Monday, August 6, 2012

Robert Lax

Robert Lax (1915—2000) is an American poet who is perhaps best known for his connections with his friend Thomas Merton. He was skilled as a juggler, and toured western Canada with a circus — an important experience reflected in his verse. In 1943 he converted from Judaism to Catholicism. In the 1940s he was on staff at The New Yorker, and served as poetry editor for Time. Jack Kerouac called him, “one of the great original voices of our times”. He lived the last 35 years of his life in the Greek islands, particularly on Patmos, writing in a minimalist style and doing little to promote his work.

In his collection The Circus of the Sun (1959) Robert Lax portrays the circus as representative of the larger society. The circus performers and animals celebrate God and his creation, even down to the most mundane tasks of their lives. The word “firmament”, in the following poem, is clearly reminiscent of the Genesis account of creation from the King James Version, and William Blake's “The Tyger” is also clearly echoed.

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
sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

In later years Lax developed an extremely minimalist style. The following poem, running down the left margin of the page, is typical of his collection A Thing That Is (1997).








Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: