Robert Lax’s “The Morning Stars”

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
sang together
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.

Robert Lax’s A Thing That Is

I just finished reading Robert Lax's A Thing That Is for the second time, partially because I liked it that much, but also because it's easy to read because it's only seventy-seven pages long, and most of those pages are made up of white space.

In reading this selection, I also have refined my feelings towards his unique style, one that places extraordinary empahsis on individual words. In short, I really appeciate its potential when it's used in a poem like:

be
gin
by
be
ing

pa
tient

with
your
self

la
ter
you
can
be
pa
tient

with
oth
ers

(name
of
the
game

is
pa
tience.)

His style seems like a cross between Japanese haiku and e.e.cummings' poetry, forcing each word to take on a special meaning that it often loses in everyday language.

In a poem like this, the emphasis on patience is reinforced by the very patience it takes to read the poem. The same thing can be said when Lax attempts to write meditative poems, and each word seems like a separate thought strung on a rosary.

Unfortunately, the style seems to me to get in the way in longer poems like "solemn dance," which goes on for eight pages like this:

the
dance
of
the
waves

is
an
order
"d
dance

the
dance
of
the
waves

is
a
solemn
dance
...

Unfortunately, by the time I'd finished the poem I felt like I'd been lost at sea, and it wasn't a comfortable feeling, certainly not one I'd pay $20 for again.

Lax’s A Greek Journal

Robert Lax's Love Had a Compass ends with A Greek Journal, a work that in some ways reminds me of Thoreau's masterful Walden, though it doesn't seem nearly as "finished," nearly as polished. At times I almost feel embarrassed reading it, as if I've walked in on someone's private meditations.

The work is often a simple celebration of the people who Lax meets on his island retreat. Other times it breaks out into pure poetry. And at still other times it seems like the ultimate "blog."

My favorite entries are those, like the following, which examine the very process of journaling:

JULY 22/69

almost as soon as i open the door of the hill-house, i roll the paper
into the machine & bang bang bang

talk somewhat to journal all through the day, knowing that most of
what i say won't actually go into it: that i'll write whatever i write once
i start writing. & that no whole subject probably will ever be covered.
some attempt maybe to lay out in dotted lines a range of the spectrum.
spectrum of what? spectrum if only of my worries. & joys? yeah, yeah,
& of my joys.

sometimes, i have conversations with an imaginary guru, naturally
one who lives inside me. he used to be a psychiatrist: at least in the
old days a lot of my conversations were started with, & a lot of my
problems heard out or resolved by, an imaginary viennese who lis-
tened carefully, often accusingly, & showed me with a few apt tech-
nical phrases how far i had erred in my thinking, or behavior, the
viennese fellow has disappeared; comes back if ever for very short
visits; but has been replaced by chuang tzu (sometimes merton, or
sometimes chuang tzu in merton translation) who tells me other wis-
doms: usually the wisdoms of abstinence & avoidance; of retreat,
prayer & preparation, of non-attachment, of "sitting quietly doing
nothing," of seeking smallness, not greatness, or of seeking nothing
at all.

as i don't think i really understood the "psychiatrist" half of the time,
i'm not sure i really understand "chuang tzu." i respect him though,
don't resent him, as i often did the psychiatrist; feel that he knows i
don't know but that little by little there'll be things i can learn. i pic-
ture him with shaved head, a listener (& yet a practical man), a lis-
tener who appreciates, a listener with humor; a storehouse-but very
light storehouse-of wisdom; made like modern electronic ears of
light, light materials, but of great receiving strength.

what he promotes is wisdom, what he promises is grace. zen wisdom,
perhaps; zen grace, but certainly wisdom & grace.

one feels that all philosophies, Zen, & yoga are ways of approaching
wisdom & "enlightenment"-they are ways of approaching an en-
lightened state in which one's behavior is always or almost always
"spontaneously" right.

to be "enlightened" is not to shine; nor to bring multitudes to the hill
where one sits cross-legged, to listen.

it is rather to know what one is doing (& even, perhaps, to enjoy it).

thus i am glad that they say i am "isichos" & not that they say i am
rich (which i'm not).

they've discerned a direction i've taken, and one which i hope i shall
keep to.

sometimes i've tried to see more than i saw (and have tried to forget
what i've seen).

& sometimes i've tried to see less than i saw (& have tried to forget
what i've seen),

but the world here is whole: whole & large & patient. the longer i stay,
the more patiently i seek, the more, i believe, i shall learn.

here comes the shepherd
& his flock

(out of the shadow
of the rock)

There's much here to explore, and Lax explores the same themes from different viewpoints in this, too short journal. I guess I'll have to see if this was the whole journal or merely an excerpt from it.

It seem to me that at its best this is what bloggers do, talk to that internal voice that resides within, perhaps even at times convincing that voice that he, too, must see the world in a new way. Neither the psychiatrist nor chuang tzu has all the answers on how to live our lives successfully.

I suppose this is why I disagree with Shelley and Dave Rogers when they argue that "we're writing ourselves out of existence. We cease to be people, and instead become characters and plot devices.

