The National Catholic Review

Pure Act is a painstaking and readable tribute to Robert Lax, the bearded sage and avant garde poet who was a confidant of Thomas Merton. Lax became known to the world at large through Merton’s conversion story, The Seven Storey Mountain. The two were drawn together at Columbia University on the staff of Jester, a sophisticated humor magazine that modeled itself on The New Yorker. With them were Ed Rice, the pioneer of Jubilee magazine, that banner of Catholic culture in the 1950s, and Ad Reinhart, soon to be a leading minimalist painter.

Lax, the son of Jewish immigrants, had that hole in his heart that only God could fill. As World War II was coming on, he and Merton and Rice spent summer months at his family’s cottage near Olean, N.Y., “pursuing their sense of truth and of God,” as the author, Michael McGregor, puts it. The pursuit led him to baptism at St. Ignatius Church in New York on Dec. 19, 1943.

Study of Thomas Aquinas during those years drew Robert Lax to the concept of God as pure act, a philosophical high point that St. Thomas reached with the help of Aristotle. From God as pure act he derived a lifetime ideal of acting consciously yet spontaneously, and always with love. Lax found this exemplified in the Cristiani Bros. Circus, with which he traveled and which impelled him to a cycle of poems, The Circus of the Sun. Later the sponge fishermen of Kalymnos Island, poorest of the poor, were to impress him by the same conscious daring.

The major interest of Pure Act lies in its tracing of the stages of a totally poetic life. Robert Lax was not born for the labors of a 9-to-5 day. After college he had a brief job answering letters at The New Yorker, but the ambiance intimidated him. At Jubilee later he was judged undependable because he got so lost in his own poetry and journaling. And then began his years of wandering—the docks of Marseilles, the shrine of La Salette in the French Alps, the center of Jean Vanier near Paris—and wondering what he should do. One day a waiter in a Greek restaurant in New York urged him, “You should go to Greece.” That he did, for the latter half of his days. There it was, on Patmos Island in 1985, that Michael McGregor, now a professor at Portland State, Ore., happened upon him and fell under his spell.

Robert Lax deliberately chose insecurity, scraping by with some family aid and chance benefactions. And he chose to live as a celibate. Divine providence favored him. At Jubilee, he found Emil Antonucci, an illustrator and designer, to respond excitedly to his writing. Buying an old hand press, he produced broadsides of poetry chosen by Lax, and then slim volumes of his poems. He filmed the poet in interviews or readings. Later two people in Zurich founded a small press, Pendo Verlag, for his benefit. They became his chief publishers and a depository of his papers.

Robert Lax and Merton both loved James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake for its clever diction, which they liked to imitate in their correspondence. But Lax’s poetic idiom grew ever simpler. He developed a stripped-down vertical style of just a few words per line, or even just one, or as little as a syllable per line. These spare poems were for the voice, for deliberate pacing and strategic repetition. He featured primary colors and the stellar world. His audiences apparently loved hearing him. Lax’s ideal reader, the one he claimed to be writing for, was Mark Van Doren, his Columbia teacher and mentor.

On Kalymnos, a Greek isle just off the shore of a hostile Turkey, his political naïveté cost Robert Lax dearly. During his absence in a crisis of the 1970s, suspicion spread that he was an American spy. On his return he tried to ignore this absurdity, but could not quite. He settled tranquilly on Patmos for his last 18 years, as appreciation for him as a poet grew in Europe and America. His health all the while was weakening until, in 2000, he was brought home to Olean to die. In the Greek isles, many expressed their grief to have lost their “saint.”

James S. Torrens, S.J., is a former poetry editor of America.

Recently by James S. Torrens

Forays of the imagination (May 21, 2013)
Kissing the Cross (March 14, 2013)
Mortal Measures (June 4, 2012)
The Foley Feast 2011 (June 6, 2011)
Interlopers (February 7, 2011)