“Temple Tomb Fortress Ruin,” an exhibition of paintings by John Wellington, is at the Lodge Gallery through March 5. Wellington embraces the formal tactics of the old masters to depict a bleak, surreal, new world order—seemingly both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western—animated above all by a kind of perverted militarism. His work fixates, as his gallery writes, on “lost worlds, passing empires, false prophets, unlikely heroes, and the allure of idolatry.”
In 2014, I heard Solmaz Sharif read “Look,” the title poem from her debut collection. Look inserts military terminology into intimate scenes between lovers, refashioning hollow, bureaucratic language from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms with a human touch. (Even the collection’s title has an alternate military meaning: per the Department of Defense, a look means “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.”) At a time when the U.S. automates acts of murder, Sharif insists that war is still personal—perhaps today more than ever. In one of its most quoted passages, she writes, “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you.”
“By simply placing words from the Defense dictionary in small caps, and deploying them in scenes of intimacy,” John Freeman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sharif has begun the process of renaturing them, putting them in the readers’ hands for examination.” Look confirms what I’ve known since 2014: Sharif is poised to influence not only literature but larger conversations about America, war, and the Middle East. I spoke with her about her influences, the role of the poet in today’s world, and the stories behind Look.
In an essay you wrote for the Kenyon Review, you said, “When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as ‘political.’ Then, ‘documentary.’ And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor.” There’s a popular conception that overtly political can’t have aesthetic value—that a political message degrades the aesthetics. Is your work a deliberate effort to rebut this notion? Read More
At the table with James Salter.
“To revisit the past was like constantly crossing some Bergschrund,” James Salter writes in the introduction to his 1997 memoir, “a deep chasm between what my life had been before I changed it completely and what it was afterwards.” As it did through his life, an ineludible divide runs through Salter’s work. The same man who gave us great novels and stories of sport, of war and deprivation, produced some of the twentieth century’s most sumptuous meditations on domestic life, on the rituals at the heart of bonding. To read him in both modes is to pace the fullness of Salter’s emotional life—it is akin to entering a room full of people after completing some feat of endurance, a vow of silence or a rigorous fast, and trying to hear every word. What unites Salter’s oeuvre—more than his triumphs of style, the peculiar manipulations of perspective, and the verbless descriptive clauses—is his preoccupation with meals and all that they represent, all they can give and all they can take away.
In 1957, with his first book already published, Salter left the Air Force to become the novelist that he knew he was. As his identity was transformed—from fighter pilot to fiction writer, from that of struggle within the military complex to the isolation he encountered outside of it—so were his novels and stories. Food’s role in them increasingly became a metric for the emotional lives of his characters, who were either driven by the rejection of home or by some elaborate performance that kept the idea of home intact. The dinner table, Salter understood, was the perfect stage for the frailty of our relationships—how we present ourselves to others, how crucial to our sense of self are the recollections of the friends who saw us become the people we were. A much-cited quotation from Light Years perhaps most perfectly encapsulates his feelings about life in the air as a pilot and on the ground as a family man: “Life is weather. Life is meals.” Read More
From Ernest Hemingway’s letter to Colonel Charles T. Lanham, April 2, 1945. Hemingway described Lanham as “the finest and bravest and most intelligent military commander I have known”; he did, in fact, go on to make general. Original spelling and punctuation retained.
Now I just feel homesick, lonely and useless. But will pull out of it. Because have to.
Also have cut out heavy drinking … and since Liquor is my best friend and severest critic I miss it. Also have explained to my old girls there is nothing doing—and this light drinking, righteous Life isn’t comparable to always haveing at least two bottles of Perrier Jouet in the ice bucket and the old Kraut Marlene [Dietrich] always ready to come in and sit with you while you shave […] Read More
At the worst possible moment, Battlefield Hardline valorizes police violence.
The Battlefield series, one of the past decade’s most popular video-game franchises, has already given gamers the chance to play as soldiers in World War II, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Now Battlefield Hardline, slated for release early next year, allows players to assume the role of a new kind of soldier: the police officer. A recent preview of the game shows a cop throwing a thief to the ground and cuffing him; the player is given the option to Hold E to Interrogate. The officer yells, “Tell me what you know!” and earns fifty points: Interrogation successful.
