A HERMITAGE IN PATMOS: On the Life and Times of Robert Lax
The Way Of The Dreamcatcher, by S.T. Georgiou

For all the stories you may have heard about a person who makes a pilgrimage "Up The Mountain" to talk with a sage - apocryphal or humorous or profane or profound - "The Way of the Dreamcatcher," Steve T Georgiou's new book detailing his visits with "Poet, Peacemaker, Sage" Robert Lax in Patmos, Greece, is the real deal.

We are treated in the book to the prospect of accompanying Georgiou on his somewhat unexpected pilgrimage to sit at the feet of Robert Lax (1915-2000), and share in his delight at the humility, clarity and spiritual insight of a man whom Jack Kerouac called "The Laughing Buddha."

By turns we share in moments of levity, exposition and real communication between two men whose love of the Spiritual in living and in art are made manifest and plain in page after page of dialogue that has the sage and his disciple in pleasant banter over everything from yoga to yogurt and surfing to Sufi; and from tips on writing to reminiscences of Lax' lifelong friendship with the estimable Thomas Merton.

The hidden message? That through the following of Lax's dicta for living - and perhaps even by reading this interview between two inquiring men - one may be cleansed, as might dreams by a dreamcatcher. Hence, the author notes, the title of the book: The central image of The Way Of The Dreamcatcher (Novalis, 2002) is that of a dreamcatcher - which aptly reflects the distilled, clarifying lifestyle that Lax opted for during much of his life as a reflective hermit on the island of Patmos.

This is no mere interview - The Way of the Dreamcatcher is a rare opportunity to listen in as a splendid friendship emerges between two sensitive and questing souls.

In his prologue Georgiou - a young Californian on a spiritual quest when he was by chance directed to the home of Lax in 1993 - talks about what it meant to become engaged in a tutelage of some seven years with the humble hermit. "I knew that I had found a light-giver," he said. "Being in his company over an extended period of time has helped me to discover my place in a world that oftentimes seems hollow and corrupt"

One can imagine the pitfalls in writing - not to mention reading - a volume like this, whether it might be a tendency to fawn or cloying deify every word and nuance of the subject, or else to stray irretrievably into a wasteland of abstraction and theoretical hairsplitting.

To his credit, Georgiou has managed to avoid these pitfalls. To Lax' credit too - in every instance where his interviewer/pupil strayed into rarefied airs, the American poet turned Greek Island hermit brought things down to earth with twinkling humility, comradely chiding, or the kind of self-deprecating genial humor one might more likely expect in a wise old uncle than a man who person after person said during his lifetime is "the kind of man about whom someday books may be written."

Robert Lax was born in Olean, NY, was associated with the group of New York artists that included the Minimal painter Ad Reinhardt and the religious philosopher Thomas Merton, a group that exerted a strong influence on the poets of the beat generation centered around Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. A graduate of Columbia, he was befriended by the younger Kerouac who called him "one of the great original voices of our times."

For his part, Lax called the author of On The Road Jackie Kerouacie, and spent many an evening discussing religion and other matters late into the night with the American author.

The connection to Merton is a central one - Arthur Biddle, author of an entire book devoted to the relationship between the two in letters, entitled "Thomas Merton and Robert Lax: A Friendship In Letters," notes Lax "will be familiar to readers of Thomas Merton's autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. The two men met as students at Columbia University in 1935. After graduation they spent the summers of 1939 and 1940 together at Lax's family cottage in Olean, New York.

In the early 1940s, Lax worked at the New Yorker magazine and did volunteer work at Friendship House, a Catholic social ministry in New York City. In 1943 he began teaching English at the University of North Carolina, where he also studied for, but did not complete, a Ph.D. in philosophy. In the late 1940's he wrote film reviews for Time magazine, then traveled to Hollywood, California, where he worked as a scriptwriter at Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

He led a nomadic life for decades, moving between America and Europe, and even working as a clown in an Italian Circus at one point. During the summer of 1949 he traveled with another circus through western Canada and recorded his impressions in his journals - an effort later reworked into the long poem, Circus of the Sun.

Now in the south, the circus of the sun
Lays out its route, lifts the white tent,
Parades the pachyderm,
And pins the green chameleon to the cloth.
Coffee-mists rise above the gabbling cook-tent;
Aerialists web above the tumblers' ring;
Behold! In flaming silk, the acrobat,
The wire-walking sun.

This poem - representative of a lyrical style which Lax later put aside - was collected with two other circus-related poems in a book entitled Circus Days and Nights, three great long poems which critics rightly suggest place this early masterwork in a central position within American literature during that era. Each of the three poems in this collection expresses a reverence for the acts of daring, beauty and grace that make the circus the singular event it is; and what emerges is the drawing of a link between this world of the circus-wherein a tent is erected, acts are performed, and then the tent is disassembled only to be re-erected the next day-and Lax's faith.

In the 1960s Robert Lax found the place where he would spend a large portion of his life - on the Greek island of Patmos. He lived there for more than 25 years, withdrawn, but at the same time conducting a lively exchange with the world through letterwriting and other forms of communication. The religious hermitage of his lifestyle was well known to those who followed his progress, Kerouac calling Lax "a pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence."

In his most signature form of poetry, Robert Lax pursued a maximum compression and economy of language - to the point where only individual words and syllables remain which represent the essence of language. In one poem, he repeats the word "river" some seventeen times or so, inviting us to contemplate the empty sacred space around the intoned word, and force us to slow down.

Here's a portion from another, only slightly more involved in terms of word choice.







In the full poem, states Georgiou, "we see Lax at his minimalist best...a subtle and at times pulsating tension dominates the selection...the purity of the images and their basic, honest form stimulates meditation in the reader. If the poem is read mindfully, reverently, one is left with a feeling of awe, if not ominous wonder."

His artistic concept of reduction, in which a pause becomes as important as the things said, made Lax a kindred spirit of the American composer John Cage. It is no coincidence, therefore, that they both shared a strong affinity with the clarifying aspect of Oriental art and philosophy.

For all the rigor and discipline of his life and writing Lax remains, as noted by James Uebbing in a Columbia University publication, "one of the great enigmas of American letters. A classmate of John Berryman and a mentor of Jack Kerouac, his poetry has been admired by writers as diverse as John Ashbery, William Maxwell, James Agee, Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, Richard Kostelanetz, and Denise Levertov," writes Uebbing. "Yet he remains very largely unknown, even among the editors and academics who make their livings tracking and hunting fresh literary game."

Hopefully, The Way of the Dreamcatcher will help change that. Georgiou and Lax are, as Brother Patrick Hart (last secretary to Thomas Merton) expressed it, kindred spirits. With this book, the twosome become guides to all who enter willingly their world of art, faith, spirit and commitment.

The Way of the Dreamcatcher is published in Toronto by Novalis (cservice@novalis.ca). To order the book in the US, contact 23rd Publications, 1-800-321-0411, ext 142, ttpubs@aol.com.



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