Reviewer John J. Hohn:
John is a frequent contributor to web sites dedicated to writing and
publishing. Raised in Yankton, SD, he graduated with a degree in
English from St. John’s University (MN) in 1961. He is the father
of four sons and a daughter and a stepfather to a son. He and his
wife divide their time each year between Southport and West
Jefferson, NC. To learn more about John FOLLOW HERE
Author: Michael N. McGregor
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by Michael N. McGregor is a powerful biography that succeeds on several levels.
McGregor presents an exquisitely detailed life view poet Robert Lax. Lax’s middleclass, reformed Jewish upbringing by immigrant parents serves him well. Coming of age during the depression – a time of financial hardship and open anti-Semitism in America – Lax enrolls in Columbia where he finds himself quickly at home among some of the brightest of his generation, including lifelong friend, Thomas Merton. Here also, Lax meets the Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who Lax describes as “the first true ‘holy man’ they’d (Lax and Merton) met.” Meeting Brahmachari is a pivotal event in the young poet’s life.
A list of all who influenced Lax during these impressionable years would be long indeed. Lax, however, was not part of the mainstream. Rich in detail, McGregor’s narrative never bogs down, a credit to his easy, flowing style. Sensitive readers will walk away from the book feeling that they have spent time in the company of an enlightened holy man – a rare and beautiful accomplishment for any writer.
McGregor’s account is balanced. Lax is his own victim at times. He is physically awkward and shy, listless and eager to please, indecisive and often unwilling to confront when it is in his best interests to do so. But McGregor depicts rather than judges, subtly affirming the reader’s judgements rather than enumerating Lax’s shortcomings. As Lax takes up solitary residence among the inhabitants of the Greek Isles, it is apparent he holds an idealized, almost paradoxical, view of his neighbors – so fragile that if challenged, the impact would be profound, perhaps a shattering disorientation. Yet, his beliefs shape his perception. He sustains his vision with the sheer power of his intellect. He wants to believe humans can live simply in the present; congruent lives, where spirit, mind and body are as one, to be absorbed completely in the moment as a circus performer might in dashing up to trotting horse, leaping into a somersault and landing upright and sure-footed on the animal’s back. Circus acrobats, yet another fascination for the evolutionary poet because their performances approached being a pure act.
Despite holding positions with prestigious publications, Lax finds himself out of place. He abhors what the American world of commerce asks of people of talent. His solution is to seek solitude and live a life of poverty so that his quest to live as his true self will be unencumbered. As a man discovers his true self, he also draws closer to God. The inner voice prays and talks to God, the same voice from which poetry springs. . McGregor writes:
“In seeking to hear his inner voice, he was seeking as well to be a center of calm in the world. In making decisions or answering questions, he wanted to take his time, to let the answer rise quietly and naturally from his inner being – not a partial answer but a full one he could agree with completely.”
Working in Merton’s shadow, Lax’s poetry and other works do not receive much recognition during his lifetime. In his passion for the essence of words, he seeks to strip every word of its accepted connotations and associations so that each would appear on the page, strike the reader’s mind, as a primal, discrete entity. McGregor credits him with the discovery of vertical poetry, although his more expansive works are reminiscent of e. e. cummings. In his restricted vertical poems, Lax dedicates a single line to each syllable. Syllables are to words as atoms are to molecules. Finding the true intended self requires purity of language. Prayer requires the same.
In the 1950’s he meets Jack Kerouac and is impressed with Kerouac’s spontaneous writing, which Lax sees as akin to the work of one of his idols, James Joyce, in the freedom it enables and the belief that it accesses pure thought directly. Lax weighs the merits of a theory emerging among thinkers of the time that art is to be created as art, a being with itself as its reason for existing. Art is art. Life is life. Or so it is argued. Back on his island home, watching a girl weave a simple rug and fisherman repair their nets, Lax ultimately rejects the new wave of thinking. Art springs from life.
McGregor refreshes his narrative at intervals with engaging first-person accounts of his own travels and visits with Lax. The author’s voice is unpretentious and authentic. If his personal beliefs ever differ with those of his subject, it is never evident. Catholicism figures prominently in the lives of Merton and Lax. When Lax is asked why he converted, the poet states simply that as a young man he needed more structure. Readers expecting more from a man of profound reflection and immersed in the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, John of the Cross – to name a few – may be disappointed.
Pure Act is a book to own. Beautifully written, there is wisdom within its pages. Everyone’s walk is different. Pure Act has a place along everyone’s way to be read once, slowly, and referred to again and again. Life is to be lived slowly, Lax admonishes, because answers come slowly – as slowly yet as persistently as questions do.