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:

We are Thy acrobats;
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.

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.
At the thin
Rim of the world
We turn for Our Lady,
Who holds us lightly:
We leave the wire,
Leave the line,
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,
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.