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IN THE BEGINNING WAS LOVE: Contemplative Words of Robert Lax Perfect Paperback – September 11, 2015
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Edited by Steve Georgiou. Templegate Press, 2015 Pages, 136. $16.95
Too few of us take the time to really sit quietly and absorb what is present in a piece of poetry. Steve Georgiou, the compiler of this beautiful compact book has gathered gems of meditation and poetry from the works of Lax, a close friend of Thomas Merton and given them a setting that makes it easy to do simply that: sit quietly and absorb. After the first page we are aware that we have in our hands a unique and precious treasure.
In his poetry, prayers and short meditations, Robert Lax provides us with breathing spaces and “interruptions” that provide precisely those moments needed to enter into the meaning of the word and the Meaning of Life. Reading Lax’s poetry we are suddenly aware of our waste of words, how we seek to express less with more instead of more with less. He is a poet of the unspeakable and a mystic of the inexpressible experience of God with which God favors those who love him. We can be grateful to the editor who gives us an introduction to this kind of mysticism in small enough portions to delight but not overwhelm us. Instead we feel the need to read them over and over again to relive the impact of a few words. Thanks to Steve Georgiou, the editor, for a beautiful book. He is also the author of an award-winning trilogy which includes the well-known “Way of the Dreamcatcher,” along with “Mystic Street” and “The Isle of Monte Cristo.”
Steve Georgiou has gifted us something special in bringing together these selections and in introducing the collection so thoughtfully.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS LOVE, published in an inexpensive trade paperback edition by Templegate, serves as a perfect companion to Georgio's prior Lax trilogy, especially the first and finest: THE WAY OF THE DREAMCATCHER: SPIRIT-LESSONS WITH ROBERT LAX, POET-PEACEMAKER-SAGE (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 2010).
Lax grew up along the New York--Pennsylvania border in Olean, in New York's “Southern Tier,” near St. Bonaventure University. (He died in his hometown at 84, after a long life spent as a literary “solitary”). He attended Columbia University and graduated in 1938, where he interacted with artistic and literary geniuses such as Ad Reinhardt, Thomas Merton, Edward Rice, Robert Giroux, James Loughlin and John Berryman (all beneficiaries of the great mentor Mark van Doren). Lax converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1943, following an extensive study of St. Thomas Aquinas and dialogue with his Columbia classmate and “soul-friend,” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (who converted to Catholicism upon graduation from Columbia in 1938 and entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941).
This expertly introduced anthology of Lax’s contemplative poetry, with a foreword by Merton scholar Jonathan Montaldo, reflects the mature vision of an avant-garde poet who withdrew from a radio job in Olean; quit teaching positions at the University of North Carolina and Connecticut College; left editorial slots in Manhattan with THE NEW YORKER and JUBILEE; abandoned a writing post in Marseilles, France; shadowed a circus in Canada; and, spent his final decades living as a literary “solitary,” first on the Greek isle of Kalymnos and later on Patmos, the traditional home of “St. John the Divine” (taken as the site of the final book of the New Testament, REVELATION).
Georgio subtitles the anthology as “CONTEMPLATIVE WORDS OF ROBERT LAX.” It complements the earliest treatment of Lax, Thomas Merton's THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN (published in 1948 and never out-of-print, with over three million copies published in 28 different languages). Georgio visited Lax on Patmos several times, photographed him extensively and corresponded with him. A selection of captioned photos, footnotes and facsimiles of Lax’s concrete linear and other poetry penned in his own hand round out the text. To borrow a phrase from Lax’s own poetry, S. T. Georgio’s latest publication offers “portals to the land of dusk,” the “melancholy gaze” with which he viewed the circus in his first book.
For Lax aficionados and those who seek to encounter him for the first time, this volume serves as a perfect introduction, in addition to James Hartford’s MERTON AND FRIENDS: A JOINT BIOGRAPHY OF THOMAS MERTON, EDWARD RICE AND ROBERT LAX (NY: Continuum, 2006) and the recently-published Michael N. McGregor, PURE LIFE: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX (NY: Fordham University Press, 2015).
