A few months ago, I launched a new website called WritingtheNorthwest.com. Focused on what writers have written about the Pacific Northwest, it has no direct connection to Robert Lax, but I just posted a piece on the site about Lax’s friend Jack Kerouac that might interest some Lax fans.
Called “Feeling Wild and Lyrical: Jack Kerouac Spends a Night in Seattle,” the post is focused on Kerouac’s description of Seattle, Puget Sound, and the Cascade Mountains from the trip he made there in the summer of 1956, during the time he and Lax knew each other best. Kerouac was on his way to work as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the N. Cascades.
Kerouac’s description of Seattle still feels fresh–and it reflects the city the way it still was in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up there. You can check it out here.
A few weeks ago, an older film called “Robert Lax — Word & Image” was posted to a “Michael Lastnite” YouTube channel. As I noted on p. 356 in Pure Act, Lastnite, a young man from Passumpsic, Vermont, began issuing cheap print versions of some of Lax’s unpublished poems in 1983, producing over two dozen in the next three years. Eventually, he “branched into sound recordings and then videos before filming interviews with Lax and many who knew him for a planned documentary.”
That documentary, completed in 1987 (with extensive research and interview assistance from Lax’s longtime friend Judy Emery) was never released. Before now, you had to travel to the Lax archives at St. Bonaventure University to see it. It’s easy to understand why: The images are blurry and, overall, it’s clearly the work of someone still learning the filmmaking craft.
Even so, the film is worth seeing. It shows Lax reading several of his poems and includes interviews with Lax himself; his sister Gladys; his two most important publishers, Emil Antonucci and Bernhard Moosbrugger; and others who knew him. There are a few shots of Patmos, too, as well as images from the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie’s exhibit of Lax’s work in 1985 (called Robert Lax: Abstract Poetry).
The same YouTube channel offers several audios of Lax reading his poetry, but the recordings are extremely poor, with Lax’s lovely voice distorted. They are best avoided. However, there is one other video on the channel: another hour-long presentation, that features shots of the Stuttgart show and of Lax reading. Again, the images are blurry, but the sound is good, giving you a chance to hear Lax’s voice as it truly sounded.
Last year, at an auction in Wilton, CT, hosted by a company called University Archives, a letter from Jack Kerouac to Robert Lax dated October 26, 1954, sold to a buyer for $11,000. You can read the text of the letter and more about it (and the auction) here.
The letter’s contents were included in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, Vol. 1, 1940-1956, edited by Kerouac biographer Ann Charters and published in 1996, and I quoted from it in Pure Act, but the actual letter’s location was a mystery until the auction notice appeared. Of course, it’s location is still a mystery because the buyer chose to remain anonymous.
This post was originally part of the November issue of the Robert Lax Newsletter. To have the bimonthly newsletter sent to you, sign up on the menu page.
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.
Robert Lax became acquainted with Ernesto Cardenal through Thomas Merton, who served as Cardenal’s novice master when he was studying to be a monk at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. Cardenal eventually left the Trappists and returned to his native country, where he served as Minister of Culture from 1979 to 1988, a tumultuous time in Nicaragua’s history. A celebrated poet, he did the Spanish translation for the multilingual version of Lax’s The Circus of the Sun, published by Pendo in 1981.
who published a celebrated and definitive biography of Thomas Merton in
1984, died at 88 on October 11. While working on his Merton biography,
Mott relied heavily on interviews with Lax for both details and
interpretations of some events in Merton’s life. During their work
together, the two became friends. (Mott’s writings about Merton and his archives at Northwestern University were hugely helpful to me in the writing of my Lax biography.)
In addition to his Merton biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton,
which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mott published 11 poetry
collections, two adult novels, and two novels for children. You can read
much more about his long life and many writings on his website.
Iconic American composer Philip Glass, known for his minimalist approach, is working on a “circus opera” based on Lax’s Circus Days and Nights. Since Lax has often been called a minimalist himself, this seems like a perfect match.
A cooperative venture between Cirkus Cirkör, a well-known circus group in Sweden, and the Malmö Opera, the new Glass/Lax work will have its world premiere in Malmö, Sweden, in May 2021. After that, Cirkus Cirkör plans to take it on a world tour.
A circus opera in two acts, based on the American poet Robert Lax’s book by the same title. Circus Days and Nights is a collection of existential poems where the Circus acts as a metaphor for life and the human condition.
This brand new opera, commissioned by Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera is composed by the legendary Philip Glass with a libretto written by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang. The piece is co-conceived and directed by the Swedish circus director Tilde Björfors, recipient of the Premio Europa/New Theatrical Realities.
The story follows a travelling circus company from day into night, and investigates the circularity of time, the constant travelling and seeks the joy in the repetition of the daily chores of everybody involved in this extended circus family. The circus tent acts as an image of the world, and of a greater spiritual side to the world’s perpetual journey through space, here interpreted as a circus act.
For more information, go to Cirkus Cirkör and download the “info sheet” PDF.
“I have had the rights to the poem for about ten years, but forgot to write the piece. But when I saw Tilde’s staging of ‘Satyagraha’ it struck me: They could do it!” –Philip Glass
(from “Circus Days and Nights” info sheet.)
Here are a few more details from the Cirkus Cirkör website and a recent press release (with thanks to Tomas Einarsson for translations):
Since the 1970’s, Philip Glass has been one of Americas most successful composers. His music is sometimes labeled as minimalism but it is powerful and suggestive, and often has a hypnotic force. He has a large fan base all over the world through his rich production of film music, operas, world tours with his own ensemble, and cooperations with artist such as David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.
Cirkus Cirkör began when Tilde Björfors (artistic leader and co-founder, who will direct the new Glass/Lax work) and several other artists traveled to Paris and fell in love with the possibilities the contemporary circus offered. They decided to stop dreaming big and living small and instead give their all to make a reality of their dreams. Twenty years later, more that 2 million people have seen a Cirkus Cirkör show on stage and in festivals around the world. In addition, 400,000 children and youth have been trained in contemporary circus techniques. Contemporary circus is now an established art form in Sweden. You will find it in all sorts of places, from preschools to universities and homes for the elderly.
Cirkus Cirkör and Philip Glass:
In 2016, Cirkus Cirkör, together with Folkoperan, performed the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha” in Stockholm, which began a relationship between the circus and the composer. “Satyagraha” played almost 70 sold-out shows. It also made guest appearances in Göteborg, Copenhagen, and BAM in New York. All of the New York shows were sold out and Philip Glass attended the premiere.
Charles Van Doren’s obituaries will all inevitably lead with his role in the quiz show scandal in the 1950s, but he was an erudite scholar who went on to do many worthwhile things. He was also a friend of Robert Lax and kind to me when I interviewed him for Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. Among other things, he told me that Lax’s comforting note when the scandal broke meant more than any other he received. It was so precious to him, he kept it all his life–and sent me a copy.