Susan M. Schultz
Most Beautiful Words:
Linh Dinh’s Poetics of Disgust
This article first appeared in Issue 8 (September 2004) of The Paper, U.K., edited by David Kennedy. It is is 3,400 words or about 8 printed pages long
When I think about the Vietnam war, I remember Hamburger Hill, so called because American soldiers were ground up there in the late 1960s; the battle for Hamburger Hill was one I watched on television as a child. The American guide to Hamburger Hill was CBS newsman, Ed Bradley, best known these days for his recent interview of Michael Jackson. To think about Hamburger Hill not as a battle or as a place (which doubtless has another, Vietnamese, name), rather as the name for a battle, is to think about how language is often used in contemporary poetry to describe suffering.
Linh Dinh, photo by Brian Doan
A mainland Chinese poet, new to the United States and to the English language, once told a class of mine how much he had “suffered” in China. I was less astonished by his suffering than by the fact that he could say it; how many of us can say or write “I suffer” and not have our sincerity turned inside out, its fraudulence presumed? “Hamburger Hill” seems at first a playful, ironic name, referring as much to the product of McDonald’s back home as to the GI’s killed or wounded in that place. As a moment of poetry by an unknown GI, it tells us much about that war, the ways pain was inflicted on soldiers and civilians alike, and the way in which people tried to distance themselves from the war and its political implications. Its real force is this last, an irony that distances us from horror, even if the words themselves refer to it.
But think literally about the name and it ushers up an emotion more like disgust. Men ground up like meat is an image that seeps out of the irony of the term “Hamburger Hill.” Linh Dinh, a poet who comes out of that war, even if his poems do not all address its history, takes the name and renders it as image. His work is like Emily Dickinson’s, as read by Camille Paglia. Rather than domesticate Dickinson’s work for the undergraduate audience, as I am sometimes wont to do (“she thinks about sadness and dying, just like the rest of us”), Paglia reads Dickinson’s images literally. If Dickinson writes about sticking a needle in her eye, goes Paglia’s reading, by golly she means it. There are problems with such readings, to be sure, but what Paglia gets at, and what Linh Dinh does as a poet, is to illustrate how we understand suffering through disgust, rather than through gentler manifestations of feeling, like “grief” or like “compassion” or even “anger.” Disgust, as the BBC reports (January 2004), “evolved to protect us from the risk of disease,” and arose, one scientist claims, “to protect people from rotting meat.”
The disgust that is found in poems cannot claim to have that evolutionary value, the ability to protect us from disease. What, then, can it accomplish? As I read Linh Dinh I see manifestations of disgust in his poetry as paradoxical expressions of suffering: violence, poverty, degradation, and (in the reader) an odd empathy for those caught up in it. When the reader encounters an image that disgusts her, disgust becomes more than a child-like reaction to feces or vomit or blood, more an odd expression of empathy with one who suffers. Empathy as disgust (or is it the other way around?) may seem quite a stretch, but so is much of Dinh’s work. Better put: empathy after disgust, as empathy fills the void disgust leaves behind. If the poem forces us to confront rotting meat, then after an interval, we empathize with the character forced to eat it. The “mudman in earth cafeteria” of one poem does not feel disgust at eating “stinky food,” but the reader feels her emotions aroused by his predicament. It is not direct sympathy that I’m getting at here, the desire to put one’s arm around the mudman, but the kind of empathy that turns away from violence and toward something else. Dinh does not, perhaps, often get to that “something else,” but his poetry provides us with the example of a poetry of witness that comes as close to shattering the language-barrier as possible (disgust being that feeling before language). It’s a poetry of witness that makes the reader a witness, rather than a spectator of witness. And it is one, my friend Deborah Meadows reminds me, that does not depend on arbitrary notions of identity and aesthetics for its power.
Dinh’s disgust is autobiographical in content, if not written in memoir form. Born in 1963, Dinh left Vietnam when he was twelve years old and spent many years in Philadelphia, a city which (despite its name, “brotherly love”) was rife with violence. Responding to Frank Sherlock’s question about the violence in his poems, Dinh responded:
I see violence as a common misfortune and, by extension, fate. It’s what awaits each one of us just around the corner. One cannot think seriously about life without contemplating the destruction of the body. Born in Vietnam, I was baptized early into this awareness. As an adult in Philadelphia, I had many opportunities to gather my bloody evidences.
(Philly Sound Feature, issue #2, 12/ 31/ 03).
