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.
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.)
Robert Lax was born in Olean, New York, on this day in 1915, to Sigmund and Rebecca Lax, both Jewish immigrants.
To honor his birthday, here’s a brief selection from his poetry (and his soul):
Who can speak for the soul's delight in a beautiful
Who can tell the wonder that enters through the eyes
& into the heart?
Who knows the soul's rejoicing?
The whisper it would make to its Maker,
the whisper of love, the song of glory?
Who knows the soul's delight in beauty?
is on the mountains
in the brush country,
& I am tortured
by the beauty
of the light
upon the mountains
in the brush country.
(a selection from a longer poem set down on November 12, 1947, in Hollywood, CA)
--p. 68, journal E/tagebuch E: hollywood journal, published by pendo-verlag, 1996
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!
In these fractious times, when competing visions of who we are (or should be) seem to separate us more and more, let me offer this short excerpt from Pure Act about a realization Lax came to in the fall of 1973, one of the most significant of his life (Lipsi is a small island near where he lived his later years on Patmos):
As he lingered on Lipsi that fall, he began to see that his vision hadn’t been capacious enough. He had been looking at parts rather than the whole, searching for models rather than an understanding of the greater scheme of things. The oneness of humanity–of all of life–wasn’t something to be sought, he realized, but something to be recognized and embraced. The life flowing in his veins had been flowing in veins since the beginning of time or longer. The enduring nature of life was the important thing to understand:
the continuity of life is its meaning: it begins from eternity & flows to eternity
there is no right way of singing a given song: but all ways are more or less right
the variations of tone we bring to our roles give life its color: whether we will (to) or not, we add variations
there is no one character in whom the Lord would dwell & not in others
he who dances in the middle of the room, dances for me; he who sits in the corner watching, watches for me
…it is not that our lives should so radically change, but rather our understanding of them