I’m excited my book will be available to people who need or prefer to listen rather than read, but it’s strange to hear someone else read words I wrote about my own experiences.
Note: This remembrance was first published in an issue of The Merton Seasonal in 2001, a year after Robert Lax died.
After the Circus Goes By
© Michael McGregor, 2001
I don’t know how many evenings I spent with Bob Lax during the years I knew him. Dozens. Maybe a hundred. I returned to Patmos each year, staying sometimes for just a few days, other times for weeks. In approach, the visits were all the same – the climb up the hill, the cats at the door, the knock on the frosted glass and that gentle “hello” – the “o” round and full, drawn-out and rising until it was both question (“Who’s there?”) and statement (“Whoever you are, you’re welcome”).
The first moments inside were similar, too. Bob would offer a cup of water or tea. If he was alone, he would hand me something to read while he shuffled out to his tiny kitchen – a new publication, a poem, a letter from someone I knew by name or from a previous visit. If it was summer, someone would always be there already, and I would have the feeling I had just missed the funniest joke ever told, or a life-changing moment, or the absolution that follows confession. More often than not, all I had missed was the latest exchange in Bob’s conversation with life. The magic of visiting Bob was that once the water or tea had been served and a sweet had been offered, nothing was ever the same. The conversation was endless but it was always going somewhere new, directed not by anyone’s will but by the personalities of those present and by the spirit Bob fostered – a spirit of playfulness and a deep desire to love and know. There were themes that came and went with the years and themes that never changed, Bob’s preoccupations, which deepened and strengthened with time, like channels rubbed into bedrock. (One of the many things he taught me was to look for the themes that defined my own life. When he was younger, he said, he once wrote for as long as he could, pages each day, with the single intention of finding out what he most cared about.) Anyone who knew Bob knew his concerns: peace, common ground, knowing God, meditation, being love…and the inexplicable joy of the circus.
In summer it could be a circus at Bob’s. (In the later years, along his entryway wall, the first thing a visitor saw was a sign advertising Circus Roberto.) His bedroom was the center ring – stuffed full of painters, writers, dancers and mystics, many pursuing their arts because Bob had encourage them. On the wall were photos of acrobats, drawings of animals, and an advertisement for the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. Bob himself was the circus high priest – both ringmaster and clown. He sat on his bed with his legs propped up, his clothes mismatched, his face a panoply of glee. Wand in hand, he directed the magic. He was sage and child, clever and simple, alight with a joy that understands sorrow – all a master or clown should be.
But while I loved to see the circus at Bob’s, the times I miss most are those nights in winter or early spring when no one but me would be there. When he would be wearing long johns and two or three shirts, a cap on his head. When we would sit by ourselves drinking tea, sipping soup, the lights mostly off, the town beyond the window dark. We might hear a mouse scurry along the wall then or a cockroach dance across the kitchen. Bob would look up at me and smile, and I would see the love alive in his eyes, not for me alone but for the whole world – the mice and the cockroaches, the cats and the flies. We talked on those nights, of course, about his life and mine, our concerns and preoccupations. But often we just sat like that, musing in silence, two kids on a sidewalk late at night, after the circus goes by.
Michael McGregor, an essayist and fiction writer, first encountered Bob Lax in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain while living on Patmos in 1985. Impressed by Lax’s youthful wisdom, he made a note to look for him in Merton’s later books, not realizing Lax was living half a mile away. The two met three weeks later and remained friends the rest of Lax’s life. His article “Turning the Jungle Into a Garden: A Visit with Robert Lax'” appeared in Poets & Writers magazine (March/April 1997).
Price alert: The Kindle version of PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX has been temporarily reduced to $2.99 on Amazon again. Last time this happened, it lasted only a short time. The usual price is $11.99. Click below!
News came this past month that Corcaita “Corky” Cristiani has died. She was the youngest and last of the Cristiani generation Lax knew. I haven’t been able to find an obituary for her, but the following is from a Facebook post (written by Chris Berry):
“Corky Cristiani–the last of the original family members who came to the United States from Italy in 1934–has passed away.
