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.
To get an answer to that question, I guess readers of these essays will have to wait and see. Come to think of it, so will I.
November was frantic and December was chaotic and January so far has been…What’s a good word?….Ominous? Apocalyptic? Nostradamussy? Did I just invent a new word? The economy collapsing all around us…layoffs and a just-announced one-week furlough without pay at my own job…probably a big friggin’ meteor heading toward us from behind the blinding sun…wars and rumors of war…icebergs melting…Old Faithful no longer so faithful…publishing world still hasn’t recognized its obligation to publish “Half Moon” and “Gloryville” and “The Dogs of Arroyo” by Nicholas DiGiovanni… it’s like Dylan sang back in the 1990s because he knew this was all gonna come down like a hard rain a-faillin’…ain’t no use jivin’…ain’t no use jokin’…everything is broken.
So that may explain why, much to my surprise and chagrin, I’ve paid only about a half-dozen visits to my very own World of Wonders in the last two months. But now that’s going to change.
Spring training’s right around the corner, maybe the meteor will miss us, Obama’s about to become president, and Dylan’s still touring, and things just have to get better, right? So here’s some of what I’m going to write about and I hope you’ll want to read about in coming days:
Poets Joe Weil, Maria Gillan and Rita Dove. Dylan expert Michael Gray. My latest quests for arts-colony invitations and arts-foundation money (and why is it that I just now realized the similarity between “arts colony” and “ant colony). Ray Bradbury. Niagara Falls. The future of newspapers. Puerto Rico. Louise Gluck and her recent great poem in the New Yorker. Extremely cold weather. New Year’s Eve in Vermont and a January 1st visit to the Weston Priory. A commentary on Thomas Merton’s relationship with his lady friend. More about my much-missed friend Robert Lax. More reasons why I want someone to offer me a job in Vermont. An account of a dinner conversation in which I explained to my wife why I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton. Musings (I’m being inspired by the Muse) on the nature and meaning of true friendship. A long overdue report on a bunch of fine writers I got to meet at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival this past October. Some (I hope) catholic commentary about the Catholic Worker movement. Some talk about books I’ve read recently. Some thoughts on recent and upcoming books by writer pals Steven Hart. Christian Bauman and Bathsheba Monk. Further explanation of why I’d like to live forever, even if that meant outliving all of my friends and family. Thoughts on whether I really do remember being in my mother’s womb. Thoughts on whether my late father and other dead people I once loved really do speak to me in my dreams. And, most important, of all, my thoughts on the Yankees’ acquisition of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.
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: