Full Text of the Oregonian’s Thoughtful Review of PURE ACT

Oregonian: Robert Lax’s pure life examined by Portland State professor Michael N. McGregor
Author: Jim Carmin
Posted: November 5, 2015

This article originally appeared in The Oregonian:

It’s comforting to know that even with the vast amount of information for which we now have access there are still biographies to be written about fascinating individuals most of us have never heard of. Michael N. McGregor, a professor of English and creative writing at Portland State University, has given us one of these: “Pure Act,” a highly readable and erudite account of the life and work of poet Robert Lax (1915-2000), a man whose poems and moral standing in the world deserve greater recognition than they’ve had.

Known perhaps less for his poetry and more for his friendships, Lax became close with writer Jack Kerouac, painter Ad Reinhardt, editor/author William Maxwell, and especially Thomas Merton, the great poet, monk, social activist, and one of four Americans that Pope Francis recently called exemplary before his address to Congress. Like Merton, Lax was a quiet and extremely spiritual man; he was introduced by Kerouac to his mother as a saint. When Lax wrote, he did it mostly for himself with little thought of commercial or financial gain. Both he and Merton, besides being hugely influenced early on by the writing style of Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” took a vow when they were young to write simply. Lax took this notion “to a daring extreme,” especially as he developed his short-lined, sometimes single-word, vertical poems.

McGregor, who met Lax in 1985 and got to know him well through the years while visiting him often at his modest home on the Greek isle of Patmos, meticulously researched the archives at Columbia and St. Bonaventure universities to present us with a warm, sympathetic literary biography of this complicated man who lived life as simply as possible.

Born in Olean, N.Y., Lax moved to and from Olean to New York City for much of his early life. In Olean he often stayed at his brother-in-law’s cottage, sometimes with friends such as Merton drinking wine and coffee, and writing and talking late into the night. In New York City, after graduating from Columbia where he (and Merton) studied with poet Mark Van Doren, Lax worked briefly for The New Yorker and later as co-editor (with Merton) for Jubilee, a Catholic literary magazine. (Despite growing up Jewish, Lax converted to Catholicism early in his life.)

But it was Europe that had the most lasting impact on him, especially early on with a visit to Marseille where Lax taught himself a “willingness to accept and even embrace poverty …  the poverty that comes from simplifying one’s desires and thereby reducing one’s need to earn money.” This daily monk-like sensibility led Lax to develop a way of life he called pure act: “a natural living out of one’s God-given abilities and potentials without the splitting-off of consciousness that might question or judge.”

McGregor argues effectively of the influences that helped shaped Lax’s work and life, noting that “Kerouac helped him think differently about how he wrote, and Reinhardt helped him find his way beyond artistic conventions.” McGregor’s fluid narrative moves easily through the life of the man and the poet for whom he clearly has great respect and admiration: from Lax’s uncertainties in his early life to his difficulties in having to leave the island of Kalymnos after the complications of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and his last years on Patmos where he lived as he always wanted, simply, with no refrigerator, no phone, and mostly on the generosity of his friends and neighbors.

After reading McGregor’s deeply satisfying “Pure Act” we conclude that Lax lived an admirable life, remaining true to his beliefs to the end, including his strongest thought that life should be lived simply and slowly; the words marking his gravestone perfectly capturing his preferred place in the world: “slow boat / calm river / quiet landing.”

Reading: McGregor and John Beer will lead “A Celebration of Robert Lax” at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Literary Arts, 925 S.W. Washington St., Portland, OR.

Jim Carmin, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Portland.

The Oregonian Reviews Pure Act

 

Portland’s Oregonian newspaper just posted a review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax on its website, Oregonlive.com: “Robert Lax’s pure life examined by Portland State professor Michael N. McGregor.”

At the end of the review there’s a plug for one of my upcoming events: A Celebration of Robert Lax at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9, at Oregon Literary Arts (925 SW Washington St, Portland, OR), with readings by poet John Beer and me and a podcast interview of the two of us by Late Night Library‘s Paul Martone.

I’ll also be reading from my book in a “pop-up” event at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday (Nov. 7) in the Modern Section of the Portland Art Museum and appearing onstage at 5 p.m. that same day in PAM’s Miller Gallery in an event called “On Biography: Joan Didion and Robert Lax” with biographer Tracy Daugherty.  Both events are part of Portland’s annual Wordstock book festival.

Two Chicago Appearances This Week: Oct. 28 and Nov. 1

I’ll be speaking and reading from Pure Act at two very different events in Chicago this week:

The first event is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, October 28 at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave. in Hyde Park.  I’ll be in conversation with Poetry magazine editor Don Share and critic Max Nelson from The Point literary journal.  Poetry, the oldest poetry monthly in the U.S., will be featuring Robert Lax’s work in its December issue, a 20-page spread with an introduction by me. This reading is co-sponsored by The Point and the Lumen Christi Institute.

The second event is at 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 1 at City Lit Books, 2523 N. Kedzie Blvd., just off Logan Square.  This one will be a bit more intimate, with just me talking and reading.

(Between these two Chicago appearances, I’ll be part of a panel at the “Transcending Orthodoxies” conference at Notre Dame University, speaking on “The Language of Spiritual Literature in a Post-Religious Era.”)

I hope to see you at one or both events!

The Company We Keep

One of the things virtually every American author does, it seems, is check the sales ranking on his Amazon page.  The part of the page I find most interesting, though, is the section just above the editorial reviews where other books bought by those who’ve bought my book are listed.  If, as people say, we’re known by the company we keep, this is where the true value of a book is revealed.  I have to say I’ve felt humbled and quite pleased by the books that appear there.

