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).

Short New Video about Robert Lax and the Circus

This past spring, Cirkus Cirkör, the Swedish circus company that co-produced Philip Glass’s new opera, “Circus Days and Nights,” based on Robert Lax’s circus poems, asked me to be help with a video introducing Lax to its audience. The video won’t be released until dates for the opera’s upcoming world tour are ready to be announced, but Cirkus Cirkör has given me permission to give Lax fans a sneak peak.

To watch the video, click here.

The First German Translation of Lax’s 33 Poems Is Now Available!

Sprachichter Verlag has just released the first German translation of one of the best collections of Robert lax poems, 33 Poems (33 Gedichte). This first edition is limited to 100 hardcover copies. Sprachlichter will publish a second edition in 2022.

To read more about the book (in German) or purchase a copy, click here.

Note from MNM: I’m pleased to be listed as a contributing editor for the book. My German isn’t terribly good but I speak fluent Lax and was able to help improve the translations.

It’s Wonderful!: Don’t Miss the Chance to Live Stream the New Philip Glass Circus Opera

I just watched the live stream of the premiere of new Philip Glass circus opera based on Robert Lax’s poems. Wow! It is a wonderful show! If you haven’t bought tickets for one of the performances, you should do so now. It runs through June 13, with all of the shows live streamed for just $12. You’ll never be able to see this show again for that price. If you love Lax, Glass, the circus, opera, theater, spectacle, life, order your ticket now: https://www.malmoopera.se/circus-days-and-nights-in-english

Trailer: A Glimpse of the Wonderful New Philip Glass-Robert Lax Opera

A trailer for Philip Glass’s new opera, “Circus Days and Nights,” based on Robert Lax’s poems, just came out. It gives a exciting first glimpse at the show. Just click below.

Tickets for a live streaming of the opera are still available. It runs May 29-Jun 13. For show information and ticket ordering, click here.

Buy Your Ticket to a Live Streaming of the new Philip Glass Opera “Circus Days and Nights” Now!

The new Philip Glass opera “Circus Days and Nights,” based on Robert Lax’s poetry, will be live-streamed starting with its premiere on May 29. The premiere is sold out, but you can still get tickets to other shows.

To order tickets (which cost approximately $12 US) and read more about the show, click here.

Cristiani Videos to Whet Your Appetite for the Upcoming Philip Glass-Robert Lax Circus Opera

Poking around on YouTube today, I found these two old blurry videos of the Cristiani circus family, the second of which I’ve posted before.

The Cristianis, of course, are the stars of Robert Lax’s poetry cycles The Circus of the Sun and Mogador’s Book, the basis for the Philip Glass opera “Circus Days and Nights,” which will premiere in a live-streamed show from the Malmö Opera building on May 29.

I’ll be posting more about the opera in the coming days and weeks. In the meantime, here’s a link to more information about it, including how to get tickets for one of the live-streamed shows. Stay tuned.

An Essay on Goodness Inspired by Robert Lax

Here’s the link to a lyrical essay on Goodness I wrote for Notre Dame Magazine, with more than a little of Robert Lax’s spirit in it.

Notre Dame editor Kerry Temple asked me to write the piece shortly after last November’s election because he was tired of hearing only about badness. Then he built an entire essay around the theme of Goodness–something this past year has left us all wanting more of.

You’ll find links to the many other thoughtful and inspiring pieces in the issue in a sidebar next to my essay.

March 28 Concert to Feature Compositions Based on Lax’s Poem “the hill”

On Sunday, March 28, 2021 (at 18:00, Budapest time) Frog Peak Music (a composers’ collective, aka FUGA) will present:

SONGS FROM THE HILL AND ELSEWHERE, featuring Nikolaus Gerszewski’s compositions “songs from the hill” (2012) and “new songs from the hill” (2019) will be presented along with composer Chris Newman’s “modest songs” (2012)

Gerszewski’s compositions are based on Robert Lax’s poem “the hill.”

The concert at the Budapest Architecture Center will feature Orsolya Anna Juhász (soprano voice) and Bálint Baráth (piano). It will be broadcast live on the group’s YouTube channel, where you can watch it later too: https://www.youtube.com/user/fugabudapest/videos

Before the concert, György Bartók and Nikolaus Gerszewski will talk about the works.

For more specifics about the concert and FUGA, go to: http://fuga.org.hu/fevent/ter-zene-sorozat-2/

  • (The image above, of Nikolaus Gerszewski, is from the FUGA website)

Here’s what Gerszewski says about his compositions:

I chose the lyrics from the volume “the hill” by the minimalist poet Robert Lax, who has lived half of his life as a hermit on the greek island Patmos. His poetic style transcends literary genres, sometimes oscillates between narrative prose and abstract lyricism, even touches the border of concrete poetry; the single word can be emphasized in its phonetic objectivity but is at the same time embedded in a descriptive context.

The music I wrote is sometimes chromatic, sometimes appearently modal, yet not following any musical system in its tonal shaping. The compositional technique is actually rather conceptual, in the sense of using a selfmade precompositional setup to reduce the possibilities of choices. Yet the music itself is very intuitional, which is not a contradiction. We have this relation of a conceptual approach with an intuitional, so to speak lyrical result in the works of many great artists of the conceptual period, like Ad Reinhard, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin or Eva Hesse.

As regards content, these songs are all about solitude; a man living in a  world of his own creation, waiting for a companion who may never come.

Composer Chris Newman (image from the FUGA website)

And here’s Newman talking about her composition:

I think that art is definitely trying to get away from personal feelings that we all feel – this way or that way. Art has the ability to embody, make concrete & transcend, help us ‘get through’ those feelings. Not therapeutic, but transcendent.

When writing music I don’t use pitches or rhythms, I use musical material as a job-lot, not its components & really like a job-lot I take what it gives me. I apply ‘things’ to the job-lot of music. The vista of music, the panorama of music. I suppose what interests me is the phenomenon of music & our relationship to it, how it combines itself with us, or at least making models for this. The phenomenon of music & how it combines itself with us. I am wondering if the medium is also ‘merely’ a model for the outside world.”

Nikolaus Gerszewski was born in 1964 in Hamburg and lives now in Hamburg and Budapest. He is a trained visual artist and a self-trained composer of ‘experimental music.’

Since his early 20s, he has been engaged in non-representational art, as both a painter and a theorist. In 2005, he came in touch with Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score “Treatise,” and ever since he has developed his own musical notation, in form of graphic scores, text scores, alternative systems of signs, semi-conventional, and even fully conventional sheet music. In 2008, he introduced his own generic term ‘ordinary music’, expressing his view, that the making of sounds should be considered a natural means of expression, accessible to everyone, rather than being banished into the realms of art and entertainment; this having said he still considers himself a natural born artist.

Since 2013, Nikolaus has been teaching ‘experimental sound production’ at the university of fine arts, Budapest (MKE), and at the university of science, Pecs (PTI).

Chris Newman was born in London 1958. While a music student at King’s College London he found himself involved in translating Russian poetry into English (with Russian poet Eugene Dubrov) & this act of translation in the broadest sense – either from one artistic medium to another (this mediums in his case embrace music, poetry, performance, painting, video & dual presentations thereof), or from the act of perception into the artistic medium – has formed the basis of his endeavors. He moved to Cologne in 1980 & has more or less lived in Germany ever since.