Kerouac, of course, was a friend of Robert Lax, the subject of my book Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. You’ll find a post here about a letter from him to Lax in which he laid out his thoughts about Christianity and Buddhism.
There are many pages about Kerouac and his friendship with Lax in Pure Act.
I’m pleased to be listed as a contributing editor for the first German translation of my favorite collection of Robert Lax’s poems, 33 Poems. My German isn’t terribly good but I speak fluent Lax and was able to help improve the translations.
The book, called 33 Gedichte, was just published. To read more about it (in German) or purchase a copy, click here.
I just watched the live stream of the premiere of new Philip Glass circus opera based on Robert Lax’s poems. Wow! It is a wonderful show! If you haven’t bought tickets for one of the performances, you should do so now. It runs through June 13, with all of the shows live streamed for just $12. You’ll never be able to see this show again for that price. If you love Lax, Glass, the circus, opera, theater, spectacle, life, order your ticket now: https://www.malmoopera.se/circus-days-and-nights-in-english
Robert Lax fans: You can now buy tickets (approx. $12 US) to watch a live streaming of the new Philip Glass opera “Circus Days and Nights,” which premieres in Sweden on May 29 and has a nine-day run at the Malmo Opera House after that. To order your ticket, click here.
In order to insure the first German edition of Robert Lax’s 33 Poems would be as accurate as possible, I recently helped the translator and publisher, Thorsten Scheu, with his translation. My contribution consisted primarily of matching the German to the English and, with my intimate knowledge of Lax’s work (and improving knowledge of German), suggesting where the translation might be improved. It was a small part of the overall work, but it was enough for Thorsten to list me in the book as an editor, which delighted me.
My relationship to German is long and spotty. My grandmother’s parents were German and she grew up speaking German in the U. S., but I don’t remember her ever using more than an occasional German word in my presence. My first real encounter with the language was in grade school. I went to a Lutheran school with German roots and the only foreign language we could study there was German. If I remember correctly, I was forced to learn it from the 4th through the 8th grade.
I didn’t love the language, possibly because of how it was taught, but when I went to high school I took two more years of it to fulfill a language requirement and then did the same thing in college. One reason I never embraced it more fully was I never thought I’d be in a position to use it.
But then, just five years out of college, I started leading tours in Europe, including in Germany, and, for the next decade or so, found myself needing to use German every year. To my surprise, I started to like it and I did some studying of it on my own.
During those same years, I met and then married my wife Sylvia. Her mother was German and Sylvia herself spoke German exclusively for the first five or six years of her life. It was a sad day for her mother when Sylvia told her she had to be careful because this new man in her life knew their secret language. Being with Sylvia and her mother improved my German immensely.
But even then, I would never have had the confidence I’d need to help with a translation from English to German if I hadn’t decided in April of 2020 to take on a “pandemic project.” While clearing books from a shelf, I came across a Bible written in “heutigem Deutsch”: contemporary German. Sylvia told me a friend had given it to her years before. Since I had never read the entire Bible and I’d already thought about spending some of my pandemic time furthering my knowledge of one language or another, I decided to kill two birds with one stone.
To keep my new task from seeming onerous, I told myself I didn’t have to read every day but I had to average a chapter a day. I struggled a bit at first but eventually I enjoyed the work more and more, and two weeks ago I celebrated a full year of reading the Bible in German. At that point, I had read 40% of it. Which means I still have a year and a half to go!
When I first started reading the German Bible, I had to look up words in almost every sentence, but now I can cruise through several sentences at a stretch without looking anything up. It was that growth in my knowledge of the language that gave me the confidence to attempt translation work.
One interesting byproduct of my German Bible reading and translation work was I found more in Lax’s poems than I knew was there. Because translating slowed me down, I paid more attention to every word and saw how very carefully Lax had chosen each one. Because my German teacher was the Bible, I saw how strongly Lax’s work was inspired by Biblical rhythms and language too.
These good experiences with a language I once disliked have me thinking about maybe someday trying my hand at translating a German work into English.
Meanwhile, though, I have the rest of that Bible to read.
Thirty-five years ago, in a simpler and less-connected time,
I had my first experience with self-isolating. After traveling through Europe
with a friend, I caught the nine-hour ferry to the Greek island of Patmos by
myself. I didn’t know anyone there. In fact, after my friend flew home, I didn’t
know anyone within thousands of miles of where I was. There was no internet in
those days, of course, and I was too poor to afford what was then the high cost
of international calls. For the two months I planned to be on Patmos, I would
have no contact, even by mail, with anyone I knew.
I didn’t remember at the time that Patmos was where an
earlier man, now a saint, had spent time in isolation. I chose it only because
I had vowed to take the first ferry out whenever I was ready to go and it was
the first stop. A Greek man told me it was beautiful—which it turned out to be,
although it was January, when Patmos is swept by fierce wind and the
temperature hovers near freezing.