To Visceral Games, who developed Battlefield Hardline, the roles of soldiers and cops are so interchangeable that Army camo can simply be “re-skinned” into police uniforms. In light of the killings, riots, fear, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the game raises disquieting questions about the relationship between law enforcement and citizens—in short, it’s a horror to watch.
As a cop in Hardline, you’re tasked with preventing robberies and rescuing hostages, which often means shooting all the criminals until they’re dead. (The gentlest thing you can do is arrest them.) The game also enables players to take the role of the criminals, and perhaps the more troubling aspect of Hardline is that this experience is identical to playing as the police: both “the good guys” and “the bad guys” see the world through crosshairs. The best players shoot first, and shoot from behind. Read More
They commute with guns. A lot of Israeli soldiers live at home while they do their mandatory service, and, like me, they take the bus to work every day. I’m a student so for me that means carrying four different translations of the Qumran wisdom texts to the university campus. They carry what I think are semi-automatics. We all take the bus together. There is a language to the army uniform that I cannot read. If you know these things, you can tell what part of the armed forces someone is in by the color of his or her beret. The red ones seem tough, I know that. The uniforms themselves are different colors too: a standard green, a nappy white, a khaki. The grey-blue ones tend to have broad shoulders and handguns tucked into their pants. It took me a long time to realize they had holsters under their trousers: I thought the guns were being held in by their underwear elastics, and could fall any moment. From this information, a literate person lays the bones of their expectations for the soldier they see, if she sees them at all. I think most people don’t even notice them. One thing I cannot get used to in Israel is a kind of suspension of horror: that the mechanisms of danger and violence are laid bare and become mundane. Through what I’ll call a willful innocence, this is something I resist fully. I notice every soldier, every gun. Guns they tote indifferently on the bus, in the mall, getting ice cream, at the beach. Obviously they can’t spend several consecutive years (required service is two for young women, three for men) having anxiety attacks about whether or not it’s emotionally damaging to develop a familiar relationship with weapons. Luckily for them, they have me to do that.
The exception to the soldiers’ invisibility is during a series of memorials, which occur in Israel over a period of two weeks. First is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day of ceremonies: candles are lit, and you will hear testimony from the dwindling population of survivors. This year it was on April 7 (holidays here are kept by the lunar Jewish calendar). It is marked by a one-minute siren at ten A.M. For a memorial siren, everyone stands. No matter where you are, you stop and stand. The entire country has this really effective PA system. It reminds me of that scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before Earth is bulldozed, when every physical object becomes a transmitter. The memorial siren is similar to the siren that sounds when there are rockets falling but it is one single tone instead of a falling and rising pitch. This is so that if rockets fall during the siren, you know to seek cover.
A week later is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day; this year on April 15. It is in remembrance of Israelis who have died in war and terror attacks. The year’s dead are added to a list. The day starts the evening prior (in accordance with the Jewish calendar), marked with a two-minute siren. At this point, the entire nation gives itself forty-eight hours to focus on the soldiers. The TV stations play a continuous loop of short documentaries on the lives of the dead—heartwrenching tributes with interviews and blurry home-videos. The radio stations play only sad, traditional music. At 11 A.M. on the day-of, there is a second two-minute siren. There are ceremonies that evening and, at the end of the memorials, Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) begins immediately: whiplashing the nation into July Fourth mode. Opinions on this model, and the sudden change in attitude (grievance to celebration) are mixed in Israel.
My friend just left the army, after six years of service. He asked that I call him Ido instead of using his real name, and who am I to argue. So: Ido. This was Ido’s first post-army Yom HaZikaron. He said this year he was in his car, driving, when he realized the siren would go momentarily. Perhaps they said something on the radio. He pulled over, with every other car on the road, got out, and stood by his car, with the door open. He probably ended up in a Reuters photograph. He said it was strange to be in civilian clothes, to be a civilian, on that day. When you are a soldier, everyone looks at you on Yom HaZikaron: you are at the center of something that now he felt slightly peripheral to. In the past, during the siren, he has raised his hand in salute (a gesture exclusive to officers during the siren); this year he has stood with his hands folded by his car. I asked where he would look (I was never sure where to look during the sirens) in those days. “At the flag,” he said. Read More