There’s a children’s book by Tomie de Paola titled “The Clown of God,” about St. Francis of Assisi. My late friend Robert Lax might have been “God’s Acrobat.”
Here’s a little bit of Lax’s great and beautiful poem book-length poem, “Circus of the Sun:”
“And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere; all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a sphere of love in the void; in the center thereof rose a fountain.”
Robert Lax, The Circus of the Sun, 1959
Every year at this time of the year I think of my friend Lax. He was a kind, smart, gentle, simple man. He was a poet and a mystic, and maybe even a saint.
His birthday was November 30. I remember Lax’s reaction — sort of like “Well, of course!” – when I told him our birthdays were just a day apart.
During ensuing years, Lax did all sorts of things — ranging from working as a script writer for a Hollywood B movie to working on the staff of The New Yorker to taveling with a traveling circus. The last adventure yielded his greatest and most beautiful book, CIRCUS OF THE SUN, in which the morning through evening routine of this small traveling circus becomes a big lovely inspiring metaphor for creation.
Bob was born in 1915, in Olean, N.Y. At Columbia University, he became best friends with Thomas Merton, later known around the world for his best-selling autobiography THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN, which described his conversion to Catholicism and decision to become a cloistered monk. Merton gained a wide reputation for his passionate spirituality, his efforts for peace and civil rights, his essays and poems, and his exploration of the links between Christianity and other religions, especially Zen and the Eastern religions. A few years after Merton’s conversion, Lax — who was Jewish — also became a Catholic. He was very involved with Dorothy Day and her Catholic Workers movement and also founded an edited a one-page poetry journal called PAX.
Lax, in the early 1960s, moved to Europe and eventually settled on the Greek island of Patmos, home of St. John the Divine (author of the Book of Revelation). Lax lived in a small house with his cats, was venerated by the people who lived on the island, and as the years passed came to viewed as a sort of saint or kind of prophet who traveled from around the world to meet this weird gentle mystic in the flesh.
Lax died eight years ago at age 84. That’s stunning for me to think about — Bob would now be in his early 90s.
Toward the end of his life, he got some big recognition at last, with publication of various selected and collected poems by New Directions and Grove Press (with author photo by Richard Avedon!) But he always had a small but fanatically loyal readership and his poems were regularly published by small presses and magazines around the world. A few critics placed him right up there with the best of the post-World War II American poets. His poems, just like his life, became more simple and pared down as the years went by — Lax’s genius packed power and feeling into deceptively simple words, which became something like prayers, something like chants, something like wordless poems, which was probably his ultimate unattainable goal.
My friend Phil Gnatowski gets credit for first encountering Bob Lax, at a place called Artpark in Lewiston, N.Y., where Bob was poet-in-residence for a couple of summers. I remember Phil telling me that I absolutely had to hear and meet this crazy poet who looked like a prophet who had just wandered in from the desert.
Sure enough, Lax was that and more. He and I hit it off immediately, for some reason, and I spent hours up there at Artpark, talking to Lax and walking along the shore of Lake Ontario, talking about writing and Merton and religion and death and life and Bob Dylan and Kerouac (who was a friend and admirer of Lax) and what it means to be a writer.
One vivid, fond memory of that summer with Lax: Standing with him and watching a “performance artist” whose art involved digging a hole, getting into the hole, and asking people to pick up shovels and fill in the hole until the artist was buried up to his neck. After that, the audience was invited to bombard the artist with insults and taunts. Lax laughed heartily when I suggested that we might help the artist achieve artistic nirvana by hitting him over the head with one of the shovels.
Another memory of that summer: Sitting in a bar with Bob — who seemed to me to be a very old man; I realize now that he was only about 60 years old — and asking him what he thought of Bob Dylan. Lax’s smiling response: “Yes, the ghost of ‘lectricity HOWLS in the bones of her face!” He went on to tell me about meeting a young Dylan at the Kettle of Fish in the Greenwich Village, and the ambitious, eager young poet showing him the hand-written lyrics to a “poem” called “Blowin’ in the Wind!”
One more memory of that summer: Lax chuckling in appreciation when, at one of the open readings held once a week during that summer, I read a now long-lost poem I’d written, a parody of Lax’s deceptively simple style.
Lax returned to Greece at the end of that summer. He returned to America just a couple of times but I never did see him again. However, Bob and I continued our friendship, with letters and writings and photos exchanged for twenty years, with a few gaps but pretty consistently exchanging writing and thoughts, and telling each other the latest news, with Bob constantly telling me to just keep doing what ever I was doing, because that was what was meant to be, and to just keep writing what I wanted to write, because eventually my writing would find the readers it was meant to find.
Some of the Lax/DiGiovanni letters, it thrills me to say, are tucked into a file drawer at the Merton/Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, where someday some researcher looking into Bob Lax will stumble upon my portion of the huge collection of correspondence and wonder who the hell was this DiGiovanni guy?
I feel the same way about Lax as Lax said he felt about his departed friend Merton, who died in a surreal electrocution accident while he was on a tour of the Far East in the late 1960s. Lax said he still felt Merton’s presence. He said not much had changed in their friendship except that Merton was a less reliable correspondent.
Yes, I still feel Bob’s presence and still miss him.
So here‘s a birthday gift from Bob Lax. One of his greatest poems:
if you were an alley violinist
and they threw you money
from three windows
and the first note contained
a nickel and said:
when you play, we dance and
a very poor family
and the second one contained
a dime and said:
i like your playing very much,
a sick old lady
and the last one contained
a dollar and said:
stand there and play?
walk away playing your fiddle?
And I began with an excerpt from “Circus of the Sun” so let’s end with another excerpt from “Circus of the Sun,” coming full circle, which is a very Laxian thing to do:
Now in the south, the circus of the sun
Lays out its route, lifts the white tent,
Parades the pachyderm,
And pins the green chameleon to the cloth.
Coffee-mists rise above the gabbling cook-tent;
Aerialists web above the tumblers’ ring;
In flaming silk, the acrobat,
The wire-walking sun.