life is a river
& we the streams
that feed it
each stream should
not hold back
our way of talking
our way of being
is what we have
to the stream
why keep it
who should a slow
moving river try to
why should a meander
to be straight?
build high dams
but water flows
wherever it can
are you afraid
that if you're a
some mouse will
get ahead of you
rodent do you
mice & cows)
most to fear
May 19, 1974
--from pp. 327-329, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
by Michael N. McGregor
It’s a quiet time in the realm of Robert Lax. Philip Glass’s opera based on The Circus of the Sun was supposed to go on a world tour after its premiere at the Malmö Opera House last May, but Covid forced the premiere online and the tour has yet to be rescheduled. I know of no new Lax books coming out. And any forthcoming creative works based on his life or poems are still percolating in secret. Even the internet search I always do before putting this newsletter together yielded nothing fresh.
Which seems just fine for the end of winter, when nature pauses before offering the fireworks of spring. In Lax’s later years on Patmos, when visitors arrived from spring through fall, winter was often the only time he was truly alone. The wind would blow and the rain would pelt his modest house, where it could be quite chilly inside as well as out. He’d dress in two layers of clothes, pull a watchcap over his ears, and sit on his bed, sometimes under the covers, with a small pad in one hand and a pen in the other.
There, he’d write poems to the wind and the rain, just as in summer he’d write them to the sun and the green on the hills. He understood that acquiring both wisdom and greater awareness of the presence of God meant being fully alive to every moment, every emotion, and even every hardship. He once wrote:
to be wise is to know, for one thing, which way the wind blows…
knowing how to stay alive & healthy (well-fed & with adequate air and sleep) in all kinds of conditions is also a part of wisdom
the wisdom of survival.
wisdom for survival.
he who is imbued with the wisdom of survival is not only fit for “sur- vival” himself, but for teaching it to others. (even to generations of others.
“the survival of the fittest”–not of the fiercest, not of the fastest– the fittest, among men, may, after all, be the wisest.
In the same year he wrote these lines, 1969–a time when he was still growing used to living in the islands full-time–he also wrote:
as a child (it seemed) he had played alone in the living room most of the time, dancing to records on the gramophone and performing in an imaginary theater.
(now it was only when he was quite alone that his imagination began to come alive.)
what he needed was not only quiet, but solitude: a solitude that honed itself against solitude.
It seems, of course, that we’re about to exit not only the quiet of winter but also the quiet of these lockdown years. In these final days of relative solitude, of conditions I would not normally choose, I ask myself if I’ve grown wiser in the ways of survival during this time–wise enough to teach others down the line, as Lax did. I ask, too, if I’ve put my fears and anxieties aside long enough for my imagination to come alive–to be like a child again, dancing to a gramophone.
In winter, when Lax was alive, I’d often picture him sitting placidly on that bed in that room with the wind and the rain making their assault outside. There was little to envision really–a man in a watchcap on a bed, writing on a cheap pad–but that image always made me more comfortable and more courageous with my own aloneness–my own attempts to create or discover something valuable, wise, and true.
This post originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To sign up for this free bimonthly publication, click here and enter your email address on the left-hand side of the page.
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.
In my conversations with Robert Lax back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was spending time with him every year, we talked about art many times. He saw art as a guide for people but also a mirror, in which they could see our own responses to the world more clearly and understand them better. Here’s a slightly edited portion of one of those conversation:
MNM: What is the purpose of art?
RL:Well, I’ll talk figuratively for a second. Just as Virgil could lead Dante into hell and up as far as he could and Beatrice could lead Dante the rest of the way up to heaven, art is a guide. Art is a bridge or a guide or a tour guide that leads you along to upper levels. It doesn’t drag you along by any means. At most it coaxes you or invites you. More like that: it invites you along.
…You might think, if you’d never seen any art or read any poetry, that your dreams and things that go beyond the ordinary in your solitary moments were yours alone and you might consider them a problem. Or you might consider your reactions to what someone said, which seemed so elaborate and beyond what in the ordinary course of things you’d expect them to be, to be troubling. But fortunately somebody learned to write about them, somebody learned to put them on stage, and that helps the whole community know how to understand—not just deal with, but understand—and even appreciate those moments.
MNM: I’m thinking about the phrase from Blake: “the doors of perception.” Is that akin to what you’re saying about art?
RL: Yes. I think that’s exactly it. For example, people analyze dreams—since Freud, at least—to find out what dreams tell them about their problems, but dreams serve so much more of a function for us than just letting us know what our problems are. It’s a whole world and in a sense you might think that art serves the same function in a community that a dream serves in the psyche of an individual.
When I asked Lax how this related to his latest books, which, at that time, contained mostly journal entries, he mentioned his small book 27th & 4th, composed of descriptions of people he saw passing that corner in New York from his office at Jubilee magazine in the 1950s. Here’s what he said about writing it:
RL:I had a friend, Jacques Lowe, a photographer, who used to practice photography by snapping people as they walked quickly past a low narrow door, and I thought I could do the same thing with writing. So I would just describe, quickly describe, everyone who went down the block as though I was a camera or something like that. I described them as I saw them and as I would talk to myself about them. So there would be jokes about them. I wasn’t trying to be objective or something like that. I was seeing them just as I saw them, talking about them just in my own language.
What I’m trying to do, in a sense, is bear witness—not false witness—to life as I see it and as I like it—as I love it—whatever it is, if it attracts me, and most of it does.
Lax is saying many things here, but I want to focus on three in particular:
1. Artists need to begin by paying attention: seeing what is really there, but also noting their responses to it.
2. Artists need to risk taking their interior life into the outside world, not merely to express it but in hopes that others will see their reflection in it and understand their own thoughts and responses better.
3. The patient seeking of one’s own understanding about even the most common of life’s moments can lead a community to a better place.
While Lax was talking primarily about his own approach to writing and making art, he was also showing all of us how to foster understanding in a community and help that community rise to a higher level, whether it’s only group of friends or an entire nation. We all need to seek to see more clearly and express our reactions to what we see more honestly, bearing witness—not false witness—to life as it truly is, with understanding as our goal.
(Note: This post originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Lax Newsletter. To subscribe, click here and look for the “subscribe” button on the left-hand side of the page as you scroll down.)
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.
Video artist Susanne Weigner has produced several short, award-winning videos from Robert Lax poems. One of her latest ones, called “moments,” was recently part of a show in Taipei, Taiwan, curated by a group based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Lax’s words are getting around!
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).