Lax (1915–2000) lived a life that was often as intriguing as his poems. A kind of itinerant monk, he followed traveling circuses across western Canada and Italy and wrote about the colorful assortment of gypsies, snake charmers, and roustabouts he met during his rambles. This volume collects three long series of poems, Circus of the Sun, Mogador’s Book, and Voyage to Pescara. The first includes Lax’s most noteworthy poem, “The Sunset City,” which shows his gifts at their fullest. It is an incantation addressed to the cycles of seasons and the smaller compass of human life. Using simple nouns—fire, air, dark, drum—often repeated, it accumulates an elemental music and ends on a wonderfully Vedic note: “Riding / the world, joggled but slightly as in a howdah, on / the grey wrinkled earth we ride as on elephant’s / head.” What is most uncanny about Lax is his ability to sustain a voice of genuine naïveté, which might be attributed to the serenity of faith or simply a complacent temperament, but which never slips into ingenuousness. Nevertheless, serenity and complacency do not always make gripping poetry. Lax often strays from the painterly tasks of detail and deftness, aiming instead at something more mystical, something that is, by definition, either impossible to describe or describable only in abstractions. Of a legendary circus performer he writes, “Rastelli is with us: / companion, / example, / hero in the night of memory.” These terms don’t do much work, and Lax can fall into such a mesmeric mode quite easily and often.
Still, there are many fine poems here, and if their varied concerns don’t quite cohere there are enough moments of grace to lift the whole.