Broke and needing the cheapest possible place to stay, I
managed to secure what was usually a summer-only apartment for just three
dollars a day. It had two beds in a modest main room, a small kitchen, a tiny
bathroom, and a balcony big enough for one person, with a view out over the fields
to the distant sea. I couldn’t believe my luck—until a few hours later when I realized
why it was a summer-only place: It was made entirely of concrete and had no
My main reason for secluding myself on an island in a
country I’d never been to before was to set down the first draft of a novel. I
was only 27 but I’d been a writer for over a decade and veered into journalism
to support myself despite wanting to write fiction. Now I had my chance. I set
strict rules for my island time. I had to type for at least eight hours a day
before doing anything else. (I later amended that to six hours.) Thinking
didn’t count; only the time my fingers were actually pecking away. I could go
for walks but only after the day’s writing was done. The same was true of
reading. The one exception was Sunday, which I took off as a day of rest.
The only person I spoke to that first month, other than a
brief word or two with my landlord, was an Australian woman who ran the closest
grocery store, and my conversations with her never lasted more than a few
minutes. When I walked, I walked alone, except for three stray dogs that seemed
to take turns accompanying me along the shore road. I thought of them as angels
sent to keep me company. No matter when I walked, even near midnight, one would
appear and amble beside me. Never more than one and never in a way that
disrupted my thinking. They never begged for my attention and I never petted
them. When our walk ended, they simply peeled off and headed home.
When I went to bed at night, warmed only by several thin blankets—or,
later, when the sneezing and shivering made me to beg my landlord for some kind
of heat, a cheap aluminum heater—I usually lay awake for a while. Because my
nighttime thoughts were uninterrupted, I often woke up the next morning not
knowing whether something I remembered had been a conscious thought or a dream.
Sometimes during these nighttime reveries, I’d return to
some place in my past. Free of present concerns, I was astonished at how well I
remembered things, including, one night, my grandparents’ house, where I had
lived for a summer as a small child and visited regularly until my grandfather
died when I was ten. I found I could walk through the house and remember
everything, even photographs hidden from view behind doors. I remembered the
smell of the rusted screen on the open window in the attic room where I slept
on the floor—the Dr. Seuss books stacked beside me and my grandparents’ winter
clothes zipped into bags beyond the half-wall. I remembered that the bathroom
wallpaper was black but full of colorful dots. I remembered my grandfather’s tools
above the worktable at the bottom of the basement stairs, the perennial five-gallon
tub of vanilla ice cream kept in the freezer there, and the back room I liked
to play in alone, where they stored their extra furniture: a room-sized
collection of various forts.
When I wasn’t thinking about my novel or remembering earlier
times, I was praying for people I knew, imagining what they were doing. I
missed them, of course, but in a strange way I felt closer to them through my
thoughts and prayers than I do now when I can email anyone anywhere anytime.
I’m sure I felt lonely at times, but I don’t remember
feeling that way, other than on those nightly walks when I passed a small
restaurant or bar where men (always men) watched movies at night, most of them
Kung Fu movies. It wasn’t that I wanted to watch the movies or even be with
those men, but the interior was softly lit and looked like a warm, pleasant
space to sit with a beer in hand. Alcohol was one of the things I gave up
during my self-imposed isolation.
I had a Walkman with me and in the evening I’d often play
one of the half-dozen cassette tapes I’d brought along. I had maybe a dozen
books too, and I spent part of every evening reading. One book was Thomas
Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Storey
Mountain, which I had bought in an Athens bookstore for little more than a
dollar. It was there, during that month
of self-isolation that I read about and felt a strong attraction to the Merton
friend I would eventually come to know and write a biography of: Robert Lax.
In addition to my cassettes and books, I had small packages
of modeling clay and, though I’d never studied sculpting, I managed to form
what looked like the face of an ancient Greek man and a bum sitting with his
dog on a curb, reflective of a character in the novel I was writing. (I almost
destroyed this last one by trying to “fire” it on the gas stove, rescuing it
just in time, with only some singeing on the bottom.)
On my Sunday walks, if it wasn’t raining, I roamed farther
and farther over the island, eventually choosing the wilder places where there
was only a thin trail. At first I looked for the snakes I’d read warmed
themselves on Greek island trails, but since it was never warm and I never saw
wildlife of any kind except birds, I stopped looking.
One of my favorite places to go, rain or shine, was a huge
rock connected by a narrow causeway to one of the beaches far from town. A
small guidebook a man in a shop gave me said the caves carved into it had been
used by monks living in stricter isolation centuries ago. By the time I started
exploring the caves, the only signs of previous habitation were the smells and
droppings of goats, but I did find a crude catchment tank for rain water at the
top. What I liked most about the cave I usually sat in was that all I could see
from it was the sea. Sitting there, although I had never had any instruction in
playing it, I would sound out tunes on my harmonica: childhood songs,
spirituals, and simple hymns.
