Wave’s stunning selection of Robert Lax poems has been stacked horizontally on my bookshelf since it first published in 2013—its unassuming, almost indexical spine (a hallmark design of Wave Books) standing out like a white flag in the cacophony of my bookcase, always catching my eye as I would walk past. Autumn came and went, winter, spring, and so on—it’s been two years of walking past this book.
You don’t need me to tell you what the reading life is like—or, excuse me, the media consumption life. An assignment here, a friend’s suggestion there, whatever is cheap, available, or can persuade your attention. I don’t mean to harp too much on this point, just to say that the quiet life of reading is necessarily, these days, a life of noise, and that’s just how it is. So thanks for choosing to read this—I promise I’ll get to Robert Lax now.
I’ve taken these opening pains in order to stress something about this collection: these poems stand up in the middle of all this noise. It’s not just that they are exceptional (and they certainly are exceptional) but that they achieve a certain perfect remedy, or a certain perfect response, to the noise, the jangling system of contemporary life. They do this by stripping everything away.
The result is the barest of bones, a heartbeat of singular, simple phrases, repeated through successions of slight variations. Set in columns (sometimes singular, sometimes multiple), they fall with a steady velocity down the page, like big drops of rain. Here is an example from the book Light [in order to preserve the typesetting, all excerpts will appear as jpegs]:
These poems certainly elicit skepticism, but they are more than simple conceptual or design exercises. They have an oddly effective way of opening up. This is the sort of art you think you could easily make, but when you sit down to it, you make something of horribly poorer quality. Artful elimination requires a deeply tuned dedication, a kind of mental conditioning. This is how John Beer—former assistant to Lax and editor of this collection—roughly describes it in his wonderful introduction: during the writing of these poems, Lax led a spare, if not ascetic life on the Greek islands, handwriting notebooks worth of work—several poems a day—from which he would later select and typeset only the very best “worthy of preservation.” The choices are almost always perfect, and across the collection we see a surprising diversity of what can be achieved via this ostensibly limited style. Many poems render their effects through precise manipulations of repetition and variation, and thus, surprise, which often feels like epiphany. Take these two facing pages from New Poems:
Lax plays with numerological expectations, juggling the two classic quartets—elements and seasons—as the familiar ways of dividing the world into its quadrants. But then he juggles in this third agent, not a quartet, but the blanketing void of the sky. It’s as if he poses a question: perhaps behind the articulation of the world is nothingness, a tautology. As the poem cycles, the mood does, too, subtly but perceptibly. Sometimes “sky” feels sinister, other times relieving. It is an effect of the subtle variations of pacing, but it also feels like an effect of the reader’s own disposition. As Beer mentions, the poems often feel like they are reading you.
In other places Lax deploys tautologies to even greater effect. One of my favorites is from “problem in design,” which I will quote in full.
It’s as if we are being overwhelmed with the abundance of nature—or, more precisely, our efforts to recreate it artistically—and again that lushness is threatened by a nullity, the straight line, which we receive with ambivalence as either a kind of death or perhaps as a redemption, a sublime unity.
Lax deploys further approaches, from the haiku-like sketches of Nights & Days to little narratives to little logical exercises to the epic cycle that closes the collection, Sea & Sky, but throughout we see the same meticulous austerity and feel the same kinds of startling possibilities between the lines. What we feel most of all, though, is spirit. And here I would like to offer an extended quote from Beer, who explains this so well:
The frequent characterization of Lax as a “minimalist” poet, on the model of the visual art of Donald Judd or the music of Philip Glass, invites misunderstanding of the work. To be sure, just “concrete” gestures toward the centrality of the individual word or syllable in Lax’s writing, “minimal” notes correctly that these are poems that generate their effects out of the smallest units of semantic significance. But both labels tend to figure Lax’s work as more oppositional and consciously avant-garde than it really is, and thereby obscure the deeper continuities between Lax and the lyric tradition. No doubt it is possible to read these poems as particularly astringent moves in a formal game. Unless one also registers how the poems respond at a fundamental level to the wonder and pathos of existence, appreciates that they are saturated with referentiality even as they approach bare marks on a page, the experience of the poems will remain inert, as if they were museum pieces rather than dynamically unfolding inquiries.
Beer wants to distance Lax from Phillip Glass and Donald Judd to make a point about continuity with the lyric tradition, and I appreciate that impulse, but I disagree with his characterization of minimalism. When I first heard the music of Philip Glass (which was in my high school music theory class, “Knee 5” from the opera Einstein on the Beach), I was drawn to it not because it was “astringent” but precisely because it was full. The repetitive insistence was a form of incantation (even in instrumental pieces), a chant, a heartbeat, and a meting out of time. I would later feel the same way about Donald Judd and the repetitions that characterized his approach to gallery space, that these eschewed the discreet position of the masterpiece for a kind of participation in the universe. Work like this feels quotidian, exploratory, and inquisitive, but beneath that is something insistent, plaintive, and supplicating. Beneath that is, ultimately, something devotional.
I have never encountered a poet so in line with this very meaningful kind of contemporary art as Robert Lax, and for me, an unabashed fan of minimalism, discovering him is a thrill. His poems are, like the music of Glass and the sculpture of Judd, an authentic kind of prayer in a secular and postmodern age, and that, to me, is of immeasurable value. The brief quotes I can offer here don’t do this work justice—you have to walk around with them, or inside of them, letting their rhythm unveil their ineffable but profound inquiries. I’ll leave you with one final facsimile, and along with it, one final piece of minimalist music, a Steve Reich piece whose repeating refrain, a quote from Wittgenstein, perfectly captures the spirit of Lax’s work.
Featured image courtesy of St. Bonaventure University archives.