This morning I’ve been reading again in The ABCs of Robert Lax. Below is a rather long excerpt from a piece written by Alexander Eliot, a man who had maintained a decades-long relationship with Lax, beginning when they worked together at Time magazine in the 1940’s. He visited Lax in Greece, on Patmos, in the 1980s and his piece recalls that visit. I post excerpts from it here because it seems to me that what Eliot says about Lax and his art, is relevant to the poems I’ve written recently, especially the one (or two, actually) shared in my previous post:
The older he gets the more Bob comes to resemble a Byzantine saint, in looks & demeanor alike. That’s obvious to all, but I see something there which is more ancient still: a person standing in an open space, alone, well apart from the clustered parasols of piety. To me, Bob resembles a Siberian shaman, cradling his sacred drum, crackling with shock-power, vibrant with silent song.
Bob had fallen recently, & broken a tooth. ‘Jesus!’ he’d yelled as he fell. ‘The neighbors took that for a prayer,’ he told me, ‘which of course it was.’ The dentist who repaired him said, ‘I don’t want your money, I just want to be your friend.’ It’s fortunate so many people feel that way, since money is one thing Bob hasn’t got.
Bob has reached the conclusion that everyone really wants to be perfect. That goes way beyond Socrates’ notion that everyone desires the good. Is there even a path to perfection? If there were, Bob would probably be climbing it; in fact he’s doing something quite different, and far more productive. He’s tending his word-garden, tapping his sacred drum.
One day Bob remarked that e.e. cummings, Henry Miller & James Joyce had profoundly influenced his youth. ‘Mine too,’ I said, ‘but looking back they seem pretty contrived today.’ Bob disagreed. He argued that their intense concern with words on paper paralleled the modern painters’ obsession with paint on canvas.
The medium is not the message, exactly, but the message doesn’t matter all that much. Instead of exploiting words for illustrative or expository purposes (like me), the modern masters perform in an erudite & yet paradoxically childlike manner with words per se. This tradition, Bob told me, dates back to the Kaballah. It’s his own field of play, clearly.
I’m not certain that Eliot completely gets it. As the penultimate paragraph above indicates, Lax was not sure that he did, either. Nonetheless, Eliot’s observations illuminate some of the things I admire about what Lax was doing with his art—and with his life.