Dinh is capable of a nearly scientific view of violence. Poems like “Motate” (fusion of “mutate” and “rotate”; “motet” and “potentate”?) track the violent act with the specificity of super slow motion:
General emission from all orifices.
Blink left eye, then right eye,
then left eye, then right eye.
With index finger, jab at right temple.
Then wheeze quietly as the bullet enters.
(All Around 5)
This is objectivist description, as most of Dinh’s poems are not. In others, Dinh combines violence and, say, food with a literalism (not to be confused with objectivity) that can turn the stomach. Charles Reznikoff’s poems are effective insofar as they present a clean surface, even as that surface moves us to see clearly injustices we cannot, by poem’s end, abide. Dinh’s poems, by way of contrast, are effective on a more visceral level; his images are always precise, like Reznikoff’s, but they are not clean; there is always interference in a Dinh poem, which contributes to its unfolding impact on the reader. Disgust breeds ambivalence, and ambivalence is an unclean emotion. Consider how this speaker regards his spoon: “After each meal, I lick my plastic spoon in a gesture of solidarity with an inanimate object. Did you know that I was once fucked with my own spoon? This very spoon. And then, later, with half a razor” (10). Clearly, the tools of hygiene and health have blood on them; to lick the spoon that raped you sounds like a cliché, but horrifies. Another poet of violence, Chris Abani, has a poem about a teenage boy tortured by the Nigerian authorities by having his penis nailed to a table until he died. That horrific image gains power by its very claim to truth; this happened, and the boy suffered horribly. Dinh’s images are not so “true”; rather, he (like the Vietnamese poets he has translated) uses surrealism as his own tool to oblige the reader to see horror. It’s as if Artaud had been raised in a war zone.
“Earth Cafeteria” undermines every American truism from “organic food” to “ethnic cuisine” and “patriotism” as it explores violence through eating. In Vietnam, as one of Dinh’s favorite poets, Nguyen Quoc Chanh writes, patriotism was offered in lieu of food; his family would eat yellow sorghum for months at a time, but “once a week we had to hear some idiot stuttering and lisping his way through an incoherent lecture on the glories of Marxism” Lin Yutang is quoted early on in Dinh’s poem as writing, “What is patriotism but love of the foods one had as a child?” That patriotism and one’s diet are both suspect becomes clear as the poem ends:
Anise-flavored beef soup smells like sweat.
A large sweaty head bent over
a large bowl of sweat soup.
A Pekinese is ideal, and will feed six,
but an unscrupulous butcher
will fudge a German shepherd,
chopping it up to look like a Pekinese,
Toothless man sucking
a pureed porterhouse steak
with straw. (26-27)
As I already indicated, disgust is an emotion that precedes language, is not often well served by words, but by pre-verbal noises: as a website I’ve called up on “disgust” tells me, “The green ‘Mr. Yuck’ face sticker is a familiar graphic symbol used as a nonverbal poison-warning label for children.” When you eat something disgusting, you do not generally react in perfect syntax.
Dinh is perfectly aware of this disconnect, and his investigations of language are as apt as are his considerations of violence; in fact, his poems combine these two questions in ways avoided, or simply ignored by, most contemporary American poets. Thus, “The Most Beautiful Word” begins with the following sentence: “I think ‘vesicle’ is the most beautiful word in the English language” (17). This sentence offers the hygiene necessary to separate the word from its usual content, which is tied to an image, and to turn us back on the sound of the word, which is — I guess — beautiful. (I prefer “viscous,” myself.) He’s arrived at the stereotypical heaven of formalists. But Dinh’s next sentences shatter the aesthetics of the first: “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” (17). Several curious things go on here. There is the evident scene of torture, of suffering; the body weeps, but we can easily imagine that “he” weeps also. There is blood, fresh with steam. But there is also a strange shift of pronoun that Dinh accomplishes without calling notice: “I myself was bleeding.” Does this make the poet the man who is being tortured, or does it simply suggest, without exactly saying so, that the poet feels not for, but with, the tortured man? In fact, what seems at first to be empathy is actually guilt (or so we come to hope). There is a scene of shooting a gun, then the poet relates “I flipped my man over gently.” The speaker of the poem is himself the murderer; that he writes so movingly about the man he has shot only complicates the matter. The reader may want to read metaphorically (that the poet bleeds suggests care) but she is forced to read literally (the blood is there because he shot the man). There is mention of dominoes that clack under the fallen man. Chance, tragedy, Greek or no? And then “I extracted a tooth from the tongue. He had swallowed the rest,” completes the poem. Is our disgust at this final “scene” meant to reflect back on a disgust we ought to feel that “vesicle” is a beautiful word, found in the context of a torture and murder? Or are we meant to recognize the terrible “fact” that aesthetics and ethics are forever disengaged from one another? While I recognize the difficulties inherent in arguing by rhetorical question, there seems no way out, because Dinh’s questions are so open, his ethical dilemmas subject to revision through re-reading.
