for Nancy-Marie Duffy
For some of the dead, I can’t use the past tense. They aren’t “was;” they’re “is.”
He’s a tall, slim man. His name is Robert Lax and he writes long, skinny poems, much like his own body. He’s a poet and a mystic and a lover of islands and cats, acrobats and sponge divers.
Lax might have been one more successful New York City intellectual, but he makes decisive turns in his life where he aligns himself with the poor and the marginalized, with drifters and dreamers. He volunteers at a Catholic Friendship House in Harlem, he follows the Christiani Family Circus throughout Western Canada, founds the peace publication PAX, lives with the poor in Marseilles and befriends fishermen and sponge divers in the Greek Islands of Kalymnos and Patmos. He cares for words, and remembers his friends “like a sacred duty.” Silence, stillness and solitude reside in his heart. He becomes a poet of the first order and Thomas Merton’s best friend.
You can set Robert Lax’s life down this way:
in Olean, N.Y. (USA)
editorial collaborator at
The New Yorker (1941)
Time magazine (l945)
Jubilee magazine (1953-1976)
lived since 1963 on the
Greek Islands Kalymnos
died in his sleep
September 26, 2000
in Olean, N.Y. (USA)
on his gravestone
“slow boat / calm river / quiet landing”
A Jewish man who converted to Roman Catholicism, Lax lived most of his adult life among the Greek Orthodox, with strangers and cats and visitors. Travel light, Lax says. And wait. Wait for what the day drops in your cup.
He wants to make things—that’s what he calls his poems, they’re things, as if stones—“that will stand, a thing that will bear (that will sustain) repeated contemplation: a thing that will sustain long contemplation, and that will (in a <deep> enough way) reward the beholder.”
This is Lax recognizing both the physicality of his poetry and its spiritual durability. He doesn’t refer to his work as either minimalist or concrete as his critics do. Lax makes words, and slows the pace of reading them and absorbing them.
A few years ago I wrote a poem in his honour:
Lax plays, he experiments, he waits. What Lax does most of in his island-life is wait:
the face of one
waiting & waiting
waiting & waiting
waiting for a
good he knows
He waits in “holy receptivity.” In this short poem, the repetition, the empty space, make the waiting real to the reader.
And where, for me, the waiting is the most haunting resides in his prose poem 21 Pages.
A voice speaks rapidly, which is very unusual for Lax, out of strangeness and mystery: “Would I know you if I saw you?”
The speaker waits for “Some person, some moment, some atmosphere, that I’d recognize as very much mine…”
The speaker waits because he was made “to go on waiting. Made, put together, invented, born, for that single, singular purpose: to watch, to wait.”
The speaker seeks the “beloved…my sought-after-being, my remembered-one…the one I’d looked for, the one I’d sought without any clear idea of who he or she might be, of what he or she might look like…” This nameless, invisible one is “you.”
And the speaker confides, “A readiness to recognize you; that’s all I’ve brought, that’s what I bring to the encounter.” The speaker has grown accustomed to waiting on corners, on benches, in forests, in parks. The speaker confesses to himself: “sometimes if you came, and I saw you, and I knew you were there, I’d continue to go on waiting.”
“There is no giving up on the thing you were made to do. There’s no giving up on being who you are.”
21 Pages isn’t easy to get a hold of, very little of Lax’s work is easy to get a hold of, but try.
Robert Lax is one of the most extraordinary writers of the past century. He is a very great gift if you open your mind and heart, if you wait until you are ready to receive him.
*My poem first appeared in The Merton Seasonal, Spring 2017 issue, Vol. 42, p. 17.
For more Lax, see Michael N. McGregor’s Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015) or In The Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Words of Robert Lax. Edited, with an Introduction by S.T. Georgiou. (Springfield, Illinois: Templegate Publishers, 2015).
In Works&Conversations –“Remembering Robert Lax- A Conversation with Steve Georgiou” – Georgiou remembers Lax saying to him, “All that metaphysical stuff is cool, but when you end up getting into a dark night, what do you do then? You go out and you give a bowl of soup to somebody.”