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A Roundup of PURE ACT Reviews and Related Publications, Interviews & Podcasts

Seeing the review of Pure Act in today’s New York Times Book Review made me think it might be useful to provide links to the many reviews and related essays, articles, interviews and podcasts that have appeared since the book’s release in September.  In addition to those below, you’ll find over a dozen reviews of the book on its Amazon page.

Thank you to all who have taken the time to write about the book and Lax or publish his or my writings.

REVIEWS

The New York Times

The Oregonian

Publishers Weekly

America

BookPleasures.com

The Plough

Golgonooza

Image Update [link unavailable]

Open Letters Monthly–forthcoming January 1

Other reviews are forthcoming in Commonweal, The Christian Century, Books & Culture, The Catholic Worker, Logos, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, The Merton Annual, The Merton Seasonal and The Merton Journal (UK)

ESSAYS AND ARTICLES

“Robert Lax: Master Minimalist”–Introduction by Michael N. McGregor, Poetry magazine

“Kalymnos: November 29, 1968”–new poems by Robert Lax, Poetry magazine

“The Mystic from Morningside Heights”–by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, America

“Life, Influences of Robert Lax Explored in New Book”Olean Times Herald

“When the Greek Islands Were Hospitable to Strangers”–essay by Michael N. McGregor, The Christian Century

“Michael McGregor on the Instructive Life of Poet Robert Lax”Signature

“Michael McGregor Keeps Story of Robert Lax Authentic”–by Juliana Sansonetti, The Fairfield Mirror

“The Hidden and the Tangible”–essay by Michael N. McGregor, BooksCombined

“A Kind of Breath, A Way of Breathing”–essay on Lax by Michael N. McGregor, forthcoming in early January in Notre Dame magazine

INTERVIEWS

“Peace Is a Good Thing to Seek: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax–An Interview with Michael N. McGregor”Bearings Online

“An Interview with Michael McGregor”University of Portland, English Department blog

PODCASTS

“December 2015: ‘Nothing Is Too Small'”Poetry magazine podcast, featuring Michael N. McGregor talking about Robert Lax

“Robert Lax: In Pursuit of a Life of Meaning with Michael N. McGregor”New Dimensions Radio (15-minute version)

“A Celebration of Robert Lax”–a joint interview of Michael N. McGregor and John Beer by Paul Martone–Late Night Library, forthcoming February 2, 2015

“Robert Lax: In Pursuit of a Life of Meaning with Michael N. McGregor”–New Dimensions Radio (one-hour version)–forthcoming February 2015

 

A New Book of Lax’s Contemplative Writings, edited by S. T. Georgiou

S. T. [Steve] Georgiou, who knew Robert Lax for many years, visiting him on the island of Patmos and exchanging numerous letters, has published a small but impactful collection of Lax’s observations and poems called In the Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Words of Robert Lax.

Drawn mostly from Lax’s journals and published works, the 81 numbered selections provide a rich and eclectic look at Lax’s thoughts about the world and spiritual matters.  Georgiou has added several facsimiles of Lax’s handwritten poems and a handful of photographs of Lax and his Patmian world, along with notes that give the sources of the book’s quotes.  Georgiou’s nine-page introduction is focused on Lax as a spiritual figure and, although it contains a few small factual errors and occasionally  drifts into academic language, it gives a good sense of Lax’s spirit and makes a strong argument for why his life and words are important in today’s world.

This is a book to keep by your desk or bedside to dip into when you need inspiration or a peaceful spirit before sleep.  The entries come from many parts of Lax’s life and aren’t dated, so you have to give yourself over to the general spirit that animated him throughout his days: a spirit of love and peace, prayer and patience.

Paperback, Templegate Publishers, 136 pages, with a foreword by Jonathan Montaldo, $15.95

“A luminous offering of poetry and prayer; every page is a meditation.”  — Jonathan Montaldo, editor of The Intimate Merton

Free MP3 of Phil Cousineau Interviewing Michael N. McGregor About the Life and Meaning of Robert Lax

The shorter of Michael N. McGregor’s two interviews on Robert Lax with Phil Cousineau for New Dimensions Radio, part if its New Dimensions Cafe (or in this case, Taverna), is now available as a FREE MP3. To access it, go to newdimensions.org. You have to fill out a form but the download is free. The interview is 15 minutes long.  (The second, hour-long interview will be released in early 2016.)

Phil Cousineau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer and travel leader, storyteller and TV / radio host. His fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him from Michigan to Marrakesh, Iceland to the Amazon, in a worldwide search for what the ancients called the “soul of the world.” With more than 30 books and 15 scriptwriting credits to his name, the “omnipresent influence of myth in modern life” is a thread that runs through all of his work. His books include Stoking the Creative Fires, Once and Future Myths, The Art of Pilgrimage, The Hero’s Journey, Wordcatcher, The Painted Word and Burning the Midnight Oil.

From the New Dimensions website:

“New Dimensions Foundation and New Dimensions Radio conducts and disseminates conversations that expand the possibilities, both personal and cultural, towards a world that works for everyone.

For over 4 decades New Dimensions has been gleaning experience and inspiration from some of the world’s most innovative, enlightened, and trustworthy wisdom leaders as it sows the seeds of encouragement and confidence that, together, we can meet the challenges of the 21st Century. New Dimensions inspires its listeners to tap into their own innate wisdom and genius. Tuning into these deep dialogues changes lives for the better.”

 

A 53-Minute Film Featuring Lax’s World on Patmos, Poetry Readings and His Thoughts on Life

For what may be a limited time, the Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich, has a link to an interesting film showing Lax in his later years on Patmos: Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel’s “Why should I buy a bed when all that I want is sleep?: A chamber film with Robert Lax.”  It’s a 53-minute look into Lax’s world, with him reading his writings and talking about his thought and life.  Don’t miss this opportunity to see Lax as those of us who were fortunate enough to visit him on Patmos knew him.

Lax’s Gently Satirical Take on Nature Poets

Page 243 of Pure Act talks mostly about the publication of Robert Lax’s second book, New Poems, where poems in his new, more experimental style first appeared , and his departure for a new life in Greece that same year, 1962.  Near the end of the page, though, I write: “His formal goodbye, you might say, to the life he’d been living and the lyrical way he’d been writing was a gently satirical poem called ‘Ah! The Nature Poets,’ published in the journal Approaches.”

When my book was edited for publication, that poem ended up on the cutting-room floor.  So here it is, in “print” for the first time in 50 years.  As page 243 says,”Nature would be central to many of Lax’s future poems, but it would be the simple nature of the Greek Islands rendered in even simpler verse.”

 

Ah! The Nature Poets

by Robert Lax

 

Ah! the nature poets—

Who can be tipped over

by a butterfly,

Who can swim for miles,

In a corolla filled with dew,

Whom lakes intoxicate,

whom mountains overcome:

Gaspers at the fallen leaf,

And eulogizers of the bird;

The far-flung white cloud’s

closest friends;

The thunder’s citizens,

The lightning’s fans:

Lovers of rain,

and of the changing seasons;

Cartographers of tracery in snow,

Breaking the first thin ice

Of the barn-yard foot-print:

Rabbit-patters,

Fish-watchers,

Gazers after deer;

As tireless as Nature is,

To whose long strings they’re tied;

And as importunate in praise

As she’s preoccupied.

(Used with permission of the Robert Lax Literary Trust.  All rights reserved.)

Video-Poem Based on a Robert Lax Work Wins Top International Prize–Watch It Here

A video based on Robert Lax’s poem “the light, the shade,” created by Susanne Wiegner of Germany, recently won the top prize in an international competition at the CYCLOP Videopoetry Festival in Kiev, Ukraine.  You can watch Susanne’s winning video (with Lax reading his own poem) and other videos she has made based on Lax’s poetry here.

To learn more about Susanne, go to her website.

A Podcast and a Long Lax Feature in the December issue of POETRY Magazine

A long section on the poetry of Robert Lax takes up a full quarter of the December issue of Poetry magazine (released today).  It includes previously unpublished poems written on Kalymnos in 1968, facsimiles of Lax’s handwritten notes and jottings, and a lengthy introduction by me.

