Poems (1962-1997), a new collection from Wave Books, presents 35 years’ worth of work from avant-garde poet Robert Lax. An enigma even in the weird world of poetry, Lax (1915-2000) was educated at Columbia University, where he met lifelong friend Thomas Merton and studied with poet Mark Van Doren. He served over the years as a critic, editor, and writer for TIME, Parade, and The New Yorker, among other publications, although he identified himself as a poet first and foremost. As a young man, he spent a season traveling through Canada with the Cristiani family circus, which eventually led to his first book of poetry, The Circus of the Sun.
A few years later, Lax published his second book, New Poems, and it is here that Wave Books’s new Lax collection begins. There are many gems to be found throughout the body of Lax’s work, but “New Poems” in particular offers inviting poems that cheerfully engage with visual form. The fact that it’s printed here in its entirety, after being hard to find in bookstores for many years, is reason enough to buy the collection.
“New Poems” opens with the lines “one stone / one stone / one stone,” and ends with the same three-beat repetition, establishing a poetic practice that operates in a gray area somewhere between visual and concrete poetry. Lax’s work is visual poetry, experienced as the eye interprets the arrangement of words on the page, but there is also great care in the word choices; Lax is equally sensitive to their referential value.
In the book’s introduction, poet and editor John Beer says that “one almost inevitably wrestles with the issue of how much of this emotional and spiritual significance inheres in the work itself and how much is projected by the reader into the experience of the poem.” Certainly some of the most visual poems bring this to mind, as in “never,” a poem in which the word “never” is repeated thirteen times in a vertical column, plunging the eye down the page.
But in poems like “andalusian proverb,” the visual thrust of the poem is overshadowed by the elegance of the words themselves, as the poem asks a beheaded rooster:
what are you
of the bloody
The lineation that separates “what are you” from what follows, and the choice to place “bloody” before “morning,” rather than anywhere else, invites both a sanguine and an invective read, and show that Lax’s preoccupation with language operates on all levels at once.
The danger of such sparse lines—and visual poetry in general—is that it can be tempting to simply skim over the pages for the pattern and then move on, particularly in a book as long as this one. Fortunately, Poems (1962-1997) is punctuated by surprises; the arrangement foregoes chronology, moving instead between complete collections and selections of previously unpublished poems so the book feels symmetrical but still somehow spontaneous.
Most of the poems fall vertically; even when many columns appear on a page, it readily becomes clear that they are to be read from top to bottom, left to right, and Beer suggests in his introduction that “the primary impetus behind Lax’s vertical structure is not visual but musical.” There is evidence of this musicality in the poems that eschew words for letters and numbers, patterning sequences in a way that suggests elementary music lessons—or maybe “Sesame Street” sketches—as much as poetry. But there are a few exceptions to the vertical preference, such as the first few poems in the 1981 collection “nights & days,” which are arranged as phrase units that can be read vertically as well as horizontally, giving readers the delightful “at night / a dark sun / shines on the sea,” as well as the possibility of,
a dark sun
squats in the sea.
This kind of ambiguity is not a major feature of Lax’s work but is fantastic when it appears.
Lax left the United States in the 1960s to relocate to the Greek islands. He settled first in Kalymnos, and then in Patmos, and from there, he continued to write. His poetry has been published in small print runs over the years, but his work has become harder and harder to find as time has passed. Poems (1962-1997) is an elegant book that will, with any luck, make Lax’s work more readily available to new audiences.