Jim Forest Reviews PURE ACT in The Catholic Worker

Bob Lax’s Circus of the Spirit

The Catholic Worker / January-February 2016

Review by Jim Forest

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

By Michael McGregor
Fordham University Press, 2015, 472 pages, hardcover, $35

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recounted his memories of Bob Lax during their student years together at Columbia University. Lax was “a gentle prophet” who seemed to be meditating “on some impenetrable woe,” a born contemplative who could “curl his long legs all around a chair, in seven different ways, while he was trying to find the right word with which to begin.” Lax possessed “a natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.” Lax saw Americans as a people “longing to do good but not knowing how,” waiting for the day when they could turn on the radio “and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know…. somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy.” As Michael McGregor relates in this hard-to-put-down biography, in the course of Lax’s long life he became a quiet voice telling his readers about the love of God in language that is never hackneyed or crazy but is lean, surprising and drawn from deep wells.

It happens that Pure Act appears just as a 136-page anthology of Lax’s poetry and journal writing has been published by Templegate: In the Beginning was Love. The editor is my friend Steve Georgiou, who, like McGregor, also knew Lax in his later years and whose vocation as teacher was given its shape in large measure thanks to his mentor on Patmos.

Lax was one of the several friends who witnessed Merton’s baptism and it was Lax who, as the two of them were walking along Sixth Avenue not long afterward, asked Merton what he wanted to become. For Lax, the question wasn’t so much what to become as who to become. It was obvious to both of them that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English” were not good enough answers. “I don’t know,” Merton finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean,” Lax responded, “you want to be a good Catholic?” Merton was silent — he hadn’t figured that out yet. “What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.” That struck Merton as impossible. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax. “I can’t be a saint,” Merton replied with conviction. To be a saint, he imagined, would require a magnitude of renunciation that was light years beyond him. But Lax pressed on. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

It is not stretching the truth to say that both Lax and Merton spent the rest of their lives attempting to become the persons God created them to be — not aiming for capital S sainthood, complete with holy cards and a niche on the church calendar, but run-of-the-mill saints who have a talent for disappearing.

I met Lax at the Catholic Worker in Manhattan in 1961 and found him to be as lean as an exclamation mark, as tentative as a question mark and quiet as a comma. He occasionally came down for Friday night meetings and one evening read aloud some of the amazing poetry that eventually became part of his most treasured book, Circus of the Sun (now the first section of Circus Days and Nights). His circus poetry has ever since been a special love of mine, joyfully re-read more or less annually.

The Catholic Worker was a natural place for Lax to be. He had an affinity for the marginal and for those drawn to them. Earlier in his life he had been part of the community at Friendship House in Harlem. One winter Lax and Tom Cornell shared a $28-a-month apartment on Avenue A that seemed even colder inside than it was outside.

Another aspect of Lax’s affinity for the Catholic Worker was that he was a pacifist and had been one since his student days. Lax was one of those people who would far prefer to die than to end anyone’s life. When draft registration began shortly before the US entered World War II, both Lax and Merton declared themselves conscientious objectors. “Why,” Lax joked, “should I kill strangers when I have been so shy and polite about not killing unpleasant acquaintances?”

In that period of his life when our paths first crossed, Lax was editor-at-large of Jubilee magazine, an eye-opening, photo-intensive Catholic monthly that took an interest in people, places and topics widely ignored by the Catholic press as a whole: eastern Christianity, the works of mercy, lay communities, Christian art and artists, Church life in Europe, Asia and Latin America… No issue of Jubilee was ugly or boring, each issue a voyage of discovery.

One of the joys of life at that time was occasionally walking up to the Jubilee office and having a visit with Lax in his small white-washed cubicle that had, now that I think of it, something of a Greek look about it.

It was no surprise when not long afterward Lax made Greece his home, first Kalymnos beginning in 1964, an isle then famous for its sponge divers, and a decade later the monastic island of Patmos, where he remained until shortly before his death in 2000. By then Lax was something of a hermit, if one understands that many hermits are, as Merton was, intensely social people whose doors open both to friends and strangers nearly every day. But, apart from the cats who found Lax to be a good provider, Lax preferred to live alone.

Lax was born in Olean, New York in 1915 into a Jewish immigrant family. His remarkable mother, Betty, was both a founder of the local synagogue and a member of the Methodist and Presbyterian choirs, a combination that anticipated the wide spiritual reach of her son. During the Depression, Lax enrolled at Columbia where he formed life-shaping friendships with Merton and Ed Rice (later to found Jubilee), the poet Mark Van Doren (one of his professors) and radical abstract artist Ad Reinhardt. Lax also met his first holy man, a Hindu monk named Brahmachari who seemed far less interested in converting Christians to Hinduism than in converting Christians to Christianity. (It was thanks to Brahmachari’s influence that Merton read Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.)

