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--- L I S A C H I C H E N
"There can be no poetry after Auschwitz," Theodor Adorno said famously of the role of art after World War II. In Drunkard Boxing, poet Linh Dinh strives mightily to disprove that pronouncement in a short but searing debut collection of poems that dares to suggest that poetry, with its-nonlinear fractures and open-ended trajectories, may be the most capable response to man's profound capacity for both evil and grace.
Although the Vietnam War is never referred to directly, Drunkard Boxing is filled with the language and rubble of war. Beautiful women leap into foxholes, bullets whiz by, and shells explode around the characters who populate these poems. Dinh isn't interested in searching for redemption here, nor is it his project to bear witness or record the pain and experience of those who endured or lost their lives in the war. The genius of his poetry lies in baring the contradiction and absurdity embedded in the act of survival. He achieves this through a series of oblique and darkly humorous poems that disarm with their strange, matter-of-fact tone, and seize us with the tension between the unspeakable and the irrepressible effort to speak.
When Ha Jin won the 1999 National Book Award for Waiting, the critics made much of the fact that his achievement was all the more miraculous because he wrote the novel in a second language. Dinh, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 at the age of 12, also writes in a non-native tongue, but it is not in spite but because of this that his poems possess what he calls an "intestinal music"--both a worldly and otherworldly quality.
In the prose poem The Most Beautiful Word, the speaker declares "vesicle" to be the most beautiful word in the English language. He then demonstrates this claim with a brief narrative example: "He was lying face down, his shirt burnt off, back steaming, I myself was bleeding. There was a harvest of vesicles on his back. His body wept." The poem continues with a Strunk and White-inspired style lesson: "Don't say, 'The bullet yawed inside the body.' Say, 'The bullet danced inside the body."' The peculiar distance created between the pedagogical attention to the act of description and the horror being described is a threshold that Dinh-revisits again and again to devastating effect. Dinh's deadpan delivery, which reminds me of Samuel Beckett's, both offsets and underscores the pain behind the words:
"Did you know that I was once fucked with my own spoon? This very spoon. And, then, later, with half a razor. From the seam of my scrotum to the rim of my anus is about 15/16 of an inch. It's called the perineum, meaning, I think, in Greek, all around what empties out."
Dinh also shares Beckett's penchant for directives. Motate includes a characteristic stream of them:
With an index finger, jab at the right temple.
Who is giving the commands? Who is receiving them? In Dinh's directive poems we hear the echo of authoritarian orders given by the captors of not-too-distant wars. (In Cambodia, tourists can now visit Tuol Sieng Prison, and read the Khmer Rouge's rules of conduct for torture and interrogation: "Answer exactly as you are asked. Never try to dodge a question. Do not scream when you are being beaten or electrocuted.") But equally loud in these directives are the determined and sometimes desperate struggles of the survivor and the refugee to create order in the aftermath of helplessness and chaos.
Dinh enacts this struggle in inventive ways. In the irresistible Guide to Odors, the poet raffles off a list of highly subjective associations with common odors, from cinnamon ('sudden shame, a half-remembered dream; a strange bed, a town of 5,000') to ammonia ('accolades; a high-speed crash on a deserted highway.') Here as elsewhere, Dinh restlessly seeks to pin down the slippery nature of experience with vocabulary and carefully calibrated yet whimsical definitions. Death is never far behind: An "acrid" odor is equated with "pink, mottled flesh glimpsed through clear plastic."
He searches for 'All the words, or rather, sounds made by the mouth, which has the same definition in all languages" even as he knows the task is impossible. The same poem that opens with the optimistic "Our common traits and interests unite us" ends on a cynical note: "Even an educated man will only open a book to read about his childhood in Vermont." Nevertheless, if it can be said that we possess a shared humanity--and inhumanity for that matter--Dinh argues that it is through language, in all its imperfect translations, as an instrument of evil, as a high-wire act capable of extraordinary truth, that we possess the key to what binds us in an uneasy embrace.
Drunkard Boxing is published by Singing Horse, a small press based in Philadelphia that publishes other brilliant, experimental poets, including Rosmarie Waldrop and Harryette Mullen. At Cody's, one of the largest independent bookstores in the Bay Area, the book can be found in a separate shelf reserved for high-end zines and independent publishers, a strong indication that it may not be the easiest book to find. But if invention and convention-breaking are measures by which you judge a book, the search is well worth it.
First published in Asian American Journal: International Examiner, Seattle, June 2000.
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