23 October 2006


Linh Dinh gave a terrific reading last night at Dinnerware Arts, 101 W. Sixth St., Tucson. This post is my introduction to his reading, that I sent out to a local email list yesterday, and that I gave last night in a version slightly edited (because I didn't want to read his poems while introducing him).

I'm typically drawn to poetry that takes kinds of risks that take me aback, make me wonder what I'm getting into, and, once I understand the work a little better, make me feel that my conception of what poetry might be is growing. Usually, I find such risks and challenges a matter of form and language.

So why have I been so absolutely bowled over by Linh Dinh's work ever since I came to know it a few years ago? Its risks at first seem to be of an entirely different order. It's a poetry of first response to the world's stimuli from a mind that often feels restless, put against, and sometimes downright hostile to its own environment. But then I think about the environment we have created, with its wars, racism, classism, market-driven consumerism, fashionista privilege, corporate-controlled media, drugs, overdriven sexuality, huge trucks & SUVS and hummers, and never-ending vacuity — and all these things and more interacting — and I think, why not, at times, be hostile? Linh's work is incredibly honest. It's not mean, (though perhaps sometimes mistaken as such), rather just clear, and often, very often, it finds humor amid the horrors. It also pares down the world's dilemmas into specific encounters, crystallizing action and emotion into clear and hard images, and that perhaps is its "poetic." Or at least, in addition to its willingness to risk offense in favor of truth.

Here's one poem that, to me, expresses something of what Linh Dinh represents in the world. It shows the point of exhaustion, the point of no longer feeling, which may be the point at which one can honestly see, without blinders, or, as he puts it, the point at which "I am exact."
The Undead

Are you presented live before a teeming audience?
Do you stand forth?
Are you adaptable to leisure in a suburban home?
Is motion still imparted to your lips?

I am no longer alive to the risks involved.
I am dead white.
I am a compost of mineral matter.
I am naturally without life, inanimate.
My arms dangle at my sides.
I am neither vital, nor warm, nor interesting, nor bright, nor brilliant.
I am a sweaty handshake at a quiet party.
I am without power or movement. I am exact.

More often, Linh writes of what seem to be real places, bars ball games, or here, a "shopping emporium," in a poem that reminds of another poet (Baudelaire) who did not refuse the horrors of the world (even the "stench / Of open sewage or rotting flesh"), but recoiled at the ability of others to ignore them, out of ennui, or, in Dinh's terms, "By simply stepping aside."
The Moving Stink Spot of Tyson Corner

Old houses, hospitals, and hotels?
As places with deep social histories?
Are very often haunted, yes, but can a
Shopping center also be haunted?

At Tyson Corner, a vast shopping emporium
In suburban Washington, there is a phenomenon
Known as a moving stink spot.

A browser at Foot Locker, for example,
Would suddenly be overwhelmed by a stench
Of open sewage or rotting flesh,
Causing him to retch or even vomit.
This torment would only last for a few seconds, however,
Because the stink spot had already moved on to its next victim.
The shopper can also quickly relieve himself
By simply stepping aside.
Perhaps because Linh Dinh sees clearly and feels deeply, the horrors are not by any means all that we get from him. There's also a kind of pure joy, making love (even if "marginal love") and jumping up and down until the floor shakes.
Doing The Wave

Love, marginal love, I was making love
On the side, as it were,
On the berm at the bottom,
Between tugs. A tumbril
Had brought us here at eight this morning,
Me and my widow.
My dulcet feather,
If we jump up and down together,
Like this, look!
We can make the floor shake.
What else? Much else! In a time when arts commissions happily fund every proposal that comes their way and proudly consider that a triumph of democracy in the arts, Dinh is not afraid to point out the evils of bad art (which is probably more prevalent than good art), even making those evils personal.
The Evil Of Bad Paintings

The problem with bad paintings is that
They are made by bad people.
Simone Weil said that concentration is prayer,
An orientation towards God, and
To paint well takes a hell lot of concentration.
Bad painters, then, are basically people
Who cannot concentrate properly.
Their minds wander as they hold that loaded brush.
Bad painters are not just bad, they're evil.

Linh Dinh makes me uncomfortable at times. He also makes me laugh, and he makes me, finally, dearly love his work because it makes me see the world more clearly, see it better, and see myself better. Sure, I don't always like what I see there. But isn't that necessary?

All poems in this message are taken from Linh Dinh, American Tatts (Tucson: Chax Press, 2005). Linh Dinh's other books include Fake House (2000), Blood and Soap (2004), All Around What Empties Out (2003), and Borderless Bodies (2005). His work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, Best American Poetry 2004, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (2003), and Three Vietnamese Poets (2001). He is also the editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and Three Vietnamese Poets (2001). He is the translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (Tupelo 2006).Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the US in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England.Linh Dinh's reading in Tucson is sponsored by Chax Press & POG.