Lax was eventually to give up much that his talents, education and background equipped him to do, but in the years following graduation from Columbia he was on the staff of The New Yorker (where some of his early poetry was published), wrote film reviews for Time, and endured a period of script-writing in Hollywood. What he mainly learned in those years was how unhappy he could be attempting to be someone he was not.

The circus had been where he got the clearest glimpse of who he really was. While at The New Yorker he had met the Cristianis, a renowned family of acrobats. The poems knit together in Circus of the Sun were mainly works that had grown out of traveling with their small circus when it was on tour in western Canada. Joining in, Lax proved to be a natural clown.

While not drawn to a fulltime circus life, he was attracted to walking the high wire of voluntary poverty while gradually learning to write a lean poetry which in many cases was a trickle of slim words or thinner syllables cascading down the page. It was a poetry of contemplation in which the word “you” may mean yourself or God or the secret places where the one disappears into the other.

Michael McGregor — who knew Lax well — has written a book I’ve waited a long time to read. It’s a story with many surprises and much beauty. McGregor has the biographer’s gift of not only keeping careful track of Lax’s long pilgrimage, both physically and spiritually, but of bringing the reader into a space in which Lax is permanently alive and well. It’s a luminous story told with love and skill.

* * *

the
juggler

after
his
act

the
juggler

crossed
the
road

quietly
lightly
in
slim
white
suit

a
moving
pillar

a
path
of
light
in
the
darkness.

— Bob Lax
Circus Days and Nights
Overlook Press, p 110

Lawrence Cunningham Reviews PURE ACT in Commonweal Magazine

‘Pure Act’

 Review by Lawrence Cunningham, John O’Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame

Robert Lax (1915-2000) is today best known in this country as Thomas Merton’s closest friend. Having met when they were both students at Columbia University, the two exchanged letters until Merton’s death in 1968. It is the purpose of Michael N. McGregor’s new biography of Lax to move him out from under the shadow of Merton’s powerful personality and give him his own place in the sun. This is not an easy thing for an American biography to do, both because Lax spent so much of his adult life outside the United Sates and because of his commitment as a poet to seeking the purest and sparest language possible, a commitment that makes his hermetic poems a challenge for many readers. While Lax enjoyed a certain measure of fame in Europe during his lifetime, it was only late in his life that his writings found a place in the American literary scene.

After Lax graduated from Columbia in 1938, he got off to a promising start. He landed jobs at the New Yorker and Time, and even spent some time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. But a lifelong restlessness led him away from the well-beaten path of literary success. He traveled with a circus, lived for a short while in Paris and then in a poor neighborhood of Marseilles. He spent some time at a religious retreat near the shrine of La Sallette in France, and eventually settled—if that’s the right word—on the Greek island of Patmos. Finally, old age and illness brought him back to his upstate hometown of Olean, New York, where he died in 2000.

Born into a largely nonobservant Jewish family, Lax was baptized a Catholic in 1943. Ed Rice, who was Merton’s godfather, was also Lax’s. In the early 1950s, Rice founded Jubilee magazine, for which Lax served as a “roving editor” from Europe. That job was one of a number of threads that kept him somewhat tied to the American scene. He also kept up a correspondence with Mark Van Doren, the legendary Columbia professor, and thanks to his friendship with the graphic designer Emil Antonucci (who did a lot of work for Commonweal over the years), Lax’s great long poem The Circus of the Sun was published in this country. During all his years abroad, he wrote constantly. His poetry became gradually more pared-down, more minimalist. While he found sympathetic publishers in Europe, he remained little known and little published in this country, garnishing a certain reputation among better-known poets such as John Berryman (another classmate at Columbia) and John Ashbury.

McGregor got to know Lax by accident on a trip to Greece when someone on Patmos told him of the greatly admired American who lived on the island. McGregor sought him out and over the years they became friends. In fact, a fair amount of this biography frames itself around McGregor’s many visits to Patmos and the time he spent with Lax doing the things Lax loved most: walking around the island, swimming, and spending time in his modest home drinking tea, discussing books, sharing poems, and at times, sitting quietly. Toward the end of his life, Lax depended on McGregor to assist him with his papers and to help him return to upstate New York before the end of his life. Lax’s way of life, which McGregor observed in Patmos, had been established decades before: “living simply among those at the bottom of society, watching and writing down his observations, offering peace and whatever else he could to those in spiritual or physical need.” There was something almost monastic about it; it was in some ways similar to the life that Merton lived. Not surprisingly, Lax was, like Merton, a lifelong pacifist.

The title of this book derives from some lines Lax once wrote, obviously under the influence of the Thomism he learned during his Columbia days. God is pure act with no potency within Him, while everything else in the universe is in potential: on its way to pure act and thus on its way to unity with God. To really see something is to grasp that it is oriented toward pure act—which is to say, toward God. Perceptive critics were able to grasp this fundamental philosophical orientation in Lax’s austerely minimalist poetry. Mark Van Doren said that Lax expressed the “purity of the object and reverence in the beholder.”

Both Lax’s way of living and his poetics raise the question of his religious orientation. Lax never rejected his Jewishness after his entrance into the Catholic Church. He continued reading deeply in Jewish sources and was a close reader of Martin Buber. McGregor cites a long journal entry from late in Lax’s life where he writes that it is important to find the “right” religion and the right culture, but even more important “is the progress you make—the progress you find you can make—once you have found it.” The end, however, is to get beyond being a “good” Jew or Catholic in order to become a “contemplative, yes to be a mystic, yes.” In that context, Lax loved the line of Teilhard de Chardin: “Everything that rises must converge.”

McGregor wants to see Lax in his own right, and, true to that aim, he has written an intellectual biography that is as full and fair as one could expect. As a longtime reader of Lax, I learned a great deal from this finely researched book. It is not perfect: it is stronger on Lax the poet and essayist than on Lax the spiritual writer. On the latter topic one should consult Steve Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher (2002). But Lax the poet deserves the attention he gets here, and the poetry, now mostly overlooked, is a good way into Lax’s mysticism.

PURE ACT and HERMIT’s GUIDE Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement

The January 8, 2016, edition of The Times Literary Supplement from London includes a review by poet Jules Smith of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, with references to Lax’s latest book, Hermit’s Guide to Home Economics, too.  Written by poet Jules Smith, the review is thoughtful, careful and worth reading.  You can read it here: https://michaelnmcgregor.com/2016/01/08/news-from-across-the-pond-pure-act-in-the-times-literary-supplement/.

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

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.

Where Can I Find Robert Lax’s Poetry?

Although more than two dozen books of Robert Lax’s writing have been published, finding a Lax book in print can be difficult.  Only four fairly recent collections of his poetry are still available:

A Hermit’s Guide to Home Economics, edited by Paul Spaeth, New Directions, 2015, 64 pages

poems (1962-1997), edited by John Beer, Wave Books, 2014, 400 pages

Circus Days and Nights, edited by Paul Spaeth, Overlook Press, 2009, 188 pages

A Thing That Is, Overlook Press, 1998, 96 pages

The poetry in all of these books except Circus Days and Nights is from his later minimalist period.  The Wave book includes all of the poems from his seminal 1962 collection New Poems as well as later published and unpublished work.  Circus Days and Nights contains three circus cycles from his earlier, more lyrical period: “The Circus of the Sun,” “Mogador’s Book,” and “Voyage to Pescara.”  All four books are good collections.

The only other Lax writings still in print are:

Dear Jack: Heart Not Head, edited by Paul Spaeth, Water Row Press, 2014, 16 pages

When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax, edited by Arthur Biddle, University Press of Kentucky, 2000, 496 pages

A Catch of Anti-letters, co-written with Thomas Merton, Sheed & Ward, 1994, 128 pages

(While these books include a few Lax poems, they are centered on his correspondence with Jack Kerouac and Thomas Merton.)

You can find some earlier Lax collections available online, but they’re often quite expensive.  The best of them is 33 Poems, which draws from all periods of his writing life.  It was published by New Directions in 1988.  I’ve asked New Directions to re-release it but have received no response yet.  If you’d like to help with this effort, please write to the New Directions editors at: editorial@ndbooks.com.

A second good-but-out-of-print collection covering all periods is Love Had a Compass, published by Grove Press in 1996.

Both of these books are available in many libraries.

To read Lax’s prose, try to get your hands on one of the small, brown, out-of-print collections of his journal entries published by the Swiss publisher Pendo Verlag.

For an extensive list of the many Lax books that have been published and information on which libraries have them, go to World Cat.

 

 

First Review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

The first review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, from Publishers Weekly, was just posted:

Drawing on his friendship with poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) and his close readings of Lax’s writings, McGregor eloquently offers the definitive biography of a too often forgotten figure who influenced a number of writers and crafted spirituality out of his deep commitment to love, poverty, and justice. McGregor deftly and briefly chronicles Lax’s childhood in Olean, Penn. His family eventually moved to New York City, but not before the circus came to Olean and mesmerized the young Lax—with its performers who are “portals to the land of dusk”—so deeply that he traveled with a circus through western Canada in 1949 and wrote a cycle of poems that grew out of his experience and love. By the fall of 1943, Lax had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, inspired by his readings of Thomas Aquinas’s writings and by his ongoing discussions with Thomas Merton, whom Lax had met at Columbia University. Following his conversion, Lax embraced a life of poverty, combining his lack of desire for things with a passion for nurturing a love for those on the fringes of society. This detailed biography from a friend of subject is best for those already interested in Lax’s mission. The book effectively brings to life Lax’s “pure act”—naturally living out his God-given abilities without becoming mired in judging others. (Sept.)