Kalymnos: The Island Lax Loved

The photograph here is of Kalymnos, the Greek island Robert Lax loved most.  He moved there shortly before Easter in 1964 and stayed for most of the next 10 years, recording the wisdom of the fishermen and sponge divers who lived on the island.  He might have stayed the rest of his life if his hasty (and temporary) departure in 1974 to work as a writer-in-residence at a new arts venue near Buffalo, NY, hadn’t convinced many islanders that he was a spy.

Unfortunately for Lax, he left the island just as the Cyprus Crisis was making it look as if Greece and nearby Turkey would go to war.  The islanders had never quite figured out why he was living there among them, scribbling things down and taking photographs.  When he left suddenly just as war loomed, they thought they knew.

Although he had been warned that some islanders wanted to kill him, Lax returned to Kalymnos in 1976.  He stayed off and on for the next four years but he never felt entirely comfortable there again.  In 1980 he moved permanently to Patmos, where he would live for most of his last two decades.

In honor of Orthodox Easter, coming up on May 1, here are some thoughts about Easter on Lax’s favorite island:

Easter is one of the best times to visit the Greek islands.  Icons are paraded through the streets, there are lamb feasts, and everyone gathers at the church the night before Easter Sunday to celebrate the risen Christ at midnight.  When I was on Patmos at Easter one year, a basket of colored eggs and cookies appeared one day in my rented room and the town was full of joyful visitors.  On Kalymnos, the islanders take things even further, “celebrating” the holiday by throwing sticks of dynamite into the air.  According to anthropologist David Sutton, the practice goes back to the 1960s, when Lax first lived on Kalymnos (and, indeed, he mentions it in his journal).  Here’s how Sutton described his own experience with Kalymnian dynamite in a 1996 article in Anthropological Quarterly:

“I was warned about renting the house across from the churchyard.  I had arrived on the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Eastern Aegean with my wife and six-month old son and had been directed by friends to a large house overlooking the main town.  The only drawback, I was told was “the dynamite” (i dinamites), but that was only one night, at Easter, not worth worrying about.

“What I had visualized as a large fireworks display, however, turned out to be a bombing.  Amid cries of “Christ is risen” several hundred pounds of TNT formed into projectiles of two or three pounds each were hurled into the sky from the church courtyard at midnight on Easter eve, rattling our house to its foundations, cracking two window panes, and sending the window handles flying across the room.  As the explosions continued sporadically throughout the day, I felt that I had gotten a taste of life in a war zone.  I later found out that the dynamiting was considered to be light that year, and that the toll of damage was nothing compared to that of twelve years earlier, when four people were killed in what later became known as “the Accident” (to atihima).”

Let me end with a quote from a journal entry Lax made about Kalymnos on August 5, 1969:

“sometimes it seems as though the island were a school of thought; as though there were living somewhere in the mountains, an invisible zen-master who kept everyone on the beam.  if you walk along in dark thoughts (down the main street0 no one will say hello to you, or if they do, they say it timidly, knowing not only that it would be wrong to interrupt you now, but even to recognize you as a visible being when you were not (as they usually manage to be) in your full find feeling.  but if you are feeling very well, the say hello with joy.

“on such a day, someone may run over spontaneously & shake your hand.

“the joy i am talking about, the full fine feeling, in greek is called kefi.  some days you have kefi & some you don’t.  when you do, you are full of spontaneous good actions, every one of which may be expected to turn out right.”

(from Journal C by Robert Lax, Pendo Verlag, 1990, pp. 50-52)


A Podcast and a Long Lax Feature in the December issue of POETRY Magazine

A long section on the poetry of Robert Lax takes up a full quarter of the December issue of Poetry magazine (released today).  It includes previously unpublished poems written on Kalymnos in 1968, facsimiles of Lax’s handwritten notes and jottings, and a lengthy introduction by me.

Poetry has posted a downloadable podcast featuring poets who are in the December issue and a conversation with me about Lax, his poetry and his life in Greece.  You can listen to it here.  If you scroll down below it on the same page and click on Michael N. McGregor (or click here), you can read my introduction.  If you click on Robert Lax (or here), you can read the poems of his featured in the issue.  You’ll also see the lovely photograph of Lax shown here, taken by author Tom Stone, a friend of Lax who lived on Patmos.

The Presentness and Mindfulness of Robert Lax’s Pure Act (part two)

After traveling with the Cristiani circus family through Western Canada in 1949 and finishing a draft of what would become his first book, The Circus of the Sun, in 1950, Robert Lax felt restless.  His observations of the Cristiani acrobats and reading of St. Thomas Aquinas had given him a clear sense of how he wanted to live in the world and a name for it: pure act.  But he didn’t know where he should be living or what he should be doing other than writing his poetry.

Aquinas had written that only God was pure act, but Lax believed that people could come close to being pure act themselves if they were filled with love.  According to his definition, pure act was a kind of mindfulness–a practiced way of being in the world–and yet it was a presentness too–a spontaneous living-in-the-moment without self-consciousness or hesitation.  Having heard that Catherine de Hueck had started Friendship House in Harlem simply by moving into a tenement and addressing whatever need was right in front of her, Lax decided to do the same thing in  Marseilles, the French city that had scared him the first time he’d seen it.

Nothing lasting came from Lax’s months in Marseilles other than a strong belief that simply being a loving presence could be as much of a vocation as anything else.  That was enough.  Although he continued to roam restlessly in future years–traveling with another circus in Italy, editing a literary journal in Paris, and working for Jubilee magazine in New York–he had narrowed his true desires to three: living a simple contemplative life, writing the kind of poetry he wanted to write, and being a loving presence wherever he was.

It wasn’t until Lax left America’s commercialism and relentless ambition behind and moved to the Greek islands, however, that he found a place he could feel at peace.  On the island of Kalymnos he discovered a whole community of fishermen and sponge divers who seemed to live lives of pure act, singly and together.  The smallest gesture was both practiced and spontaneous, ancient and new.  Everyone seemed fully present and alive.  He settled among them to learn from them while writing his poetry the same way.

When politics forced Lax to move to the nearby island of Patmos, he was momentarily dismayed.  But he soon realized that a life of pure act could be lived anywhere: circumstances didn’t matter.  In time he drew people from the around the world to the island of St. John, where they experienced and learned from his loving presence.  His pure act.