the French port city, Marseilles, from which he had fled in panic on his first European trip. Now he returned there because he felt he had to. In Marseilles he lived in a flophouse that mostly served “drifters and sailors, immigrants looking for manual labor, and prostitutes working the narrow alleys behind the docks.” There Lax lived in poverty, writing when he could, just talking with and listening to people who gathered around him, trying to give them a sense of peace. As McGregor writes,

He was beginning to envision his own role, his own pure act, as something more than just writing, as a kind of coaching or counseling or even prophecy. He was not a musician or an acrobat, but he could write poetry and prose that spoke of the beauty of God’s world. And he could show those around him what harmony, grounded in love, looked like.

circusLax spent four months in Marseilles, finding what McGregor writes was his “pattern for the next fifty years of his life: living simply among those at the bottom of society, watching and writing down his observations, offering peace and whatever else he could to those in spiritual or physical need.” He did this in Europe, mostly in France and Italy, back in the States for a spell, where he worked on the magazine, Jubilee, edited by Ed Rice. (During this time, the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt deeply influenced Lax, who visited him in his studio and watched him paint, with his views on art and dedication to his own.) But finally, Lax ended up living on a series of Greek Islands, mostly Kalymnos, until the people there grew suspicious of and threatening to him because they thought he was a spy; then on Patmos, where St. John had written the book of Revelation, until his last illness when he returned to Olean.

It was on Patmos where McGregor and other writers and pilgrims came to visit Lax, who in his turn would visit friends and do readings in Europe where he was more well-known than in the States, thanks to the efforts of people such as filmmaker and printer Emil Antonucci and photographer Bernhard Moosbrugger.

Despite the support of such patrons, and the admiration of poets as diverse as Merton, Levertov, Kerouac, William Packard, editor of The New York Quarterly, and Mark Van Doren, Lax has still been relatively unknown in the U.S. Unknown and/or ignored. Why is this? And why read Lax nowadays? Is McGregor’s biography, which surely will stir up interest in his work again, worth the effort? Couldn’t one say Lax is a minor experimentalist poet overshadowed by his lifelong friend, the famous Trappist and writer, Thomas Merton? (Not to mention Ed Rice and Ad Reinhardt.) Sometimes, reading this biography, you wonder if Lax should have been the one to go into the monastery, and Merton stay out in the world. Lax saw no need, however, for what Merton saw as necessary: mortification. McGregor writes,

One of the main differences between Merton and Lax was that Merton was a brilliant and tireless self-promoter, while Lax was often taciturn or tongue-tied in public, relying on his work to speak for him. Another was that Merton was vitally concerned—in college and later—with finding answers, while Lax seemed much more comfortable with questions. Decades down the line, while Merton shouted to the world what he’d discovered in the cave of solitude, Lax sat quietly within, offering an occasional smoke signal.

robert lax circusOne could argue that the Trappist Order in America was the tireless Merton promoter more than Merton himself was, at least at the beginning of his writing career, but in general McGregor is right. Merton was the extrovert, Lax the introvert. Merton was politically engaged; Lax was not. Merton said he wanted simplicity, but Lax realized it. How ironic it is that for a time Merton probably had more visitors to his “hermitage” than Lax had in his first years in Greece.

Having now read Circus Days and Nights, Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry, and Robert Lax, Poems (1962-1997), I can say that Lax is definitely worth reading. His poetry is quiet and plain, meditative and calming. As I read it I kept thinking of the Zen saying about becoming a mirror for the world. And then as you read him the mirror disappears and there is just the world. There was one passage, from Mogador’s Book, which especially struck me as key to Lax’s appeal, his message which is no message. In a period of strident politics this no-message refreshes:

More than almost anything in the
world, the circus is an end in itself.
(That used to be said of all art, but
too often literature
painting & music, even ballet turn
into means & servants of some other
No one jumps through a
hoop on horseback to prove a point
(except incidentally, the point that
anything that is done proves: i.e.,
that it can be)
So if the world ever came to its
final rejoicing what would it
prove (what better thing could it
try to prove) except
that it
That which we have believed in,
said prayers
made sacrifices in the hope of,

Besides Circus Days and Nights and Love Had a Compass (which includes generous excerpts from Lax’s Marseilles journal) Robert Lax: Poems (1962-1997), edited by his personal assistant of two years, John Beer, is a great introduction to the poetry of Lax’s minimalist period. The most famous of these poems begins,

one stone
one stone
one stone

i lift
one stone
one stone

i lift
one stone
and i am

Most of Lax’s later poetry is like this: it has a cumulative effect and reading it you sometimes feels as though you were sitting on a beach watching the waves roll in. It puts you into a contemplative or meditative state. This is especially true in his poem, Sea & Sky, which begins,

they groan



John Beer comments,

At moments, the poem’s layers of biblical allusion, depth psychology, and natural description might seem disorienting; through its repetitions, Sea & Sky works to dismantle the boundaries between time and timelessness, flooding the reader with a mystic apprehension of unity . . . . The poem works both as an act of contemplative ascesis, a combination of a poet formed by his deep admiration of both James Joyce and Saint John of the Cross.

circuspoemsThis seems to me very true and a spot-on description of what reading Lax’s poetry is like.

I have to admit, though, that once in a while the later poems bored me. Just as looking at the sea can sometimes bore me, or at least wear me out. And sometimes while reading the biography of Lax, I thought, this man is a cautious, cowardly fellow afraid to live, to confront, to love, to feel. A very selfish man in a way. And yet whatever was selfish in him he purged by following his vocation, which included poverty and chastity—but not obedience, he said, according to S. T. Georgiou in The Way of the Dreamcatcher, Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax: Pet, Peacemaker, Sage; not obedience because he hated to be bossed around–and his generosity to his friends and everyone he came into contact with. Despite his timidity, he displayed amazing moments of courage, as when he stayed on Kalymnos longer than he should have because he thought, despite death threats, that this was where God wanted him. He also showed incredible courage in returning to Marseilles after his initial gut fear of it. This courageous whimsical part of Lax comes out when he was trying to get a room at the Hotel de Calais in Marseilles. McGregor relates how the “belligerent” desk clerk reacted when he saw Lax’s alpine walking stick,

“Are you an Alpinist?” he asked sarcastically.
“Yes,” Lax said, “an Alpinist from Mars.”
The man must have liked his moxie. He smiled and gave him room number five with a view of the harbor through the frame of the hotel’s missing sign.

So, overall, though there were moments when Lax and his poetry befuddled me, more often he won me over as a friend. A friend who accepted who he was and accepted others for who they were. In a way he resembles Henry David Thoreau, but Lax has more humanity and less judgmentalness, more playfulness and less of Thoreau’s Puritan hangover. He was a friend, as John Beer concludes, whose “poems and journals throughout his life reflect a conviction that we have the kind of civilization we do, with our thoughtless brutalities to one another and nature, because we’ve fallen a little too much out of love with the world.” Which is what a saint would say; the rest of us can read Lax’s work and aspire to his vision.

This is Frank Freeman‘s first review for Open Letters.