Have you seen my circus?
Have you known such a thing?
— Robert Lax, from “The Morning Stars,”
in Circus Days and Nights
Robert Lax’s poetry was quiet to the point of evanescence, his minimalism and hyper-minimalism creating a meeting place for the seen and the unseen. During his many years of obscurity, as he passed through formalism en route to abstraction, what remained constant was a mystical vision that was by turns monkishly interior in the manner of St. John of the Cross, repetitive like the black monochromes of Ad Reinhardt, and resembling, in its sly, dry humor, Samuel Beckett dissecting the human dilemma. (Lax’s true comic heroes were the Marx Brothers, but their influence was largely confined to the unhinged letters he exchanged with his close friend and fellow poet, the contemplative Thomas Merton.)
Lax’s backstory—writer for The New Yorker, clown with the Cristiani circus in Canada, man of prayer, friend of Kerouac, Hollywood scriptwriter, impoverished wanderer, expatriate hermit in Kalymnos and Patmos—appears in every new telling of his life’s story since his death in 2000 at the age of eighty-four.
There is an intriguing dichotomy between the incidental fullness of Lax’s life and the signature spareness of his poetry. Even God gets the same few words from him as man:
The Circus of the Sun, Lax’s first volume, was published in 1959 by Emil Antonucci, a friend with a printing press. (It was not until 1988 that New Directions published many of his early Circus poems in the volume 33 Poems, reissued in February 2019.) He writes in one of his untitled poems, “We have seen all the days of creation in one day,” a reference to his childhood experience of seeing the circus rising from a field at dawn in Olean, New York.
He crafted his New World Genesis vision in formalist verse that won the admiration of E. E. Cummings, Denise Levertov, and his former English professor at Columbia, Mark Van Doren. But unlike the Trappist Merton, whose The Seven Storey Mountain was a bestseller, Lax failed to attract many readers, and until New Directions, any major American publishers.
Michael N. McGregor, Lax’s biographer, has his thoughts about this:
Lax had a small part in the Sixties culture. But he differed in important way from the Kerouac-Ginsberg crowd. He was headed in a minimalist direction, they were both doing maximalist work. They were part of a new movement and they supported each other. Lax was not a self-promoter or part of any movement. He was moving along his own path in a quiet way, disassociating himself from the mainstream literary world. Also, his Judeo-Christian path seemed at the time a little passé, whereas Kerouac and Ginsberg were embracing a new Eastern path of spirituality which seemed exciting to people, almost a counterculture in itself.”
Lax, too, if more quietly, held the East in his poetry. Buddhism was one of the tributaries of his mysticism. As he said to one of the young visitors who appeared at his door in Patmos: “A poem, a dream . . . we are moving through a sea of consciousness, a flowing dream”:
“are you a visitor?” asked
“yes,” i answered.
“only a visitor?” asked
“yes,” i answered.
“take me with you,” said
A hymn to creaturely oneness. The struggle to find one’s place in a world of fixed identities.
The place where Lax was standing at a particular moment was never quite where anyone else was standing. A prayerful hermit like Merton, he rejected the cloister’s truss in favor of connecting with the moment-to-moment unfolding of life in the world as it revealed itself to him. Over the years, hundreds of poets and seekers journeyed to Patmos to visit him. They must have included any number of available women, but Lax, true to his solitary calling, remained a celibate.
His aversion to male-female cohabiting, as an element in his life, is rooted, it seems, in his strangely contemplative childhood:
when i play house
i don’t play
either the poppa
or the mama
as though i was playing
The mysticism in Lax’s poetry contains many points of light, and within those points of light there is an entire Jacob’s ladder of gradations. Like himself, his poetry was a marriage of many disparate elements. Once, in an interview with editor Nicholas Zurbrugg, who laureled him one of “the new ‘saints’ of the contemporary avant-garde,” Lax explained that early man, by rubbing two stones or two sticks together, was not necessarily creating fire:
“He’s only working with elements that are available to him, and trying to repeat an effect that he had come upon by chance the other day. And he gets to know more and more about the stones, and more and more about the fire, as he proceeds. But he discovers quite early that he’s more likely to get fire with two dry sticks than with two wet ones. So that he knows he’s dealing with elemental concepts here, and he’s playing them against each other, and he knows that good things may come of it—that something even needed may come of it.”
In the same vein, one might say that Lax’s was a mysticism that developed from his lifelong tendency to work with an innocent diligence with all available elements, concrete and spiritual.
His ability to see in an object a natural transcendence dates back to the moment in childhood when he found a stone on the ground, and marked it with another stone, somehow intuiting that whoever found it would share in the wonder of a stranger’s mark-making.
Years later, in 1962, his friend and private publisher Emil Antonucci published the abstract poem about that incident. It would surface again in 33 Poems and yet again in the 2013 volume, Robert Lax Poems (1962-1997), brought out by Wave Books:
(….) i lift
and I am
as I lift
In Lax’s Journals, brought into print by the Swiss publishing house Pendo-Verlag, a collage of daily encounters, reflections, memories, prayers, vertical poems, and mystery is embedded in the fluidity of consciousness. Images move in and out of each other across an unattached sky.
In “Journal A,” Lax writes, accompanied, one imagines, by one of his famous laughs:
trying to find the
one safe spot in the
in which to
On the next page, in a more contemplative, abstract vein, there is this:
drawing all things together in a single line, a line of
writing, of drawing, line of a bow pulled across the
line of a string, line of march, line of life, line of
white thread pulled from a spool
Lax will receive a picture postcard from his brother-in-law in New York of a “five
thousand year old midget clown white face black eyes cigar in mouth, standing disconsolate outside tent in muddy-rained out lot.”
In this Beat-sounding line, the outrageous contention is unfurled without elaboration and without conclusion. Much of what Lax writes seems not to end. Everything is always on its way to some new thing: pilgrim words from the boundaryless mind of a singular pilgrim.
wake up jack