Hold It All


Category: Reviews

The Good News, 3.8.2017

I once asked Mayuko and Minami (both in my fall 8 a.m. MWF Humanities class) if they had heard of Sei Shōnagon (清少納言). Of course they had!  They had read her years ago in school.  I only recently made acquaintance with SS through Meredith  McKinney’s translation for Penguin.

Reading her renowned Pillow Book, I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s maxim, “If we don’t show anyone, we’re free to write anything”:  

At times I am beside myself with exasperation at everything, and temporarily inclined to feel I’d simply be better off dead, or am longing to just go away somewhere, anywhere, then if I happen to come by some lovely white paper for everyday use and a good writing brush, or white decorated paper or Michinoku paper, I’m immensely cheered, and find myself thinking I might perhaps be able to go on living for a while longer after all.  212 Read the rest of this entry »

Practicing the Works of Mercy in a Time of War

“What an awful thing war is! Mother, it seems not men
but a lot of devils and butchers butchering each other.”


On Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

This book tells the story of Walt’s insertion, his practice of the 4th Tiep Hien precept, not to look away from suffering. Actually, here’s the original precept: “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.  Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world.  Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds.  By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

Morris begins with Walt in NYC, where he lost his job as editor of Brooklyn Eagle, had a mixed reception of his last book, endured family shit, dealt with his publishers going bankrupt, and faced the end of unhappy love affair. Oy vey iz Walt! But it was the reality of suffering that got him out of his rut of “bohemian posturing, late-night roistering, and homosexual cruising.” [6]  Onto Washington!

There, Walt did not avoid contact with the suffering; he roamed the hospitals that held the wounded and maimed from the Civil War. In this sense, then, he had to complement the Via Positiva he had walked—the buoyant, cheerful, exuberant self that gave birth to the first edition of Leaves of Grass—with the Via Negativa, the path into that dark night of the nation’s soul, manifested in the misery, ache, and loss of  war.

And I say this to students about accompaniment:  Tt’s not all about you giving, it’s both/and—you give, and you receive.  So, Whitman said, “People used to say to me, Walt you are doing miracles for those fellows in the hospitals. I wasn’t. I was doing  miracles for myself.” [100] Yeah, how compelling can cruising be when you’ve seen suffering like that: “Nothing in his far from sheltered life had prepared him for the sights, sounds, and the smells of the army hospitals—they were literally a world unto themselves.” [88] Read the rest of this entry »

Because We Say So

Dear Kelley,

I’m delighted that you inquired about where to start with reading Noam Chomsky. I look forward to discussing Hegemony or Survival with you in a  couple  of weeks.

Back in 1986—those horrid years of the Reagan Administration—I would sometimes take refuge in my rusty, white 1976 BMW 2002 and drive around Old Louisville or out River Road, and listen to audio cassettes of David Barsamian interviewing Noam Chomsky.  Several years later, those interviews were collected in a book entitled, Chronicles of Dissent, with an introduction by muckraker par excellence Alexander Cockburn.  Cockburn  spoke for me and many others when he noted that “people will go to a talk by Chomsky partly just to reassure themselves that they haven’t gone mad; that they are right when they disbelieve what they read in the papers or watch on TV.” Since you’re a history teacher, well-versed in Howard Zinn’s writings, I think you will appreciate Chomsky’s relentlessly critical perspectives.

City Lights recently  published Because We Say So, a third  collection of Chomsky’s articles over the last several years from the New York Times Syndicate. These commentaries on current events and reminders of recent history easily find a home in publications abroad (like Eliot Weinberger’s essays), but not so much in the “United States of Amnesia” (Daniel Berrigan).  These articles are succinct, incisive, and unsettling.

I’ve frequently called people’s attention to Ernesto Cardinal’s poem, Cell Phone; Chomsky, too, notes that, in the  Congo,  “millions have been killed in recent years to ensure an ample supply of minerals for cellphones and other uses, and of course ample profits.” Cardenal begins his poem, “You talk on your cell phone/And talk and talk/And laugh into your cell phone/Never knowing how it was made…” Read the rest of this entry »

After Reading Justin Kaplan’s Walt Whitman: A Life

July 2005

It was one month ago that I began to read Whitman in earnest, and, while I still have far to go in prose and poetry,  an impression has been made, a fire has been lit, a joy has been savored. Driving with Joanie up from Corpus Christi to Dallas, and then on the Amtrak train back to St.  Louis, hour after hour, I read Whitman.

