Hold It All

Category: Reviews

Beautiful and Toxic Multitudes

Prompted by a recent tragedy, I turned again to the conclusion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I cried as I reread the exchanges between Kolya and Alyosha, thinking all the while of what dear friends have lost. I remembered how, many years ago in mid-May, as a treat to myself after the academic year, I’d reread Dostoevsky’s last novel. Just this morning I began perusing volume five of Jospeh Frank’s acclaimed biography of the Russian novelist. Imagine: An assiduous Jewish academic spending decades of his life writing about the times and life of, yes, a magnificent writer as well as an anti-Semite. This led me to return to Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden, which shifts quickly back and forth from the narrator going to Leningrad to check out the sites of Dostoevsky’s fans to the Dostoevskys as a married couple going to Dresden (Baden-Baden) where we see the extremes of the Russian writer with his gambling, self-loathing, and self-abasement before his bride-secretary, before the narrator ends up visiting an older friend, Gilda Yakovlevna, after which is how the novel ends, with “Tsypkin,” a Russian Jew reflecting on how and why it is that so many Jews like himself are Fyodorophiles, even though Dostoevsky despised Jews. Frank and Tsypkin forego the “all or none” mentality. Rather, they somehow hold it all, recognizing but not freaking out at the “both/and” of the beautiful and toxic in Dostoevsky the person. Of course, so many of Dostoevsky’s riveting characters—Dmitri Karamazov being an obvious example—are charged with just this gripping interbeing of the noble and ignoble. “I loved depravity, I also loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short – a Karamazov!” “I understand now that for men such as I a blow is needed, a blow of fate, to catch them as with a noose and bind them by an external force. Never, never would I have risen by myself! But the thunder has struck. I accept the torment of accusation and of my disgrace before all, I want to suffer and be purified by suffering. And perhaps I will be purified, eh, gentlemen? But hear me, all the same, for the last time: I am not guilty of my father’s blood!” I remember Susan Sontag (another Jew obsessed with Russian literature) on Tsypkin’s novel: “If you want from one book an experience of the depth and authority of Russian literature, read this book. If you want a novel that can fortify your soul and give you a larger idea of feeling, and of breathing, read this book.” But don’t stop there. Solzhenitsyn had his manias; is that a reason to avoid One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Is the moral crankiness and dreary dogmatism of the later Tolstoy grounds for passing up Hadji Murad?

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“Life Must Be Serious or It Can Go to the Devil”

Naguib Mahfouz, Mirrors [Al-Maraya]
Illustrated by Seif Wanli
Translated by Roger Allen

—March 2005

What an odd book! It can be a goad to do something experimental in the future. It is a series of vignettes, portraits of those who’s known at different stages in his life and it covers relations between the sexes, the political crises of the time (like the ’67 catastrophe, remember, this is an Egyptian’s perspective), various affiliations (Muslim Brotherhood, Communists), individuals’ demons (haseesh, alcohol). I read it in two different periods, and so can’t remember all the characters, though I made a list of their names. It’s a kind of non-linear memoir of an old man, portraits of those whom he’s known.

I can’t say that it is full of profundity, like Proust. I can’t say that it is chock full of hilarity, like Roth. I can’t say that I want to reread it, because I’ve missed so much (and knew I was missing something) the first time around.

Still, as Ginsberg counseled, “Notice what you notice.” Here’s some of what I noticed from this book by the author of The Cairo Trilogy, some of which I read in Gaza and Ramallah…

From Roger Allen’s Introduction: The vignettes are indeed ‘mirrors,’ reflectors of a process of rapid change that has radically transformed Mahfouz’s homeland and its people, and not always to its advantage, during the course of this century.

“I challenge Israel to do to us what we’ve done to ourselves!” 35

I recalled Zuhayr Kamil’s words: “I now believe that people are bastards with no ethics. It would be better for them to admit it and build their communal life on that admission. The new ethical issue becomes how to maintain public welfare and human happiness in a society of bastards and scum.” 52 Read the rest of this entry »

Dr. Sheth, How Many Poems Do You Prescribe Each Day?

Sometimes the world is too much with me—
The Trump world
The I-Me-Mine world
The seemingly gleaming samsara world—

But then I remember I need a dose of poems
Like the following from Ko Un’s book This Side of Time
Translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg…

The autumn leaves fall dancing.
I’ll dance my way out too
when it’s time to leave this world. 26

Do I have a love
to wash away people’s hate?
I opened an umbrella
then closed it, and
let the rain fall down on me. 27

I love August.
I love the August sun.
I remember ten billion years ago.

