Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
By Michael N. McGregor
Fordham University Press
472 Pages, $34.95
At the Circus, at the Spectacular Circus that his father declared singular, the youthful poet Robert Lax saw around the Circus the great seasons of the sky and the individual triumphs beneath it. Lax determined that this was what he wanted. When he went to work under the Big Top during his mid-30s, Lax learned just what else the Circus stood for – the joy of achievement, the broad acceptance of diversity, good cheer during hard times, and a generous welcome.
Such, too, is the culture of the squadron, and the sisters in cloister, and classmates in college -- where people bond and don’t forget. They watch each other’s backs. They rescue friends in need.
Michael N. McGregor’s story about his experience with Robert Lax is called “Pure Act,” a definitive title, described by “The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.” The Circus is the perfect touchstone and metaphor.
The metaphor of The Circus was never lost on Lax. He marked its three rings and the impossibilities each held. He rejoiced in the extremes of its differences, and he held sacred the daily achievement of an Ultimate Triumph. After 20 years of false starts, Lax’ break-through book was called “Circus of the Sun,” designed and published in 1959 by Emil Antonucci, founder of Journeyman’s Press in New York. Lax then was 44 years old.
The poet grew up in Olean, born in 1915. His father was a clothier, who moved between Olean and the New York City area, and died early, though not before his delight in all people and his calm confidence in silence were shared with young Bobby. The Lax family was related to the Marcus family, who for generations owned an elegant 225 room hotel in the small city’s downtown.
Robert Lax next found home at Columbia University (Class of 1938), and he found it with gifted classmates of his era -– men with whom he worked on the school’s literary magazine, “The Jester,” which Lax edited. The Jester team included Thomas Merton, who became the most prolific Catholic scholar and writer of his century; Ad Reinhardt, the bold artist who declared “the end of art” with his paintings, and Ed Rice, a peripatetic writer, founder (with Lax) and editor of Jubilee Magazine (1953-1968), It is no surprise that the Jester crowd would find affinity with the new Beat Movement, particularly Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who attended Columbia a decade later - and Professor Mark Van Doren, who served so many.
Lax was considered for his kindest, deep spirit and skilled writing. Who would have guessed this of such a bon vivant on the East Side jazz scene? But Lax also volunteered at the Catholic Worker Maryhouse and the Friendship House, and tutored students, and earned staff positions on The New Yorker, Time Magazine, Parade Magazine, Connecticut College for Women and the University of North Carolina, Olean Radio and Samuel Goldwyn Studios.
Rootless, depressive, restless, he finally found peace and simplicity on Greek Islands, silently, modestly, where he spent his last 35 years before returning to Olean to die in his family home, Sept. 26, 2000. His last home was on the island of Patmos, where St. John of the Cross is said to have written his Apocalyptic Visions. Lax was not a hermit. But he received both regarded and struggling searchers who came to him. He rarely sought them out, as he did little to secure and promote publication. He had no other employ.
His God, the God of many denominations, saw him through, first through Judaism and then five years following Merton’s baptism, into the Roman Catholic faith. Still, he told me on one of his infrequent visits to Western New York, that I might think of him as “post-denominational.”
After Columbia, and all through the rummaging for a right path, he published regularly, most often poetry, with many houses, but prose journalism, too, mostly for Jubilee.
The Circus came about half-way through his life. It was his quiet talent as clown and the silent show of juggling that earned a position that included roust-about for the Christiani Circus, travelling through Canada. Circus staff and artists were accepting heroes, living metaphors who set a high bar for that long book-length poem he developed over the three years (1949-51) with the Circus and published by Journeyman Press in 1959. He called the book “Circus of the Sun.” It attracted the nobility of literature, among them:
-- Jack Kerouac, Beat poet, who wrote on the book’s cover blurb ”…writing lovingly, finding it, simply, in his own way.”
-- Denise Levertov, poet, who called it “dreamlike and vivid.”
-- William Packard, poet and editor, suggesting the effect of “Circus” is like “the first chapter of Genesis…There is movement and truth because there is order and purpose.”
-- Mark Van Doren, educator and poet, who said it was filled with grace.
-- And poets e.e. cummings, James Laughlin and Boris Pasternak, whom McGregor does not quote (not does he note the spin-off books, “Circus Days & Nights” (Overlook Press, 2000), edited by Paul Spaeth, who is the director of Friedsam Library at St. Bonaventure University, and “Circus” (Pendo, Switzerland, 1981). These books over 40 years time are another bouquet for a career profoundly under recognized.
That McGregor, a writing professor at Portland State University, chooses not to pursue nor credit the quotations of cummings, Laughlin and Pasternak is an indication of how much the book is also about the author himself. McGregor enjoyed a 15-year-long relationship with Lax, beginning with serving as Lax’ archivist and later being a helpful as friend. It goes back to the Circus.
McGregor has a pleasant story telling style that is gentle and appealing, even though falling short of the detail a biographer usually aspires to. Instead, McGregor begins or interrupts many chapters with unbridled personal memories. This self-consciousness can be charming, as in a well tuned memoir. Or embarrassing.
Several questions are: Just how does the writer maintain balance on such a tightrope stretched between self and subject? Who carries the purpose of the story? How deep to go into detail? What are the metrics of vanity?
Lax was buried in the cemetery at St. Bonaventure, usually reserved for the Franciscan friars. McGregor closes his book by selecting a Lax poem, but without a title, date or source. It is:
There are not many songs
There is only one song
The animals lope to it
The fish swim to it
The sun circles to it
The stars rise
The snow falls
The grass grows
There is no end to the song and no beginning
The singer may die
But the song is forever
Truth is the name of the song
And the song is truth
Anthony Bannon is the emeritus director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the George Eastman Museum. He also was an arts writer for The Buffalo News.