by Nona Blyth Cloud
“Abstract Minimalist” — Sometimes the labels that get attached to a poet’s work obscure rather than illuminate. The poet Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) pared down his work and his life to the essentials.
Robert Lax dealt in the Eternal Questions, looking for answers in nature, and the extraordinary in ordinary life. He would hate being called a Mystic, yet few people in the 20th century sought the Infinite with more dedication.
This is the first poem I read by Robert Lax:
if you were an alley violinist
and they threw you money
from three windows
and the first note contained
a nickel and said:
when you play, we dance and
a very poor family
and the second one contained
a dime and said:
I like your playing very much,
a sick old lady
and the last one contained
a dollar and said:
stand there and play?
walk away playing your fiddle?
Robert Lax was born in Olean, a town of about 14,500 in 1915, in the southeast corner of New York state. At Columbia University, he became friends with Thomas Merton while working together on the college humor magazine, Jester. Merton describes Lax at a staff meeting: “Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe.” It was a friendship that was to endure for a lifetime, however far apart their spiritual paths took them.
After Columbia, Lax worked for Time magazine and the New Yorker, which he considered a “toxic” environment. He was unsettled because he had trouble writing on command, but had flashes of inspiration he called “trumpet attacks.” He tried writing screenplays for Hollywood, then teaching at the University of North Carolina and Connecticut College for Women. He converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1943, five years after his friend Thomas Merton, whose own spiritual quest led to becoming a Trappist monk.
Dissatisfied with his life, Robert Lax ran away to join the circus. He became a juggler, and traveled with the Cristiani Brothers circus in 1949, working on a poem cycle, often regarded as his masterpiece, using the circus as a metaphor for Creation, The Circus of the Sun.
Who is it for whom we now perform,
Cavorting on wire:
For whom does the boy
Climbing the ladder
Balance and whirl–
Seen or unseen
In a shield of light?
Seen or unseen
In a shield of light,
At the tent top
Where rays stream in
Watching the pin-wheel
Turns of the players
We are Thy acrobats;
Walking on wire,
Dancing on air,
Swinging on the high trapeze:
We are Thy children,
Flying in the air
Of that smile:
Rejoicing in light.
What do we know
Of the way of our walking?
Only this step,
Gone as we name it.
At the thin
Rim of the world
We turn for Our Lady,
Who holds us lightly:
We leave the wire,
Leave the line,
In 1952, Lax became a roving editor for Jubilee, a lay Catholic magazine, which was founded by Ed Rice, another Jester staffer from his Columbia days. But he was still restless.
”are you a visitor?” asked
”only a visitor?” asked
”yes,” i answered.
”take me with you,” said
Then in 1962, he began his odyssey in the Greek islands. Years later, he told a story of his discovery of Patmos to his friend, artist Nancy Goldring, who wrote down: “…he saw a postcard of a medieval painting in which there was “a big man on a little rock”— St. John of Patmos. He said, “I think I’d like to be like that.” Patmos is one of the most sacred Greek islands with this beautiful monastery which you could visit back then. He knew every little chapel and would go and perhaps pray in his own way. They called him Petrus for Saint Peter, the rock…Once he wrote “putting yourself in the place where grace can flow to you” and I think that answers why he was on Patmos.”
He spent 35 years living on Patmos, becoming part of the island’s attractions, like its Monastery, its churches, and its fishing boats – the resident poet of Patmos.
His poetry became more and more spare.
In his last years, his poetry was rhythmic sound, easier to comprehend if spoken aloud.
He never sought fame, but when seekers after spiritual meaning discovered his books of poetry and his journals, many made the pilgrimage to Patmos, where he lived alone, but was usually patient and sociable with visitors – a kind of summer circus.
In 2000, Robert Lax moved back to his home town, Olean. On September 26, 2000, he died in his sleep at age 84.
He had come full circle.
- “The Alley Violinist” from Love Had a Compass, Grove Press (1996)— http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=1997/05/09
- “Acrobat’s Song” from The Circus of the Sun, Journeyman Books (1959)
- untitled poem (Are you a visitor?) — http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/24/arts/robert-lax-84-minimalist-poet-known-for-experimental-forms.html
- “Problem in Design” from Fables, Journeyman Books (1970) —
- untitled poem (river) — http://www.college.columbia.edu/cct_archive/sep99/20a.html
- Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry, Grove Press Poetry Series, 1996
- Poems (1962-1997), Wave Books, 2013
- Circus Days and Nights, Overlook Press, 2009
- A Thing That Is, Overlook Press, 1997
- In the Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Words of Robert Lax, Templegate Publishing, 2015
- Violin Player, by Marc Chagall
- Acrobat – wire sculpture, artist not credited
- A Dog, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, circa 1913
- Abstract flowers, artist not credited
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud