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. Which is how Lax prefers the New York world to be.

Robert Lax, who turned 81 this past year, is arguably one of the best unknown American poets of the last half of the 20th century. R.C. Kenedy of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has called his book The Circus of the Sun (Journeyman Books, 1959) “the finest volume of poems published by an English-speaking poet of the generation which comes in T.S. Eliot’s wake.”

His first poem appeared in print while he was still in high school, and he published several poems in the New Yorker while still in his 20s.

But several decades ago Lax made a conscious decision to leave the path that might have put him in the company of better-known poets such as e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Lowell, all of whom were once his friends. Despite his early success, he found the expectations of popular taste to be as stultifying as the incessantly busy world of New York City, where he once worked for both The New Yorker and Time. Eschewing what he considered the excessive intricacy of most poetry, Lax concentrated on simplifying his form and his words, striving to hear what he has described as “the language my soul uses when it talks to itself.”

Long before there was something called “concrete poetry,” he was stripping away the adjectives and adverbs, paring down his vocabulary, using only those words he thought he could definitely define. His poetry became a kind of meditation or music, something pulse-like, primal, and profound. It was more suited to the rhythms of the winds and wave~ and the traditional ways of unpretentious Greek islanders than the frantic, clamoring dissonance of New York City, something not everyone could hear or appreciate.

“The last year I lived there,” he says, “without my realizing it quite, I had become sick of New York. I found that almost the only places I could think of going to eat after work would be Greek places because instead of saying ‘What do you want?’ they’d say ‘How are you?’ or something like that, maybe just a ‘Hello.’

“One night I was in this Greek coffee shop, maybe at midnight, and there was this little Greek grandpa behind the counter – you know, he was a waiter – and I got some coffee and I was drinking it and he said ‘Have a cigar’ and I said ‘No thanks, I don ‘ t smoke,’ and he said ‘Have a cigar,’ and so, of course, I took one. And then he started saying things like ‘You ought to be in Greece.’ He made it sound so good. He said it hardly ever snows ….”

That was in 1962. Before the year was out, Lax was on his way to Greece for the first time. After a short stay in Athens, he returned briefly to the U.S., then went back to Greece and settled on the island of Mytilini. Eventually he moved to the island of Kalymnos before finding a permanent home on Patmos.

Lax had left New York many times before – attending graduate school in philosophy in North Carolina for a while; writing for the movies in Hollywood; traveling to Italy, France, and Spain; even settling for several months in the French port city of Marseille – but he had never found a place that seemed as right for him as the Greek islands, especially Patmos.

In a whimsical letter to his college friend, the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton, published in a collection called A Catch of Anti-Letters (Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1978), Lax described his first visit to the island: “this patmos is a splendid place. at first you wld [sic] think so, then you would not, then you would think so again. the people are of a very high quality; likewise the geography … if not in toledo, avila, or assisi, then never have I seen such a pious landshaft . . ..” (Merton and Lax, admirers of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, regularly flaunted rules of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation and often mixed languages in their correspondence with one another.)

Merton and other friends of Lax were not surprised by his attraction to Patmos, a symbol of isolated exile since Roman times. Like John the Divine, who penned the biblical book of Revelation while an outcast on Patmos, Lax is a Christian with deep Jewish roots, a hermit at heart but with an urban past, and a visionary lover of beauty who believes that his one responsibility is to faithfully record the truths that are revealed to him.

“What I’m trying to do in my writing,” Lax says, “is bear witness – not ‘false witness’ – to life as I see it, as I love it. Whatever it is, if it attracts me – and most of it does, if it’s not hurting anyone or anything – I like to set it down.”

In Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, he describes Lax as “a kind of combination of Hamlet and Elias. A potential prophet, but without rage. A king but a Jew too. A mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them….”

Merton became a model of sorts for Lax when he converted to Catholicism and entered the cloistered Trappist order. Eventually Lax, too, became a Catholic and began searching for his own sanctuary, his own holy haven from the world. Four years after his first visit to Patmos and not long before he moved there for good, Lax returned and wrote (less whimsically this time) to Merton, “patmos really holy place … what I’d call a holy place … not saying something one way or another about the people … but the place … flowers , rocks, birds. It’s more like the rocks look happy … birds too, very good. only place I ever see birds ….”

Yet in a book called simply Journal D (Pendo-Verlag, 1993), Lax reveals that once he had moved to this “holy place,” he was not completely at ease in his paradisaical world: “The soul cries out to be saved from the onslaughts of so much physical beauty,” he writes.

It is the lack of relation,
the insular island-like lack of relation to the whole smoky
world and its whole explosive plight that seems
to cry out from the pastoral hills …

Lax’s answer to this feeling of being overly blessed, this angst about being disconnected from, and therefore blinded to, the world is to welcome openly the pilgrims who brave the hardships of traveling to Patmos to find him.

The visitors come primarily from two groups. Some have stumbled onto his poetry despite the difficulty of finding it in the United States (while both Journeyman Press in New York and Furthermore Press in Vermont have published selections of Lax’s work, his only consistent publisher is a little-known Zurich firm, Pengo-Verlag, and feel drawn to its simple rhythms and language. Others hunt him down because of his connection to Merton, who, despite his death almost 30 years ago, retains a cultish appeal among people seeking a more meaningful, mystical Christian faith.

(My own introduction to Lax was an improbable blending of the two. While living on Patmos myself one winter 12 years ago, I happened to read Merton’s autobiography for the first time and was impressed by the wise counsel his then-young friend Bob Lax gave him. A month later, when I was about to leave the island, someone told me there was another American writer living there – a poet named Robert Lax – and I hunted him down. I have been visiting him regularly ever since.)

Though the route to Lax’s modest, two-room dwelling on a hill above the port town of Skala is labyrinthine, finding him is easier than it would seem. All a visitor has to do is ask anyone he passes, “To Petros?” and he will be directed, often guided by hand, up the narrow alleys. under laden clotheslines, and around a dozen whitewashed corners.

The nickname, Petros, is like a password among the residents of Skala. a clue to the nature of a foreigner’s visit. It was first used by an island man who misheard Lax give his name as “Robertos.” It stuck when Lax neglected to correct the man because he did not want to embarrass him. The locals smile when they hear it, visibly relaxing and dropping the guardedness that a history of pirate raids and countless foreign occupations have made an ineradicable characteristic of the Greek islanders. They will tell you that the visitors who seek out Petros are different from the thousands who flock to their small island for the beaches and the nightlife each summer. There is a quietness in these pilgrims. they say, just as there is in the man they come to visit. They are proud that their island houses this odd celebrity whose work they have not read but whose gentle character they know. Character is what is most important to them anyway.

The islanders’ directions lead inevitably to a concrete porch where wide-eyed cats prowl among the detritus of frequent feedings-fish heads. bones, an empty yogurt tub. The cats pause in fright, then scurry over walls or onto roofs to watch warily as the visitor knocks against a battered, half-glass door. A gentle “Yes?” floats through the opaque panel, then as the door clicks open, a chorus of plaintive mews begins, the incessant begging Lax finds himself unable to resist. Almost before he speaks to his visitor, he reassures the cats. “Yes, yes, we’ll get to you,” he says, seemingly perplexed at finding so many of them there.

Despite his 80 years, Lax still has the inquisitive look of a boy amazed and somewhat humbled by all the things he doesn’t know about the world. When someone speaks to him, his eyebrows lift and his head juts slightly forward, as if he is afraid that he will miss the answer to a question he’s been asking. His long, ascetic face – with its white goatee and thick, white tufts that grow exuberantly below a hairless crown – would seem at home among those of the dour, thoughtful saints one finds in Byzantine icons. Merton once described Lax as always meditating “on some incomprehensible woe.”

