Wednesday, February 14, 2007

exile and pilgrim (lax)

Lax in Patmos, photo by Nicolas Humbert

While they were students at Columbia University, the circle of talented and articulate friends gathered around Merton – Lax (Robert), Rice (Ed), Knight (Jim), Reinhardt (Ad), Giroux (Robert), Berryman (John) – all referred to each other by their last names only, so I will do the same.

Merton and Lax, almost from the start, were the closest.

Lax is not well known as a poet in the United States, but enjoyed a considerably larger audience in Europe. Some see his “Circus of the Sun” poems as comparable to the work of T.S. Eliot.

Lax chose to be obscure. He was quiet and shy, but not self-conscious. He spent the better part of his life as rootless and expectant as a beggar. He was a solitary, but not a recluse. He once said that he could never have been a hermit because he didn’t know how to chop wood!

In 1964, after having (among other things) worked as a staff writer for the New Yorker and traveled around Europe with an Italian circus family, Lax arrived on the Greek island of Patmos.

Lax began to keep a journal, which I find rather remarkable in its simplicity and profundity. I begin to understand that simplicity – its centrality as a human virtue and the necessity of its cultivation – is at the heart of Lax’s poetry and his spirit.

The following is the introduction that Lax wrote for his journal. I think that it shows how faithfully Lax followed and trusted life, without ever pretending to lead the way.
When I left New York for Greece I had hoped only to find a quiet place to live for a while and write some poems. Quiet and inexpensive. If I could have found an uninhabited island where I could forage for myself, I think I’d have gone there. I did not come looking for people, or for nature, much less for history: just for quiet. I thought I needed it for my work, as a photographer needs a darkroom.

Quiet? A place to get away from people? Bright light, loud noises, and a constant presence of people (and of birds, goats, fish) is more the style. You are never alone in Greece. Someone is always with you, right with you or watching from across the hill: watching, listening, never sleeping, gathering data for a fund that’s been growing for the past several thousand years, watching for any flick of variation in patterns already known of human behavior. Wherever you live in Greece, whatever you do, wherever you sleep, you are doing it on a brightly lighted stage. Each day is judgement day.

I see this now. I hardly did when I first came to the islands in the early rainy months of 1964. The people who lived on the island were charming: they would not be overlooked. I tried to write about them quickly as I could, to get over my first impressions, to get on with writing the poems I’d come to do.

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