Robert Lax is nearly impossible to define. About the time you think you know his style, he introduces an entirely new style or concept.
Generally, his poems I like best tend to use short lines, one word, or even less, long. They are contemplative poems that force the reader to provide much of the content of the poem.
I was a little surprised, therefore, to find that my favorite poem in the first section of Circus Days and Nights was:
THE MORNING STARS
Have you seen my circus?
Have you known such a thing?
Did you get up in the early morning and see the wagons pull into town?
Did you see them occupy the field?
Were you there when it was set up?
Did you see the cookhouse set up in dark by lantern light?
Did you see them build the fire and sit around it smoking and talking quietly?
As the first rays of dawn came, did you see them roll in blankets and go to sleep?
A little sleep until time came to
unroll the canvas, raise the tent,
draw and carry water for the men and animals;
were you there when the animals came forth,
the great lumbering elephants to drag the poles and unroll the canvas?
Were you there when the morning moved over the grasses?
Were you there when the sun looked through dark bars of clouds
at the men who slept by the cookhouse fire?
Did you see the cold morning wind nip at their blankets?
Did you see the morning star twinkle in the firmament?
Have you heard their laughter around the cookhouse fire?
When the morning stars threw down their spears and watered heaven?
Have you looked at spheres of dew on spears of grass?
Have you watched the light of a star through a world of dew?
Have you seen the morning move over the grasses?
And to each leaf the morning is present.
Were you there when we stretched out the line,
when we rolled out the sky,
when we set up the firmament?
Were you there when the morning stars
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
These long, flowing lines with their extended parallel structure seem to have been struck directly from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The ritual of setting up the circus in town after town isn't a just a job, a burden, it is a joy because it is always a celebration of God's firmament. The circus is a microcosm standing for our world where animals and men constantly celebrate God's universe, bringing joy to those who come to watch the celebration.
Though I don't reallly share Lax's romantic view of the circus, I found it impossible not to identify with many of the performers portrayed in these poems and with what Lax clearly sees as their celebration of God and God's miracles. Of course, Lax isn't celebrating just the circus and its performers, but, rather, is celebrating those who celebrate God in their daily work.
For Lax, it becomes clear, there is no separation between everyday existence and God, unless we make that separation ourselves.
In another poem, Lax sees the circus as bringing Eden back to the those who have lost sight of it:
By day from town to town we carry
Eden in our tents and bring its won-
ders to the children who have lost
their dream of home.
If people think they have lost Eden forever, it is not because it is not there, but because people no longer recognize it when they see it.