November 26, 2009KR BlogKR

Surrounded By Strangers

Hung up on bad bodies and American trash, Linh Dinh‘s poetry collection All Around What Empties Out has followed me around to work, to my room, to my lunch breaks, to my kitchen table.

I notice (don’t/didn’t you, once?) the lunchbreaking of my reading habits– never enough time!– and a general sense of trading demographics since graduating my master’s. But what’s the tonic/mephitic for these class-consciousness blues? How about an all-American outsider’s book of flesh and money in churning motion? Who and where are you, again?

So: his poems in All Around (sporting names like “Whoaaaa!!,” “Freckles,” “A Childhood in Vermont,” and “I Refuse to Be Lambasted By Your Bloated I Ching”) are gleeful, lyrical or gross by turns. An illustrative example:


I like to bore a hole in ice, warm half a worm in an armpit, and yet, most nights, I still can’t sleep. My eyesight is poor. Piss poor. When I walked down the street, I’d often think someone is waving at me. Is it a long-lost friend? My dear dead mother? (She’s still alive.) I’d smile my best smile. Suddenly, I’m on my back, surrounded by strangers. My hearing, on the other hand, is not so bad. The slightest whisper miles away, even thousands of miles away, depending on the wind, the humidity, the amount of dust in the air, would be amplified by the convolutions of my outer ears, and pulverize the smallest bones in my body.

Other poems star nouns like hockey puck, perineum, glossolalia, birthday cake, bacon fat. And how about that surrounded by strangers? We’re meant to feel not-at-home in his world of refugees, victims, and maniacs. Nonetheless, the poems’ satire dismisses self-regard, pity or grandiosity. No observer’s high point or rhetorician’s high talk in these poems; just cringes and stomachache-laughs.

A Million Donuts

An honest day begins with getting up in the morning. I went into the kitchen and was ecstatic to find a million donuts, all ready to be put away. Each day above ground is pure jelly, the old man said before falling asleep. There was creamy chocolate on the inside, bright blisters on the outside. Later the old man and I went outside to build a snowman. A stubborn motherfucker, he would not melt for a whole week. It was so hilarious to see these animals talking to each other.

Is Linh Dinh’s writing a moral “poetry of witness“? Should we laugh until we cry? Like the one above, this is an image from his photoblog:

From Linh Dinh's photoblog

Anyway, setting down All Around What Empties Out I thought of Michel de Montaigne (the first modern man, musing in his tower) (quoted by the great Jane Kramer). “Each individual one of us contributes to the corruption of our time: some contribute treachery, others (since they are powerful) injustice, irreligion, tyranny, cupidity, cruelty: the weaker ones bring stupidity, vanity and idleness, and I am one of them.” I wonder how Dinh would take this sentiment? Thinking of that same refusal of heroism and of Dinh’s poems’ crazy non-consolations.

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