On one level the poem is a description of a day in the circus—coming to town, setting up the tents, rehearsing, performing, and shutting down at night, rising at dawn to begin another day of travel. But on a metaphorical level, the poem retells the story of Genesis, in which the circus recreates the formation of the world, acrobats become “God’s chosen people,” and the traveling circus and its movable tents become the Israelites following Moses into the desert. In a section called “The Morning Stars,” Lax writes:
We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the field the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation. We were there on that day
and we heard Him say: Let there be light. And
we heard Him say: Let firmament be; and water, and
dry land, herbs, creeping things, cattle and men.
The section that came to be known as “Sunset City” (untitled in the original) is different from the preceding and following sections. It has a strong rhythmic pace, word repetitions, and vivid images. The British critic R. C. Kenedy called it “one of the greatest poems in the English language.” Here are its opening lines:
The sunset city trembled with fire, the air trembled
in fiery light, a fiery clarity stretched west across the
walks, the tongues of air licked up the building sides, the
wings of fire hovered over the churches and houses, steeples
and stores of the wide flat city that stretched to the sea.
In one section of the poem, Mogador responds to Penelope, the tightrope walker, who asks how he lands so gracefully after a somersault on horseback. He refers to the dark cloud that enveloped Moses on Mount Sinai.
It is like a wind that surrounds me
or a dark cloud,
and I am in it,
and it belongs to me
and it gives me the power
to do these things.
It took several years to complete “Circus of the Sun” and even more time 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 who was instrumental in the redesign of Commonweal in 1964 and again in 1987. Antonucci loved the poem and created a publishing company called Journeyman Press to publish an edition of just five hundred copies with his own illustrations. He used a small hand-operated 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 around Europe, staying for a time in Paris, making new friends among literary people but also among the workers he met on the streets and in cafés. He wanted to strip his life and his work down to the essentials, and lived as frugally as possible. He stayed for several months in a poor neighborhood of Marseilles. In 1962, he moved to the Greek island of Kalymnos, where he found hospitable people and cheap living quarters. Kalymnos seemed ideal for several years, until his neighbors became suspicious of him during a conflict between Greece and Turkey. They thought an American who wrote in a notebook and took lots of photographs 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 view. Reversing the pattern of his earlier years, when Lax had gone to Olean for rest and recuperation, 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. He was called “Petros” by his neighbors, and everyone on the island knew where he lived and directed visitors from the boat to his simple home on a hill.
These were quiet, 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, a professor of art and religion, said, “On our walks, we’d visit people who were sick. He’d put a chair by their bed, lean back and breathe his way into their existence. And I say that because the word for breath and spirit in Hebrew (ruach) is essentially the same.... In that coming together...Lax had the ability to make people feel better.”
Before he left Patmos for the last time, Lax asked his niece Marcia to make sure to bring a few precious items: an etching of St. 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 town where he was born. His works live on to enchant and enlighten new generations of readers and to inspire new works of art, like Philip Glass’s Circus Days and Nights.