Robert Lax: Poems (1962-1997)

Lax_Poems_for_website_1_largeFor decades, Robert Lax has labored devotedly and quietly on a poetry that draws a diagonal through visual, minimalist, and lyric aesthetics. This new selection from Wave Books, edited by John Beer, attempts to serve as a kind of introduction to the work of this forgotten poet saint. Poems (1962-1997) represents the whole of a career that seems almost mystically consistent. Steadily focused on syllables, nature, and the ghost that mobilizes the word, Lax, through a fidelity to poetry and language, seemingly transcends any avant garde principles—though in hindsight his work might be said to bare the trace of an experimental approach founded in the materiality of words. To subscribe to this “belief” wholeheartedly, though, would be to miss the point and the profound affect charging Lax’s poetry. These poems are not concrete machines pointing at their own constructedness. Instead, they fix shadows over the imaginary line separating word and thing. The physical world manifests the spirit, and the spiritual world materializes.

things

into

words

words

into

things

things

into

words

words

into

things

words

into

things

words

into

things

things

into

words

words

into

things

This transit between the physical and the linguistic is a two-way blur revealed to be both tangible and imaginary. The phenomenal world and the intellectual web purposed over it give birth to each other in a permanent and incomprehensible give-and-take. For Lax, this intellectual web is profoundly spiritual. Lax’s biography indicates that his life was one devoted to a deep belief in the reality of religious experience: a Catholic convert, conscientious objector, and practitioner of “Passage meditation,” Lax lived in a reality illuminated and made meaningful by the spirit. His humble and unassuming poetry attempts to reveal the interconnectedness and profound beauty of human experience. As John Beer writes in his enlightening introduction, Lax’s writing possesses an “assurance, less in its own abilities than in the potential for the simplest words and most common experiences to speak across our human separateness.”

John Beer’s editing in this collection is authoritative and generous. At 350 pages (which includes the entirety of the long out-of-print 1962 New Poems), the book is a significant selection of poems over a long career. Rather than organizing the poems chronologically, Beer’s arrangement aims at selecting “some of the most striking and evocative pieces” in order to demonstrate the depth and the often uniform endeavor of Lax’s work. As Beer notes, “a conventional narrative of development appears antithetical to the nature and aspirations of of Lax’s work from the 1960s on.” Much of this work stems from Lax’s “discovery” of a new kind of poetic arrangement in the column. At its best, this form affirms a reality that is both horizontal and vertical, varied and plain.

wind        si                 more                more

lence            wind                si

lence

&                                 than

si             &                 si                     than

lence       wind            lence               wind

Lax truly is an unacknowledged master of late twentieth-century poetry, and this collection is a necessary introduction to his generous and generative vision. Lax’s poetry, through simple and undressed language, reveals the world to be complex, infinite, and radiant.

Buy it from Wave Books: $25

Housten Donham is an assistant editor for the Volta’s 365 reviews project. He holds an MA in poetics from Mills College and lives in Tucson, AZ. 

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One comment

  1. Michael N. McGregor

    You’ll find a full appreciation of Lax’s life and the development of his unique poetic approach in my new biography of him, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, published this month by Fordham University Press. Michael N. McGregor

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