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‘Clown, teacher, writer’ | Commonwealth Magazine

By on June 10, 2021 0


On one level, the poem is a description of a day in the circus: coming to town, pitching the tents, rehearsing, playing and shutting down at night, getting up at dawn to start another day of travel. But on a metaphorical level, the poem tells the story of Genesis, in which the circus recreates the formation of the world, the acrobats become “God’s chosen people,” and the traveling circus and its mobile tents become the Israelites following Moses. in the desert. In a section titled “The Morning Stars,” Lax writes:

We have seen every day of creation in one day: it is
on the day of awakening dawn and all over the field the
people move, they come to praise the Lord:
and now is the first day of creation. We were there that day
and we heard Him say, Let there be light. And
we have heard him say: Let there be firmament; and water, and
dry land, grasses, reptiles, cattle and people.

The section known as “Sunset City” (untitled in the original) is different from the previous and following sections. It has a strong rhythmic beat, repetitions of words and vivid images. British critic RC Kenedy called it “one of the greatest poems in the English language”. Here are its first lines:

The city at sunset was shaking with fire, the air was shaking
in a fiery light, a fiery clarity extended west across the
walks, the tongues of air licked the sides of the building, the
wings of fire hovered over churches and houses, steeples
and the stores of the great flat city that stretched out to the sea.

In one section of the poem, Mogador responds to Penelope, the tightrope walker, who asks him how he lands so gracefully after a somersault on horseback. It refers to the black cloud that enveloped Moses on Mount Sinai.

It’s like a wind that surrounds me
or a black cloud,
and I’m in it,
and it belongs to me
and it gives me the power
do these things.

It took several years to complete “Circus of the Sun” and even longer to find a publisher. In one of the many happy coincidences in Lax’s life, he met Emil Antonucci, a graphic designer in New York City who was instrumental in redesigning Common good in 1964 and again in 1987. Antonucci loved the poem and created a publishing house called Journeyman Press to publish an edition of only five hundred copies with his own illustrations. He used a small manual press to print the book, which was paid for with funds from a Guggenheim grant. Several illustrated editions have been published since then, and the poem has been translated into German, French and Italian.

In the 1950s, Lax traveled across Europe, staying for a while in Paris, making new friends among the literati but also among the workers met in the streets and in the cafes. He wanted to reduce his life and his work to the essentials, and lived as frugally as possible. He spent several months in a poor district of Marseille. In 1962 he moved to the Greek island of Kalymnos, where he found welcoming people and cheap accommodation. Kalymnos seemed ideal for several years, until his neighbors distrusted him during a conflict between Greece and Turkey. They thought that an American who wrote in a notebook and took a lot of pictures must be a spy.

After a long period of indecision he moved to Patmos in 1986. Patmos offered everything Lax needed: a small house and time to write and think, with the sun, sea and sky always in sight. Reversing the pattern of his early years, when Lax had gone to Olean to rest and recuperate, Olean came to Patmos. He had frequent visitors — his family, especially his niece Marcia Marcus Kelly and her husband, Jack, and Marcia’s sister, Connie Brothers. Other cousins ​​and relatives were welcome, as were people he had met or corresponded with in the United States and Europe. His neighbors called him “Petros”, and everyone on the island knew where he lived and directed visitors from the boat to his simple house on a hill.

These were calm and contemplative years for Lax. Yet he continued his daily conversations with fishermen and other residents of Patmos. In an interview recalling his visits to Lax, Steve Georgiou, art and religion teacher, said: “On our walks we visited sick people. He had put a chair by their bed, leaned back and breathed his way into their existence. And I say this because the word for breath and spirit in Hebrew (ruach) is essentially the same … In this reconciliation … Lax had the ability to make people feel better.

Before leaving Patmos for the last time, Lax asked his niece Marcia to make sure to bring some precious items: an etching of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”) and The way of the Jewish mystics, a small format book edited by Perle Besserman (1994). Lax died peacefully, as he had lived, in the city where he was born. His works continue to enchant and enlighten new generations of readers and inspire new works of art, like that of Philip Glass. Circus days and nights.


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