ON THE COVER OF PURE ACT, Robert Lax sits in a barren room, long legs crossed, a cat held firmly on his lap. From the moment I saw that striking image, I admired it, filled with nostalgia for my earnest English major years: I originally came across Lax's poetry while working my way through the time-honored pastime of reading the library.
Here are some reasons to be interested in Lax: He's a sparse poet who mostly focuses on the natural world. He experimented with vertical poems and the arrangement of text on the page. He was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism in adulthood. (Is that last one interesting?) Portland State University professor Michael N. McGregor has culled a fascinating history in Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, but to get to it you have to endure prose that wanders between a realistic depiction of Lax and idealistic attempts to venerate him, as if he were some holy figure. I wasn't so shocked by this, because the book is a new installment in the Catholic Practice in North America series published by Fordham University Press. A book about a Catholic poet, funded by a Jesuit institution, is going to be moralistic in some places. Lax was also the lifelong close friend of Catholic monk-philosopher Thomas Merton, and it's difficult to tell the history of one without the other.
That said, Pure Act reflects nearly 15 years of detailed research and writing. McGregor does a wonderful job of fusing his personal narrative of visiting Lax with the poet's correspondence, poems and journals, and carefully corroborated secondhand accounts. Lax was a year younger than William S. Burroughs, the eldest of the 1950s Beat Generation, but he was never lumped in with the Beats, despite numerous interactions and correspondences with that group. Lax and Merton did their own thing during their hedonistic post-college years—trying to live in a commune, everyone having their own typewriter. Pure Act offers a beautiful arc, starting from a familiar place and ending atop the layers of Lax's ironically lush life.