God’s Acrobat

 

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.

 

Robert Lax
Robert Lax

 

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.

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.

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 traveling 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.

 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, and as the years passed came to viewed as a sort of saint or kind of prophet by people 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 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 with Bob 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 meant to be a writer.

One vivid, fond memory of that summer of 1976: Standing with Bob Lax 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:

ALLEY VIOLINIST

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

sing, signed

a very poor family

 

and the second one contained

a dime and said:

i like your playing very much,

signed

a sick old lady

 

and the last one contained

a dollar and said:

beat it,

 

would you:

 

stand there and play?

 

beat it?

 

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;

Behold!

In flaming silk, the acrobat,

The wire-walking sun.

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Huckleberry friends

Yes, I’m sentimental. For instance, I just heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” in which a son is telling his father that he’s leaving home, that it’s the only way to end their constant quarrels, that maybe the problem is that they’re too different from each other — and too much alike.

So I found myself getting a little teary as I listened, thinking that I hope my son and I never part ways like the father and son in that song. Well, that’s not too bad, right? I mean, we’re talking about a powerful, emotional song by Bruce Springsteen.

But what about getting a little choked up every I watch the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when everyone brings George all that money and his hero brother even flies home through a blizzard? What about getting a little choked up when Ralph sells his bowling ball to buy Alice a present and the finds out that Alice has been secretly working to earn money to buy Ralph a new bowling bag?

My problem may be genetic. I can remember sitting with my mother watching an old movie on TV, I think when I was in high school, and the two of us sat sniffling as we watched the old Greer Garson tearjerker, “Stella Dallas.” And the other day, as I scanned the channels on my Sirius/XM radio receiver, what did I encounter but “Moon River,” performed by Mantovani and his orchestra! My father loved that sappy but beautiful song, and he owned the “Moon River” record albums by Mantovani and by Andy Williams.

An aside: I have a bootleg recording of an early 1990s Dylan concert in which he announces that his next song’s dedicated to a friend who just died: the song Dylan sang was “Moon River” and the departed friend was the great bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan.

So I’m a sentimental fool, just like my father, and that song “Moon River” still resonates so much in my mind that my novel “Half Moon” ends with the narrator’s parents standing on a hilltop, and a half-moon rising, and a single moonbeam shining down like a spotlight as the young couple dances to the strains of “Moon River.”

Another aside: There are two famous songs with mysterious references I’ve never been able to figure out.

I’ve asked people, I’ve researched, I’ve Googled. but I’ve never found the meaning of the phrase “buckdancer’s choice,” which is from my favorite “Grateful Dead” song “Uncle John’s Band.” A buck dance may be synonymous with buck-and-wing, which is type of solo tap dancing associated with the South. But what’s a buckdancer’s choice?

And the other mystery is the meaning of the phrase from “Moon River,” in which the singer addresses “my huckleberry friend.” Is it a reference to actual berries? I think there’s really a berry called the huckleberry, right? Is it a reference to the novel “Huckleberry Finn?” Is it a reference to Huckleberry Hound?

I’ve read a few suggestions that the Moon River in the song may refer to the Mississippi River, that the song’s singer may actually be Huck’s friend loyal companion Jim, that the phrase “huckleberry friend” may actually refer to Huck Finn’s simple, dreamy view of life, while the whole song expresses the slave Jim’s dreams of escape and freedom.

I personally think this is incredible nonsense — amusing, but nonsense nevertheless. We’re talking about a song written by Johnny Mercer for the film version of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and I’d say it’s a durned fer stretch to connect Jim and Huck via “Moon River” to a movie starring the elegant Audrey Hepburn. In fact, it’s enough to make a body ashamed of the whole human race.

But, my huckleberry friends, it doesn’t really matter what it’s supposed to mean. What matters is what it means to me, when I hear “Moon River,” and I can still see and hear my father singing along as his Mantovani album spins on the turntable of his beloved hi-fi record player.