Ah, my body is smeared with primeval light. 52 Read the rest of this entry »

“Scribbled Secret Notebooks, and Wild Typewritten Pages, for Yr Own Joy”

Inspired by Diana Raab, Writers and Their Notebooks

I read Raab’s book right about the end of my time at SLU. Moving on to Maryville University, I found a way to assign Natalie Goldberg’s Bones book in my Humanities classes—mandatory composition (wide-ruled) notebooks. I also started teaching my own classes off-campus, typically with a writing (hence, notebook) theme.

1.
How can we imagine a notebook?

Some possibilities—
Warehouse (not a museum)
Treasure chest of thoughts and anecdotes
Place to collect ideas
Place to practice writing
Place to overcome writer’s block
Laboratory
Mirror
Icebreaker
Wailing wall
Junk drawer
Confessional
Postcard to oneself
Playground for mind
Jump-start cable
Memory aid
Archive
Anthology
Snooping device
Role-playing arena
Observation-sharpener
Survival kit
Meditation practice
Witness Stand
Therapist
Spiritual Advisor
Sound-board
Friend Read the rest of this entry »

Remembrance, Responsibility, Reparations

Ariel S. Garfinkel, Scofflaw: International Law and America’s Deadly Weapons in Vietnam

With the recent passing of Senator John McCain, it’s clear how hard it is for many Americans see what we’ve done in the world. It’s much easier to see what others have done to us, in this case, the Vietnamese  who held McCain captive and tortured him.  Despite Trump’s demurrer that McCain was no “hero,”  the week-long mourning and focus on his death and life speaks otherwise.

Ariel Garfinkel can help us better see who we are and who we’ve been.  In her timely, informative, and piercing  book, Scofflaw: International Law and America’s Deadly Weapons in Vietnam, she brings attention to the damage the U.S. did to the Vietnamese people both during the war and since, with its unexploded ordnance (UXO), and the lethal defoliant, Agent Orange.  Because of these, people continue to suffer and die in excruciating ways.

Regarding UXO, Garfinkel writes, “Children are still being maimed by cluster bombs, their parents are still dying from grenades and mines, and the full removal of remaining live ordnance at the rate of success over the past two decades will reportedly take hundreds of years more.”  As for Agent Orange, it is true that the U.S. government has acknowledged the significance of Agent Orange when it comes to care for our veterans, yet  the government is unable and unwilling to  acknowledge its responsibility for the death and devastation its has caused the Vietnamese people.  According to the author, “an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese died as a result of exposure to the chemical sprays.” Read the rest of this entry »

That Glow, That Yes!

Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
30 September 2000

It’s clear to me today, anyway, that my Holy Contour of Life book will be a structure like Natalie’s: short, compressed, easy to read and reread, straightforward. I can continue to play with this. Because having “finished” the new version (how many versions have I had???) in which I fractured chronology, now it seems too disjointed and contrived, so I want to break it up further, maybe chronologically, but just keep it to two pages max.

Commentaries, yes, but creatively done, maybe with lists, found shit, short portions of letters (like mine to Peter Pfersick), journals, and articles. Weave them together. Like on riches and poverty: Set it up, find one quotation from GG interview, then one from Sobrino interview, then add a further comment, then use the photos.

Here in Thunder and Lightning, Natalie is still giving her Zen advice on writing as a spiritual practice … Writing Down the Bones, III (After Wild Mind being Bones II). She’s found what works for her, she’s just giving good advice coming out of her own vulnerable, wise experiences as a writer, a meditator, a slow walker, a Jew, a neurotic. “What if Natalie Goldberg were one of us? Just a shmo like one of us?”

And I read this, quelle surprise, only for insight on how to keep going with Book of Mev, Holy Contour of Life, My Fucking Memoir, whatever it’s to be entitled. And this book moves beyond writing practice to structure, craft, finishing a project. So what I note below may be useful in this process:
Read the rest of this entry »

God Is Hidden. Poetry Is Obvious.