When my mother’s birthday neared, I went around to all of my
favorite places and recorded the sounds for her: the ocean rolling the beach
pebbles, the goat-herder’s cry, the tinkle of goat bells, the thunder that
shook my apartment when a big storm passed, and my halting, inept playing of
“Happy Birthday” in that cave. Then I sent it off, hoping it would arrive in
When I had been on the island a month, it wasn’t the
isolation but rather the cold that got to me. Somewhat miraculously, I’d
finished a full draft of my novel by then. I decided to take the ferry back to
Athens, check into a hotel with heat for a while, and send a copy of the novel home
for safekeeping. I planned to visit some of the ancient sites as well: Corinth,
In those moments before I left the island, I felt as
centered and open and peaceful as I ever had. It was then, as I waited for a
ferry delayed by winter weather—as I thought about going back to my room and
trying again the next night—that I heard a voice for the only time in my life.
“If you will endure,” it said, sounding inside me, “God will bless you.”
Moments later, the delayed ferry appeared, and as I boarded it, I fell into conversation with an older man. It was during our brief interaction that I found out Robert Lax was living on the same island I was. This news seemed miraculous, of course. A revelation. A blessing. Born of the isolation I had dared to endure and the peace that had come to me through it.
A man in Germany (Jörg Kowalski) who reads my bimonthly Robert Lax Newsletter (you can sign up at robertlax.com) sent me a note and a book recently. The note told of his trip to Patmos to follow in Lax’s footsteps, and the book contained his poetry, some influenced by Lax’s work.
The back of the poetry book had only
the words pictured here on it. I can’t think of a better (or more
succinct) definition of being an artist; of why one makes art.
For those who don’t know German, here’s a translation:
Every year around this time, it seems, friends, acquaintances and former students publish a bunch of wonderful books. To help get the word out and give you some reading ideas, here are brief descriptions and links:
1. TWO of the best books of ROBERT LAX‘s poetry are being reissued in paperback after many years of being impossible to find for a reasonable price:
33 POEMS (my favorite Lax collection), New Directions–out today!
LOVE HAD A COMPASS, Grove Press. This one came out last week.
2. THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES by my grad school classmate Devi S Laskar, Counterpoint Press. This chilling and deeply personal novel shows the ramifications of racism in this country. It has been praised everywhere. Published in early February.
3. MOTHER WINTER by my former student Sophia Shalmiyev, Simon & Schuster. Another book being lauded all over, this one is a feminist memoir about Sophia’s harrowing early childhood and the move to America that meant leaving her troubled mother behind. It’s also about becoming a mother herself. Released two weeks ago.
4. SURVIVAL MATH by another former student of mine, Mitchell S. Jackson, Scribner. In this memoir/social investigation, Mitchell looks at the various members of his African-American family and the different ways they dealt with and were affected by the poverty, violence, drugs–and community and love–in his North Portland neighborhood. This one doesn’t come out until March 5 but it’s already receiving all kinds of press. (If you haven’t read Mitchell’s prize-winning novel, The Residue Yearswith a similar theme, do that too!)
5. THE GOSPEL OF TREES by yet another former student, Apricot Anderson Irving, Simon & Schuster. I wrote last winter about this beautiful memoir of growing up in a missionary family in Haiti and the questions about faith, cross-cultural interactions and one’s own place in the world it addresses. I’m including it this year because the paperback comes out March 26.
6. HALF THE CHILD by another grad school classmate, William J. McGee, William J. McGee. This novel takes you inside the relationship and struggles of a divorcing dad and his toddler son–a rare, compassionate view. Already available.
7. PLACEMAKER: CULTIVATING PLACES OF COMFORT, BEAUTY, AND PEACE by Christie Purifoy, Zondervan. I worked with Christie during one of my Collegeville Institute writing weeks. Starting from her restoration of a Pennsylvania farmhouse and the idea that we are all gardeners in one way or another, Christie writes about the need to create and live within beauty. Comes out on March 12.
8. CONFESSIONS OF A BAREFACED WOMAN by Allison Joseph, Red Hen Press. Allison was my colleague at Southern Illinois University two decades ago and has sent many beautiful poetry books into the world since then. This is one of her most personal, “highlighting in turns light-hearted and harsh realities of modern black womanhood” (says the Amazon description).
9. LOSING MY RELIGIONby William Mills, Resource Publications. I worked with Bill at Collegeville too. This is his story of taking over as the priest at an American Orthodox congregation and the chaos that ensued.
10. INHERITANCEby Dani Shapiro, Knopf. I taught with Dani in the Manhattanville College MFA Summer Writers’ Week last year. If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know about this memoir of learning through DNA testing that her father wasn’t her biological father and the upset that caused in the life Dani had made for herself. It came out in mid-January and has become a bestseller already.
12. SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE by Jean Kwok, William Morrow. Jean was my classmate in the MFA program at Columbia. This novel doesn’t come out until June 4 but it is already receiving HUGE press, including appearing on many “most anticipated” lists. It looks amazing.
13. I AM A STRANGER HERE MYSELF by my former colleague in the nonfiction program at PSU, Debra Gwartney, University of New Mexico Press. It comes out March 1. This book won last year’s River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. I’ve read excerpts and it’s wonderful. It’s a researched meditation on Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman in the Northwest, and a memoir of the strong women in Debra’s family, who have lived in the NW for generations. (If you haven’t read Debra’s last memoir, the popular and intense Live Through This, go get that one too!)