Thursday, April 26, 2007


Readers of this space will recall that I have been an advocate of Linh Dinh’s work for some time now, and this note will mark the third consecutive year that I’ve written positively about a book of his poetry. Indeed, some of what I will say could almost be lifted from my two previous notes, even tho Jam Alerts, his new book from Chax, is easily his finest, “most mature” volume to date. This is because Dinh is a writer with a vision, a very specific story to tell, and his books each are manifestations of this drive.

Dinh’s tale is about our future, but he’s not a science fiction writer – at least not yet – so he tells it through our present. I’ve compared him in the past, indeed even on the blurb on the back cover of this book, with William Burroughs, another writer operating out of very similar terms & compulsions. In both cases, the tale is bleak, dystopic. What happens at the end of empire is not pretty, it’s not a matter of genteel decay, but rather ongoing denial that becomes increasingly shrill & delusional. With the potential for horrific violence always simmering just below the surface. Dinh’s tradition, to call it that, includes the likes of Bosch, Brueghel, Blake & Lautréamont.

Our time is past. That is the essence of Dinh’s poems, every one of which feels like a warning of some kind, some humorous, others ominous. That we don’t know this yet creates a gap between what we do and what we think we do. Our lives are carried out within this gap & repeatedly Dinh finds the contradictions that we demand in order to keep going.

There are two works in Jam Alerts that use time as a structural element. One is a fake blog, in reality a suite of prose poems that go on for 14 pages, the longest sustained work in the book. The other, even closer to the volume’s end, is entitled “Recent Archeo News”:

20 February 3006 – Ancient toilet
Discovered in
Boston, lid missing.

8 February 3006 – 30 billion scraps
Of well-preserved, well-made plastic
Accidentally unearthed in

30 January 3006 – 3-foot-long
Excavated in outskirts of

24 January 3006 – Large glass menagerie
Recovered just off-shore, near
Key West.

22 January 3006 – Post-modern poem
Found in dog’s grave, tucked in anus.

16 January 3006 – Tattoos, salacious,
Shed light on 21st Century Tokyo.

14 January 3006 – Plastic barrettes, polyester scrunchies
And rare titanium navel ring shaped like lovely butterfly
Interred with disturbed skeleton of teen-aged girl.

13 January 3006 – Chubby male mummy
With lots of loose change, buried erect
In well-preserved peep show cubicle.

9 January 3006 – Miraculous city of Dubai
Discovered nearly intact in deserted desert.

1 January 3006 – Oxidized brass
Trumpets and cornets found bobbing
New Orleans waters.

24 December 3005 – Tire tracks, chewing gum,
Bolts, pegs, screws, pins, nails and human hair
Detected in ancient asphalt driveway.

17 December 3005 – Plethora of megalomaniac
And glib sculptures in corporate spaces offer
Abundant proofs that 20th century man
Was prone to lead poisoning.

15 December 3005 – Nasty skull hookahs
And dead head bongs excite experts.

I don’t know of any other male poet today who has written about scrunchies, recognized them as integral to the texture of our lives. That is so typical of Dinh, who so often seems to be inventing poetry from scratch, as tho he didn’t know the form itself existed & had a history before, just by looking intensely, noting what’s really there in front of him. The elements listed for the driveway reminded me of how ground up remnants of the Cypress Superstructure, the section of freeway that collapsed in the Loma Prieta quake in Oakland in 1989 were pulverized and turned into landfill for a roadside berm along highway 580 in San Leandro, and how quick grass grew over that rubble that had taken the lives of several dozen people, pancaked by the rotting infrastructure as it caved in. It reminded me of Michael Gottlieb’s great elegy for the dead of the World Trade Center, “The Dust,” which likewise notes the presence of human remains everywhere in the air & on everything in the aftermath of that event. At the same time, this poem is full of little jokes, moments of tenderness.

This work in some ways is “classic” Dinh in that it’s brilliant & also partly doesn’t work. The reader gets the “gimmick,” the structural premise behind every entry pretty quickly. Some of them are, indeed, brilliant. But the one about New Orleans is a gesture to the topical that feels curiously out of place here, or at least does until you have read enough of Dinh to recognize that the “out of place” is a major issue in/for all his writing.

Both “Recent Archeo News” and the false blog, “Fortunes,” use time in the same fashion – it appears in reverse, so as not to promise a future even as it gives us what sound like sound bites or headlines of a news page on the web a millennium from now. As mechanistic as each entry is, Dinh foregrounds the aesthetic by choosing to capitalize the left-hand margins. When he reads, he pauses more distinctly at linebreaks than any poet since Robert Creeley, really forcing the recognition that these are first of all aesthetic decisions being made. Unspoken in all this text is the premise that everything about our lives has been lost & has to be recovered by specialists in a very different future, one in which Dubai sits in a desert. The cataclysm itself is everywhere precisely because it is silent & assumed.

We find time again at issue in the volume’s final work, “Beloved Alone”:

Standing in deep snow, don’t look forward to the late bus
Swinging around the corner, at last, don’t look forward to Friday,
5 o’clock or the end of your unjust sentence, don’t look forward
To the landing of this numbing, trans-everything flight, thank you
For your patience, don’t look forward to the return of your daddy,
Because, for every second of each long day, you must remember
What DaVinci said: “A man who looks forward to Spring
Is looking forward to his own death.”

Dinh was born in Saigon in 1963 & came to the U.S. in that hectic period after the fall of the U.S. colony in 1975. Which is to say that he was at an impressionable age right at the moment when the pretense that the South Vietnamese government was anything other than a hollow shell imploded. He knows in some deep internal way just what the fall of empire looks & smells & sounds like. He hears it now, feels it, in instant messages & on YouTube & in the streets of Philadelphia & London & Rome. Again like Burroughs, he is at heart a satirist, which means holding up a mirror for his readers. What we see there is ourselves, as unadorned as we have ever been.


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