The War on Terror Needs More Poets

Video Credit: Excerpt from Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, by Colby Buzzell, animated by Evan Parsons and produced by Edgeworx Studios, via The Atlantic.  

I once asked a Marine what his favorite weapon was. He looked up and immersed himself in thought before rattling off a list of labels that sounded to me like a foreign catalogue: M249, M60, M203, HK416, etc. He really liked the M20, the anti-tank rocket launcher — a version of which had been around since 1944. “That’s a bazooka,” he said. “Those are fun.”

I’ve long been intrigued by the details of war that crop up in a soldier’s speech: like names of explosives (IEDs), diameters of ammunitions (.50 cal), army ranks (Private E-2) and battalion registries (503rd infantry). They offer an intimacy, a sound bite of a soldier’s life on the ground.

But many of the phrases a soldier picks up during wartime become meaningless once the battles are over, once the soldier returns home and has to live, act and talk in a different way than they’d grown used to.  Continue reading


The Ghost Behind Andrew Wyeth’s Windows

Andrew Wyeth's Wind from the Sea.

Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea (1947), at display at the National Gallery of Art.

“There is seven-eighth of it under water for every part that shows,” Ernest Hemingway once told the Paris Review. He was explaining his ‘iceberg theory,’ the idea that any artist who is in control of his or her craft can omit extraneous details to let the emotional core of the work shine through.

And few have used the art of omission as masterfully as the late Andrew Wyeth in his 1947 painting “Wind from the Sea” (above). It’s a delicate scene of a mid-summer day in Maine, when a breeze lifts the tattered curtains behind the attic window of an old farmhouse, a window that until then hadn’t been opened for decades.  Continue reading

The Dog Days of Summer

High Summer by Wolf Kahn

“High Summer” by Wolf Kahn, 1972, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Washington, April 5, 2014 – THERE’S SOMETHING about the high summer days of July and August that’s left many emotional imprints on my memories. The ancient Egyptians and Romans called them “Dog Days,” in reference to the star “Sirius” of the constellation Canis Major – a star that, for 40 days every summer, would appear at dawn with the sun.

In my youth, Dog Days were spent walking along the creeks that wound through the backyards of my town. They were spent at lakehouses in the Adirondacks, or on hiking trails in the Catskills. Although Dog Days were objectively framed by the Egyptians – from July 3 to August 4, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac – they still carry with them a lasting, subjective edge that differentiates them from the rest of summer and the rest of the seasons. Dog Days were tinged with adventure, romance, and the knowledge that tomorrow would be like today. Dog Days were suffused in sunlight.

So how does one visually capture the non-visual qualities of Dog Days – the heat, the mood, and the timelessness? The above painting by German-American artist Wolf Kahn, entitled “High Summer,” gives it a go. Kahn – known for combining realism in landscapes with the use of potent “color fields,” to the tune of Mark Rothko – suffuses his foreground with bright yellow and his mid-ground with high-key oranges and dark purples. The edges of the trees are blurred, suggesting the thickness of the air. Imagine wading across the grass, from the front of the painting to the back, and you can imagine wading through the humidity and arriving on the edge of the woods drenched in sweat.  Continue reading

When the Cavemen Learned to Sing

Lykke Li sings with megaphone.

Photo Credit: Benoit Derrier, Wikimedia.

There must have been a moment in human history when someone, for the first time, sung a song with lyrics and all to another person. It was probably either a touching moment (imagine stringing together a series of phrases, putting them into rhythm and melody, and using them to enchant a receptive audience), or a humiliating moment, in which one’s art is rejected and discarded by another. As good as music technology is in modern times – with the advents of headphones and speakers, for example – there are few things more powerful, communicative, or beautiful than the pared down human voice.  Continue reading