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Robert Lax (1915- 2000) is receiving more than his usual share of attention this year: a series of readings at a non-denominational spiritual retreat in California; a “contemplative performance” of one of his major long poems at the International Thomas Merton Center, and a biography—the first such treatment he’s received—published by Fordham University Press. A trickle, maybe, but when it comes to a figure as habitually neglected as Lax (in 1978, one critic somewhat hyperbolically called him “the last unacknowledged poet of his generation”), anything counts.

It remains to be seen, however, whether a larger influx of attention will do Lax’s verse any good. Stubborn, withdrawn, capable of producing both work of great power and work of great tedium, Lax would have hated to be the subject of a noisy centenary celebration. His poems are singular artifacts in twentieth-century American literature: spare, pared-down evocations and ruminations in which words are stretched out, lingered over and repeated with prayer-like concentration down tremulously thin vertical columns. They frustrate any attempts to read them aloud: do their brief stanzas sound weighty, like rocks hitting the surface of a lake, or thin, like breaths caught and expelled? Often, they simply invite their readers to slowly contemplate the contours of individual articles and nouns:

The
nights

the
nights

the
days

the
days

the
earl
y
dawns

the
eve
ning
glows

In other cases, they produce disarmingly simple, plainspoken kernels of wisdom:

be
gin
by
be
ing

pa
tient

with
your
self

la
ter
you
can
be
pa
tient

with
oth
ers

In a letter to Susan Howe, often excerpted as a concise summary of his poetic theory, Lax suggested in verse that “verticality helps the poet / withhold his / image until / (through earlier / images) the / mind is prepared / for it.” In Lax’s case, though, horizontality was equally helpful. It gave him the chance to cut back and forth from one batch of words to another until two images started to blur with alternation, as in the poems included in 1997’s More Scales

the
breezethe
trees
the
treesthe
breeze
more
breezethan
trees
more
treesthan
breeze

—or in this fragment from Hermit’s Guide to Economics, New Directions’ pamphlet of selections from the writings he produced after moving to the Greek island of Patmos:

my
own
lit
le
house
the
whole
great
world
the
whole
great
world
my
house

Lax was no stranger to the “whole great world,” but he often rendered it—especially in these later poems—as an imposing, distant abstraction. The poems Lax produced from Greece were the natural result of a tendency that had been germinating in him—and in his literary circles—since his student days. Even as a curious, roving young man, he gravitated towards sanctuaries, retreats and places of rest.

In the fall of 1934, when he had just begun his studies at Columbia, a record-breaking typhoon made landfall on Japan’s Cape Muroto, moved on to Osaka Bay, and devastated several cities. In Germany, Adolf Hitler was completing his prolonged consolidation of power. The Bolshevik politician Sergei Kirov, months before being assassinated, was gathering influence and support throughout Soviet Russia. France was reacting confusedly to the far-right insurrection that had shaken Paris that winter. And the short-lived Republican Congress, having splintered off from the IRA, was suffering a dramatic split at its first meeting, which occurred, as it happened, the same day that the SS Morro Castle caught fire just outside New Jersey. If you looked for it, you might have been able to see the steamship’s smoke from Riverside Park, but Columbia was mostly insulated from the currents of political uncertainty roiling outside its gates. While a generation of young political philosophers like Daniel Bell and Irving Howe quarreled over Stalinism in the alcoves of City College a mile to the north, a handful of young artists and writers were encouraging one another’s religious inclinations in Morningside Heights.

It was a remarkable group. Robert Giroux—eventually the final initial of the publishing house FSG—was co-chairing the undergraduate literary journal; at the time, his star writer was a serious young poet named John Berryman. Ad Reinhardt was illustrating the Jester, the school’s humor magazine, for which Lax was both a regular contributor and, eventually, an editor. He worked on the publication with Robert Gibney—a gifted writer who would go on to marry the editor Nancy Flagg and develop a strong reputation as a visual artist—and Thomas Merton, a close friend who was busy observing the group with a sharp clarity of focus and undergoing a slow, deep religious awakening. (The acute evaluations he produced of his friends and classmates would be the center of gravity for several early chapters in his bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain.)

Like most concentrated gatherings of talented young people, this group was cultivated, worldly and ambitious. They wanted to know—and be—people of standing. At the same time, many of them arrived at the school with unusually strong inclinations towards asceticism, quietude and renunciation. Unlike the City College group, they responded to the intolerable state of the world less with strategic calls for political reform than with acts of purification or abandonment. They studied under Mark van Doren, a man who, Merton said in The Seven Storey Mountain, “looked directly for the quiddities of things, and sought being and substance under the covering of accident and appearances.”

