Corn Syrup, Death and Shopping Malls: Three Poems By Linh Dinh
By Gary Sloboda.
Other than perhaps Eileen Myles, Linh Dinh is the most ferociously political poet I read. I say that with the ringing qualification in mind that practically every poet in the Beat-Language-Conceptual-NY School and otherwise postmodern modes is practicing a kind of political poetry, which more commonly calls into question the connections between language, thought, political control and identity by use of verse concepts and grammatical, discursive and textual strategies. Indeed, the footnote that could be applied to the preceding sentence would reference a massive share of the significant poetry of the last fifty years. But when I say that Linh Dinh is a political poet, I mean that the political dimension of his poems is right there in the reader’s face. Dinh’s poetry resonates politically in a way that is distinct from the practice of political poetry during the postmodern era. Dinh’s poetry is one of political framing, whereby scenes, persons, attitudes, narratives and concepts are evoked to represent a social critique, a complaint about the health and treatment of the communities and culture the poet sees and experiences. But the poetry is not written straight, so to speak. It’s not neo-naturalism. Instead, Dinh’s poetry is aligned with literary modes of social satire, parody and farce. As a momentary starting place, these qualities are on full display in “Why Pay Taxes,” where the narrator describes his absolute diet of corn syrup:
You call it maize,
Hang it by Jesus.
I call it corn syrup.
Don’t want no Blue Ox or Red Bull,
Just give me a tall bottle of fizzin’,
Old fashioned, syrupy corn syrup.
Shurfine supposedly pork sausage,
Less than 99% corn syrup, exactly
The way I like it. Shurfine ketchup,
Approaching 200% corn syrup.
Subsidized by my 24/7 huffing and sweating,
Corn syrup oozes through my jiggling mass.
Sugar, let me rub some corn syrup on ya.
The tone is palpably tongue in cheek and unambiguously operates as a critique of the forced consumption of junk food, the most devolved consumerism. Yet the cartoonish imagery and descriptive language is so exaggerated that it spotlights the literary device being employed: the hyperbole that one consumes—and wants to consume –exclusively corn syrup, satirizes the absurd evil of the prevailing system, in which citizens pay taxes to subsidize the production of nutritional poison they ingest. This direct point of view and attack resembles less of a postmodern ethos than the kind of literature produced by Bertolt Brecht, with his reliance on the “gestus” or “gestic” act to reveal to his audience the social import of the drama’s narrative, or Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, for instance, in which he most famously proposed that starvation in Ireland could be remedied by eating Irish children, an obvious satire of England’s brutal imperial policies towards its occupied neighbors. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels also readily comes to mind, as does the work of Rabelais, Mark Twain, Vonnegut, and the engravings of the destitute and corrupt by William Hogarth. Roman satirical verse should be mentioned here as well.
Yet despite these historical or traditional affinities with the occidental canon (and surely there are writers of precedent in Vietnamese literature filtering through Dinh, as well), Dinh’s poetry nonetheless shares much in common with some of the most radical and experimental poetry of the postmodern era. In order to assess this connection, one has to back up a bit to examine the philosophical underpinnings of the role of political thought in postmodern poetry, which here means briefly turning to Marxist theory and its use and derivation in twentieth century poetics.
In his seminal critical work on the ideological underpinnings of Language poetry, The New Sentence, Ron Silliman writes in the first several pages of
[…] the subjection of writing (and, through writing, language) to the social dynamics of capitalism. Words not only find themselves attached to commodities, they become commodities and, as such, take on the “mystical” and “mysterious character” Marx identified as the commodity fetish: torn from any tangible connection to their human makers, they appear instead as independent objects active in a universe of similar entities, as universe prior to, and outside, any agency by a perceiving Subject. A world whose inevitability invites acquiescence. Thus capitalism passes on its preferred reality through language itself to individual speakers. And, in so doing, necessarily effaces that original connecting point to the human, the perceptible presence of the signifier, the mark or sound, in the place of the signified.