We all deceive ourselves, no doubt about that, but only life's events and self-reflection on those events can ever dispel that deception.

Of course, that's not to say that those who use their blog for self-promotion rather than self-enlightenment won't continue to deceive not only their reader but themselves.

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.

Lax’s “Acrobat’s Song”

I just did the most remarkable thing this morning. After spending nearly a hundred dollars on books yesterday, I just ordered another hundred dollars worth from Amazon today. Although I'm less than half way through Love Had a Compass, I just ordered two other poetry books by Lax. I can't remember ever having done that before as it usually takes me a long time to fall in love with a poet.

Quite simply put, I am blown away by Robert Lax's Love Had a Compass. Although jacket blurbs can usually be lightly dismissed as just more advertising, I might actually agree with an excerpt from The New York Times Book Review that states that "Lax remains the last unacknowledged major poet of his post 60's generation."

I read poems excerpted from The Circus of the Sun today, which, in turn, motivated me to order the full book. I'm sure the impossibility of classifying Lax's poetry helps to explain why he is relatively unknown here in America. After all, which school of poets would benefit from promoting his poetry? Lax is hard to classify and his style varies from short, concrete poems to rambling prose poems. At his best, though, Lax reminds me of a Catholic Walt Whitman, celebrating life, as in this closing stanza from "morning:"

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.

This image serves as the unifying metaphor of this section, with the circus, particularly the big top, with the acrobat holding center stage. Although the circus seems to hold a fascination for Lax that it never held for me, reading these poems almost makes me long to once again see a Ringling and Brothers Circus.

Although "Acrobat's Song" is probably not my favorite poem in this section, it could serve as touchstone for understanding the poems in this section:

Who is it for whom we now perform,
Cavorting on wire:
For whom does the boy
Climbing the ladder
Balance and whirl "
For whom,
Seen or unseen
In a shield of light?

Seen or unseen,
In a shield of light,
At the tent top
Where the rays stream in
Watching the pin-wheel
Turns of the players
Dancing in the light:

Lady,
We are Thy acrobats;
Jugglers;
Tumblers;
Walking on wire,
Dancing on air,
Swinging on the high trapeze:
We are Thy children,
Flying in the air
Of that smile:
Rejoicing in light.

Lady,
We perform before Thee,
Walking a joyous discipline,
A thin thread of courage,
A slim high wire of dependence
Over abysses.

What do we know
Of the way of our walking?
Only this step,
This movement,
Gone as we name it.
Here
At the thin
Rim of the world
We turn for Our Lady,
Who holds us lightly:
We leave the wire,
Leave the line,
Vanish
Into light.

Of course, this poem seems even more remarkable when you read it in the context of the other poems in this section, and, in particular, a number of poems that focus on the acrobat, who, though identified with mankind in general, at times seems to be most identified with the artist, the poet.

Though I'm obviously not Catholic, references to "Our Lady" somehow seem to belong here, and lines like

Walking a joyous discipline,
A thin thread of courage,
A slim high wire of dependence
Over abysses.

seem to me to summarize my attempts to live my life as best I can through hards times better than almost anything I've read before.

And the best any of us can hope for is that, when it's finally all over, that

We leave the wire,
Leave the line,
Vanish
Into light.

If you happen to like the kind of poetry I like, though there's certainly no reason why you should, you have to get your hands on a copy of this book.

Robert Lax’s Poetry

My recent literary spiritual journey beginning with New England's Emily Dickinson and ending with Japan's Buson, led me to some relatively unknown places, but none less familiar than Robert Lax's book of poetry entitled Love Had a Compass: Journals and Poetry.

I first encountered Lax's name while searching online for information about Thomas Merton. Two articles in particular "A Visit With Robert Lax '38" and "LAX, ROBERT -- Mystic Poet 1915-2000," inspired me to order a copy of Lax's book through Amazon. The book was backordered, though, and it took me nearly a month to get it. When told it had been backordered, I was tempted to cancel the order, but now that I've finally begun reading it, I'm very happy that I didn't cancel my order.

I suspect my recent haiku readings have made it possible to appreciate Lax in ways I probably wouldn't have been able to when I began reading poetry many years ago, because his poetry is marked by an unusual simplicity and directness.

As edited by James Uebbing, Love Had a Compass consists of a number of short sections that seem to mirror the shortness of the poems themselves. So far I've read the "Introduction," "Occasional Poems," "Three Concrete Poems," "Twenty Five Episodes," and "Fables."

Some of my favorite poems come from "Twenty Five Episodes." The very first one sets the tone for this section:

i.
he sat
on the edge of his bed
all night

day came
& he continued to sit there

he thought he would never be able
to understand
what had happened

I certainly have never have understood what happened. You?

Perhaps somehow it's related to

xi.
the angel came to him & said

I'm sorry, mac, but
we talked it over
in heaven
& you're going

to have to live
a thousand years

A thousand years. How many times would you have to watch politicians send their country's youth off to war just as they sent you off when little more than a child yourself?

How long could you stand to watch the men in the shadows getting rich cashing in on other's misery and poverty, all the while demanding tax breaks for doing so?