Poetry has posted a downloadable podcast featuring poets who are in the December issue and a conversation with me about Lax, his poetry and his life in Greece.  You can listen to it here.  If you scroll down below it on the same page and click on Michael N. McGregor (or click here), you can read my introduction.  If you click on Robert Lax (or here), you can read the poems of his featured in the issue.  You’ll also see the lovely photograph of Lax shown here, taken by author Tom Stone, a friend of Lax who lived on Patmos.

Today is Robert Lax’s 100th Birthday!

I took the picture posted here twenty years ago, in the spring of 1996 when my friend Bob Lax was 80. To mark his 100th birthday today (November 30), here are a few excerpts from journal entries I made during that visit. At the time, I was studying and teaching at Columbia University in New York, Lax’s alma mater, and reading French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. These entries give some idea of what my visits with Lax on Patmos were like:

March 10: I arrived at 2:30 this morning, having traveled for almost 30 hours. Bob had arranged for a room for me at the Rex and supplied it with two bottles of water, two candy bars, a package of cookies, some peanuts, plastic cups, and a small bottle of Metaxa. The woman at the Rex had been expecting two people so she had given me a double bed. She had also put a heater and extra blankets in the room. I said a prayer of thanks for my safe arrival, put an extra blanket on the bed and poured out a small amount of the Metaxa.

March 11: I stayed at Bob’s until about 12:45 a.m. last night. One of the things we talked about was the Deleuze book I’m reading. I mentioned Deleuze’s distinction between memory and remembrance, which I find especially interesting. Memory is mere repetition of an initial event, he says, but remembrance conceptualizes it, placing it in perspective and context: historical, emotional, developmental, etc.

Bob started talking about Cézanne. Perhaps he’s been thinking about him, picturing his work as if it were present in the room, because he gestured several times toward the wall where he tapes up pictures. Cézanne, he said, was only trying to paint woods as objectively as he could, as he saw them, but when they appeared in his paintings they appeared unique because Cézanne saw them only as Cézanne. This is why a writer should try to write objectively, to get down exactly what he perceives. What results will not be some non-personal, “objective” piece but one imbued with all that the author is, how he truly perceives the world. This should be the goal of art: to reveal the individual.

Both Sartre, in an excerpt I gave to my students, and Deleuze write about the sign or symbol in writing. A painter or sculptor creates an object; a writer creates only a symbol or manipulates symbols. A piece of writing, then, is only a symbol–or a collection of symbols–of the object, which is the writer himself. If the writer is exacting and faithful, that symbol or collection becomes an accurate projection of the object: more accurate than an encounter with the object–the author–in reality because the author is more focused in the creation of his art than in day-to-day living.

Later, Bob and I were talking about New York and what a wonderful place it is for anyone who likes meeting people. Bob said that each person we meet reveals some new part of ourselves. If we are alert and perceptive, the more people we meet, the more we learn about ourselves.

One of our subjects last night was the question What Is Art? We decided that it involves some combination of absolutely free expression and the constriction of form. It also involves some paradoxical combination of refined ideal and basic, unfiltered instinct. It combines the handful of dirt with the expanse of the universe, the center with the surface of the sphere, the specific with the universal.

This morning I began the day with Deleuze. He has shifted from talking about repetition to talking about difference. He defines the different not as that which is opposed to the original but that which differentiates itself by a determined movement away from the original form. The different defines itself in response to the original form but the original does not define itself in response in return. He gives the example of lightning, which flashes through the night, striking a counterpoint to what was before it but having no effect on what exists after it. It shows itself as different and yet the original remains unchanged.

This picture of difference differs greatly from that which has dominated Christian thought, which has equated difference with opposition. If difference is distinctive but not opposed, then difference becomes not opposition to God (embodied in the Christian mind, since the middle ages, as the social Christian congregation) but determined response to God. It becomes not antithesis (sin), not synthesis (syncretism) but pristine thesis. God created Adam not go be God, nor to be not-God, nor to be half-God, but to be Adam. Eve is not Adam, nor not-Adam, nor half-Adam, but Eve. When a person seeks to resemble (whether through obedience to laws or imitation or conformity) rather than embody, he or she does not bring God into the world but instead becomes a pale reflection–even a distortion–of a remote Idea.

