BEYOND PIETIES


Tertium Quid,
Robert Lax (Stride, 10.00)
Spiritual Letters 3
, David Miller (Stride, 5.00)


Fans of Lax will welcome this new cluster of poems that Sarah Katherine McCann has gathered from the archives in Olean, NY. Catholic communities especially will read it as an alternative prayer book, a help for spiritual reading and devotion. It seems to emphasize the early, young Lax, the convert to Catholicism. Poem titles suggest this, from the Latin title of the whole collection to pieces such as 'In Lumine', 'Faith', 'Truth Compared To the Light of Day', 'praise god, though he's not place in any', to 'the Lord and 'The Vigil of the Tree'. In this light, Lax is the holy juggler, the acrobat of God, and/or rather Christ is, and Lax his devoted servant, praying and meditating on the mysteries of love and creation. The funny lining of the poems, the skinny vertical, is an aide to reflection and prayer, a typological devotional assist.

     of
     whom

     shall
     I

     be
     afraid

     ?          
          ('the Lord')

Catholic, young, Lax is crucial to our understanding of his work, but it is early Lax and not at all the Lax of Patmos, of thirty and more years of life as experimental poet in exile on Patmos. So while we welcome this volume, it offers us little that is new or that expands our comprehension of his achievement. We need about 800 more volumes of this size to fully unfold and massive work of Lax and demonstrate his achievement and standing. The archives at St Bonaventure are packed with notebooks and papers. Considerable scholarly effort over the years is what we want to get out all of Lax. It is unfortunate that we have no editorial preface by McCann explaining what her charge was, what guided her selection. Her selection is fine. We wish we could commission someone - but who? a young and energetic John Kinsella perhaps? - to work for a few years at Olean and bring out a big Selected Works.  Someone, that is, who understands contemporary poetry and poetics. 

The cover of the Lax book features a painting by David Miller, a suitable way to show the spiritual links between these two poets. Miller's painting is a miniature tryptych, a blue central panel of loosely beautiful calligraphic brush strokes, framed by two black gestural marks. 

Miller continues his series of Spiritual Letters in this chapbook. He has mastered the prose poem and fans will wecome these twelve new installments in the sequence.  Miller continues to amaze. He weaves his letters on a quiet weft of subtle themes and motifs. One, for instance, concerns the illness of a young boy, announced in Letter 2: 'More and more incapacitated, his head snapping backwards in spite of himself, the boy was stranded in the waiting room.' In 11 we leave him: 'The boy's limbs now affected by the medication, he found that he could move only with difficulty; so his mother helped him to walk the short distance to the hospital.'

Reading through the twelve texts, one barely notices any one theme. Only in afterthought and analysis can we seek the strategies of Miller's magic. The richness he achieves defies all analysis, however. Let me compile a faux Letter or an anti-Letter by a random re-shuffling through Miller's art. The demonstration will be what such a gathering does not achieve:

A cloth ready for the dyeing, lines etched into the waxed surface. You should try writing a novel, he told me. Desire's thrown into confusion; overwhelmed. The motherfuckers won't let me sing, the woman said at her friend's funeral. Around the frame, a pattern of stars, or the names of angels. Pieces of paper, messages, were threaded through the boxes that the boy made after the woman's death.  A man walked into the hall with a cat on his shoulder. She was afraid that what she'd written was the wreckage of empty description. She had hung sheets of black plastic over the shelves, covering all of the books. The bowls, upside down on the floor, were traps, magic inscriptions on their interiors. He asked his daughter to help him choose which paintings to send through the post as a gift. False apprehensions: a form of constancy. During her parties she would play recordings of Gregorian chant.  His earliest book, never finished, was entitled We Shall be Friends in Paradise

Like Lax, Miller has faced the problem of how to move beyond piety.  And both poets realized they had to move beyond many pieties. Miller puts one such question directly, in the middle of Letter 8. 'Don't you realise, he said, that I'm the most important avant-garde poet in the world?' The implicit counter question, 'Don't you realise that I'm also the least important apres-garde scribbler in the town?' would be welcome in Miller's embrace of the spiritual. A Blakean realisation of the ironies and inversions necessary to carry us into the spiritual lies just below the scenes of Miller's music.  

Both Miller and Lax invite us into friendship in the same Paradise - and both know how to play the words of this world against themselves to create images and sounds showing us how as yet unreal can be the real performed in their words.  


         Robert Garlitz 2005