I suspect it would be difficult to immerse myself in Robert Lax’s spiritual milieu as I’ve done recently and not find more spiritual references in his poetry than I found the first time I read it, or, at the very least, not to pay more attention to those elements than I did the first time. In rereading his poems, I didn’t find too many religious references that I hadn’t noted the first time I read them, but the references did seem much more significant to me than they did on a first reading.
The most Christian of his poems ,“The Circus of the Sun,” is often described as his “masterpiece.” I must admit that the more I read it, the more I like it. I might even go so far as to argue that it was the next generation’s answer to the Lost Generations’ dystopic view of the world, the view that dominated much of 29th century literature. In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton said that Joyce’ s The Portrait of an Artist convinced him to join a monastery. Like Merton, Lax’s poetry stands directly opposed to the views of The Lost Generation. “Circus of the Sun” seems to imply that Eden is constantly reinvented and that we can even manage to live there if we maintain the proper balance.
Unlike Merton, Lax joined a circus, not a monastery. You might have to be as old as I am to understand the appeal of the Circus. Even though circuses were on the way out even when I was a child, I do remember the excitement of watching an old-fashioned circus come to town, watching the elephants set up the tents, playing the carnival games and then attending a bigtop show in the evening. As a child I read stories of unhappy children running away from home to join the circus and having experienced the magic of a bigtop I could identify with that desire.
There was something magical about watching an empty field suddenly be transformed into a thriving carnival, and Lax identifies this transformation with an earlier act of creation:
In the beginning (in the beginning of time to say
the least) there were the compasses:
whirling in void their feet traced out beginnings and endings, beginning and end in a single line. Wisdom danced also in circles for these were her kingdom: the sun spun, worlds whirled, the seasons came round, and all things went their rounds: but in the beginning, beginning and end were in one.
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.
The concept of circles and spheres is inherent in almost all the earliest religions but also seem central to Lax’s philosophy, particularly spheres. Since Love is also central to his vision, it’s not surprising to see him to see him tie the two together in the phrase “Love made a sphere.” In The Way of the Dreamcatcher when Georgiou asks “And how do we nurture and sustain?” Lax replies, “Through unconditional love. That’s the bottom line, son. Everything is here because of love. That’s why we were created — to love, and creation was set up to make love possible. Love keeps things going, not just for now, but for forever. Love gives life and makes sure what’s around today will be around tomorrow. It’s about compassion, it’s what the cosmos best responds to…” It’s probably not entirely coincidental that “compass” and “compassion” have the same etymological root.
After watching the tents set up, the poet remarks:
We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the ﬁeld the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation. We were there on
that day and we heard Him say: Let there be light. And
we heard Him say: Let the firmament be; and water, and
dry land, herbs, creeping things, cattle and men. We were
there in the beginning for we were there in the morning
and we saw the rising of the tent and we have known how
it was in the beginning. We have known the creation of
the firmament: and of the water, and of the dry land, and
of the creatures that moved in the deep, and of the crea-
tures that moved on the land, and of the creation of men:
the waking of acrobats. We have known these things from
the beginning of the morning, for we woke early. We rose
and came to the ﬁeld.
The key metaphor here is contained in the lines: “We were/there in the beginning for we were there in the morning/ and we saw the rising of the tent and we have known how/ it was in the beginning.” The lines that originally surprised me, though, were: “of the creation of men:/ the waking of acrobats.” Why did Lax identify just the acrobats with the “creation of men?” Was it just that they are the stars of the bigtop, or was it something else that defined them as “men?”
Two later poems help us sense why Lax thinks the acrobats are “His chosen people.”
They lie in slumber late, the acrobats;
They sleep and do not know the sun is up.
Nor does the Lord wake them,
Nor do the sun’s rays touch them.
And the Lord, who has chosen them
The Lord, who created them,
Leaves them in slumber until it is time.
Slowly, slowly, His hand is upon the morning’s lyre,
Makes a music in their sleeping.
And they turn, and turning wonder
Eyes awake to light of morning.
They rise, dismounting from their beds,
They rise and hear the light airs playing
Songs of praise unto the Lord.
The circus is a song of praise,
A song of praise unto the Lord.
The acrobats, His chosen people,
Rejoice forever in His love.
One thing that seems to set the acrobats apart is that they awake to a “song of praise,/ A song of praise unto the Lord.” And, of course, knowing that they are “His chosen people,” they “Rejoice forever in His love.”
The greatest acrobat of all is Mogador and Lax makes it clear what makes him so special:
Mogador comes down the ﬁeld.
“There he is!”
He walks the earth like a turning ball: knowing
and rejoicing in his sense of balance:
he delights in the fulcrums
and levers, teeter-boards, trampolines, high-wires,
swings, the nets, ropes and ring-curbs of the natural
Beneath his feet the world is buoyant,
thin and alive as a bounding rope.
He stands on it poised,
a gyroscope on the rim of a glass,
sustained by the whirling of an inner wheel.
He steps through the drum of light and air, his
hand held forth.
The moment is a sphere moving with Mogador.
“He walks the earth like a turning ball.” A turning ball makes a “sphere,” the same kind of sphere that love made. Naturally the greatest acrobat of all must have the best sense of “balance,” the same kind of dynamic balance that a “gyroscope on the rim of a glass” sustains. Equally important, like all acrobats, “the moment is sphere moving with Mogador.” Three hundred feet up in the air you either focus on the moment or you fall. “Be here, be now” is more than just a cliche′ to an acrobat; it is the essence of life.