Over the years she appeared not only as a graceful “ballerina on horseback,” but also as an aerialist.
Corky Cristiani was the youngest member of the original act, which eventually grew to at least 39 performers–all of whom traveled with the family’s Cristiani Bros. Circus in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The family appeared with Hagenbeck Wallace and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and Al G. Barnes Sells-Floto along with the Cole Bros. railroad circus prior to starting their own show.
She appeared with the family act for many years, and in 1962 she doubled for Doris Day in the film JUMBO.
She was 94.”
Lax came to know Corky better after she and her husband, the abstract painter Dave Budd, moved in 1954 from Florida to New York City, where Lax was living at the time.
Corky appeared in a second film, too: “Unstrap Me” (1968) by the underground filmmaker George Kuchar.
Click here to learn more about Billy Rose’s circus film “Jumbo” and watch a trailer.
If you’d like your own Glen Tracy painting of a clown handing a rose to Corky in her circus outfit and you have $3,500-5,000 to bid at auction–or you’d just like to look at the painting–click here.
And if you’d like to see more pictures of the Cristianis and learn a bit more about them, click here.
Here’s a link to Joe’s website, which includes trailers showing him in movies and commercials as well as snippets from audio books he’s done: http://www.joeknezevich.com/demo.html. Among his many credits is a recurring role on the long-running TV series The Vampire Diaries.
Joe has a great voice. I’m excited he’s doing the book.
This short poem by Robert Lax, displayed in an exhibition of his writings and photographs at St. Bonaventure University a few years ago, sums up his view of life.
The September 2021 issue of the Robert Lax Newsletter has just gone out to subscribers. The newsletter, now in its 6th year, is a compendium of the latest Lax news alongside features about his relationships to individuals, the arts, poetry, Greece, and many other subjects. It is filled with photographs and links.
The latest issue includes:
- A meditation on Lax and the visual arts.
- News about the death of Corcaita “Corky” Cristiani, the last performer Lax knew personally in the family of acrobats he loved and was inspired by–with links to Corky’s film career and other Cristiani information.
- Images of some of Lax’s first poems, published when he was 18.
- News of new Lax-related publications.
- Words by Lax on how to be present and truthful and soulful in writing.
Newsletter subscribers receive stories and news before they’re posted on the website, as well as exclusive information, stories and meditations.
The newsletter is free. To subscribe, click here and enter your email on the left side of the page.
“One of the things I wish for poetry is that it’s somehow useful. Like a lemon or a hair brush. Like a glass of water in the middle of the day. And to me, Lax’s poems feel useful. They offer me something that’s hard to find. A companion as close as my own breath & one who is invisible, like wind. Being inside a Lax poem is like being in a cemetery, which is a place where judgment can’t live. Like coming out of a lake and being a little stunned to sit or drink or walk on the Earth. That sort of woken up feeling you get and lose quickly. That feeling of having something quieted in you. I love that. Walking away from a party, hearing less and less voices, until suddenly, somehow, you’re under a tree in the middle of the night.”
–from “The Internet is Over” by Astro Poets
This past spring, Cirkus Cirkör, the Swedish circus company that co-produced Philip Glass’s new opera, “Circus Days and Nights,” based on Robert Lax’s circus poems, asked me to be help with a video introducing Lax to its audience. The video won’t be released until dates for the opera’s upcoming world tour are ready to be announced, but Cirkus Cirkör has given me permission to give Lax fans a sneak peak.
To watch the video, click here.
Sprachichter Verlag has just released the first German translation of one of the best collections of Robert lax poems, 33 Poems (33 Gedichte). This first edition is limited to 100 hardcover copies. Sprachlichter will publish a second edition in 2022.
To read more about the book (in German) or purchase a copy, click here.
Note from MNM: I’m pleased to be listed as a contributing editor for the book. My German isn’t terribly good but I speak fluent Lax and was able to help improve the translations.