On Adam Zagajewski, Another Beauty

We find comfort only in
Another beauty, in others’
Music, in the poetry of others.
Salvation lies with others,
Though solitude may taste like
Opium. Other people aren’t hell
If you glimpse them at dawn, when
Their brows are clean, rinsed by dreams…

These are the memoirs of a young poet who studied in Krakow. Mostly it is the short aperçus that captured my attention & interest, plus the method of writing a narrative, broken up time-wise here and there, and then he comes in with more short epigrams. He offers extended portraits of women whom he rented from, his teachers (“Professor Leszczynski never removed his green overcoat”) other students and poets, acquaintances (“He was a bachelor, a gallant gentleman, a troubadour ready to serve any lady in the most disinterested and noble fashion”) whereas my portraits [in what became The Book of Mev] are all too brief – I need to flesh these out much more fully. He reviews his time in Paris and the US as well as his love for classical music, such as Mahler’s 9th and the glorious first movement, or Schumann’s third piano concerto. He regrets becoming a poetic ideologue and propagandist. I ordered this book on impulse, thinking his structure would be convergent with my own, but it’s not: mine is bolder! (Or, some would say, more chaotic.)

Some passages of note—

I lost two homelands, but I sought a third: a space for the imagination, a domain that held room for artistic needs that were still not entirely clear to me. 15 Read the rest of this entry »

Like Staying up All Night with Your Best Friend

Allen Ginsberg, Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness, edited by Gordon Ball

There are many influences that went into my creating Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, and Allen Ginsberg was a major one. Here are quotations from reading Allen Verbatim in 2006, with my comments relating to subsequent Dear Layla project in brackets…

So what I do is try to forget entirely about the whole world of art and just get directly to the most economical—that is, the fastest, not most economical—the fastest and most direct expression of want it is I got in heart-mind. 107 [The chapters in novel are certainly economical!]

Start with what you desire, heart, instead of what you think you are supposed to do. 124 [E. once told me after she received my correspondence, “That’s the best love letter I’ve ever received.” That became the end of the novel many years later.]

… in which the prose sentence is completely personal, comes from the writer’s own person—his person defined as his body, his breathing rhythm, his actual talk. 153 [This is why this book of correspondences worked best for me.] Read the rest of this entry »

Unpronounceable Words

George McGovern and William R. Polk, Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now

March 2007

Dear Andrew,

I have finished McGovern and Polk’s primer on the catastrophe in Iraq and how to get out of it. It does remind me in form of Carter’s book on Palestine: short, succinct, easy to read, intended for a huge audience. Certainly, a huge audience in America could and should be enlightened by this book. Early on, the authors ask, “How can a person distinguish between propaganda and fact?” And they respond in a way that is a challenge to us, CTSA, and our students: “The short answer is diligence and time, plus a healthy dose of skepticism.” [14] “The challenge is to devote the time. On the Iraq war the American public and Congress clearly did not.” [15]

The early chapter on what is Iraq and who are the Iraqis would be welcome, I think, for so many of our students, given their (our?) poor sense of history and geography. I am reminded of a remark a young Palestinian woman made to me in Ramallah, “We know everything about America, and Americans know nothing about us.” Her remarks generalize beyond Palestine, of course. The authors show how embedded journalism does us no real service: “Few reporters went to Iraq knowing the local language, and so they could not hope to get the opinions and observations of most Iraqis. We tend to accept this fact as a given, because Arabic is a difficult language known to few Americans, but we should ask ourselves how we would rate reports on American political affairs written by a Chinese journalist who could not speak or read English.” [10] Read the rest of this entry »

More of a Buddhist Jewish Pantheist

Everybody needs a guru, I’ve got Nima Sheth among the living, she’s just back from India. But it’s good to have lotsa gurus, including those bodily deceased but still lodged in heart/mind, as Allen Ginsberg is for me. Here’s why, in these selections from Jane Kramer’s portrait, Allen Ginsberg in America:

Guru as emanating trust and comfort: [AG] made a comfortable, avuncular presence—a rumpled, friendly-looking man with a nice toothy face, big brown owl eyes behind the horn-rimmed classes, and a weary, rather affecting slouch. 5

Guru as book fiend: What books do I carry around with me, like AG did the Prajnaparamita Sutra? … Go ahead, savor books.

Guru as Beloved Teacher: He has been revered by thousands of heady, flower-wielding boys and girls as a combination guru and paterfamilias, and by a generation of students—who consider him a natural ally, if for no other reason than that he terrifies their parents with his elaborate and passionate friendliness—as a kind of ultimate faculty advisor. 9

Guru as faithful, indefatigable correspondent: Ginsberg answers all his letters. 16 Read the rest of this entry »