That the poem begins with an expression of wonder, of the love of language, and then so swiftly descends into a ethical abyss, where the “care” of the murderer is expressed through language and a bullet, obliges the reader to catch her sea legs beneath her. Is the poet saying that language cannot be trusted to deal adequately with violence? Is he arguing that there can be love between the executioner and his victim? If so, in either case, where do we go from there? Is there an ethical resolution to the dilemmas raised by this poem, or only absurdities? At times, I feel mainly the absurdity, the laughter of a man who has survived by chance and knows to espond by hooting and hollering because there is simply no other choice. At other times, I feel there is an ethical basis to what he’s writing, one that alerts us to ways in which we can combine language and critique (oh popular word of the day), language and a feeling for each other. And yet that recognition comes after — maybe through — an equally powerful recognition that empathy itself is put under suspicion by Dinh’s work. If a torturer and murderer can empathize with his victim, then what good is empathy?
Or can violence become a philosophy, as well as a way of life, as it seems to be in one of Dinh’s newer short stories, “Two Intellectuals,” where a man discovers why he kills women only after he has killed several? “Now that we know each other’s secrets, now that we’ve humiliated each other, there is nothing left for us to do but to meet in the next life. I love you.” (Dinh, Linh. Blood and Soap. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004, p.107) Disgust, then, precedes and ordains love, empathic because it cannot continue. Proust had nothing on Dinh for lost paradises, at least in this instance. But here, as in so many places in Dinh’s work, the tone is up for grabs. The story is not “realistic” (or is it?) and surely the writer does not endorse (or does he?) a philosophy born of murderousness. Not the impulse, but the act. I want to empathize with the victims, but instead am confronted by the insistence on the murderous and loving voice. Violence, in Dinh’s work, is often erotic, as if the ends of the body (toward sex and toward extinction) were one and the same, if not in the ways a poet like John Donne prescribes.
I do not mean to suggest that Dinh is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in the literal fashion he employs, but that any consideration of empathy as disgust in his work must take into account the idea that empathy is not a certain good. Take Dinh’s poem “Academy of Fine Arts,” in which the speaker feels superior to a dog because his asshole is not exposed, even when he’s naked. The poem that appears to be about “assholes,” then becomes a poem about motherhood, in its best sense: “Once I saw a young mother blow hot air rhythmically into her infant son’s asshole hoping to cure him of something” (39). This poem suggests that it’s not the asshole that is disgusting, but the symbolism we construct around it (one example of “what empties out”). And yet the last poem in his book All Around What Empties Out changes that context utterly. Entitled “Womblasted,” it invokes the womb only to end with the following lines: “All the bullets in the world are contained / Within this skull, this punctured face.” And so the book ends, uncertain of its own symbolism, suggesting that certainty is not what makes this poet, or this world, tick. That ethics is a matter of improvisation in a violent, absurd, situation. Ethics, like life, is accident, just as the poems we read are, to some extent, also accidents. Encountering Dinh’s poems means enacting this confrontation with chance that is at the heart of ethics. If ethics involves choices, however, we may often feel we have none; this lack of choice is part of what makes Dinh’s poetry and prose so disturbing.