Pax et bonum

Approaching the winter of my discontent, I find myself thinking more often about the springtime of my life, and yes, you’re right, that sounds disturbingly like one of John-Boy’s mawkish opening voice-overs for “The Waltons,” and so I’ll get a grip right now and get right to my point:

I never knew the name of the order of nuns who operated the grade school I attended in Yonkers, N.Y., the now-defunct Our Lady of Mount Carmel-St. Anthony School on Linden Street.

Occasionally those days will come to mind, and I’ll remember classmates and teachers, and I’ll wonder what ever became of them, but I’ll leave it at that — still wondering.

This time, though, I actually acted on my wondering, wandered through the Internet a little bit, doing Google searches for nuns and Yonkers and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, sent off an emailed inquiry to a promising address, and, behold, I have received tidings of great joy — unto me, surely, has come an email from Sister Suzanne Fondini, provincial of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters, who tells me that sisters from her order did, indeed, open, operate and teach at my old grammar school.

I emailed her back just now, thanked her, and told her I was among the first group of pupils in the school’s first year — it opened with only first through fourth grades, adding one grade and one teacher per year until it reached eight grades; so I was in the first third-grade class and in the second class of graduating eighth-graders. I asked about a few teachers I remembered — Sister Aileen, who I heard a few years ago was doing some kind of mission work in lower Manhattan, and Sister Carmine, our fifth-grade teacher who told us a memorable story, over the course of a full school year, about one her former pupils, a boy named Carl, and his valiant but losing battle against leukemia.

Here’s hoping I hear more from Sister Suzanne about my former teachers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel-St. Anthony School.

The school’s clumsy name had to do with the fact that there were two “rival” Roman Catholic churches in the neighborhood, literally a block apart. One (St. Anthony’s) was started on Willow Street in the late 19th century or early 20th century by an early wave of Italian arrivals in Yonkers. The other (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) was started maybe in the 1920s, and was bigger, and had a larger congregation, and was where my father was baptized and my parents had their wedding, and was on Park Hill, a few blocks up from Waverly Street, where my father grew up and where my Italian grandparents lived for more than 50 years. Waverly was a block away from Linden Street, where my old school was located until the New York diocese shut it down a few years ago.

Anyway, one last thought: Pax et bonum.

Sister Suzanne ended her note with those traditional Franciscan words of greeting and farewell, supposedly used by St. Francis of Assisi himself to begin and end his sermons. The Latin words mean “Peace and all good (be with you).”

To which I respond to Sister Suzanne: Et cum spíritu tuo.

Nicholas DiGiovanni’s 116th Dream

The title is a reference to an old, early song called “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” — which song has absolutely nothing to do with what’s on my mind, except that last night I listened to Dylan’s masterpiece, “Series of Dreams,” and that set off a series of thoughts, one of which was that Dylan’s got a bunch of songs in which he refers to dreams. There’s also “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” There’s the one just called “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” There’s that song about Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, which always sounded to me like one episode in an endless dream. There’s the song from “Planet Waves” called “Never Say Goodbye,” which the stanza that goes: My dreams are made of iron and steel With a big bouquet Of roses hanging down From the heavens to the ground.

Three thoughts about dreams.

1) I hardly ever remember them, at least not for long. Sometimes, when I awaken, I’ll remember a dream I had, and I’ll think to myself that I’ve got to write down that dream or tell someone about it. But I always get distracted by the waking world and quickly forget the details of my dreams.

2) I do have this general sense of my dreams. They’re scattered and disconnected — but somehow that very characteristic is what makes them feel connected, like a series of dreams, all of these weird snippets, unrelated episodes, unreal images, people I’ve known or know who’ve never even met but somehow all live together intimately in my dreamworld.

3) Dylan’s big bouquet of roses hanging down from the heavens to the ground sounds to me more like it should be a vine. Vines can be used to climb up as well as down. The air gets thinner but the scent of roses gets more intense. As we climb, our hands are bloodied, blood as red as a red, red rose, from grabbing and gripping the thorns.

Dreams are our souls climbing up the vine that takes us back home, leads us back at last to lost Eden.