My great and beautiful friend, the much-lamented Robert Lax, wrote this in the prologue to his masterwork “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.
Bob, in his life and in his words, strove to lead a simple life of love and devotion and peace. I’m thinking of this today, two days before Christmas, because I’m very aware this year of the simple joys and gifts I possess and will celebrate during this Yuletide.
I think that one reason I’m so grateful this year is that it feels to me like the whole goddamned world is falling apart, disintegrating, like we’re barreling toward oblivion at warp speed and pieces are blowing away as if our heat shield has failed.
But the other day I sat in a church – not a typical place for me to be — and watched and listened as a choir sang traditional Christmas carols. My eyes filled up with tears. Part of it was feeling connected to a nice group of people who are very human in both their frailty and their collective strength, and very welcoming to a relative stranger. Part of it was just feeling the simple power of the hope that still resides in Christmas. And part of it was that I couldn’t take my eyes off one of the altos, who sang with such heartfelt joy that it made me love her even more.
Mostly, though, it has to do with this, which my friend Bob knew and which he taught me: Love is the beginning and the end. It’s as simple as all that.
So I count my blessings…
I’m alive, and in pretty good health. I’ve got three great children, each of them remarkable in their own way. I have caring, devoted, supportive friends. My mother’s going on 81 years old and still shovels snow from her sidewalk and plants a garden every year and still calls me “Nicky.” I’ve got an absolutely beautiful 15-month-old granddaughter who can’t stop smiling and waves to me when we Skype and blows kisses to me over the phone when she can’t see me but can hear my voice. And, no, I don’t have enough money, and, no, the publishing world has not yet recognized my genius, but someday I will, and someday they will, and more important anyway than fame or fortune is the gift of being in love with an incredibly beautiful and gentle woman who loves me in return, and that we’ll be together for Christmas this year.
So, Merry Christmas! I hope you’ll find time to count your blessings, too. Here’s Diana Krall to put you in the mood:
Yes, I’ve got a personal interest. But I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t really believe it:
The just-published novella “Love’s Compass” by Mary McAvoy is a book you should buy and read.
Mary’s got a knack for story-telling, and her well-crafted novella offers deceptively simple but intriguing themes and elegantly-wrought motifs to explore and enjoy, and the book’s also an engaging, thoughtful and provocative look at our society’s social mores and changing views of love and marriage.
Added bonus: The book title derives from the great poem “The Circus of the Sun” by my friend Robert Lax, the great mystic poet. “Circus” begins with this phrase: “Love had a compass…”
Here’s a synopsis of the plot of “Love’s Compass”:
As her young adult children depart from the nest, Liv finds that her husband is drifting away, too. What is pulling him from her at a time when they should be enjoying their lives together? Feeling abandoned and alone, Liv meets and falls in love with another man. “Love’s Compass” tells the story of love discovered at a time when new love is not often experienced. It explores a husband’s quiet exit from a marriage. It examines a woman’s thoughts and feelings as she tries to find her footing in a place that she never expected to be at this point in her life. Love’s Compass is the story of love lost and love found.
Mary has built a web site about “Love’s Compass.” It includes an author biography, links for purchasing the book online via Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and other features. The Amazon site also includes the “Look Inside” feature with actual sample pages of the book.Book-signings will be scheduled in Boston and in the suburbs north and west of Boston (the book is set in Boston’s colorful, artsy and slightly funky South End) – as well as one being planned in Highland Park, N.J.
In the mean time…you know I wouldn’t steer you wrong or point you in the wrong direction. “Love’s Compass” is well worth reading …I hope you’ll order a copy — and then, if you like it, tell your friends (or maybe even order them their own personal copy). And while you’re waiting for your copy of “Love’s Compass” to arrive in the mail, visit Mary’s new blog site and also check out Mary’s elegant and lovely nature essays and photos.
The soundtrack wasn’t the late-night bop sounds of Symphony Sid and I wasn’t driving with one hand while my other hand typed my spontaneous beatific scroll. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s newest album on my stereo and I had one hand on the wheel and my Mapquest directions in the other — but I was indeed on the road, first stop Lowell, Mass., hometown of Jack Kerouac and my destination for a meeting with the folks who have organized that town’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was held last October for the very first time and is already an impressive event.
