Hold It All


Category: Reviews

For the Love of a Few Golden Sentences

What is genius but the faculty of seizing and turning to account everything that strikes us? … The greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources…. Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand different things.



In the last couple of years, I have found myself asking two simple questions, Why do we read? Why do we write?  One context for this curiosity is my facilitating classes of writing and reading, in homes and on-line.  If you, too, want or need to engage in such self-examination, I recommend biographer Robert D. Richardson’s  First We Read, Then We Write:  Emerson on the Creative Process. You may find your own riches, as I have in what follows…


RDR:  He glanced at thousands of books. He read carefully many hundreds that caught his attention. He returned over and over to a favorite few, including Montaigne, Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, de Stael, and Wordsworth.

RWE: It seemed to me as if I had written [Montaigne’s Essays] myself in some former life. … No book before or since was ever so much to me as that.

RWE: Each of the books I read invades me, displaces me. Read the rest of this entry »


A Witness to Power’s Mendacity

A while back I reread David Barsamian’s first collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, entitled Chronicles of Dissent.  Actually, I first heard the material starting in the mid-1980s, listening to Barsamian’s cassette tapes of interviews as I drove around Louisville and back and forth to Cincinnati and Chicago in  the often grim days of the second Reagan Administration. Since then, Chomsky’s readership has expanded considerably; even in his late eighties, the linguist still produces two or three books a year. I’ve lost count of the number of collaborative works he’s done with Barsamian.

Something I’ve found refreshing about Chomsky’s lectures and interviews is he speaks pretty much in plain English. There’s no academic jargon. And there’s no cheerleading for American Exceptionalism.  Here’s one terse example: “When the guys we don’t like do it, it’s terrorism. When the guys we do like do it, it’s retaliation.”  When ISIS beheads people, it’s barbarism. When Israel uses white phosphorus on people in Gaza, it’s self-defense.

The media play a key role in focusing attention in how we as US citizens and those of our allies suffer or are harmed. Here’s Chomsky commenting on an issue form the mid-80s : “There’s a big fuss and there should be, about American veterans who have suffered under Agent Orange. However, there’s a slight observation that might be made, and that is that the people of Vietnam suffered a thousand times as much, and we’re certainly not trying to help them, in fact we want to increase their suffering.” U.S. veterans finally came to be seen as “worthy” of care and consideration; what the U.S. did to Vietnam and its people is “unworthy” of U.S.  compassion, much less reparations. Read the rest of this entry »

Lobbyist for Tenderness

I first read Allen Ginsberg’s City Lights paperback Howl and Other Poems late one autumn night 1980 with friends at the White Castle at the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway.  A few months after Mev Puleo died, I read most of Ginsberg’s work over a couple of months. And here it is, 2017, and I recently finished with appreciation the latest publication  from the American bard (who died in 1997), interviews selected by Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher.  This volume, First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg, is not as large and jewel-saturated as David Carter’s Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996, but I  still found helpful reminders, avuncular advice, and serene encouragement.

Here are a few of the ways  interviewers and others saw Allen Ginsberg:  “poet, prophet, teacher”; “surrealist folk-hero”; “lobbyist for tenderness”; a man with a “friendly intermingling of smile and solemnity”; a lifelong learner with “a curiosity without boundaries”;  a person “seemingness fearless of the consequences of exposing his mind.”  What follows are a few samples of Ginsberg’s candor to his various interviewers over nearly four decades… Read the rest of this entry »

The Endless Net

Ten years ago, I read Eliot Weinberger’s anthology, World Beat: International Poetry Now (New Directions, 2006). Looking back, I’m grateful, because that volume (re)introduced me to Israeli Aharon Shabtai, Iraqi Dunya Mikhail, and Chilean Nicanor Parra, all of whom I have read over and over since then. I encourage anyone to read Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard,” Shabtai’s “As We Were Marching,” and Parra’s “Seven Voluntary Labors and One Seditious Act.” In his introduction, Weinberger offers a sobering yet hopeful case for us engaging poets outside the U.S.: “All translation sends the essential message that one’s own culture is not enough, and that the way to avoid intellectual stagnation is to learn from other ways of thinking about, perceiving, luxuriating and despairing in the world. This book appears at a moment when the United States is particularly self-absorbed. Less than a fifth of its citizens have passports; a third of its high school students can find the Pacific Ocean on a world map; its rulers dream without embarrassment of a global empire. Poetry, though not the salvation of the world, presents a small alternate model: an endless net of individual dialogues between writers, and between writers and readers, regardless of governments, nations, and communal identities. Its books are a way out of one’s world and a way into the world at large.” Twenty years ago, I received a doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I rarely read theologians these days, and I eagerly take joy and refuge in the poets. Weinberger’s books helped facilitate this shift for me.


Eliot Weinberger

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 »