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.


The New York Times

The Oregonian

Publishers Weekly



The Plough


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)


“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


“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


“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


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:





the sea-

the sea-

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.

Three Short Videos of Michael N. McGregor Talking About Robert Lax

Oxford University Press, which is handling distribution for Michael N. McGregor’s Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, has produced three videos in which McGregor talks about Lax’s friendships with Thomas Merton and others, his love of solitude, the relationship between his poetry and his simple life, and why he settled on the Greek island of 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.