His home is a one-story add-on the size of a small studio apartment with a tiny kitchen, bath, closet-like room where he keeps his’ books and his clothes, and a bedroom-sized central space where he eats, sleeps, writes, and entertains guests. Everywhere there are containers and papers-boxes full of his writings to be sent to the archives at St. Bonaventure College, in Olean, New York, letters from strangers and friends (among them Jacques Barzun, William Maxwell, and C.K. Williams), journals full of his latest musings and poems, and books (Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, a tome that explains the Kabbalah, Paramanansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi…) that reveal a progressive interest in both mystical religious traditions and world-wide philosophical thought.

Scraps of yellowing tape and three or four dozen seemingly randomly-placed cards, photos, and drawings make a mosaic across one wall. “They tell me to put them up there – they really do,” Lax says as he glances up at them, meaning that the cards and drawings speak to him about aspects of life he deems important.

There’s a print of Rembrandt’s “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem,” a photograph of a college friend named Brahmachari who’s now a yogi in India, a postcard of a Renaissance artist’s conception of St. John on Patmos, and a newspaper reproduction of an ad for the Marx Brothers’ film “A Day at the Races.”

Photographs of friends, drawings by children, and pictures of elephants or clowns have gone up and come down over the years. (The elephants and clowns arc reminders both of Lax’s first book, Circus of the Sun, in which he compares the creation of the world to the wonder of watching a circus set up and perform, and the weeks before writing the book when he worked as a clown while traveling with the Cristiani family circus. Years later, while sojourning in Italy, Lax joined another circus for a while, traveling with it from Rome to Pescara. He still speaks reverently of the circus performers’ hospitality, their simple life, and the way each dedicated himself to his art.) The current images, though, have stayed up longer than those in the past and cluster around certain themes-mysticism, Judaism, the peacefulness Lax both seeks for himself and looks for in the faces of others. The faces, he says, are what he’s drawn to in most of the pictures.

Above the images hangs an icon of sorts, a representation of the Russian saint Seraphim, who holds a scroll on which is written, “Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls shall be saved around you.” Lax has adopted the saying as his motto – almost his mantra – slipping it into conversation at every appropriate juncture. He speaks often of a Hegelian search for synthesis and tells of an international aerospace conference he once attended during the Cold War (he was invited by a scientist friend aware of Lax’s interest in anything that brings people together across boundaries) at which a primary goal was finding acceptable, non-political language for scientists.

“One of the most important things we can do,” he says, “is try to find words on which we can all agree.” But Lax’s conception of synthesis, of finding a common language, goes beyond merely helping people of different countries, religions, and philosophies speak to one another. One of his aims as a poet is to try to connect himself and those around him to the universe itself.

“There is something about art that mediates between our individual perceptions and the nature of the universe we live in,” he says when I ask him how writing poetry helps people understand each other or the natural world better. “When we see a painting by Cezanne, we see what he saw in the landscape, his way of bringing that to the canvas and through the canvas to us – we see him in the landscape. All of it opens up the possibility of a sensitivity such as he has when he sees a landscape being awakened in us.

“When two people get to know each other, they begin by liking each other and pretty soon they are able to exchange their most intimate perceptions with each other. In doing that they open up unexplored parts of each others’ souls, psyches, consciousness, and a lot of what happens in human relationships at a private level, an intimate level, happens at a more public level in the field of art.”

So art is an act of love?

“In a sense, yes. Many things that only lovers were able to tell each other before there were books and literature, a writer is now able to tell many people at once. And he can awaken a perception-the possibility of some perception-in people who might not have known that they had it or that it could be shared. I believe that in many ways art is an act of love.”