I arrived early, and so had a chance to explore downtown Lowell, which reminded me very much of my own old home town of Yonkers, N.Y., where even now I can walk around those familiar streets and conjure up visions of the city’s once-bustling business district in the old carpet mill buildings and the old sugar refinery and even the old Herald Statesman newspaper office now converted into a library branch because the newspaper was homogenized and sanitized and standardized and blended until it disappeared. Lowell felt like that, right down to the impressive old Lowell Sun newspaper office, with its big rooftop signs — two of them — spelling out the name of the paper, S-U-N.
I then met with the poetry festival organizers, with whom I’d been put in touch by Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate who teaches in the graduate program at Boston University and was the featured poet at the inaugural festival held last October in Lowell.
(Pinsky was the featured poet at the first annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in 1998 — which I founded and still run in conjunction with River Union Stage of Frenchtown, N.J. — and was good enough to come back to read again in 2007 for the 10th anniversary of our readings in New Jersey, which have also featured such literary lights as Louise Gluck, Pulitzer Prize winner and another former U.S. poet laureate; Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon; National Book Award winner Gerald Stern; and other great poets includling Thomas Lux, Diane Wakoski, Maria Mazzioti Gillan, Joe Weil, BJ Ward, Charles H. Johnson, Stephen Dobyns and many others. The 2009 Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, scheduled for October, will feature yet another great poet — Rita Dove.)
So I met with the Lowell event’s organizers: Michael Ansara, who arranged the lunch, joined by LZ Dunn, who works for the city of Lowell as well as its cultural agency, and Paul Marion of UMass/Lowell. We had a great exchange of ideas and thoughts on ways the Lowell event might be turned into an even greater event than it already is, including the idea of finding ways to connection with the thriving poetry scene in another old industrial city with deep literary roots — Paterson, N.J., associated with a couple of pretty good poets named William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.
I also had a fascinating but all-too-brief talk with Paul Marion, who it turns out has been the mover and shaker behind many of the efforts to properly honor Kerouac in his home town — and was involved in the cataloguing of Kerouac’s correspondence — including letters Kerouac exchanged with the late, great poet Robert Lax, who was my friend and mentor. I knew about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac, who was fascinated by his Zen/Christian minimalist approach to life and art; in fact, I know that Lax was reading some of Kerouac’s novels in the months just before he died; but I was startled to learn during the conversation that Marion was familiar with Robert Lax and was excited to meet someone — me — who had known Lax.
Here’s a photo taken of Lax by Paul Spaeth, curator of the Thomas Merton/Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University, when Lax visited the school in 1990 during a brief sojourn back to the U.S. from his home on the island of Patmos, Greece:
The one downside to the meeting in Lowell: Turns out the 2009 event in Lowell will be held on the same weekend as Rita Dove’s scheduled appearance Oct. 17 at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in New Jersey, so I won’t be able to make it back up to Lowell for this year’s event — here’s hoping I can make it in 2010.
And, because even Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll manuscript had a begininng and had to finally end, so too this post must end. What better way than with a sampling from Jack Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. He listed thirty “essentials.” Here are my favorites:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
I think I remember that…Everyone was wearing those then…
That comment about what everyone was wearing then, including me, referred to a photo in which I was wearing an ugly green parka, probably purchased at a cheap department store. It had a quilted orange-colored inside lining and a hood edged with obviously fake raccoon fur.
A few hours later I heard this song as I was driving in my car: When I left my home and family
I was no more than a boy…
It all came back. It’s a few years after that photo was taken. I’m in my early 20s. I have absolutely no money and can’t find a job. I’m writing poetry. I’m sharing an apartment in Chelsea with two friends. I am so broke that when I get a one-day job as an office clerk through a temp agency, and have to head uptown to pick up the paycheck, I walk the 50 blocks each way because I couldn’t afford the subway fare.
And so the memory of that ugly green parka and hearing “The Boxer” somehow set me to thinking about William Packard.
When I moved to New York City, my friend Robert Lax — the great, saintly poet — told me to look up Packard. Lax wrote to Packard and asked him to be on the lookout for me. Packard — founding editor of the fine literary magazine New York Quarterly, a professor at NYU, a playwright and a poet — was a great bear of a man, capable of writing and speaking boisterous words but just as able to write gentler words expressing fear and doubt and love and regret and hope.
