Lax’s Port City: The Marseille Diaries,

The section of Love Had a Compass entitled Port City: The Marseille Diaries, though it celebrates "the joy/ of being /alone/ and in/ a foreign land" ends up celebrating everyday life, almost as if Lax had to be transported to a foreign land to appreciate the everyday events of life.

Though Lax's vision often reminds me of Whitman's celebration of the self, of everyday man, the style of the poems is almost diametrically the opposite of Whitman's, more reminiscent of e.e. cummings, or, perhaps, even Japanese haiku poets.

However, it's described, the effect of this pared-down style is to force the reader to look at, and consider, each word, an effect that is, in turn, re-enforced by the deliberate repetition of words.

It's difficult to appreciate the effect without reading the entire diary, but:

the morning show

the afternoons

the evening

one town
at many
different
times
of day

at different
times of year

the same
strange town

(the same
short street
which stretched
from end to
end of that
short quay)

a single
string:

a single
taught-stretched
string

(there
where all the
music was
held tight
in that
one-fretted
instrument)

a single street
a single street

was stretched tight
by the waters

to walk
upon
those
stretched-tight
strings was
music

the street

the street
in rain

the early
morning
street

like a
budding
flower

the early
morning
street

like a
budding
rose

is one of my favorites and suggests, when fully seen, the common, everyday street, in rain or shine, contains the potential for beauty if we can but bring ourselves to see it that way.

Perhaps we don't see it that way precisely because we don't give ourselves time to see the beauty. We are so preoccupied with our daily concerns, or so dulled by repeated exposure, that we are unable to see it for what it is.

Take the spaces out of the poem, and see what happens to it:

the morning show the afternoons the evening one town at many different times of day at different times of year the same strange town (the same short street which stretched from end to end of that short quay) a single string: a single taught-stretched string (there where all the music was held tight in that one-fretted instrument) a single street a single street was stretched tight by the waters to walk upon those stretched-tight strings was music the street in sun the street in rain the early morning street like a budding flower the early morning street like a budding rose

Without the spaces, without the pauses, the poem is reduced to gibberish, the same kind of gibberish our lives can be reduced to if we fall victim to the constant barrage of images and news that assaults us every day, an assault that too soon exhausts us, leaving us gasping for air, for space to breathe.

Amazingly, in a world filled with so much ugliness, so many disheartening pictures of human depravity, we can still find beauty in our everyday lives if we but pause "

" and look.

It seems to me that perhaps it is only by pausing that we can reassure ourselves that life can be something better and can regain the strength to actually confront the evil that is within.

6 thoughts on “Lax’s Port City: The Marseille Diaries,

  1. Excellent mapping between the poem and the barrage of information. And that’s a lovely rose photo. I and my poor little digital cannot keep up with you now, Loren.

    Lovely.

  2. Reminds me of a delicious Dreamsicle. I think that’s what they were called when I was a kid, a vanilla ice cream bar with an outside layer of orange sherbet. I won’t eat the flower, but it still makes me hungry.

  3. The photo is luscious; veiny and opulent and sensual; each crenellated petal edging into the air.
    But the POEM? Well…it’s just OK. Its meditative power comes not just from stacking lines the way he did/does, but mainly from the culminating metaphor, which is pretty basic stuff,
    a haiku trick any thoughtful 7th grader can master with some coaching. See Kenneth Koch’s Wishes/Lies/Dreams and the wonderful book of children’s poems titled (I think) Miracles.
    In it, one 3rd grader wrote, “The stars were three-penny bits. The sea/was making a sound/like a silk dress.” Raw perception has that kind of power, eh? For me, this is the distinguishing signal: the words are managed more intently, not merely piled up. Lax does that well: so do Robert Creeley, Robert Bly in some poems; May Sarton; WC Williams; a dozen others. It has a lineage going back to the imagists and I don’t dismiss it. But it has come to seem mannered to me now. I think the best practitioner (the least obvious and most
    capable) was Rexroth, in those poems he did about Tamalpais and hiking in the Sierras.
    Pound in that often anthologized translation pulls it off pretty well (“…and I will come out to meet you/as far as/Cho Fu Sa.” But the delicacy so rarely seems earned; more like a collection of China made by someone else. It is poetry for the shelf, not the ear. I saw that right away in Loren’s re-casting in a prose paragraph. Hard to do that to Kunitz; he’s too
    much the owner of the language. Same with Wallace Stevens. In a poem most Lax-like, he celebrates the blackbird. But look at some others “Postcard from the Volcano” & “Bantam in Pinewoods” will do. The poems are taut, but not mere word piles. I accept the Lax approach…no pun intended…as I accept Sumi painting, a form
    of elegance and grace. But the assembled power of a rich poem has more going for it, I believe.

  4. Mike, I haven’t really drawn any final conclusions about Lax, but I find myself drawing fewer and fewer conclusions about any poets as I grower older.

    I think what I like in Lax, and what I often find in haiku, is the ability to get beyond the words, to point to something that stands behind the words, rather than to get lost in the words themselves.

    Which may, of course, may also explain why I’ve gotten so I almost prefer Sumi to other kinds of paintings.

  5. I love your point about what happens if one removes the spaces.

    After spending a few hours on Lax (not long), these are two wonderful resources: the intro to Love Had a Compass, which you have read, and Karen Alexander’s essay “The Abstract Minimalist Poetry of Robert Lax”. (I know you must not have Lax on your mind right now, but I thought I’d leave the info where another Google searcher might find it.)

What do you think?