Van Doren taught the group to seek out unvarnished essences, and it was in the church that many of them decided those essences could be found. Giroux had Catholic leanings by the time he came to Columbia. Before his suicide at 57, Berryman claimed to have had a spiritual awakening and returned to the Roman Catholicism of his youth. (Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” is a strange mixture of bafflement, reverence and self-effacement, with flickers of touching banality amidst the pious beseechings: “If I say Thy name, art Thou there? It may be so. / Thou art not absent-minded, as I am. / I am so much so I had to give up driving. / You attend, I feel, to the matters of man.”) By the end of the Forties, Lax and Merton were Catholics through and through: In 1941, Merton famously took vows with the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance and relocated to a Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky. Lax, who grew up Jewish and spent some time investigating Orthodox variants of the faith, got himself baptized two years later.

For the first two decades of his adult life after Columbia, Lax kept up a complicated relationship with the secular world, which at once disturbed him, repelled him, and attracted him as a stage for action. He worked an editorial office job at the New Yorker, reviewed movies for Time under James Agee, doctored film scripts for Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood, won renown for The Circus of the Sun, a book of poetry he wrote after traveling Europe with the Alfred Court Zoo Circus, published freelance work as widely as he could, worked as a photographer and co-founded an esteemed Catholic literary magazine called Jubilee. It’s hard, given this resume, to believe Merton’s insistence in The Seven Storey Mountain that Lax’s “whole attitude towards writing was purified of such stupidity [as concern for reputation and success], and was steeped in holiness, in charity, in disinterestedness.” That claim is especially dubious when applied to New Poems, the startling 1962 collection that signaled Lax’s emergence as a major poet. Many of the collection’s poems are prankish and playfully disruptive; they are made by someone who knows just how much of a stir it’s in them to make. One entry consists, in its entirety, of the word “is” repeated twenty-seven times, with three mischievous line breaks, another of the word “never” repeated thirteen times, with none.

What you hear, reading the book through, is a litany of entreaties (“you don’t hate / me / Theo, / do you? // even if / you are / dead // à cause / de ma folie”), formal exercises (“no / no / no // yes / yes / yes // no / no / no”), and, in one case, a sinister song about the concealment of—presumably—a sexually-transmitted disease (“the children lied / to their future / wives; / the wives believed / them / and married them / young”). But another tone was already emerging powerfully, if sporadically, throughout “New Poems,” in passages like the heavy inventory of elements (“fire / water / earth / & air // sky / & sky / & sky / & sky”) and seasons (“summer / autumn / winter / spring // summer / autumn / winter / spring”) that occurs midway through the book. That tone—sober, contemplative, oddly emotionally neutral—came to dominate Lax’s work after what would become the central event of his life. Shortly after the publication of “New Poems,” Lax moved to Greece, where he would live a quiet, secluded existence on a pair of islands—first Kalymos, then Patmos—for the next thirty-five years.

After his move, Lax continued to publish extensively through small presses, gushing out work that struck some critics as a major, idiosyncratic left turn in the course of concrete poetry. His poetic persona, on the other hand, increasingly acquired a fierce, resolute distance from worldly affairs, a kind of childlike dislocation from the impure businesses of human relationships and political engagement. There’s a moment in the Gospels which feels particularly close to his Greek poems: Christ’s petition to God in John 17 for the protection of “those whom you gave me out of this world.” “My prayer,” the passage continues, “is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one”—for “they are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” The version of that credo at which Lax arrived in “The Citizen,” a revealing prose piece included at the end of Hermit’s Guide to Home Economics, has a slightly hipper inflection. “I stand here and smile. Hardly smile. Stand here and stare. Hardly stare. I stand here. I’m here and not here. I’m here but not part of the scene.”

Lax was intelligent enough to know that it was no less a social performance to publicly except yourself from “the scene” than it was to participate in it. The closest he could get to renouncing the world was to, as he puts it earlier in the same piece, “pretend I’m not part of the scene” by occupying “the most inconspicuous part”—by playing the role in which he could have the widest leeway to observe, consolidate and reflect. Lax’s current curator and advocate Paul Spaeth couldn’t have been entirely right when he claimed that Lax “doesn’t write with an eye toward publication but rather writes for the sake of expression.” (He wrote, it seems obvious, for both.) But Lax’s paradise complex is nonetheless the most striking and troubling aspect of the identity he creates for himself on the page in the Greek poems. The source of his poetry’s most disruptive and startling effects, it could also teeter on the edge of a disturbingly passive complacency.

In the world but not of it: it’s as good a phrase as any to capture the obsessively narrow range of focus with which Lax’s Greece poems attend to the rhythms and textures of natural environments. (No phone calls; no day jobs; no worldly distractions.) The extraordinary book-length poem “Sea & Sky” is about a man watching the reflection of sunlight on the surface of the sea. Over pages and pages of slender text, his words pulse, dilate, and glitter after the fashion of light splintered on water and refracted through air. When they reach a stopping point, it’s either by crashing wave-like on the breakers of a stanza or flowing out like driftwood into the open ocean of a page:

the
light

the
light
is

on

the
sea

the
light

is
on

the

sea

It could go on forever, this flow of words, and it threatens to. Lax’s poetic effects need unusually generous degrees of time and space to blossom; his work, as he slyly hinted in a poetic “fable” from 1970, was often to “draw // big / flow / ers … un / til // they / be / come // a / straight // line.” (The phrase—“big / flow / ers”—repeats eight times in the interval, as if to demonstrate the process at work.) It’s a poetry that aspires to extreme concision even as it stretches out. Reading a poem like “Sea & Sky,” even for a reader ignorant of Lax’s close ties with Merton, is likely to feel something like looking out at an expansive world through the narrow window of a monk’s cell. Lax puts the matter differently: “his / words,” we read of the figure at the center of “Sea & Sky,” “were / wove / tight // as / a / bas- / ket // a / bas- / ket // his / bas- / ket // his / bas- / ket // was / wov- / en // of / words.”

To whom, exactly, is that “his” supposed to refer? The protagonist of “Sea & Sky,” whoever he is, moves through the poem generating thoughts to be kept at bay: suspicions, apprehensions, unanswered questions. The poem’s first two lines—“they / groan”—suggest an attitude towards human suffering that is at once distanced and receptive. It’s the province not of an I or a we but of a mysterious they (“the / people / groan”), something to be inquired into like a child might: “why / do / the / people / groan?” You sense that the extreme focus that drives the poem—the way its action all seems to take place within the hollowed-out space of a single moment—comes from a need to resist the tug of that question. “Prais- / ing // this / mo- / ment // with / all / of / his // heart,” it’s said several pages later, “gave / him // heart // for / what // fol- / low- / ‘d.” What “follows” is, as it turns out, simply the work of continuing to praise this particular moment—in order, you suspect, to prolong it indefinitely.

Lax is at his best when—as in “Sea & Sky”—he’s working in an overtly mystical key. (The poem’s publication coincided with the release of Stan Brakhage’s monumental film Dog Star Man, with which Lax’s work has much in common: its reverence towards nature, its loops, accumulations and repetitions, its elemental imagery, its builds and releases.) These mystical poems, however, owe more in their tempo and tone to children’s ditties, folk songs and nursery rhymes than they do to, say, Herbert and Donne; these quirks and tonal contradictions prevent Lax’s poems from coming off as overly Olympian, grandiose, weighed-down. The rhythm of the lines just quoted from “Sea & Sky,” for instance, seems to have been lifted directly from “There’s a Hole in my Bucket,” while one of the poem’s loveliest recurring passages takes its cues from a standard (“Dink’s Song”) in vogue at the time throughout New York’s folk scene:

if
i
were

a
bird

i
would
fly

i
would
fly

out
ov-
er

the
sea

out
ov-
er

the
sea

The Kalymos and Patmos poems, like Pessoa’s Keeper of Sheep or the late poems of Louis Zukofsky, operate on the edges of what language can do. At once seductive and forbidding, these poets either reject anything resembling the texture and cadence of everyday speech (the Zukofsky of 80 Flowers) or whittle everyday speech into a smooth, serrated weapon (Pessoa). In their hands, the words we use no longer sound like ours. They have become devices for a kind of renunciation, or, in Lax’s case, tools for a sacrament.

But comparisons only go so far. Lax never shared Pessoa’s capacity for venomous disavowals—“what do I care about people,” the central figure of The Keeper of Sheep mutters at one point—or made room for the domesticity that runs through much of Brakhage and Zukofsky. His best poems, most of which date from his long period of self-imposed isolation in Greece, are the direct consequences of a radical and, frankly, troubling thought: that one can teach oneself, by simply looking and listening with enough concentration at a neutral presence like the sky or the sea, to drown out the groaning and troubles of the “great world.” The landscape of poems like “Sea & Sky” is precisely the one of which Lax’s Columbia circle dreamed: a purified space in which words would speak directly to “the quiddities of things.” It’s the site of some of the century’s most transporting poems, and also evidence of what it looks like when a poet manages to focus on a single placid moment until its noise is all that he can hear.

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