I read Whitman to lessen the grounds for Simone’s scowling about my alienation from nature.

I read Whitman to rejuvenate a vision of what is possible for These States.

I recommend Whitman to friends as as a kindred spirit.

I read Whitman to learn the scourge of war.

I read Whitman to celebrate comrades like Andrew Wimmer and Jean Abbott. Read the rest of this entry »

Photography as a Way of Life

for Oliver, Cami, and Julie

Sebastião Salgado, From my Land to the Planet
Contrasto, 2014


I first heard the name of Sebastião Salgado from Mev in the early 1990s.  She esteemed him more than any other living photographer, as he embodied  a secular “preferential option for the poor.”  Mev wished to  make a similar option, precisely as a photo-journalist and theology student.  The Struggle is One, her book about the liberationist church in Brazil (Salgado’s homeland),  was one expression of her commitment.

Given your interest in and commitment to photography, I wanted to share a bit with you from Salgado’s recent autobiography, From my Land to the Planet.  The book was put together by Isabelle Francq, who interviewed Salgado during a very busy period of his life.  The book necessarily goes into much greater detail than what is suggested in Mev’s interview with him from 1993, which is one of the “Seeing the World” chapters in The Book of Mev. I think you will find a lot in this book that stimulates your imagination and photographic praxis.

Salgado and his girlfriend Lelia became politically involved in the days of the Brazilian military dictatorship (her uncle was a founder of the Brazilian Communist Party).  But as things heated up there,  they choose to leave the country for France. Salgado was trained early on as an economist.  But he grew to love the adventure of taking photographs much more than writing detailed reports on countries  like Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. The couple, eventually to marry,  used their savings to invest in the best possible photographic equipment.   He began to see this work  less as being journalistically au courant and more as investing time to listen to  people and community’s “long-term stories.”

This is one of the aspects of Salgado’s work that most impressed Mev:  His willingness to be immersed in the communities where he was taking photos.  He reflected on this path:  “Totally integrated with his surroundings, the photographer knows that he is going to witness something unexpected. When he merges into the landscape, into that particular situation, the construction of the image eventually emerges before his eyes. But in order to see it, he has to be part of what is happening. Then, all the elements will start to play in his favor.”   He lived for a year and a half in the Sahel during the famine.  He got to know the people through the organizations working with them.  This reminded me of how Mev would make connections with the local Catholic church (and Maryknoll Missionaries), say, in Brazil, and through them meet people and become familiar with their struggles. Read the rest of this entry »

Face to Face with Elie Wiesel

This short review was originally published in the bulletin of the Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkeley, April 1993.  My book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, was published in spring 2001.


On Harry James Cargas, Conversations With Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel is one of the most widely known writers on the Holocaust, principally through his haunting memoir Night (originally entitled in Yiddish, And the World Remained Silent).  An accomplished  novelist as well as a public spokesperson for human rights around the world, Wiesel was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Harry James Cargas is a professor of literature whose encounter with Wiesel left him so moved that he undertook what has become a life-long confrontation with the implications for morality and Christianity posed by the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

This book, then,  is a record of conversations dating first from the mid-seventies with an additional eight interviews from the 1990s.  Cargas engages Wiesel in such a way that affords the reader intimate glimpses of  Wiesel the writer and the man:  his rigorous work schedule (writing fiction daily from 6 am to 10),  the depths of the father-son relationship, and his deep respect for study (spending two hours on 10 lines of  Midrashic text).   Moreover,  Cargas draws forth Wiesel’s ruminations on the various silences — of creativity, mysticism and indifference — that have preoccupied him throughout his career.   Wiesel describes his writer’s responsibility as one of bearing witness, identifying injustice, and honoring the memory of those Jews who died under the Nazi regime.   The Holocaust is considered the yardstick by which we in contemporary society ought to measure our choices.

