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:

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.

Two Robert Lax Events in New York This Weekend: 9/19 & 9/21

Robert Lax will be the focus of two New York events this weekend:

1. 2-7 p.m., Saturday, September 19, at Corpus Christi Church, 529 West 121st Street (just east of Broadway): 

Pure Act:

“New Words for God”–The Uncommon Lives of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax

A celebration of the the 100th birthdays of Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, the 15th anniversary of the Corpus Christi Chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society, and the 15th anniversary of Robert Lax’s death.

Michael McGregor, author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax will present the featured talk.

The responding panelists will be:

John Beer, a poet and Portland State University professor, who served as Lax’s literary assistant on the island of Patmos in the late 1990s and edited Lax’s 2013 collection poems (1962-1997).

Judith Emery, a longtime Lax friend and editor of two of his books.

Marcia Kelly, an author and Lax’s niece.

The main presentation will be followed by a Mass at 5 p.m. and a gala reception after that.

Free for members of the Corpus Christi ITMS chapter.  $10 for non-members.


2. 7-8:30 p.m. on Monday, September 21, at McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street:

A Celebration of Robert Lax

To mark the publication of the Lax biography Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

Readings from writings by and about Robert Lax, with:

Michael McGregor, author Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

C. K. Williams, poet and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Poetry

Richard Kostelanetz, multi-talented writer and artist, who once praised Lax as “a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words.”

Paolo Javier, former poet laureate of Queens and author of Court of the Dragon

John Beer, poet, Lax editor and author of The Waste Land and Other Poems

Marcia Kelly, Lax niece and co-author of 100 Graces: Mealtime Blessings

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

When Robert Lax was a student at Columbia University in the late ‘30s, he and Thomas Merton liked to go to jazz clubs late at night to watch jazz musicians jam. These jam sessions were more spontaneous than a regular performance, but they weren’t entirely freewheeling and they certainly weren’t chaotic. What gave them form and flow was a combination of the musicians’ training, whatever tune they were using as a base, and their presentness and mindfulness. The musicians were fully in the moment, listening and responding to each other.

When the time came for one of them to solo, he knew it, not because a leader gave a nod but because the music shifted his direction, an opening invited him to shine. In that moment, as he blew his horn or strummed his bass, he did it more intensely and more soulfully than he had before, playing, as George Clinton once said, like his mamma just died. He didn’t do it to outplay the others but because playing his best, expressing what he could best express, was the best way of both respecting and encouraging his fellow musicians. Each one playing his best brought out the best in the others.

A worrier by nature, Lax longed to be as present and as mindful, as disciplined and yet insouciant and spontaneous as those musicians were. His relationship with Merton and their other college friends gave him a taste of how a constant jam might feel: the free exchange of new ideas and views, the playing off of one another, the applauding of creative accomplishments. But college ended and his friends scattered. Merton entered a monastery. Jazz musicians were still playing, of course, but the world offered few other models of the concept Lax would come to call pure act, and his understanding of it remained more theoretical than actual.

Until, that is, he met the Crisitani family. Performers since they were young, the family’s eleven brothers and sisters were the world’s leading equestrian acrobats. Catholics all, they shared a faith and an understanding of each other built from countless hours of practicing and performing together. Each had his individual talents and personality but all were serious and sober, happy and playful, graceful and skillful, as Lax would describe them in his poem cycle Mogador’s Book.

About the skill of Mogador, the brother Lax felt closest to, he wrote:

Like the highest art,
it is a kind of play
which involves
and control;
An activity which involves
awareness and appreciation;
Its own symbolic value.
Like the prayers
of the old in wisdom,
it has the joy
and the solemnity of love.

Lax’s first book, The Circus of the Sun, was an attempt to show the relationship in spirit between the performers in the Cristianis circus and the Creation story:

“We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the field the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation…

He succeeded wonderfully in portraying the grace and beauty of both circus and creation, but the writing of the book did not come easily. And after writing it, he still felt far more anxious than he wanted to. To live and make his art as freely as the Cristianis did, he’d need a deeper understanding of himself and what he meant by pure act, a phrase he’d borrowed from St. Thomas Aquinas. He’d need to make a move, too: from overly commercial and distracted America to a tiny room beside the waterfront in dangerous Marseilles, and then an island far from anyone or anything he knew, in the middle of the vast Aegean.

(part two to come…)

Turning the Jungle Into a Garden

by Michael N. McGregor—originally published in Poets & Writers, March/April 1997

There is no easy, efficient way to reach the Greek island poet Robert Lax calls home. A nine-hour flight from New York leaves you less than halfway there, subject first to an adrenaline-draining, needle-threading, joint-jangling taxi ride from the Athens airport to the harbor at Piraeus, then a nine- or twelve-hour (depending on the seas – everything in Greece depends upon the seas) passage on an aging, noisy, smoke-filled ferry that might not even make its scheduled stop.

That is, of course, if the ferry is running that day at all – and if you haven ‘t had the misfortune to arrive on a day when the ferry is traveling to Piraeus instead of away from it, or when the engines have gone out, or when the ferry workers are on strike.

By the time you arrive on Patmos, usually at 1:00 or 2:00 A.M., the New York world of instant gratification, instant communication, instant everything seems strangely, almost painfully, remote. Continue reading Turning the Jungle Into a Garden