Georgio presents the prayerful simplicity, transparency and metaphysical dimensions of one of the most creative and accomplished poets of recent memory. As the Italian publisher Francesco Conz described Lax, a pioneer of minimalist poetry: “He will be remembered as the last of the mystics of the former epoch,” a pilgrim, prophet and poet (< THE ABCs OF ROBERT LAX, edited by David Miller & Nicholas Zurbrugg (Exeter: Stride, 1999), p. 218.
Lax's poetry reveals a window into the later years of his self-imposed exile as a solitary on Kalymnos and Patmos:
“Nobody knows what makes a man a prophet,
He usually doesn’t want to be one anyway.
God builds a fire in him; then he begins
to do the things a prophet does,
and to be what a prophet is.
He works at every moment with the Holy Spirit;
he learns to choose. He watches and listens;
not to every sight and sound,
but to the sight that is a sign,
the sound that is a whisper of the Lord.
sometimes it seems as though the island were a
school of thought; as though there were living,
somewhere in the mountains, an invisible zen-
master who kept everyone on beam” (47).
Several choice nuggets highlight the text [with Lax’s own spelling, punctuation and usage preserved [numbers refer to the individual poems (unpaginated)]:
“Wisdom danced also in circles, for these where her kingdom: the sun spun, worlds whirled, the seasons came round, and all things went their rounds; but in the beginning, beginning and end were one” (1).
“learn to be a fisherman? learn, slowly, to be wise” (16).
“what I learned from henry miller and then forgot:
dive in and swim” (18).
“a hermit’s work is never done...” [A minimalist poem displayed over poems numbered 35-36].
“what are the things that keep us apart
they have a thousand names” (37).
“There was a hermit who lived in the woods...
How did his work relate to his prayer?
The work took its rise from prayer and returned to prayer.
The work itself was prayer and was informed by prayer.
There was no conflict between work and prayer if conflict arose,
it was resolved by prayer.
It was resolved (turned around from conflict to resolution) in the poet’s--
full dedication to contemplation prayer:
to union with God” (41).
Two lovely poems on the Psalms: (nos. 46 and 56).
“i have listened to all the desires of my heart. i have
not bounded off on every suggestion (i have
bounded off on some; perhaps on too many). but I
have listened to all my heart has to say; have
allowed it to speak its own language.
when it speaks again, i will listen” (50).
“our identity is bound with our memories: wash away
memory and identity disappears...
only to reappear again with our next action.
I remember the people I lived (who have died) or
who've just disappeared-- remember their traits
as though it were a sacred duty” (60).
“just leave me alone in a quiet place, in a kind of vacuum,
and it will all come clear” (68).
[Reminiscent both of Merton’s account of Lax in THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN and of Lax’s own writing on the circus, which he first encountered as a child in Upstate Olean, and in conjunction with the Cristiani Family Circus, with which he traveled in Canada in 1969 and documented in his three greatest circus poems: “Circus of the Sun”; “Mogador’s Book”; and, “Sunset City”; cf. Robert Lax: Circus Days & Circus Nights (NY: The Overlook Press, 2009 edition); and, Robert Lax: Poems (1962-1997) (NY: Wave Books, 2013 edition)]:
“as a child I had a recurrent fantasy of watching a
miniature town (or was it a circus?) that lived
under water-- that lived, now i remember, under
<<waterglass>> --a miniature world that was a
“I had a friend, a Hindu monk named
bramachari, whose monastery near Calcutta
was called Sri Angan, which he translated as
<<The Playground of the Lord>>.
That is the key to the whole matter,
the monks playing joyfully and decorously
before the Lord, praise the Lord.
The playground, though sown with tares,
is a reflection of Eden. I think there
can be a <<Circus of the Lord>>.
For we are all wanderers in the
earth, and pilgrims. We have no
permanent habitat here. The migration
of people for foraging and exploiting can
become, with grace, in (the latter days)
a traveling circus. Our tabernacle must
in its nature be a temporary tabernacle.
We are all wanderers on the earth, but
only a few of us in each generation
have discovered the live of charity,
the living from day to day, receiving
our gifts gratefully through grace,
and rendering them, multiplied
through grace, to the giver” (72).
S.T. Georgiou, one of Lax's personal students, compiled some of Lax's notes into a simple but powerful little book. We can follow Lax's explorations of the sea, the days and nights, the peoples - Creation itself. Lax is always playing, praying and Georgiou catches the essence of this prayer in these carefully chosen poems, drawings, and photographs.
I will turn to this book again and again.