Wiesel is deeply nurtured in the Jewish tradition, from the Bible,  the Talmud and Hasidism.    He sees his role as bridge-builder and critic to the Jewish community from within and its defender from without, a difficult role to balance. Read the rest of this entry »

On Susan Sontag, Trip to Hanoi

Journal, July 2005

Susan Sontag spent two weeks in North Vietnam in 1968, and wrote 90 pages about her experiences. (Perhaps I will cull from those notebooks I kept in Gaza and the West Bank to feed my imagination as to what the truth is about Palestine.   Would it be a long essay? Would it be something that I work into a novel, with all my students mixed up together? Will it be a series of short articles that I post at CTSA?)  I wonder if Sontag didn’t just brainstorm a list of questions and then primed her pump thereby, so that her notes responded to  her questions.  Ah, to have her Surplus Attention Disorder, her “moral appetitiveness and lust for variety,” her “intense, uncomplicatedly attentive concentration.” I don’t think this is the same thing as Mindfulness, though.

Sontag is “a stubbornly unspecialized writer who has so far been largely unable to incorporate into either novels or essays my evolving radical political convictions and sense of moral dilemma at being a citizen of the American empire.”   And  she admits she is “one more volunteer in the armchair army of bourgeois intellectuals with radical sympathies in the head.”  Still, she went where she was not supposed to go, even though it appears that she could not get out of her head for very long. Read the rest of this entry »

On Ivan Ilyich

ahamkara [aham, “I”; kara, “maker”] Self-will, the ego mask, the principle in people which makes them feel separate from others.
— Diana Morrison, A Glossary of Sanskrit from The Spiritual Tradition of India

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is simply about the way not to live. And which way is that? That way is the hell that is self-absorption, captured succinctly in that late Beatles’ song, I Me Mine. Or, in today’s idiom, “It’s all about me, all the time.” The way that every religion has taught, to our own discomfort (we know they’re right and wish they weren’t), because we want things ourway. Ivan Ilyich became the successful lawyer/judge who played by the rules, followed conventional wisdom and taste, and accumulated the prizes and the goodies of the upwardly mobile of Russian society. But really, he was just a self-absorbed “I-maker,” like everybody else in his crowd. Read the rest of this entry »

All Power To the Imagination

Have you ever tried to email chicken soup?
Diane di Prima

The Poetry Deal—It’s only 109 pages.

But Diane di Prima—poet, printer, feminist, Buddhist, anarchist, pacifist, cultural revolutionary— packs a lot of life into those pages.

In the late 50s and 60s di Prima lived in New York and California and worked in poetry and theatre circles as the counterculture was on the rise. She was friends with some of the Beat writers and was a literary collaborator of Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). Later on, she taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder. One of her brilliant and useful lectures from Naropa is entitled, “By Any Means Necessary,” on how to get your work out and circulating. Read the rest of this entry »

On Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life

–first published in Episcopal Life, 1997

This memoir grabbed me from the moment when I first read its opening epigraph, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”  I remember laughing with gratitude, “Yes!  How terribly true!”  I was gladdened at that time to take comfort in its bitter truth. For, it was only two weeks before in January that my wife, Mev Puleo, a vivacious photojournalist and activist, died of respiratory failure from the increasingly vicious ravages of a brain tumor.  Mev had been ill for the previous 21 months, and in the last four, she had undergone an excruciating process of  losing her vital powers, such as speech, mobility, and eye-sight (for such a gifted speaker and photographer, these were exceptionally cruel relinquishments).  My mind had often been in hell during those months yet I had been buoyed — and kept from utter despair — by Mev’s own resilient love and good humor, as well as the solidarity and accompaniment of many friends and family.

And yet, in the aftermath of her death, in the return to an apartment now glaringly empty of her presence, resisting despair became an even  greater challenge.  With her powerfully honest and heart-rending memoir, Gillian Rose provided solace to me in my early harrowing days of facing loss.  What a stylist, what honesty, what a life!  I am sure that reading this book in such proximity to such a gut-wrencing loss opened my eyes to certain themes and stories of the writer.

A philosopher by passion and profession, Jewish by birth, British by nationality, Gillian Rose interweaves together the vivid stories and characters of her life. For Rose, “reckoning with life” means both facing loss and celebrating love.  And Rose had plenty of loss in her life.  Read the rest of this entry »