Silliman would not be held to speak on behalf of all so-called Language poets, particularly given the broadness of the Language poet label. But it is Silliman’s argument that poetry should highlight the unacknowledged commodification of language in order to embed in the fibers of that poetry an ideological resistance to capitalism which best explains the political nature of language poetry and its diverse progeny:
By recognizing itself as the philosophy of practice in language, poetry can work to search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact. This requires (1) recognition of the historic nature and structure of referentiality, (2) placing the issue of language, the repressed signifier, at the center of the program, and (3) placing the program into the context of conscious class struggle…
Therefore, as Silliman explains through the words of Jack Spicer, one of Language poetry’s immediate precursors, poetry should be approached not from a mystical apprehension or acceptance of language but should “invade” the language:
Creeley talks about poems following the dictation of language. It seems to me that’s nonsense – language is part of the furniture of the room. Language isn’t anything in itself – it’s something which is in the mind of the host, the parasite that the poem is invading – five languages just makes the room structure more difficult and also possibly, more usable. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with any mystique of English or anything else…
As with nearly any discussion of these politico-linguistic concerns, Silliman’s discussion sounds more like straight philosophy than what many would term literary criticism, but the consistent fascination of such concerns to postmodern poets and critics is grounded in the fact that the principles set forth by Silliman simply ring true, particularly to anyone who already reads Language poetry or, for that matter, criticism about it. That’s not intended as a slight, but rather is indicative of Silliman’s high philosophical and political charge for poetry, a threshold understanding of which for most (either by analogy to other art forms, such as experimental music and visual arts, or the philosophical architecture which surrounds it) likely is a prerequisite to reading it. And while one may not recognize Dinh’s work within Silliman’s Language poetry manifesto, his work is completely at home in the heart of its concerns.
However, this affinity reveals itself in the way Dinh’s work “flips” Silliman’s prescription “to search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact,” so that Dinh’s poetry instead seeks out the “existing social fact” as the precondition to the use of language to liberate the subject from its ideological domination, thereby presenting a critique of urban social life as illustrated through the binding language, attitudes and effects of capitalism. What is left is a kind of postmodern grotesque, which is direct and devilishly funny but also multi-referential and complex in its implications.
In this way, Dinh is a serious poet, reflecting, like T.S. Eliot, a philosophical dissatisfaction and even disgust with the world, except where Eliot’s poetry looks at the world from the vantage of high culture and intellectualism, Dinh’s is looking up from the streets with its slang idioms and banalities, and what it reveals is, in his best work, a vivid acknowledgment of the harsh reality and tortured consciousness of the urban disenfranchised and poor. In perhaps his greatest subtle poem, “Box Shopping,” Dinh describes one’s fate at the bottom end of this bleak system of empty consumerism and commercial propaganda by virtue of a riddle-like recitation of advertising slogans, brands and product descriptions. It starts:
Going Home, Horizon, Cruise,
Wayfarer, Ambassador, Sleep.
Material: 18-gauge steel.
Finish: Brushed copper with Roman bronze shading
Or Neapolitan blue with slightly tacky wavy patterns.
Design: Square, diagonal or round corners, gasketed.
THERE’S NO SCIENTIFIC OR OTHER EVIDENCE
THAT A MODEL WITH A SEALING DEVICE WILL
IMMORTALIZE YOUR MORTAL AGGREGATE.
If not by the third stanza set out above in all capital letters, then by the sixth stanza, the first two lines of which read, “Interior width at body sides: you. / Interior length at body sides: you”, it is apparent that the poem narrates one’s search to buy a coffin, even though the words “coffin,” “casket,” “burial” or “death” appear nowhere in the poem. Instead, the coffin—Dinh’s “box”—is evoked solely through the language of advertising, product description, and marketing. Like an inversion of the jar in Wallace Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” which functions as a metaphor of humankind’s creative powers that interplay with or even dominate the natural world, Dinh’s poem evokes the dominating metaphor of the coffin (and its symbolic twin, death) upon our civilization by layering the generic language of advertisement— “Adjustable mattress … / With a vast selection of pillows / To choose from …”, “Deep discounts on showroom samples. / Overnight Delivery— Flexible Financing”—with that of branding and socio-psychological marketing:
Interior: Nude Crepe or Champagne Velvet.
Embroidered Mama theme head panel,
Stars and Stripes or Lady of Guadalupe.
Silver or gold-colored fixed handles
With bright yet tasteful floral decals.
Going Home, Horizon, Cruise,
Wayfarer, Ambassador, Sleep.
Monterey, Carmel, Monte Carlo, Capri
Cote d’Azur, Lethe, Plymouth Rock.