Dinh’s use of language is virtuosic, and odd. He writes in English, which is not his native language, and translates from Vietnamese, a language from which he was long removed as a young man. His poem “Lang Mastery” explores the workings of a primary and yet acquired tongue, even as it suggests a way to join language and empathy. The prose poem is written in three short paragraphs, the first and last a single sentence. It is a poem about “a blindfolded native speaker” who is forgetting “a fading tongue.” He has “emigrated by a lisping dinghy down the muddy white stream of gunboat diplomacy.” This sentence takes time to decipher in a classroom full of students unfamiliar with the Vietnam war, its gunboats and its diplomacy, to say nothing of American history more generally. Nor do they usually know about the boat people who left Vietnam in the 1970s for another country and another, colonial, language. The subject of this poem has been in love with that second language, and has learned it out of books; the vocabulary is not one that a native speaker would employ: the “wise coolie” thinks “Once I thought it would be cool to always be flummoxed by a fair femme of this come-on epoch. Once I thought it would be cool to schlep through this newspangled alphabet” (42). How many streams of language have converged in these sentences! There’s the “coolie” from India, the “fair femme” from France, “schlep” from Yiddish, and above all, there’s the “newspangled”ness acquired from the “star spangled banner” of the USA. In the final sentence, Dinh merges Neil Armstrong and Michael Jackson: “Have you, Sir, by chance, perused the illustrated biography of this moon-walking American?” I don’t know that this poem comes with a tag, like a philosophy exercise, or a language textbook where one finds correct grammar and vocabulary at the back. But this poem, in its serious levity, does suggest a way for the poet to think about his own past as the speaker of more than one language, one repeatedly colonized (Vietnamese) and the other gorging off the riches it has colonized, namely American English. Language kills, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, but it also comes back to life in the glorious vocabulary of a second-language speaker, who strikes back at empire by writing in its language.
I would like to find, in this poem and in others I have not discussed, a resolution to the issues of suffering and its relationship to language, a resolution in the almost simple end of the equation “disgust equals X” where “X = empathy.” Where I find empathy in Linh Dinh’s work, I rejoice in it. I say to myself that where poetry can cure us through the mechanism of disgust, we may find Linh Dinh to lead us. But isn’t that a metaphorical reading of his work, one I’ve suggested we must discard for a literal one? Ultimately, hope and despair set up their tents in the same place of excrement, as they do in Yeats. Where I do not find empathy at the end of Dinh’s poems, I’m forced to look even further, in his language and my own, governed as they are by governments (one of the outgrowths of the Vietnam War, according to some, was the founding of the LANGUAGE writing movement and its attention to linguistic abuses by those in power). And I must face the possibility that only the front end of the equation of disgust with empathy is what remains. Dinh’s poetry is unlike Language writing, however, and the disgust he manifests in the reader is not like that inspired by a writer such as Bruce Andrews; Dinh’s poetry is simply too full of world, of images more than sounds. It does not follow Sianne Ngai’s “poetics of disgust,” composed of “poetry built from linguistic raw matter”; instead, Dinh preserves form and syntax, making his effects even more odd than those of Andrews, for example. Where Andrews approaches jazz in his scat(ological) singing, Dinh cooks a disturbing stew. Where Andrews assumes there can be no unitary identity, Dinh writes as if there is one, but leaves a trap door in his poems’ floor. He at least assumes that there are bodies. I would suggest that, where much contemporary poetry relies on sound for its effects, whether they be political or emotional, Dinh’s poetry smells.
 See Dinh’s translations, Three Vietnamese Poets, with an informative introduction on the situation of contemporary Vietnamese poetry.
 Sianne Ngai writes that “In expressions of disgust language becomes formless, the “esoteric jargon of grunting and straining,” “retched sounds from bathroom splashes” (172).
 Juliana Spahr writes of Bruce Andrews’s work that “because the ‘I’ in this work is not something that most people would want to identify with, the New American poetry’s inclusive pluralism is rejected as an adequate method of challenging privilege” (6). Dinh’s work suggests that “identifications” are possible, even in a poetry of disgust, although such identifications are also constantly called into question.
Dinh, Linh. All Around What Empties Out. Subpress/ Tinfish, 2002.
———. Three Vietnamese Poets. Kane`ohe, HI: Tinfish Press, 2001.
Ngai, Sianne. “Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust.” In Telling it Slant: Avant-Garde
Poetics of the 1990s. Eds. Mark Wallace and Steven Marks. Tuscaloosa: U of
Alabama P, 2002. 161-190.
Spahr, Juliana. “‘I’m Dracula’: Bruce Andrews and White Studies.”
Susan M. Schultz
Susan M. Schultz is the editor and publisher of Tinfish Press, which produced Three Vietnamese Poets, translated by Linh Dinh, and co-published Dinh’s first full-length book of poems, All Around What Empties Out. She is author of Aleatory Allegories (Salt), Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets) and And then something happened (Salt, 2004), as well as editor of The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry (Alabama). She has a forthcoming book from the University of Alabama Press, A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. She teaches at the University of Hawai`i.
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