Among the authors represented are: Pope Francis, James Joyce, Meister Eckhart, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Vincent Van Gogh, Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Louis Bouyer, Daniel Berrigan, Jane Hirshfield, Richard Rohr, James Martin, Matthew Fox, Ilia Delio, Rowan Williams, Jim Forest, John Dear, Christopher Pramuk, Michael W. Higgins and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Impressive as that list is, it’s the book titles I enjoy most.  Taken together, they become a poem:

The Springs of Contemplation/Making All Things New/In the School of the Prophets/At Play in Creation/We Are Already One

What the Mystics Know/Waking, Dreaming, Being/The Divine Within/The Ground of Love and Truth/All Is Grace

Between the Dark and the Daylight/A Sunlit Absence/Striving Towards Being/Praying the Psalms/Eager to Love

The Taste of Silence/The Submerged Reality/This Present Moment/Crowded by Beauty/Fully Alive

Two Pacific Northwest Talks Coming Up: Seattle and Portland

I’ll be giving talks on Pure Act at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle at 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 4, and at the University of Portland bookstore at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, October 6.  (See my Talks page for location details.)

These talks are significant to me for different reasons:

Seattle: Having grown up in Seattle, I’ve long dreamed of giving a book talk at Elliott Bay, the top bookstore in the city.  And the talk is being co-sponsored by Image literary journal, which published my essay A Gyroscope On the Island of Love and named me its Artist of the Month in March of 2012.  The other co-sponsor is Wave Books, which put out a great collection of Lax’s later poetry in 2013: poems (1962-1997), edited by my Portland State University colleague John Beer.

Portland: The University of Portland reading was arranged by my dear friend and former thesis student Fr. Pat Hannon, who teaches there.  Pat’s thesis was published last year by Ave Maria Press as a book called Sacrament: Personal Encounters with Memories, Wounds, Dreams, and Unruly Hearts.  Pat will be introducing me.  This will also be my first reading in Portland since my book came out.

I hope you’ll come to one of these talks if you’re in the area, and spread the word to your friends!

Before Its Official Pub Date, PURE ACT Headed for a 2nd Printing

About 70 people attended the wonderful launch for Pure Act, hosted by Fordham University Press at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Wednesday.  The first thing my editor, Fordham U. Press Director Fred Nachbaur, said to me when I arrived was that sales have been strong enough to warrant a second printing!  This was five days before the book’s official publication date: September 21.

To mark the official publication of the book this coming Monday, I’ll be the featured speaker at a celebration of Robert Lax’s life at McNally Jackson Books in NYC’s SoHo district.  The event begins at 7 p.m.  (See my Talks page for full details.)  The other participants, all reading from Lax’s poetry, will be Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner C.K. Williams, experimental writer and critic Richard Kostelanetz, former poet laureate of Queens Paolo Javier, former Lax literary assistant John Beer (my colleague at Portland State University), and Lax’s niece Marcia Kelly.  If you’re in or near NYC, I hope you’ll come!

 

 

Lincoln Center Book Launch and Other New York Events

The Official New York Launch of Pure Act is coming up on the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus 6 p.m. this coming Wednesday, Sept. 16!  It’s just one of several appearances I’ll be making in the New York City area in the next ten days.  I’ll also be speaking at:

Sept. 17: The Fairfield University Bookstore in Fairfield, CT

Sept. 18: The Catholic Worker’s Mary House in the Bowery

Sept. 19: Corpus Christi Church (where Thomas Merton was baptized) near Columbia University

Sept. 20: The Brooklyn Book Festival (11 a.m.-12 p.m. book signing only)

Sept. 21: McNally Jackson Books in SoHo

I’ll also be in Baltimore and Arlington, VA, before New York and Minneapolis after–for a full listing of events, times and details, go to my Talks page.

 

 

First Review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

The first review of my book, from Publishers Weekly, was just posted:

Drawing on his friendship with poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) and his close readings of Lax’s writings, McGregor eloquently offers the definitive biography of a too often forgotten figure who influenced a number of writers and crafted spirituality out of his deep commitment to love, poverty, and justice. McGregor deftly and briefly chronicles Lax’s childhood in Olean, Penn. His family eventually moved to New York City, but not before the circus came to Olean and mesmerized the young Lax—with its performers who are “portals to the land of dusk”—so deeply that he traveled with a circus through western Canada in 1949 and wrote a cycle of poems that grew out of his experience and love. By the fall of 1943, Lax had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, inspired by his readings of Thomas Aquinas’s writings and by his ongoing discussions with Thomas Merton, whom Lax had met at Columbia University. Following his conversion, Lax embraced a life of poverty, combining his lack of desire for things with a passion for nurturing a love for those on the fringes of society. This detailed biography from a friend of subject is best for those already interested in Lax’s mission. The book effectively brings to life Lax’s “pure act”—naturally living out his God-given abilities without becoming mired in judging others. (Sept.)

First Look at the Actual Book!

 

I heard footsteps on the cabin deck yesterday and looked up to see the UPS deliveryman holding out a package.  Inside were two copies of Pure Act: my first look at the actual book.  It’s beautiful–and that’s not just this author’s humble opinion.  When my editor saw it, he called it “stunning–breathtaking, really.”  I hope others like it as much as those of us who have worked on it.  If you’ve pre-ordered it, your copies should be arriving soon.

My first reading is up here at the library on Lopez Island at 1 p.m., next Saturday, August 29.  Another good reason to visit the San Juans!  Next up will be a reading at the Edmonds Bookshop in Edmonds, WA, at 6:30 on Friday, September 4, and then our Seattle launch at the University Bookstore on the Ave at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 5.  Please see my “Talks” page for other upcoming readings.  I hope to see you at one of them!