Walking in Rhythm: The Fortuities of Robert Lax

(Click here to watch the Blackbyrds live out Lax’s advice.)

not
so
much
find
ing

a
path
in
the
woods

as
find
ing

a
rhythm

to
walk
in

Robert Lax, p. 381, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

Coincidentally, over the past few weeks, several people have asked me about the simple poem printed here. If there’s one thing I learned during my many years of hanging out with Robert Lax, it was to trust coincidences, which, with Lax, were better called fortuities.

People talk about “thin places” in the world—locations where the barriers between our tangible reality and a more spiritual realm are less substantial. These are thought to be places of unusual energy, where unusual things can happen. Findhorn or Iona in Scotland, for example. Or Lourdes in France. Or Lax’s own island, Patmos.

Lax, to me, was an example of a “thin person.” His life was filled with fortuities, mostly of a spiritual nature. And it was oddly common for those who came to know him to have the same kind of experience in their own lives. The reason, I believe, was that Lax was more open to the spiritual realm than most people. As a result, the veil between this world and the next seemed to thin around him. When he came in contact with a person in a complementary state of spiritual openness, anything could happen. And often did.

 When I met him, for example, an extraordinary series of improbable coincidences put me on Patmos reading about him in his best friend’s book, and several more led to our actual meeting. At the time, in part because I was young and had a certain hunger, I was more open to spiritual possibilities than at any other time in my life.

One of Lax’s most beloved pieces of advice is to put yourself “in a place where grace can flow to you.” Rather than a physical space, I think he meant a way of being, a spirit of receptivity, an orientation toward the living God. By putting ourselves in such a place, we open ourselves to unseen love, the energy of the universe, and the possibility of fortuities.

The question, of course, is how to do that. Through prayer? Patience? Meditation? Charity? All of these are worthy ways to access grace. But I believe the main way, for Lax, is right there in his poem.

Once, years ago, the artistic director of a prominent theater told me a key moment in his life came when he was about to leave graduate school and start his career. Unsure whether he should move to New York and become an actor or return to his hometown to start a theater, he asked an old professor—a grizzled veteran of the New York stage—for advice. The professor fixed him with a narrowed eye and said, “There’s no path. Do what you want to do.”

It seems to me Lax is saying something similar in his poem: Stop trying to find the path to get through the woods as fast as you can. Concentrate instead on discovering who you are and let that carry you forward, at whatever pace and in whatever way is most natural for you.

It’s the rhythm and the movement that are most important, not the woods or the path. The rhythm is the rhythm of the jazz musicians jamming, the acrobats performing on the backs of horses, the islanders setting out to fish in tiny boats. The movement is the movement of the music. Of the animals. Of the sea.

Each of us must find the natural rhythm and movement in our own lives, our own beings, as we are fit and blessed and motivated to live them. Then will the fortuities of grace and love begin to flutter down “like birds,” as author Milan Kundera once wrote, “to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders.”

[This post appeared first in the Robert Lax Newsletter. To sign up for this free bimonthly (or so) mailing, click here and enter your email address on the left-hand side of the page.]

A Clarification through Being of What It Means to Be

Photo of Robert Lax from a 2017 exhibit of his works at St. Bonaventure University.

to live in our dreams as though they were real, and through the waking day, as though we were dreaming

to treat all beings, in dream and waking, with reverence due the numinous

and yet to be wide awake, both in sleeping and waking

to what good end? to no good end: only to a continuation in being; to a clarification through being of what it means to be

Robert Lax, journal entry, March 28, 1979

(p. 349, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by Michael N. McGregor)

Teaching Poetry and American Art

The image here—of a Lax experiment—is from an interesting website called Teaching Poetry and American Art. According to the site’s introduction, it is meant to “help students interpret the author’s and artist’s purpose, while teaching them to create images from words and use words to create images.If you click on the link above, it will take you to the Lax page, where you’ll find a couple images of his work, along with links to some of his friends and contemporaries, such as Mary Ellen Solt, Emmett Williams, and William “Bill” Burford. The site is maintained by William Plashke.

Note: This post was originally part of the most recent Lax Newsletter. To receive the latest Lax information, news, and writings, sign up for the newsletter here.

Life Is a River – & We the Streams

life is a river
& we the streams
that feed it

each stream should
empty itself
completely

into the
river &
not hold back

our way of talking
our way of being
is what we have
to contribute
to the stream

why keep it
all dammed
up
?

-------

who should a slow
moving river try to
move fast

why should a meander
ing stre
am pretend
to be straight?

----------

the civilizers
build high dams
but water flows
wherever it can

----------

are you afraid
that if you're a
cow
some mouse will
get ahead of you

some bright-eyed
rodent do you
in?

fear not

(God watches
mice & cows)

--------

the animal
most to fear
is man


Robert Lax 
journal entry
May 19, 1974

--from pp. 327-329, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
                                   by Michael N. McGregor

Solitude, Survival & Imagination

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.

(The quotes used here are from pp. 216 & 243 in Love Had a Compass by Robert Lax.)

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.

Feeling Wild and Lyrical: Jack Kerouac Spends a Night in Seattle

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
(image from Wikipedia)

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.

Previously Unreleased Robert Lax Documentary on YouTube Now

Image from “Robert Lax — Word & Image

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).

You can view the hour-long film by clicking here.

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.

Jack Kerouac Letter to Robert Lax Sold at Auction for $11,000

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.

Audio Version of PURE ACT Released on Audible Today!

TODAY’S THE DAY the audio version of my book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, is being released on Audible! If you click here, you can listen to a short sample.

I’m excited my book will be available to people who need or prefer to listen rather than read, but it’s strange to hear someone else read words I wrote about my own experiences.

What Visiting Robert Lax on Patmos Was Like

Robert Lax with Michael N. McGregor
Photo: Sylvia McGregor

Note: This remembrance was first published in an issue of The Merton Seasonal in 2001, a year after Robert Lax died.

After the Circus Goes By

© Michael McGregor, 2001

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).