He was a good man. He and I had some engaging and provocative talks about writing and reading and living in some late-night chats at his apartment on 14th Street. And he helped me, just as Bob Lax had asked. Packard helped me get my poems published. He helped me get invited to read some of my poems at venues in Manhattan where I had no right — at least based on my abilities and credentials — to be reading. And one day there was an act of kindness I will never forget. I met up with him at some diner on University Place. He ordered a tuna sandwich. I ordered only coffee. I was so hungry I can’t even describe it — but I could barely afford the coffee. Bill Packard’s sandwich came — and he took half of it, put it on a napkin, and pushed it across the table to me. And never said a word about it.
Packard took photos of writers he met for the first time — writers, as he explained it to me, who might someday be noteworthy. The photos were generally slightly blurry, slight fish-eyed, slightly off-center and tilted. And he took a photo of me — I know he gave me a copy of it, but I don’t know whatever became of it. I’m sitting on a park bench in Washington Square. It’s snowing lightly – flurries — and the flakes can be seen in the picture. I look very cold and very thoughtful — and very hungry and very much at loose ends. And I’m wearing that ugly green parka that everyone wore back then, and the hood’s pulled up tight around my head, and as I peer out at the camera, my face is framed by obviously fake raccoon fur.
William Packard, in his later years, suffered a stroke. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him for a while, but at Bob Lax’s urging I called Packard about 10 years ago. It was a sad, strange conversation — but I did get a chance to remind him of the kindness he had shown me and to thank him for it. He didn’t know if he had a copy of the photo and he’d forgotten all about the sandwich. These things, I was startled to realize, were minor episodes in Packard’s rich and busy life — they were small things to him, I said over the telephone, but they meant everything to me.
There’s a girl I once loved who lived in New England. Through the years I’ve thought of her whenever I’ve heard the Dylan song “Girl from the North Country,” especially the part about wondering whether she remembered me at all and the line about hoping she had a coat so warm to keep her from the howling wind.
I was in New England on New Year’s Day, as it happens, dealing with the howling wind and incredible cold on a mountainside outside of Weston, Vermont, walking across the grounds of the Benedictine priory there, and thinking three things: 1) I’ve never been so goddamned cold in my life; 2) I notice that the goddamned monks aren’t walking around in this weather — they’re in that building over there, all snug around their fireplace while they chant their goddamned Gregorian chant; and 3) There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes.
Here’s a photo of the Weston Priory grounds in winter, looking deceptively calm and peaceful:
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve felt the urge to seek shelter in a church. So wasn’t it ironic — and practical — that I found myself praying….Oh, my God, please let the door of that chapel or at least the visitor’s center be unlocked, even through it’s New Year’s Day, and, God, if the door’s unlocked and I manage to get inside, please, God, let there be heat….Amen.
The door was open. There was heat. There was a comfortable sofa. I sat there contently for an hour, thawing out and reading a copy of The Catholic Worker, the legendary newspaper started by social activist Dorothy Day, who was a friend of both my old friend, the great gentle poet Robert Lax, and Lax’s best friend, the great peacemaker Thomas Merton.
At last I got up my courage, put on my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck, put on my wool hat and gloves, opened the door, and stepped out into the swirling snow. Three riders were approaching, the wind began to howl, and I found myself thinking that it should be the other way around, that heaven should bathe us in divine warmth and that hell should be, well, as cold as hell, and don’t the winds hit heavy on the borderline between faith and doubt, between past and present, between love and the memory of love.
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.
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:
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:
I applied for a writing residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — applications, writing sample, artistic statement, three recommendations — and waited for Oct. 1, 2008, when letters of acceptance or rejection were scheduled to be mailed. And wouldn’t you know it? The freaking letter arrived right on Oct. 1 — in a thin envelope, so I knew, just like when guys like me dare to apply to Princeton, that my residency application had found a new home in Yaddo’s dumpster.
A few days earlier, a guy I know — a cook at the local cafe — had given me a copy of a concert CD –the “Bread and Roses” benefit for prison reform — featuring Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, and a bunch of other folks including Jackson Browne. I left the cafe with my cup of coffee, got in my car, and the CD started playing Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman.”