The darkness in the poem resides not just in the notion of physical death, but also in the absence of its direct mention, so that it lurks not only as an undisclosed referent but also as a commentary on the kind of language used in the poem, which language enacts the living death of consumerism. And, thus, like an inversion of the jar in Stevens’ poem, or, say, the function of mass media in Marshall McLuhan’s work, it is the language of metaphor which interplays with but can also dominate the consciousness of humankind. The extreme of such language is not just propaganda, but the devolution of the quality and fullness of one’s existence, a condition akin to what the great twentieth century philosopher and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, terms “necrophilia” (i.e., the love of dead things) and the “having mode” of existence:
In the having mode, there is no alive relationship between me and what I have. It and I have become things, and I have it, because I have the force to make it mine. But there is also a reverse relationship: it has me, because my sense of identity, i.e., of sanity, rests upon my having it (and as many things as possible). The having mode of existence is not established by an alive, productive process between subject and object; it makes things of both object and subject. The relationship is one of deadness, not aliveness.
This deadness functions as a foil in much of Dinh’s work, spotlighting but also mocking the often crude, lively, street-wise monologues and lyrics that dominate his poetry. In many of Dinh’s poems, stunted lives (“A Few Days, Paid by the Night,” “One Dented Second”), twisted attitudes and psyches (“Refrain,” “Suggestions”), and sexuality graphically and often grotesquely rendered (“Eating and Feeding,” “You Don’t Know What’s Inside Of Me Yet”) results in a calling out and reflection of the brutal and deadening system that engenders such perceptions and existences.
But Dinh does not leave it at that the way a photojournalist might. Dinh’s approach, his art, is one that ensnares the reader into participating in the vision of the poem by laughing at it, which becomes a kind of acknowledgement of culpability on the part of the reader for the world that has created Dinh’s representations. This moral boomeranging is on full display in the poem, “The Moving Stink Spot of Tyson Corner,” in which the stink spot is described as everywhere, permeating the Tyson Corner shopping center with its nausea-inducing hauntings:
At Tyson Corner, a vast shopping emporium
In suburban Washington, there is a phenomenon
Known as the 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.
In reading this poem, I’m left with the unease of an impulsive laughter constrained by the contrary impulse to squelch it. In this way, Dinh’s poem reenacts on the reader the revolving sadomasochism of life on the receiving end of our neoliberalism, so that the humor of the poetry is also an enticement to receive the backhanded message that the reader too is complicit in our often ugly consumerist system (i.e., the Tyson Corner “stink”), but with the advantage (for most) of seeing the world’s harshest unpleasantness from afar. Indeed, this precise dynamic is enacted in “The Moving Stink Spot,” in which the poet notes that to “relieve” oneself from such stink requires only “stepping aside.” In other words, Dinh puns on the word “relieve” (meaning also, of course, urination) which reinscribes the idea of a “stink,” thus implicating the shopper (or the reader) in contributing to the stink spot that haunts the shopping center, with its Foot Locker and that store’s near automatic associative connection to sweat shops and child labor. As in most of Dinh’s poetry, “The Moving Stink Spot” is viscerally funny but on closer inspection turns back upon the reader with its darker, political implications: the more one “steps aside” or ignores the economic injustices upon which the large, shopping mall retailers rely, the more one contributes to it.
Because I am so unfunny in all of my writing, I tend to lay the highest praise on successful humor in literature. It’s not necessarily easy but easier to convey one’s ideas in a sober and serious manner. To make people laugh from what is written on the page is a difficult feat, particularly in poetry. First and foremost, then, Dinh’s great accomplishment as a poet is that he is funny. I can think of no contemporary poet that makes me laugh outloud page after page. This is a rare quality in any poet. That said, the importance of Dinh’s work is the fusing of his gift for humor with a deadly sharp eye for injustice and suffering, as well as an intuitive understanding of the role our ravenous capitalistic system plays in contributing to the difficult state of so many people’s lives. The political tactic of Dinh’s work is that no one turns from it self-satisfied, unscathed, unoffended, or without some level of squeamishness, thereby becoming involved with the poem; it becomes a relational experience and a challenge to the reader’s sense of the proper order of things, the status quo. By relentlessly keeping such urgent political implications right in front of our laughing faces, Dinh has staked a claim to our bookshelves and our conscience. We should all take him up on it.
About The Author
Gary Sloboda is a lawyer, writer and musician, not necessarily in that order. His poems and essays have appeared in such places as Drunken Boat, Rattle, EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts, and Exit Strata. He is currently writing a book-length collection of poems entitled Tremor Philosophies and a book of essays on contemporary poetry. He lives in San Francisco.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 11th, 2013.