It is with appropriate fear and trembling that I write a post on Robert Lax, poet and hermit, for at least three reasons: my own ignorance, my own ignorance amplified in comparison with two of the regular readers of my wittering; and, finally, Lax himself - a minimalist both in the poetry and in the life - whose sparing down, in the manner of these things, has an opposite effect. He magnifies in one's own consciousness and in those of his times (though the latter is the slow burn of recognition that death can afford to genuine quality).
I encountered him for the first time, as many do, in the autobiography of his friend, Thomas Merton, a noisy writer and hermit mirroring Lax in being opposite. T.S. Eliot suggested that Merton as a poet wrote too much and his poetry was too prolix, Lax wrote sparingly and pruned language to the barest of bones. Merton wrote a 'best seller' - The Seven Storey Mountain - and was a 'celebrity monk', Lax sold barely and was a lay person, reclusive if hospitable. Lax stands out first in the Seven Storey Mountain in the same way he splintered into Merton's mind suggesting that the only aspiration for a human being was to be a saint and being a saint was a matter of desire (and presumably its hallowing).
This story always reminds me of a person I once met from Venezuela who had become a Muslim precisely because when he had announced to his astonished catechism class that when he grew up, he wanted to be a saint, the priest, taking the class, had publicly humiliated him, upbraiding this presumptive arrogance!
But Lax is simply revealing to us what we are by nature and what nature hopes to become in its journey to completion - holiness is the only destination because the love that gives birthing form to our creation, the creation, invites it, luring us on.
It is beautifully expressed in this poem from his cycle of his circus related poems (if memory serves he travelled with/worked in a circus for a time).
The poem evokes (I think) God's speech to Job out of the whirlwind - where were you Job/the reader when God created the world? Where are we the wonder struck visitor when the circus rolls into town, appearing as if by magic, carrying the magic of its nomadism? The poem effortlessly transposes from the mystery of circus to the mystery of the world and the world as celebration modelled after the celebration of the circus. We find the world aright when we see it as playing holiness, and celebrate it. That is what saints are, people who have learned to play the mystery of God into the heart of all the world's joys and sorrows.
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?