Because of the importance he places on individual words in his poetry, Lax does not use any word , especially one as potentially loaded as “love,” lightly. “Even among the words I like to use, which are mostly monosyllables, common words, the kind I would talk to myself or my family or friends in, there are not many words I really know the meaning of,” he says. “It was because of this that I began to change the way I wrote poems. I was walking down the street one day and I thought, ‘One stone … one stone … one stone …’ and I began to write a poem like that, really on the street, when I realized that ‘stone’ was one word I pretty much knew the meaning of” The poem that resulted, called, not surprisingly, “One Stone,” was the first of what Lax prefers to call “vertical poetry” rather than minimalist or concrete poetry. It begins simply,

one stone
one stone
one stone
I lift
one stone
one stone
I lift
one stone
and I am thinking
I am thinking
as I lift
one stone

“A poem is really made up of two things,” Lax says. “It is a metaphor that works. And that means for me that it is an image that carries a metaphor. And it is a song, it has a rhythm. If you’ve got a good metaphor that works and it carries an image and it has a rhythm, you can call it a poem. This had all of these things.

“I wanted the words down in a line because you get them one at a time the way you get the images in a film and what I didn’t like about horizontal lines is that you tend to skip over the whole line and only catch maybe two words of it anyway. I wanted to cut it down to those two words and let them hit you.

“All of this was to please myself. I certainly wasn’t trying to invent a new form and startle anyone with it. I don’t like startling people.”

Lax himself is often startled by even mundane aspects of the modern world, like airplanes and motorbikes, the piercing whine of which has become a permanent feature of Greek island life. In 1991, when he was invited to speak at St. Bonaventure College in his hometown of Olean, New York, he refused to fly because of his fear of planes. He ended up traveling on the Queen Elizabeth II, a trip that cost the college more than Lax spends in a year. When we walk down into town together to pick up his mail at the post office, he stops and cowers against a wall each time he hears a motorcycle approach.

Equally startling to Lax, though, is the attention he’s beginning to receive after years of obscurity. In 1996, Grove Press brought out Love Had a Compass, only the second collection of his works to be issued by a major publisher. That same year, “Middle of the Moment,” a film about nomads that features Lax, received strong reviews and played to sizable crowds in Europe. A short time ago, Richard Avedon traveled to Patmos to photograph him. And in February of this year, the Overlook Press published A Thing That Is, the first book of all-new Lax poetry to appear in the United States since the 1960s.

When asked about the growing interest in his work, Lax smiles and shrugs. He shows me a review in which Xialiamodi (Trombone Press, 1995), his recently published chapbook, was described as “refreshingly free of artifice” but lacking enough “sensual descriptiveness.”

“It’s worth hanging around for reviews like this,” he says, laconically suggesting that attention at this late age is pleasing but sometimes vexing, too. H e’s happy to see his poetry more widely circulated, he says, but equally glad to be in a place where he is spared the disruptions increased popularity might bring. After mulling over his publisher’s request to return to the U.S. for a book tour, he decides to decline. “I think I’m better off here, don’t you?” he asks me.

It’s a habit of his: asking advice from anyone who might know – or care – more about practical matters than he does. During my visit he asks what I think he should do about a rotting strip of wood on his door, the neighbor who is digging a new room into the hill beneath his home, and the mice he hears at night in his kitchen. H e lets others – a niece in the States he talks to weekly, the Greek woman who brings him a plate of food at noon and at night, or a younger American friend who lives on the island and checks on him regularly – decide when he should travel or go to the doctor, what he should eat, even what poems he should send to a publisher.

Lax has always been more concerned with spiritual matters and transforming the world through simple artistic acts than daily physical necessities. Merton writes in The Seven Storey Mountain: “…the secret of his constant solidity I think has always been a kind of natural, instinctive spirituality, a kind of inborn direction to the living God.” Lax himself writes in his poem “21 Pages”: “I continue to watch, & that’s what counts. What counts, if anything does.”

What is he watching for?

Opportunities to show what he means by “love” and the few other words he feel s comfortable using. In an untitled poem from a recent book, Notes (Pengo- Verlag, 1996), he sums up the task he has set for himself and anyone who will listen:

turn
ing
the
jun
gle
in
to
a
gar
den
with
out
des
troy
ing
a
sin
gle
flow
er