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:
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.