(Although they aren’t about a conversation with Lax, I’ve included these last two paragraphs because they describe [in a Deleuzean way] how I see Lax’s life in relationship to mainstream Christian life.)

Happy 100th, Bob!

Following a Golden String to Heaven’s Gate–A Review

The following appeared a few days ago on a blog called Golgonooza, run by Nicholas Colloff, who wrote the review.  You can access Nicholas’s blog at: http://ncolloff.blogspot.com/2015/10/pure-act.html.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pure Act

Robert Lax’s vocation was first and foremost as a poet though he spent his life as many other things in people’s perceptions. He was, for example, a friend of Thomas Merton (whose cottage industry was given further impetus by Pope Francis who recently singled him out for praise to the U.S. Congress). He was a reclusive saintly hermit on Patmos though like many saintly reclusive hermits before him, he was anything but, in truth, travelling and traipsing and hosting visitors aplenty. He was a ‘failed’ editor – an uncertain youthful fumbling after a literary career at the New Yorker and a deeper abiding presence, if sometime impractical, at Ed Rice’s Catholic journal, ‘Jubilee’.

But as Michael N. McGregor shows, in his exemplary biography, ‘Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax’,  Lax truly came alive when he realized that he could write nothing that was not simply for himself and that self was only authentically alive and present when it sought to rest in God and in those people and things, that seen aright, most directly, simply witnessed to God’s abiding presence in the world. As the Desert Fathers and Mothers knew, you become more truly transparent when you become ever more truly yourself – the Robert Lax you were created to be and only him (or her).

The people who witnessed to this for Lax were those whose lives were rich in skill, a skill that was honoured and ran so deep that it took on the character of a spontaneous gracefulness. He found this first in the circuses to which his father took him as a child and with which later, he travelled, living with the performers, occasionally performing himself, observing and interacting with them, apart yes yet at home. He, also, found it in the poor – not the broken or destitute – but people whose circumstances stripped them to bare essentials – the sponge divers or fishermen of the Greek isles (that became his home) or in his especial friend a woman carpet weaver on one such isle.

In a sense such seeing was an idealization – people are people, completely human and Lax was to suffer their capacity for falling out, vindictiveness, suspicion. On one of his Greek islands, his departure, just before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus with its threat of war, convinced many of the islanders that he was an American spy! But who is to say that such a ‘projection’ is not an invitation to people to respond with the best they are? An idealization that is a seeing through, an invitation for renewal. After all it was Lax who famously told Merton that you could become a saint by wanting to; and, perhaps you could become a saint by being seen as one too?

And respond they did.

Leading the life of a poet, only lately acknowledged as a genius, is a poor way to earn one’s crust, even if you were a man whose desires extended happily to crusts; and, having dived into this precarious life, he was supported through it. Money usually appeared when it was necessary, meals were cooked, clothes mended or given, indeed part of the testimony to a life aligned may indeed be the generosity it evoked. It was also a life marked with compelling gifts of friendship.

The world answered too in a different way. This second way was his focus on ‘things’ in which Lax gave testimony to God’s worldliness. This was beautifully reflected in his ‘vertical poetry’. Words on a page, one under the other, often rhythmically repeated, that were once described as either baffling or beatifying the reader, possible both, with minds bewildered into truth as they read on and the focused simplicity sinks, sings, dances into them.

As one page of his long sequence ‘Sea and Sky’ has it:

all
dreams

one
dream

all
dreams

one
dream

the sea-
sons

the sea-
sons

the sea

They are poems to be read aloud, musically and performatively, reminding us that the meaning of poetry (as in mysticism) is in the singing tone as in the text itself, in the spatial juxtaposition of words as in the building of sentences, in the silences as well as in the sounds.

It is a deeply moving book concerning how one man followed his own golden string to heaven’s gate, one tug at a time, and how such a path does not lead to certainty but to the open vulnerability that is love, his love, a gift wrapped in God’s.