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place/To get it together…
I’m not quite sure why that resonated right at that moment, but I guess I’ve always felt like I’m searching for some other place. I guess my application to Yaddo had something to do with at least one aspect of that quest — finding some sort of refuge, someplace where where my soul might be possessed (even for only a two-week stay!) or my Yaddo room visited by the ghost of one of the great writers who found inspiration at Yaddo: Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, James Baldwin, Henry Roth, Philip Roth — even Mario Puzo, for God’s sake!
I’m going to reapply to Yaddo. I’m going to apply to the McDowell colony, too. And I’m going to keep applying for fellowships, keep writing on this Web site, keep working on a new novel, keep writing my essays on mortality — and keep wondering why I also find myself thinking about an encounter I had, about a year or two after I graduated from college, somewhere along the New York State Thruway, not all that far from Yaddo.
I think it was around Batavia, N.Y. I’d hitchhiked to Buffalo to see a friend, and now was hitchhiking back to Yonkers — had to get back to work — when I encountered a beautiful, friendly young woman. We stuck our thumbs out together and quickly got an eastbound ride. Something clicked between us, and clicked quickly. I don’t even remember her name, but I do remember that I was enthralled — and oh-so-tempted when she asked if I wanted to go with her to the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, where she lived on some sort of commune. I thought and debated and wavered — she was very beautiful — and had to make up my mind by the time we reached the point where I would either continue heading south on the Thruway toward New York City or head east to the Massachusetts Turnpike and life amongst the hippies with this beautiful hippie girl.
Why don’t I remember her name? Why didn’t I ask her the name of the commune and where it was located? I mean, I could have visited her, right? Why did I choose obligation and responsibility over a life of karmic sex, psychedelic mushrooms and organic vegetables?
I think it was because I realized there was middle course, smack in the middle of deliberation and impulse, between fantasy and reality, between life on a commune with a beautiful blond hippie and the mundane life they used to call the rat race. My friend the saintly poet Bob Lax once told me “Things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. It’s as simple as that.”
What Lax told me is easy to say but more difficult to accept. Stuff happens to make your feel like you just can’t keep going along that yin-yang Zen path of serenity. Your agent hasn’t managed to sell one of your novels. You get rejected by Yaddo. You feel like Everyman…
Here’s an old etching. And here’s a multiple-choice question. This drawing depicts 1) Jackson Browne performing his song “For Everyman”; 2) Nicholas DiGiovanni getting his application rejected by the director of Yaddo or 3) Death summoning Everyman for his encounter with God.
I don’t know if Jackson Browne was familiar with the Everyman morality plays of the Middle Ages. I think he probably meant to use the word in the sense of “common man.” The original Everyman story basically went like this:
God’s complaining that the humans He created are way too caught up in material things and don’t appreciate the real gift He’s given them. So God sends Death to bring Everyman to Heaven to explain himself to God. Everyman tries to bribe Death to give him more time to get his story together. Death refuses this request but tells Everyman he can bring someone with him on his journey to meet his Maker. So Everyman asks Fellowship (meant to represent a person’s friends), Kindred and Cousin (representing family), and Goods (material possessions), but they all fail him or fall short of what he needs. Everyman then approaches Good Deeds and her sister Knowledge, and they go with him to visit Confession. Everyman repents his sins, and Confession presents him with a jewel called Penance and absolves him of his sins. Knowledge gives Everyman a garment called Contrition and Good Deeds rounds up Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Wits to accompany them to the appointment with God. But when Everyman tells them the details of this impending reckoning with the Creator, everyone bails out except for Good Deeds. Beauty and Strength, for instance, can’t be counted on because they leave as people get older. Knowledge can’t come because Knowledge dies once we’re in our graves. All that survives when a person dies is his or her Good Deeds — that’s where the play ends, with a narrator explaining that Good Deeds are all that matter in the end.
I guess. But I’d say the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, love of family and friends, and admitting one’s failings are all important. As for Goods and material possessions…no, they’re not important, but it sure is nice to splurge once in a while — I mean, life’s too goddamn short, as Everyman learned the hard way.
As for unpublished novels and rejections by writing programs …I’ll admit they may not be as important a Good Deeds, Knowledge, Fellowship and all the other characters in that medieval morality play, but I also feel obliged to note that the Everyman tale was written about 500 years before God created Yaddo or even the New York Times Book Review.