In Memoriam: C. K. Williams (1936-2015), Robert Lax’s Good Friend

I’m writing this on Monday, September 21, the official publication date for Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I was going to write a celebratory post and remind everyone that we’ll be honoring Lax the Poet at 7 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo this evening.  But C. K. Williams, the wonderful poet and friend of Lax, was supposed to be part of tonight’s event and he died yesterday.  The show will go on, as they say, but it will be a bit less joyous.

I didn’t know C. K. Williams–or Charlie, as he was known to Lax and his other friends–but I’m proud to say he blurbed my book.  To honor him, I thought I’d tell the story of how that blurb came about.

I knew from my research that Lax had met Williams and his wife Catherine Mauger on the island of Patmos in the summer of 1973 and visited them in Paris in later years.  When I shifted from research to writing on my book in 2007, I wrote to Williams and asked if he’d be willing to blurb it. He wrote back: “I don’t usually write blurbs anymore, but I will for a book about Lax.”  I know those were his exact words because I wrote them down on a Post-It note I kept in my desk drawer for seven years.

When I finally had a publisher for the book, I wrote to Williams again, afraid he might have changed his mind. This time his return message said: “Good to hear you’ve finished the book. I’d like very much to write a comment for it.”

Although he received my book late and had to deliver his blurb sooner than he had been told, Williams was generous and accommodating.  More than anything else, I was looking forward to meeting him tonight and thanking him in person.  I will have to meet him in his poetry now and thank him by telling others about it.

Let me close by showing you what he wrote for my book, which you’ll find on the front inside flap of the dust jacket.  Although it’s ostensibly a blurb, it’s really a loving commentary on the life and spirit of his dear friend and a testament to their friendship:

“Robert Lax was a poet who devised his own poetic forms, much admired by some readers, unfortunately unknown to most. He was an intellectual and was often called a mystic, but he was neither, just as he was called a hermit but really wasn’t. When he was younger, he lived in New York, where he worked for a period at The New Yorker and knew many figures in the arts, from Jack Kerouac, to Ad Reinhardt, E. B. White, William Maxwell . . . the list goes on. Most crucially he was a close friend of Thomas Merton’s and was made known, a little, by Merton’s autobiography, in which he appears. He also for a time traveled with a circus and wrote a lovely little book about it, The Circus of the Sun”–hard to find, but worth the search. For the larger parts of his life he lived alone, on islands in Greece, and spent much, perhaps most, of his time in solitude and meditation, trying to find some kind of ultimate peace (though he never put it that way). Even then he knew and was admired by many; and many others who’d only heard of him sought him out. He was invariably hospitable and welcoming, his presence gentle, humorous, and utterly patient. In short, there’s never been anyone like him, and Pure Act, in its offering of a detailed recounting of his life and an acute presentation and analysis of his too-neglected poetry, gives him to us: the gift of a human being unlike any other.”  

–C. K. Williams

 

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.

 

 

Fragile, Ephemeral and Precious

The publication of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, on September 1 this year, marks the culmination of 14 years of research and writing about the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known.  I met Lax on the Greek island of Patmos in 1985, when I was 27 and he was 69, and exactly how we met was extraordinary too.  (You’ll find that story in my book. )  We became friends immediately and he impressed me from the first, but I didn’t consider writing about him until ten years later.

Even then, I wrote only a single article.  It ended up in Poets & Writers, though, as my first national publication, and the response made me think his story might interest others too.  I wrote only two other pieces on him before he died in 2000, but in 2001, having become a professor of nonfiction writing, I thought I should probably write a nonfiction book.  (I’d pinned my publication hopes on a novel before that.)  Pure Act was the result.

Never having written a biography, I gave myself three years.  But Lax was not a man who moved swiftly and it seemed a book about him was destined to develop slowly too.  My first research trip to his hometown of Olean, NY, where one of his archives is located, was interrupted by 9/11.  The next time I went there, the TV was filled with news of Abu Ghraib.  My first visit to his other archives, at Columbia University in New York City, was tragedy-free, but when I returned the following year, having secured a friend’s apartment for a full month, I ruptured my Achilles playing basketball my first day there.  I had to return home and wait the long months for it to heal.

During the years I worked on Pure Act, the U.S. entered and ended two wars and I suffered not only an Achilles rupture but a torn meniscus, a shattered kneecap and more cuts and aches requiring stitches or physical therapy than I want to admit.  I took comfort only in hearing other biographers say their projects had taken as long or longer.

I want to warn anyone thinking of starting a biography to do something–anything–else.  Something you can finish in a year…or five.  But then I think of the exciting discoveries I made in letters and journals no one but Lax had read.  And the ways being steeped in his ideas and decisions influenced my own thinking, even the course of my life.  And the people I met who told me intimate and heartfelt things they’d never said to anyone.

Writing about a person’s life means lifting and holding things fragile, ephemeral and precious.  You probably shouldn’t hurry with actions like that.  You shouldn’t be anxious to have them end either.  Even if your reward is a book, solid and heavy in your hands.