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Monday, 30 October 2017 15:35

Robert Lax: A Judeo-Christian Pilgrim and Poet Featured

Written by
Robert Lax Robert Lax

By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

Pure Act cover.jpeg copy1 smallerALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXCICO (ANS -- October 30, 2017) -- For most people acquainted with literature the names Jack Kerouac, E.E. Cummings, Thomas Merton, and William Keepers Maxwell, are familiar. But the name Robert Lax may not. I, for one, had not heard of Lax -- at least in any memorable way -- before reading Michael McGregor’s fine biography called Pure Act [1].

Yet the names are all connected, with Lax being a kind of comet -- a heavenly pilgrim -- that flew around the solar systems of many writers who came to prominence in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Lax, himself was a noted minimalist poet, a convert to Christianity from Judaism, who like fellow Columbia student, Thomas Merton, became engaged with the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and thereby committed his life to Christ.

In Thomastic philosophy, a thing that needs completion by another is called potency. The realization of potency is actuality. Both potency and act were initiated and created by God, who is the Necessary Being, the Cause and Pure Act. All else flows from God. Knowing this helps understand why McGregor named his book Pure Act: Lax’s life was completed by his friendship with others, an act-potency relationship. But, ultimately, Lax’s life was completed in Christ; and one could say Lax’s life was characterized by a pursuit of Pure Act, using literature, simplicity, love, peace, and joy as the fruit that bloomed in his pursuit.

Lax bounced back and forth between the United States and Europe, helping edit magazines, encourage writers, write poetry, and even follow a circus. But Lax found a semi-permanent home in Greece on the Isle of Patmos, where the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation. From his home in Patmos many people sought out Lax—as a type of wise and Christian guide, including the writers S.T. Georgiou and Michael McGregor, both of whom have written books about Lax [2].  

33 Poems smallerBut for many -- particularly those interested in avant-garde literature -- know Lax through his poetry.   The American poet, C.K. Williams wrote of Lax:

"Robert Lax was a poet who devised his own poetic forms, much admired by some readers, unfortunately unknown to most. He was an intellectual and was often called a mystic, but he was neither, just as he was called a hermit but really wasn't. When he was younger, he lived in New York, where he worked for a period at The New Yorker and knew many figures in the arts, from Jack Kerouac, to Ad Reinhardt, E. B. White, William Maxwell . . . the list goes on. Most crucially he was a close friend of Thomas Merton's and was made known, a little, by Merton's autobiography, in which he appears. He also for a time traveled with a circus and wrote a lovely little book about it, ‘The Circus of the Sun’--hard to find, but worth the search. For the larger parts of his life he lived alone, on islands in Greece, and spent much, perhaps most, of his time in solitude and meditation, trying to find some kind of ultimate peace (though he never put it that way). Even then he knew and was admired by many; and many others who'd only heard of him sought him out. He was invariably hospitable and welcoming, his presence gentle, humorous, and utterly patient. In short, there's never been anyone like him…”

In his lifetime, Lax wrote roughly forty works of poetry, his most famous being Circus of the Sun [3]. He also wrote chapbooks and broadsheets (one big sheet of paper). In all, hundreds of poems survive, from his earliest poems written for the New Yorker to his single-word, minimalistic poems composed during the last half of his life. Since his death in 2000, there have been a couple volumes of Lax’s that include his theological and philosophical writings such as In the Beginning was Love and Love Had a Compass.

In memory of the poet-pilgrim, I leave you with one of his poems, read recently on the Writer’s Almanac, hosted by Garrison Keillor (April 2017). The poem is entitled Greeting to Spring (Not Without Trepidation) [4]:

Over the back of the Florida basker,
over the froth of the Firth of Forth,
Up from Tahiti and Madagascar,
Lo, the sun walks north.

The first bright day makes sing the slackers
While leaves explode like firecrackers,
The duck flies forth to greet the spring
And sweetly municipal pigeons sing.

Where the duck quacks, where the bird sings,
We will speak of past things.

lax merton reinhardt smallerCome out with your marbles, come out with your Croup,
The grass is as green as a Girl Scout troop;
In the Mall the stone acoustics stand
Like a listening ear for the Goldman band.

At an outside table, where the sun’s bright glare is,
We will speak of darkened Paris.

Meanwhile, like attendants who hasten the hoofs
Of the ponies who trot in the shadow of roofs,
The sun, in his running, will hasten the plan
Of plants and fishes, beast and man.

We’ll turn our eyes to the sogging ground
And guess if the earth is cracked or round.

Over the plans of the parties at strife,
Over the planes in the waiting north,
Over the average man and his wife,
Lo, the sun walks forth!

Lax Robert600 smallerFor more information on the life and witness of Robert Lax, click here: http://www.robertlax.com/

For Garrison Keillor reading a Lax poem, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elABFAJOcL0

  1. https://www.amazon.com/Pure-Act-Uncommon-Catholic-Practice/dp/0823276821/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1509372214&sr=1-1-fkmr1&keywords=pure+cat+lax
  1. https://www.amazon.com/Way-Dreamcatcher-Spirit-Lessons-Robert/dp/0872432734/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
  1. https://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n85-813804/
  2. “Greeting to Spring (Not Without Trepidation)” by Robert Lax from Tertium Quid. © Stride Publications, 2005.

Photo captions: 1) Pure Act by Michael N. McGregor. 2) 33 Poems by Robert Lax. 3) Ad Reinhardt, Thomas Merton, and Robert Lax. 4) Robert Lax in old age. 5) Brian Nixon

Brian Nixon useAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He's a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.

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